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

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 personal tips for cutting back on sugar and her journey to becoming sugar-free…

As of today, how long have you been sugar-free?

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 fast-releasing carbohydrates – such as rice and pasta – to keep my energy up. Really, for someone who is moderately active, carbs don’t need to take up more than 10-20% of a meal, but my meals were about 70% carbs during that time!

Read more about marathon training and nutrition for runners.

A woman lacing up running shoes

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 may stop mood swings, bad skin and weight gain.

Did 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?

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!

Along the journey, I’ve also discovered some new ingredients which help balance my blood sugar levels and helps make my goal easier. 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.

Your 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 refined 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.

An office worker reaching in to a desk drawer for a doughnut

How did you beat the cravings?

I’d have a piece of fruit and some plain 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.

Do 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, whole 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, these are classed as 'free' sugars so I do keep them to a minimum, but stevia is a useful 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?

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.

Read more

How much sugar should I eat?
Top 10 low-sugar snacks
10 things you should know before giving up sugar
How do fizzy drinks affect your health?
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...

This article was updated on 5 December 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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6th Feb, 2019
Becoming a diabetic turned my world upside down. I felt like a failure for months after the diagnosis, but finally decided to take my life back in my own hands. I changed so much and was in better control, but I needed more. A friend suggested this ( http://sugar-detox.weebly.com ) to me and I timidly jumped in 5 days later. BEST decision of my life!
Annette Stephens's picture
Annette Stephens
29th Jan, 2018
I came across this article and found it interesting but it doesn't complete the full picture. A year ago while visiting my GP I asked the question "what are the best things I can do in order to stave off dementia and maintain a healthy body for as long as possible? She answered...stay normal weight and don't get diabetes. Initially too short an answer for me, but when I researched these issues, I found that reducing my intake of any SUGAR AND CARBOHYDRATE (excluding vegetables) would fulfil my aims. The key fact is:- reduce the amount of insulin released into the blood stream (in order to remove the sugar and carbohydrates from it) and keep blood sugar stable. In order to prevent hunger and loss of energy I eat a lot of fat. I also eat moderate amounts of protein (too much, and the body will convert the extra into sugar) It's very simple to understand and VERY difficult to implement because sugar and carbs are soooooo ADDITIVE. I have achieved this and now daily get enough carbohydrate from the green leafy vegetables I consume. I get the correct amounts of vitamins and minerals from my 75% fat, 10% protein and 5% carbs diet by eating meat, fish, eggs, cheese, cream, butter and vast amount of vegetables. I have never felt so healthy. I am totally with Davina on this, but have yet to convert other members of my family!!! I think this sort of eating needs to become more popular, in order to reduce the amount of ill health in our nation today. P.S. I had already chosen to eat 'Gluten and Wheat' free, so giving up carbs like bread and biscuits was not a big issue for me.
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.
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?
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/
njmpaddockclose's picture
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.
CBiancaL's picture
11th May, 2015
a thourghly confusing article!! :~/
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.
29th Jan, 2015
I agree with Karen, very confusing. Also the recommendation to use honey or maple syrup ... which are essentially sugar.
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 :)


Fi bissett
26th Dec, 2019
I have been told I’m pre diabetic but no idea what that means. My blood sugar is 44 still no idea what that means. Don’t know if it’s type 1 or 2. I just need some advice on what to eat
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
goodfoodteam's picture
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.