Davina McCall: How to be sugar-free

If you've ever been tempted to cut back on sugar but can't face going cold turkey, Davina's realistic approach will have you shunning the sweet stuff in no time...

Davina McCall's simple steps to sugar-free

Over the last year, sugar's effect on our health has been well documented in a constant stream of damning research. The sweet stuff is now food enemy number one and is to blame for far more than hyperactive children and tooth decay.

With the World Health Organisation rewriting its recommendations for daily intake, you’ve possibly considered cutting back - but how do you kick the habit? Television presenter and fitness guru, Davina McCall is keen to get the nation talking about sugar and here she shares her realistic tips and personal journey to becoming sugar-free…


As of today, how long have you been sugar-free?Running
This time I’ve been sugar-free for five months. I had given up sugar for a couple of years previously, but then when I did my Sport Relief challenge I started eating it again. I was doing an awful lot of exercise and had to eat a lot of sugar in the form of liquid gels and carbohydrates - such as rice and pasta - to keep my energy up. Really, carbs don’t need to take up more than 10-20% of a meal, but my meals were about 70% carbs during that time! 
 

What was it that made you decide to give up sugar?
When my sister got cancer, the nutritionist told me that she should give up sugar and I found that quite telling. I did some research and realised I was a slave to it.  We need a certain amount of carbohydrates but we don’t need added sugar. Stop eating it and you stop mood swings, bad skin and weight gain.
 

sugarDid it make you grumpy? (Facebook question from Rachael Scott)
Yeah, when I did it the first time cold turkey it made me very, very grumpy – I felt like I was grieving the loss of a loved one! I was more prepared this time round though, and have, for the most part, managed to taper off my sweet tooth.
 

What does the term ‘sugar-free’ mean to you?
Sugar-free to me means a diet free of refined sugar - things like processed foods and white flours, rice and bread. Packet sugar too.
 

Has quitting sugar changed the way you think about food?Barley, chicken & mushroom risotto
I used to get stuck making the same 10 meals. There’d be a little variation but I’d generally really struggle for inspiration – now I make all sorts of things!

I’ve also discovered some new ingredients. Wholemeal spelt flour is one I couldn’t be without – I used to think of it as being a faddy health food but it’s tasty, miles better for you than refined white flour and doesn’t make you feel bloated. Also, spelt or barley make delicious alternatives to risotto rice.

What health benefits did you notice after giving up sugar?
It definitely had an impact on my energy levels and my skin looks loads better. I also felt a sense of freedom and wasn’t expecting that – I stopped feeling that I had to go to the fridge and scan for something sweet every evening. It took a while to get to that point but was worth the wait.
 

SugarYour book is called five weeks to sugar-free – why five weeks?
I think it’s a good amount of time – I don’t know the science behind how long it takes for the craving to leave you, but I don’t want people to be put off by going sugar-free too quickly – my book will slowly reduce the amount of sugars you eat - If you say to people you have to stop tomorrow it’s not realistic.
 

What were the hardest times when you gave up sugar?
4pm was the worst time of day – I always used to have a lull about that time, especially when I worked in an office. Also about 9pm - after dinner I’d crave something sweet.
 

How did you beat the cravings?fruit
I’d have a piece of fruit or some nuts to hand so I wasn’t tempted to fall off the wagon. Just something to give me a sweet hit. As time goes by those cravings don’t happen anymore and it feels like being freed from the shackles of addiction.
 

Do you think success is all in the preparation? (Facebook question from Ceri Morgan)
Definitely, you have to put strategies in place so when you’re desperate and you would do anything for chocolate you have something on hand.
 

honeyDo you avoid any fruits or natural sugars?
I do avoid grapes, but that’s because they don’t agree with me and give me a tummy ache. However, fruit is a great snack to have. I don’t eat too many dried fruits as they’re very sugary – I will have the odd raisin though.
 

What alternatives do you use in baking? (Facebook question from Charlotte Davidson)
I just use maple syrup and honey in baking, but stevia is a good option too. I’ve replaced flour for wholemeal spelt in most of my bakes – you get the same results and it’s a lovely taste.
 

What would be your ultimate tip for anyone thinking of going sugar-free?Baking
The most important thing is not to beat yourself up if you slip - just pick it up again the next day. If you follow my plan it should really help you, it’s a good, balanced diet. Be realistic, make sure you have something sweet but free of refined sugars in the fridge in case you get a craving.
 

Is there anyone you wouldn’t recommend the lifestyle to?
Absolutely not – I think everyone can do it and it’s a smart lifestyle choice. You have to want to do it for yourself though – I don’t make my children go sugar-free because I think it’s unrealistic for them. Reframe the idea – you’re not giving up sugar, you’re going to eat for better health. Affirm the fact you’ll be giving yourself something rather than taking it away.
 

Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts find all the answers in our sugar hub:
All you need to know about sugar

Still struggling to get your head round sugar? Let us know your questions below and we'll do our best to help...

