It seems like everyone is trying to cut down on the sweet stuff - but is it really as simple as it seems? Chocolate fiend and Good Food guinea pig Caroline Hire quit sugar for eight weeks and learnt a few lessons along the way...
A friend showed up at my house this summer looking nothing short of fabulous. She’s always been healthy, a runner and health-food nut, but somehow something had taken her to a whole new level of loveliness. I quizzed her to discover she’d done Sarah Wilson’s 8-week ‘I Quit Sugar’ programme. This was something I had to try.
However, it soon became clear it was not for the faint-hearted. Quitting sugar, Sarah-style, involved giving up all fruit, all sweeteners (natural and artificial) and most alcohols.
Still, I thought I knew what I was getting into. Apparently I didn’t. Here are ten things I wish I’d known before giving up the sweet stuff…
1. Cravings can be conquered
Everyone has a weakness. Mine is chocolate. I absolutely adore it but the addiction has always been a source of irritation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to give it up (and failed). I knew this craving wasn’t going down without a fight. My olfactory system (sense of smell) went into overdrive and I could sniff out chocolate from a superhuman distance. Within a week (a week!), the mental battle had dissipated.
2. Deprivation tastes better with friends
If you’re going to give up sugar, it’s definitely worth bringing in reinforcements. Knowing that I’d have to fess up to a friend if I’d fallen off the wagon was a great motivator. It was helpful to be able to share sugar-swap discoveries, gloat over righteous food choices and commiserate together through the detox symptoms.
3. Strange side effects
Not everyone experiences the same reaction to quitting sugar. The most worrying one for me came in the second week when I developed a flickering in my peripheral vision which went on for around 15 minutes. The NHS website reassured me it was most likely low blood sugar but still something to address quickly. That night I had two dinners, a little fruit and the next morning, two breakfasts. No more vision problems for me (but I was a bit full). Other symptoms around the same time included a fuzzy head, memory loss, without the compensation of alcohol-based fun, and sleep problems. Oh, and some irritability crept in. That was a good week in my house.
4. I gave up sugar (and sleep too)
It would appear from my extremely scientific sample group of four people that sleeplessness doesn’t affect everyone. Unfortunately, it did affect me. From week two onwards, I pretty much woke up between 5am and 6am every morning. For someone who does experience sleep problems from time to time, what started as a side effect soon became a very annoying habit.
5. Want chocolate? Have a banana
More of a veg fan, fruit had never held that much of a draw but this changed when I gave up sugar. I re-introduced a little fruit each day after the blurred vision episode and found the humble banana became a highly desirable treat.
6. Sugar is everywhere
Wrestling with a desire to consume chocolate, ice cream or a cheeky cake with a coffee passed pretty quickly. What I hadn’t accounted for were all the seemingly innocuous foods that were now off the menu - Worcestershire sauce, chutney, ketchup, brown sauce, shop-bought mayonnaise, mustard. Giving up the tasty little additions to my savoury meals was the hardest to stomach.
7. Constant grazing
In the first few weeks my energy was often flat so I compensated by eating much more frequently than usual. Without all the sweet treats, food became a bit of a bore – a necessity rather than something craved and satisfied. As the weeks went on, my energy returned and the blood sugar highs and lows, which used to drive me to eat prior to the programme, seemed to diminish. Managing between meals without snacking became easier than it had done in years.
8. Weight loss, the ‘easy’ way
Ok, it’s not ‘easy’ giving up sugar but doing so cuts out a lot of calories. All labels had to be checked, most convenience supermarket foods and condiments were a no-go. Desserts, sugary drinks and most types of alcohol were to be avoided and if I could find an alternative it tended to be significantly less calorific. While focusing on avoiding sugar rather than calories, weight loss just happened.
9. Complacency can sneak up on you
In Week 6, Sarah suggests reintroducing a little sweetness. I made some not-that-naughty chocolates and stuffed down three in quick succession. The next day when faced with leftovers, the internal debate began, ‘Shall I? Shan't I?’ It made me realise how refreshing it had been not to think like this. Being strict was starting to prove the easier option. At least it was black and white.
10. Other people's reactions
I received mixed views about giving up sugar. It was easy to recruit others to take part. They started by asking a few questions, next thing I knew they were shunning sugar right alongside me. The flipside were ‘the haters’. Some people seemed genuinely offended by my lack of sugar consumption. Whereas before I’d been a partner-in-crime, the ‘girl most likely to order pudding’ at any restaurant table, now I sat there supping peppermint tea with my newly polished halo glaring everyone in the face. Some found it hard to swallow. The best strategy was to say nothing and not draw attention to myself.
So, what happened when the 8 weeks were over?
After the programme, I had no physical urge to eat sugar and was fearful that a piece of chocolate here or there would very quickly lead to a twice-a-day, impossible-to-resist habit. My gut felt healthier, I’d lost some very persistent pounds and despite eating what I thought was a generous amount, was having no trouble keeping weight off. Psychologically, being released from the craving cycle and the chocolate addiction was also liberating.
However, a few weeks on and I already notice the quiet whisper of cravings. It’s harder when things aren’t black and white. I can have a bit but when does that become too much? Satisfying cravings with sugar just seems to generate more cravings. It’s empowering to be able to say ‘no’. I plan to keep it that way.
Caroline used a combination of resources in her quest to quit. Sarah Wilson’s 8-week I Quit Sugar online programme is a great solution if you like plenty of support through emails, features, latest research, messageboards and a diet plan.
As an alternative, her book ‘I Quit Sugar’ offers tempting recipes for before and after the programme, and tells you what you need to do each week. It’s a good budget option and perfect for anyone who prefers not to follow a prescriptive diet plan.
Davina McCall’s book 5 weeks to sugar-free is more moderate in that fruit is included. You can follow the suggested diet plan or select your own recipes.
Have you cut down or cut out sugar? Let us know how you got on in the comments below...
This article was last reviewed on 8 August 2018.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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