Davina McCall: how to be sugar-free
Thinking of cutting back on sugar but can't face going cold turkey? Davina's realistic approach will have you shunning the sweet stuff in no time.
This interview took place in April 2020.
Over the last few years, sugar's effect on our health has been well documented in a 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.
We have plenty of guides to help you cut back on the sweet stuff. Check out 10 ways to manage sugar cravings, why is sugar bad for me? and will sugar make me old? Don't forget to browse our lower-sugar recipes for filling lunches, hearty dinners and sweet snacks that all contain less than 10g of sugar per serving.
Q. As of today, how long have you been sugar-free?
A. 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.
Q. What was it that made you decide to give up sugar?
A. 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.
Check out our helpful guide for all you need to know about sugar.
Q. Did sugar make you grumpy? (Facebook question from Rachael Scott)
A. 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.
Q. What does the term ‘sugar-free’ mean to you?
A. Sugar-free to me means a diet free of refined sugar – things like processed foods and white flours, rice and bread. Packet sugar, too.
Q. Has quitting sugar changed the way you think about food?
A. 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 that help balance my blood sugar levels and 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.
Q. What health benefits did you notice after giving up sugar?
A. 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.
Q. Your book is called 5 Weeks to Sugar-free – why five weeks?
A. 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.
Q. What were the hardest times when you gave up sugar?
A. For me, 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.
Q. How did you beat the cravings?
A. I’d have a piece of fruit and some plain nuts 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.
Q. Do you think success is all in the preparation? (Facebook question from Ceri Morgan)
A. 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.
Q. Do you avoid any fruits or natural sugars?
A. 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.
Q. What alternatives do you use in baking? (Facebook question from Charlotte Davidson)
A. 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.
Q. What would be your ultimate tip for anyone thinking of going sugar-free?
A. 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 and make sure you have something sweet but free of refined sugars in the fridge in case you get a craving.
Q. Is there anyone you wouldn’t recommend the lifestyle to?
A. 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.
Do you know how much sugar children should have? Dietician Emer Delaney explains all and offers some healthy swaps to make.
Still struggling to get your head round sugar? Let us know your questions in the comments below and we'll do our best to help.
This article was updated on 21st May 2022 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.
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