10 things you should know before giving up sugar

It seems like everyone is trying to cut down on the sweet stuff. Chocolate fiend and Good Food guinea pig Caroline Hire quit sugar for eight weeks and learned a few lessons along the way.

Woman holding sugar cubes

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 10 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.

A half-eaten doughnut in a desk drawer

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, celebrate making healthy 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.

Bananas

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.

A woman checking labels in a food shop

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 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 starting to prove the easier option. At least it was black and white.

A woman taking a biscuit out of a tin

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.

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 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 16 September 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

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.

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.

Comments, questions and tips

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Neenuel
4th Nov, 2019
I have found the Bright Line Eating program is a great way to quit sugar (except fruit) and beat cravings. Set guidelines with whole foods and 3 healthy, filling meals a day take away the many choices which, for me, would often result in binging. Changing habits isn't easy but it sure is worth it!!!
Juno22619
20th Jul, 2019
I have been diagnosed with Fatty Liver Disease which is from excess sugar which in turn turns to fructose and then fat which is stored in the liver and can lead to many problems with liver disease. I knew I was eating too much sugar and had started to read Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar for Life. The diagnosis was exactly what I needed to give me the incentive to keep going. It’s difficult but I intend to eliminate cakes, biscuits, sweets etc. Later on I will deal with other foodstuffs containing excess sugar. Already I look at all labels and buy as low sugared products as possible.
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priyaaurora
26th Apr, 2019
When I was starting out on the sugar-kicking journey, I was having a very tough time. I used to have some withdrawal-induced cranky moments and a few slip-ups along the way. That’s normal for everyone.
Rosemary H
6th Jun, 2018
As with all foods everything should be in moderation. Of course excessive amounts of sugar are not good for us but you can say that about any food. A balanced diet is a healthy diet and we should stop buying in to the unscientific rubbish in social media, We should also remind ourselves that journalists who 'analyse' proper scientific research are journalists not scientists.
Raincat
26th Sep, 2018
The thing with sugar is that for some peple it’s highly addictive where moderation doesn’t actually work. Just like an alcoholic is not able to drink in moderation.
Meghan Anne's picture
Meghan Anne
24th Sep, 2018
This is a helpful comment to have written so succinctly here. It captures perfectly the point of view of those for whom the changes I need to make don't make sense or are alarming. It's an understandable POV as well, and is super relevant for people who jump on fad diets because of the fads. For the people whose struggle is actually something very different, though, the goal of moderation can be incredibly damaging, as common sense as it seems on the surface.
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pajbse
25th Feb, 2018
I have given up sugar after being terrified by a prediabetic dignosis. I started avoiding all sugar and root veg that quickly turns to sugar etc. The doc said I could calm down and now I just avoid things with added sugar. Choc, cake, biscuits, desserts etc. I find it easier to go cold turkey. If I am offered a tiny bit of anything naughty, I refuse as a little bit just makes me want more. It is much easier to just say no. I still drink wine with my dinner. So any sweet treat just asks the question, ‘Me or the wine later’. I vote wine every time. My blood sugar is back in the safe zone and I have lost two inches on the waist despite eating masses of food, just not sweet stuff.
Victoria shaw's picture
Victoria shaw
15th Jan, 2018
I sign up give up for month for canner charity and my weekends is chocolate but not going let down beside Lent will come up have give up sweet things soon
pschles
4th Aug, 2017
I gave up on sugar about seven months ago. I first eliminated almost all forms of it from the house, I just gave the sugary food away to my neighbors. The only exception at first was a bottle of Bolivian stevia that I've been working on for over a year, that I only use with coffee. The other exception is honey, with which I use in making pizza dough weekly or my one permitted dessert (ground flaxseed, sour cream, chia, moringa, and a tad of honey). The cravings didn't go away immediately, and I had a couple of nasty bouts that arrived with feelings of depression. I also gave up on meat (including chicken) and drastically reduced ingestion of carbs (potatoes, rice, all bread, and milk with lactose) at the same time. I now eat a fair amount of fish. My family had a hard time with me about it initially, but they seem to know now that it is part of Dad being Dad. I've reduced my weight by 25 pounds, changed my pants size from 42+ to 40, and am feeling better in my t-shirts. I only ride a bicycle unless I have to take a flight. I do have hunger, but not for sweets, but I can keep it at bay with smoothies of pineapple, beet, and cucumber, plus ginger root and jalapeno. Now, I have no interest in cookies, cakes, ice cream, purchased drinks, candy, alcohol, and processed foods like cereal, potato chips or Doritos. I do have some nuts or mixed raisins and nuts now and then. There are times that I eat some oils and fats. When the body has no sugar, it will consume fat as fuel. Having to use a bicycle as transport is limiting, but good. I eat only what I can carry. It does help to convince your friends to do it too; I've had some successes with some, but others look at me as though I'm from Mars. However, it is working for me, and it can for you too if you are conscientious, especially for the first weeks to get past the cravings that come with breaking the sugar addiction. It was like quitting smoking 30 years ago; there was a three-week period to get past and then it was gone. It may be a bit longer with sugar, but the feeling was the same. I feel good; it's not a diet, and I think I can do this forever.
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hlipcho
25th Jul, 2017
I've quit eating all kind of sugars 2.5 years ago and I feel great. My energy is up and i'm happier than ever before, and don't feel any need to start again, even sometimes when i have guests i prepare cake for them without even try it and it doesn't bother me at all. i started to eat healthy as the people use to eat before industrial era. i have fruits - whole fruits, not juice or pure and not sugary fruits as bananas or grapes, lots of vegetables, fresh meat and dairy products. For me it wasn't difficult to quit, i pursued personal goal. i am sure everyone has a goal can achieve it and the result is what actually makes you happy, as people are not happy in their live trying to price themselves with tons of sugar... so everyone choose it own way of live.

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Mig Hayworth
6th Jun, 2018
I found this type of thing helpful esp when cutting down on sugar, there is an online sugar free store called sweet victory products that got sugar free ketchup to sugar free low carb sweets etc worth a try
nicekitty
20th Apr, 2016
Giving up fruit is daft, as they contain vitamins and fibre. The problem with sweets is that they add a lot of empty calories to your diet as they don't offer any valuable nutrients but contain a lot of sugar. If you have a craving for chocolate you can always try pure cocoa, which is virtually sugar-free, or dark chocolate. It tastes vile but has a higher concentration of antioxidants etc. because it is not diluted with milk, fat, sugar etc.