Up until 6 weeks ago [edit: this was written in December 2015 and I’m still 100% sugar free] I was a sugar addict. I ate bags of sweets whenever I was in the car (strawberry bons bons were my fave), wolfed down packets of rich tea in one go at my desk while editing weddings, ate apple crumble and custard until I felt sick, had two helpings of cake at a time, when I toasted marshmallows I would eat a whole packet to myself and I could eat an entire box of Coco Pops in one sitting. Ahh sweet sweet sugar. I even (embarrassingly) ate spoonfuls of sugar straight from the packet.
Then I watched That Sugar Film. It turns out it’s super easy to eat loads of sugar while eating “healthy” savoury foods. Not even sweets and chocolate bars! Breakfast is the worst offender. And calories, it seems, don’t matter one bit. When you eat sugar you will put on weight. When you eat the same calories of sugar-free food you maintain or lose weight. I decided to research it further, reading Sweet Poison by David Gillespie and Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar book and blog. Sugar causes diabetes, ruins your teeth, causes fatty liver disease, feeds cancer, zaps energy, makes you hungry – the list goes on. Quitting sugar means being healthier, having more energy, losing weight and a lot of the time curing illnesses you thought you had forever, such as autoimmune diseases and diabetes type II.
Some intriguing things I learned: once you’ve quit sugar for at least a month, you crave it just about as much as you would a brussels sprout. Plus when you eat a meal you get super full and don’t even think about food for hours. Also, and this was the most convincing for me to start the experiment – non-sweet food would taste sweet, like raspberries and milk (*update it’s all totally true*) Insane! So I decided to experiment: to give up sugar. Then helped myself to dessert. It’s hard, alright?
Over the following weeks I started to think more about my sugar intake. I did an experiment where I ate no sugar at all for one day. Then I used My Fitness Pal to calculate how much sugar I’d had that day. 75g. That’s almost 20 teaspoons of sugar, and I hadn’t even eaten anything sweet. I read more about it and started reading labels in the supermarket. Everything has so much sugar! Baked beans have 5 tsp per tin, rice pudding 8 tsp per tin, Activia yoghurt 4 tsp sugar per pot, balsamic vinegar is 17.5% sugar, Heinz BBQ sauce 30% sugar.
I decided to give it a proper go. I took photos of myself, weighed myself and took measurements of my waist, hips and thighs. Two weeks later, after no sugar (apart from one shortbread biscuit in a weak moment) and loads of high fat food (I ate loads in that time), I’d lost 4kg (more than half a stone) and 3cm off my waist. Three weeks after that, on Christmas eve, I gave it the ultimate test: I put on a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in 3 years because they didn’t go higher than my knees. They fit! I even ate dinner in them and didn’t pop a button! A few days after Christmas I went to Fat Face to spend my Christmas vouchers – it was official, I’d gone from a tight 14 to a perfect 12.
And it’s been easier than I expected – apart from that first week and the Shortbread Incident. Armed with a bit of knowledge and a fridge full of full-fat cream cheese and red peppers (my go-to craving stopper in those first weeks) I have made it 6 weeks without sugar. It feels really good.
It hasn’t been all roses (excuse the pun) though. I’ve had some animosity from friends and acquaintances over my quitting sugar. People have argued “everything in moderation” or “well I couldn’t do it so I won’t even try” or “you need sugar” and “sugar is natural” – yes, so is petrol and arsenic but you don’t see me pigging out on those. And what is moderation? Relative to what I ate before, half a packet of rich teas and a slice of cake and only a small bowl of cereal would be moderate for me. Which is an insane amount of sugar.
For those who say they could never do it because they love sugar too much, when you kick the addiction you realise it’s actually covering up beautiful flavours with a sickly sweetness, and natural foods like fruit taste very sweet. There is a light at the end of the tunnel too (apart from losing weight and lowering risk of deadly diseases and feeling full of energy blah blah blah I can tell I’m turning into a sugar bore!) – once you’ve got over the addiction, there are three natural sweeteners you can use – Stevia, rice malt syrup and fruit such as bananas – so you can still bake cookies and cakes (and even make your own chocolate!), and they will taste really sweet to you, even though your friends think they’re not! [*update – I’m a year and a half in (April 2017) and I make cakes and cookies roughly once a year – I just don’t crave them, or if I do, it’s not for long]
22 things I’ve learned from both my experience and reading books/blogs/research papers:
- Fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar does
- Fat will however make you fat if you combine it with sugar
- Fructose (type of sugar) is the bad guy. Yep, it comes from fruit. When I say I quit sugar, I specifically mean fructose.
