It’s fair to say I’ve had a love/hate relationship with sugar over the years. Unfortunately for me it’s been pretty one-sided – as in, I love sugar but it doesn’t love me back. It leaves me feeling bloated, tired, gassy and worst of all, always wanting more. So giving in to my cravings doesn’t actually help as the more I have, the more I want. I’ve tried to quit many times but like a spurned lover, and despite my better judgement, I just keep coming back for more.
In recent years the tide has definitely turned against sugar and there has been a bigger focus on the developed world’s massive sugar consumption. I won’t bore you with the stats here but suffice to say, in Western countries our dependence on the white stuff has grown exponentially over the past century or so, particularly in the past couple of decades. Take a look at the corresponding growth in obesity in our society over that period and you can draw your own conclusions.
But back to me. I don’t have a weight problem but I definitely had (and I use the past tense somewhat tentatively) a sugar problem. I’d go so far as to say I was addicted to the sweet stuff. But not in an especially obvious way – I didn’t have a Mars-a-day habit; I don’t add sugar to my coffee or tea or cereal; I don’t drink soft drink. But I was starting to see the signs of addiction and I didn’t like it; honey and fruit with my breakfast in the morning, maybe a fruit yoghurt after lunch or some peanut butter and honey on crackers in the afternoon, and I would crave something sweet after dinner every night – usually breakfast cereal (hey don’t judge, it’s sweet, it’s crunchy, it’s empty carbs – what’s not to love?).
I had tried to quit before but found I just used fruit as a crutch – a lot of fruit – and never really lost my sweet tooth. So I knew if I was going to break my sugar addiction I was going to have to go cold turkey.
Sugar-free September was just the gimmick I needed to kick start my new clean-eating regimen. So I set a few rules: no alcohol (sounds obvious but not everyone sees the link), no fruit juice or soft drink (not that I drink it anyway), no adding sugar or alternative sweeteners to anything and no foods with added sugars. That eliminates a lot. If you start looking closely at labels, you’ll find a big proportion of our processed foods add sugar – it’s in cereals, sauces, bread; even the soy milk I drank has added sugar. For the first week I also cut out all fruit and even the sweeter high-carb veges that might trigger my sweet cravings (things such as carrots, pumpkin, tomatoes, corn – you know, all the good ones). For good measure I also cut out any processed carbs too: so pasta, bread, crackers and cereal were all out. When not utilised, these carbohydrates are just converted to sugar anyway so they effectively do the same thing.
So what did that leave me with? Well lots of protein – eggs, meat, fish, nuts and legumes were all in. I found brands of soy milk and almond milk that didn’t add sugar. Coffee, tea and a sugar-free, natural protein powder were all on the acceptable list. Plus plenty of leafy greens. So basically whole foods that hadn’t been messed about with much or at all. Crazy, huh?
I won’t lie to you – the first few days weren’t pretty. I felt like a crack addict who’d just entered rehab. The first night I was in bed by 8pm; I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. On day two I went for my usual run and every step was a struggle. I literally felt like I was running on empty – almost as though my body was saying, ‘what the hell do you expect me to use for energy here?’. I had a constant headache for two or three days and I felt super fatigued and cranky. It really did feel (I imagine) like I was coming down from an addictive drug*.
I thought about the forbidden foods a lot – I fantasised about cake and biscuits and ice cream. But I stayed strong. Herbal tea helped and, oddly, so did nuts. When I started to crave something sweet I ate a few almonds or walnuts and the craving (usually) passed.
But by the end of week one I was starting to emerge from the haze. My energy levels were still down – I think it took a while for my body to adapt to the lack of readily available carbs – but the cravings were starting to subside.
In week two I started to reintroduce a few other veges, such as carrots and sweet potato, as well as a little fruit (the lower-sugar options such as blueberries and raspberries). It took a while to adapt to eating a savoury breakfast rather than my regular muesli with honey and fruit. But I started to notice changes for the better and I was liking the results.
By the end of week two I’d lost two kilograms and the scales were showing I’d lost body fat, not water or muscle mass – something I’d been wary of. I was also experiencing much less bloating, something I’d always put down to a super-sensitive stomach and my gluten and dairy intolerance. But it turns out maybe sugar had been playing a major part in my bloating all this time.
In week three I made some sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate cupcakes for a friend’s birthday (see: thehealthychef.com/2012/02/flourless-chocolate-cupcakes). The recipe only uses two tablespoons of honey for 12 cupcakes but to me they still tasted sweet. My friend, on the other hand, tasted one and politely asked: ‘how the hell do you live without sugar??’. I took that as an indication of just how far my tastebuds had come in three weeks.
I won’t lie – there have been a couple of slip-ups: a bowl of rice puffs here (only 6% sugar but still…), a lick of a spoon I’d used in the honey there. But when I have slipped up, I’ve felt crap. And not just in a guilty I’ve-cheated-on-my-diet kind of crap, but my body has felt crap – back to its old bloated, gassy, sluggish ways. And it’s not something I’ve wanted to repeat.
So nine days left of the challenge. But I’m thinking this is one change I can and want to stick with. Like any reformed addict, I’ll be taking it one day at a time – I’m not saying I’ll never eat sugar again, but I’ve done the hard yards and I don’t want to go back to the way I used to feel.
And if you’re reading this and thinking ‘there is no way I could give up sugar’, that’s probably a good indication that you’re addicted too! Give it a try for a month and you might be surprised.
A couple of books and websites I’ve found useful while on the challenge:
- www.thehealthychef.com for great sugar-free recipes.
- www.liveitdoit.com.au for Sugar-free September tips and guidelines.
- www.iquitsugar.com Reformed sugar addict Sarah Wilson has some great tips, recipes and support for those wanting to quit sugar.
- ‘Sweet Poison’, by David Gillespie – an interesting read on the effects of sugar and some background on the reasons behind our increasing consumption of sugar as a society.
* I have never actually been addicted to drugs so I’m taking some artistic licence here but suffice to say, it was pretty unpleasant.