Comments, questions and tips

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Sweetless
5th Feb, 2017
I am one year today into a lifestyle change, gave up a HUGE addiction to sugar that had me stuffing my face with chocolate every night. I went 100% without free sugar for over four months, and now I just have the occasional bagel, sauce or pizza that has a bit of added sugar, never dessert or anything significant, never over 7g in a day and often 0g. I say this because I am very disappointed at how this article handles the topic, with no science around the process of giving it up, no clarity around what makes sugar unhealthy, and spreads myths about what is "sugar". "Refined sugar" barely means anything. Honey and maple syrup, for example, are ABSOLUTELY sugar. Being "natural" means nothing. Poison Ivy is natural, doesn't mean you should eat it (I know I know hyperbole, but the point is that "natural" is just a marketing term). Honey and maple syrup contain chemically the same compounds as refined sugar, and with a SLIGHTLY high ratio of glucose to fructose, but no fibre, they're honestly MAYBE 5% better for you than just a white sugar. I am very passionate about this topic, as I have found the benefits of ending my sugar addiction to be extremely positive for my physical and mental health. I thought sugar was making my anxiety worse, and since giving it up I've noticed a huge positive change. I think more clearly, I'm less re-active when I feel upset, and I can focus for much longer periods of time, which really helps me at work. I would recommend going "sugar free" for its own sake, rather than for weight loss specifically, but for the record it is FAR more effective than "calories in/calories out", and you will feel fuller and happier. I'm just writing this to help point people in the right direction. If you're interested in learning what differentiates "bad" and "good" sugar, I recommend the documentary The Sugar Film, which I've linked to below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uaWekLrilY Also found The Secrets of Sugar very helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3ksKkCOgTw I hope this doesn't seem like a rude rant. I just hate to see people given poor health advice, when good choices from good advice can make such a huge difference in your life, help you handle everyday stresses and even large crises, by giving you confidence, strength, energy and overall health.
Chen
10th Sep, 2016
Hi all. I've been a diabetic for almost 10 years now. The best advice i got was to cut back on starchy foods... white rice to red mountain rice. White bread to sugar free wheat bread. I can usually hit my target sugars round 150 mgdl by lunch and less than 180 mgdl by dinner. My problem is that i get huge sugar cravings by around after dinner and when i indulge ( usually a banana or a green apple) my glucose spikez up to 200+ mgdl. My wife wont let me have any fruit now in whatever form. Have been searching everywhere in the web for alternatives that dont involve sweeteners as i get really bad side effects from it, usually diarrhea. Any ideas?
dano420
16th Jan, 2016
A common misconception in weight loss is that you need to eat less, when in reality the opposite holds true. If you restrict your calories, you will eventually slow your metabolism. So, by eating frequently, you keep your metabolism functioning at a higher level throughout the day which in turn burns more calories overall. http://truehealthreport.com/2016/01/07/no-sugar-diet-dont-be-a-statistic/
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njmpaddockclose
8th Jan, 2016
I had a blood test 3 months ago and my glucose level was slightly high. I was in danger of developing Type 2 diabetes. I was advised to cut out sugar and to cut right down on carbohydrates. Any carbs eaten should be wholemeal flour. brown rice, oats etc. I was told this was because carbohydrates are broken down in the body into glucose (sugar) Refined flour is metabolised quickly, wholemeal is slow burn and so you don't get a big glucose spike. I have lost a stone and a half and feel much better for it, I was thrilled to fit into a size 12 top today! It has taken 3 months to stop craving sugar now I can manage without.
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CBiancaL
11th May, 2015
a thourghly confusing article!! :~/
Hellyhanson
2nd Apr, 2015
Less concerned about the sugar fixation. However, there are some great recipes in this book for families. I've done a few of the main meal ones and we have all really enjoyed them.
christineyeomans
29th Jan, 2015
I agree with Karen, very confusing. Also the recommendation to use honey or maple syrup ... which are essentially sugar.
aboogie
12th Feb, 2015
Yes, honey and maple syrup do contain sugar but the sugar they contain is Fructose sugar- the sugars of fruits- which are not refined sugar and not considered harmful to health... so if youre going refined sugar free u can still have these 2 :)
tinamitch
28th Jan, 2015
I baked Davina's SUGAR FREE tea cake recently, using maple syrup. Have to say I much preferred bbcgoodfood SUGAR AND FAT FREE recipe.
karenchadwell
16th Jan, 2015
this article contains the very basic error of confusing sugar and starch. Carbohydrate is either a sugar, a starch (complex carbohydrate) or fibre. The article is meant to address going sugar-free, when I think the intention is to give advice on going *refined* sugar-free, but then goes on to discuss how to cut back on all refined carbs, like white rice, flour and bread, which are starchy, not sugary! Very confusing.

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katda1982
17th Feb, 2015
Hi, I had a go last night & made the sugar free flapjacks with honey, but they came out too dry. Can you suggest what i may have done wrong? Many Thanks Katherine Davies
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goodfoodteam
14th Jul, 2015
Hi Katherine, thanks for getting in touch. Which recipe were you using for the flapjacks? If you would like to contact us by emailing goodfoodwebsite@bbc.com with the recipe we will try and help as best we can. 
Be the first to suggest a tip for this recipe...Got your own twist on this recipe? Or do you have suggestions for possible swaps and additions? We’d love to hear your ideas.