- Fruit has the bad kind of sugar (in varying degrees) but the fibre in the whole fruit (not juice or dried) negates it
- Fruit juice and dried fruit eg raisins and dates, are the product of having the sugar extracted from the fruit without the fibre, so you might as well drink Coke or eat Percy Pigs. Even if you squeeze the juice yourself. In fact juice is one of the worst things you can consume as it passes through your teeth for a prolonged period, covering your teeth in sugar
- Smoothies on the other hand are great because they have the whole fruit – they’re best made with mostly veg though
- Fructose just makes you more hungry
- Our bodies have no way of processing fructose so it turns immediately to fat – even if you are skinny on the outside, you can be fat on the inside – your liver, even your eyes could have fat. Hello Type 2 Diabetes!
- Lots of vitamins in fruit and veg (vitamins A, D, K, E) can’t be absorbed by our body without the presence of fat in our food. Good excuse to fry our veggies in butter or yummy coconut oil!
- More than a couple of pieces of fruit a day is too much sugar
- Apples and grapes are high sugar, low fibre (bad); kiwis and berries are low sugar, high fibre (good)
- All food turns to glucose, which is what our bodies run on. White bread/pasta/rice turn to glucose really fast, giving you a sugar spike. Brown versions have more fibre so take longer to turn to sugar/energy, keeping you full longer
- Low-fat food is packed with sugar and salt and then more sugar to counteract the salt, all to emulate the flavour of the full-fat version, thus making it loads more fattening than the full-fat version would be
- Dairy should have around 4.8g sugar per 100g (this is lactose and is good for you) anything more is added sugar. Check the ingredients list if unsure (remember sugar can be named a lot of tricksy things!)
- “Health food” bars and cereal bars are as bad as a Mars bar. Compare the labels, I’m not making it up
- Even plain cornflakes have loads of sugar – Weetabix and Shredded Wheat are 0% sugar – go crazy
- Cutting out sugar (and stopping the cravings, which takes about a month – see how to below) means you feel really full whenever you eat – easiest diet ever. Who needs appetite-suppressant pills when you have steak and mash?! It’s 4pm now and I’m still STUFFED from lunch (1 slice of homemade bread and pate) – the thought of eating makes me feel ill. A month ago I would have been raiding the cupboards for biscuits or cereal and climbing the walls
- If you removed all sugary food from the supermarket, 80% of the shelves would be empty
- In the supermarket, if a healthy item (such as ricecakes) has a “flavour” then it probably involves sugar
- I can’t vouch for this personally, but cutting out sugar can get rid of diabetes, arthritis and all sorts of illnesses
- Cancer cells think sugar is super yummy and helps them grow
- All sugar you can buy is made with fructose and is bad for you. That includes molasses, agave syrup (the worst of a bad bunch), muscavado, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey
How to quit sugar:
Before you start, make a list of all the occasions you eat sugar as a habit and write down what you will have instead, so you don’t get stuck.
Mine looked like this:
Breakfast – instead of Alpen, have porridge with cinnamon and half a banana
In the car – instead of sweets bring nuts and cheese. Babybel!
At my desk working – instead of biscuits or bowls of cereal, have a rice cake with peanut butter; cucumber dipped in cream cheese; lump of cheese
When people come over – don’t buy biscuits for them, get nuts and crisps instead
Watching TV – instead of biscuits, have a cup of tea
After dinner – Instead of dessert have strawberries and cream. Or cocoa powder (check for ones with no sugar added) and whole milk hot. Or chocolate orange teabags. Or plain yoghurt blended up with mango/banana/raspberries/blueberries/strawberries (very sweet and yummy!)
During and after a wedding – instead of cereal bars and energy bars, make protein bars with peanut butter and coconut. Huel is also handy
When really hungry – instead of cereal eat a proper meal or sandwich or toast. Or homemade no-sugar granola and 100% natural yoghurt. Oats and cinnamon provide a good quick fix.
Service station on way home from weddings – instead of chocolate caramel squares or cinnamon Danishes, find one that serves buttered toast or just get a cup of tea from somewhere that doesn’t serve sugary goodies. Or don’t pull in!
Dipping biscuits in tea – instead have hot buttered toast with homemade sugar-free bread
The best option is to go cold turkey and not eat ANY sugar for a month (Remember you can still make your fave treats after cold turkey by using alternative sugars)
How to quit sugar
Eat your last cookie. Make sure it’s a goodun. Then stop eating all cakes and biscuits, chocolate bars, cereal bars and sweet treats, desserts, flavoured yoghurts, sauces, soft drinks, fruit juices, flavoured coffees, dried fruit (including raisins and dates), condiments, dressings, toppings, sweet spreads and sugary cereal and muesli – basically anything in a tin/jar/packet. Lose the sugar in your tea/coffee. Happily, dry red or white wine is ok. If you love takeaways, Indian with dry sauce is your best bet. Eat as much fat/protein as you like. Go nuts – literally. Eat fish, steak, chicken, butter, nuts, cheese, full fat milk, peanut butter, eggs, bacon. This isn’t a “diet”, you’re not supposed to starve – if you feel hungry, eat! As much as you want!
