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Why I gave up sugar

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 something had taken her to a whole new level of loveliness. I quizzed her to discover she’d done Sarah Wilson’s eight-week ‘I Quit Sugar’ programme. This was something I had to try.

However, it soon became clear this eight-week programme was not for the faint-hearted. Sugar detox or quitting sugar, Sarah-style, involved cutting out sugar, giving up all fruit, all sweeteners (natural and artificial) and most alcohols. "Still," I thought, "I know what I’m getting myself into." But as it happened, I didn’t.

Here are 10 things I wish I’d known before giving up the sweet stuff.

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1. Cravings can be conquered

Everyone has a weakness. Mine is chocolate. 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.

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2. Deprivation tastes better on a shared journey

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, celebrate making healthy food choices, and commiserate together through the detox side effects.

3. Strange side effects

Not everyone experiences the same reaction to sugar withdrawal or 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 beforehand), and sleep problems. Oh, and some irritability crept in – but that counts as 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 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 an annoying habit.

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5. Want chocolate? Have a banana

I'm 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 cake with a coffee passed 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 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 more frequently. Without all the sweet treats, food became a bit of a bore – a necessity rather than something I craved or found satisfying. As the weeks went on, my energy returned and the blood sugar highs and lows, which used to drive me to eat, seemed to diminish. Managing between meals without snacking became easier than it had been in years.

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8. Weight loss, the ‘easy’ way

Okay, it’s not easy giving up sugar but doing so cuts out a lot of ‘empty’ calories. All labels had to be checked, most of the 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 I focused on avoiding sugar, the weight fell off.

9. Complacency can sneak up on you

In week six, Sarah suggests reintroducing a little sweetness. I made some lower-sugar 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 proving to be the easier option.

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, though, 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 sipping 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 eight 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 very liberating.

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Latest update…

A few weeks on, I already notice the quiet whisper of cravings. Sticking to a habit is harder when things aren’t black and white. I can have a bit, but when does that become too much? Quite simply, satisfying cravings with sugar seems to do one thing and that is generate more cravings.

My number one lesson learned is that the sense of empowerment you get from being able to say no is well worth preserving.

Find more help on cutting back on your sugar intake on the NHS website.

If you have a diagnosed condition or an underlying health problem, are pregnant, breast-feeding, very young or elderly, consult your GP or dietitian prior to making any changes to your existing eating regime.

Caroline used a combination of resources in her quest to quit. Sarah Wilson’s eight-week I Quit Sugar online programme is a great solution if you like plenty of support through emails, features, latest research, message boards 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.

Want to curb your cravings? Check out:

Lower-sugar recipes
Low-sugar breakfast recipes
8 ways to cut down on sugar
Davina McCall: how to be sugar-free
Top sugar swaps for your family
How does sugar affect my mood?

Have you cut down or cut out sugar? Let us know how you got on in the comments below...


Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist 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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All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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