On the 23rd September 2018 I decided to go sugar free.
Why? A few reasons really. One, a number of my PT clients really struggle with their relationship with sugar, so I wanted to investigate this a little further. Two, there is so much ‘hidden’ sugar in the food we eat, I wanted to get an idea of how much I truly ate, and three, there are obvious health reasons for reducing our sugar intake. My father had been a type II diabetic for the last 30 years of his life – we are sure that a diet rich in potatoes and bread when he was growing up, as well as living on condensed milk sandwiches (yes, really!!) when he did shift work may have led to this condition, which is heavily linked to the body’s response to sugar.
There are a number of books on the market about cutting sugar from your diet, and I wanted one that had a fair amount of science in it (my inner geek needs facts!) as well as plans and food options to help as you cut sugar from your diet. I chose the ‘Sweet Poison Quit Plan’ by David Gillespie.
And to be fair, I don’t eat that much sugar. I don’t have sugar in tea or coffee, fizzy drinks aren’t on my agenda, yes I like the odd slice of cake, but that is a treat as I would prefer something savoury given the choice. However I still eat a fair amount of fruit as well as healthy snack bars, and I love the occasional drizzle of honey on porridge. Dried fruit would power long runs or walks rather than sports gels, so there was certainly sugar in my diet.
The book spoke of withdrawal symptoms, and I honestly thought I wouldn’t get any - how wrong I was. By day 5, I had a banging headache, that stayed with me for 3 days, and every joint in my body hurt. I honestly didn’t think how I was feeling was connected to sugar withdrawal, but it was, I thought I was going down with flu.
I became obsessed with reading labels on food packaging, and was often shocked at the level of sugar in every day items such as bread, yoghurt, soup or ready meals. For the first 30 days, I didn’t eat any fruit and tried to limit my sugar intake to less than 20g per day.
I thankfully have a love of cooking, and went back to basics and cooked everything from scratch. I knew exactly what I was eating, and could be sure of my sugar intake. My meals didn’t vary that much to be fair, porridge flavoured with cinnamon in the morning, or overnight oats made with porridge and quinoa. Lunch was homemade soup or salads, and dinner often needed to be quick so omelettes, smashed avocado on toast (sourdough bread, less than 1g of sugar per serving!) or chicken and veg were easy go to’s.
What I did find hard was not reaching for a ‘healthy’ snack bar of an afternoon – Naked bars, Bounce energy balls and the like. That was the hardest thing to break. I think it was a habit, the habit of having an afternoon treat, the habit of breaking up the day and now I know the habit of getting a sugar fix I didn’t think I was getting.
Look, I’m not saying that these ‘healthy’ products are wrong to eat – I’m just saying I didn’t realise that eating them had become a habit, or that they contained so much of the sweet stuff.
Once a month had passed, not eating sugar became easier and easier for me. I dropped 4 kg in that first month, purely by cutting out sugar. The fat content of my diet had risen though. More nuts, more eggs, more avocado, more yogurt that was full fat – but I still dropped 4kg! As time went on, other positives came to light too.
People remarked on the clearness of my skin (even though they didn’t know I had quit sugar). My appetite hormones reverted to normal, and my body began to tell me when I was truly hungry, when I had eaten enough and didn’t need to eat any more. By cutting out sugar I had allowed my body to revert to normal, and I was listening to it.
Now those that know me well, know I LOVE Christmas pudding, and come mid November, I was already discussing with friends how I was going to tackle a Christmas pudding free festive period. Mince pies I could take or leave, and I told family not to buy chocolate as it would be given away or given back, but Christmas pudding – that is just sacrosanct at Christmas for me.
But by the time Christmas came about, my body had adjusted so much to being sugar free that eating Christmas pudding was not an issue. I think I was more worried about letting pure unadulterated dried fruit, sugar and fructose into my body and then having to experience the withdrawals symptoms again. This didn’t happen. I ate the Christmas pudding, enjoying each mouthful, and then I didn’t want any more.
We simply don’t need sugar in our diets. We do need glucose, for energy, but our bodies can get that from the vegetables, grains and fruits that we eat.
The body doesn’t need fructose, which is the sugar found in most fruits and honey. Fructose is handled differently by the body. Every cell in the body can use glucose, but only the cells of the liver can handle fructose. The liver uses fructose, a sugar and carbohydrate to create fat. Eating too much sugar causes our body to convert it to fat, and this is where the health issues begin to take hold, obesity, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and a fatty liver.
So four months on, what have I learned about my quitting sugar experiment?
Well although it started out as an experiment, it is more a way of life for me now. Sugary foods such as a granola, snack bars, fruity yoghurts and biscuits just don’t form part of my diet anymore, and more so I don’t miss them. I’ve reintroduced low fructose fruits back into my diet such as berries, however I get all the vitamins and minerals I need from eating lots of vegetables. My weight has stabilised, and I don’t think about food in the same way. My body tells me that I am hungry and I try to provide it with the most nutrient dense food I can – I don’t crave foods any more. At the beginning of this exercise I would have told you that I didn’t crave any foods, but this experiment has proved me wrong.
Sugar free is going to be a way of life for me. If I fancy a slice of cake, I won’t deny myself, however I think the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim.
I feel better about the fact that my relationship with food has changed in a positive way. It is more moderate, and hopefully more healthy for me, my liver, my heart and my body in general.