At this point you might find it interesting to go to the supermarket and look at some labels. See what has added sugar (which is cleverly called lots of things to make it sound healthy, from agave nectar to fruit pulp). See how high up the top of the list sugar is – the higher, the more there is of it. Check the “of which sugars” bit in the nutritional info – remember 4g is a whole teaspoon! A “healthy” Nakd bar is 45% sugar!
Next, clear your cupboards of anything sugary and “low fat” so you can’t be tempted. Use your granulated sugar to make a nice face exfoliator. Swap white bread/pasta/rice/flour for wholemeal versions (check the label, some look like wholemeal but are still white flour). Bread still has sugar added though, so move on to sourdough or make it yourself. Check all your food labels for added sugar. You can still have soy sauce (not the low salt one though) – yay!
Next, and this is the part that kicks the cravings in the gonads and resets your appetite control (so you’re super full whenever you eat): for one month eat NO sugar. That includes fruit (although if you feel like you really need something, have some berries). No bread (unless sourdough or homemade wholemeal with no added sugar), no white rice, no condiments, no sweeteners or diet soft drinks of any kind etc. Wine is still ok! This is called the “withdrawal” period which is necessary to kick the cravings and reset your appetite.
After that month, introduce fruit back in, but only 1-2 servings a day and preferably from the low-sugar, high fibre end such as kiwis and blueberries (instead of grapes and bananas). By this point you won’t even want a biscuit. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating. However, if you do eat sugar after this stage (ie a few biscuits or large piece of cake) all the hard work from the past month will be kind of out the window (yikes!) – you will crave sugar like a crack addict and be back to square one. This isn’t a hard and fast rule though – I’ve had a few sugary items in the past year (such as my birthday or on holiday) and I’ve not had any cravings as a result. I did pass out in a sugar coma and get a tummyache though. The good news is, once you’ve kicked the addiction, sweet things will taste sickly and chemically. And if you fancy something sweet now and then (who doesn’t?) there are so many recipes available using Stevia, dextrose or rice malt syrup, so you can still have all your (now ex)fave things.
If you’re confused, follow this one rule: JERF (Just Eat Real Food) Ignore anything in packets or with more than around 5 ingredients.
To help get you started, here are some yummy, easy sugar-free dinners:
- Steak, sweet potato mash and peas (and red wine!) (if you want gravy, I find the supermarket’s own brand ones are lowest sugar)
- fish with soy sauce, brown rice, kale and peas (go to the supermarket fish counter just before closing for super cheap fish)
- Stir fry (not using sauce – just use soy sauce)
- fish pie
- homemade ricotta and spinach quiche
- Slow-cooked beef stew
- homemade meatballs in homemade tomato sauce bulk cooked and frozen
- slow-cooked butternut squash soup with lashings of full cream
- pasta with homemade cheese sauce, peppers and courgette
- roast dinner
- chicken drumsticks with sweet potato mash and veg
- fish and chips (homemade sweet potato chips covered in polenta is a staple in our home)
Awesome snack foods you can eat in abundance:
- Peanut butter
- Hot buttered homemade toast
- Cream cheese (full fat, always full fat) with cucumber or red pepper – dip it in and have as much as you like!
- Cheese, just not the flavoured ones eg apricot
- Homemade nutty and coconut granola with 100% natural yoghurt (I love Yeo Valley)
- Nuts (not honey roasted)
- Shredded Wheat (the no sugar added kind) with whole milk
- Hot chocolate made with cacao powder (no sugar added) and whole milk. Plop some peanut butter in for extra creaminess
* I realise these photos are terrible, they are phone pics and were not taken with public viewing in mind…
** I’m not a nutritionist or anything, these are all things I’ve learned along the way while quitting sugar myself
*UPDATE* I’m now 4 months in and loving it. I have loads of energy all day long, no cravings, no desire for sweet things and have made my own muffins, cookies and chocolate easter eggs – yum! I’ve also lost a stone, woohoo!
*UPDATE* It’s been almost a year and I’m still going strong! I’ve decided to have desserts/sweet treats on very special occasions, such as a local sweet on holiday (baklava I cannot resist you). But this is rare (maybe once every 2 months) and I don’t have much. If I have too much I literally pass out in a sugar coma.
*UPDATE* It’s been a year and a half and I don’t miss sugar at all. I have the occasional thing but always regret it – tummyache, sugar coma, fuzzy feeling – all not good. So I’m 100% happy being 100% sugar free!
I’ve also started a Facebook support group with a couple of hundred members now – you’re welcome to join