A Month Without Sugar

  Sitting proudly with the cupcakes I baked for my little sister's engagement party. I loved baking because it meant I could scoff icing and cake batter mindlessly.

Sitting proudly with the cupcakes I baked for my little sister's engagement party. I loved baking because it meant I could scoff icing and cake batter mindlessly.

I've always been fond of sugar.

After a childhood of healthy food and minimal lollies and soft drinks (thank you Mum and Dad), my late teens and early twenties were a blur of chocolate, baked goods, fizzy drinks, and lollies. I justified my addiction because I was naturally slim, and appeared to be healthy. The truth was, I was terribly unhealthy on the inside, suffering from severe anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, and headaches. It took me a long time to make the connection between diet and health, and start treating my body right. 

Fast forward ten years, and I'm a thirty-one-year-old woman who eats well, exercises regularly, takes no medication and is pretty damn health-conscious. The health issues of my youth have all but disappeared. 80 to 90% of the time I eat a diet full of whole foods, healthy fats, veggies, nuts, and fruit. I don't eat red meat (and I eat minimal chicken and seafood). I'm in tune with my body these days, and health is a priority.

In spite of all this, I still have major off days, energy slumps, and my immune system is useless if I'm tired, travelling, or not looking after myself properly. I have long suspected this is a hangover from my adrenal fatigue, and I know my gut health could be better after years taking the pill, dealing with stress, and eating badly. 

Though I now eat well, the issue is the treat food that sneaks in on the weekends, when I'm tired, or when it's that time of the month. I am also fond of champagne and sugary cocktails when the occasion calls for a drink. I've swapped the processed sweets of my youth for 'clean' treats; dark chocolate, dates, health food bars, natural slices, coconut ice cream, and fruit galore. Once I start eating sweet food, I cannot stop. I'm a fiend. I get on the sweet rollercoaster, and it's all I can think about. I would happily wake up and eat pancakes or muesli for breakfast every day for the rest of my life.

Sugar is a socially accepted form of celebration - birthdays, Easter, and Christmas all call for total indulgence. Naturally, I adore these occasions. Holidays become culinary adventures of the sweet variety. 

  Tucking into a tub of ice cream on holiday in Bali, and ready to devour my 30th birthday cake (I ate a slice for breakfast the next day). 

Tucking into a tub of ice cream on holiday in Bali, and ready to devour my 30th birthday cake (I ate a slice for breakfast the next day). 

I feel my blood sugar soar then dip, and I crash, hard. I am constantly thinking about my next sweet fix.

If I'm honest, sometimes I also eat sugar to soothe a bad mood or to reward myself. 

I've been in denial, thinking that because the sugars I'm eating are 'good', that I can get away with these treats. But I can't. My energy gets low, I get moody and irritable, and I know deep down this isn't serving me. After coming off the contraceptive pill in December, I have been trying to balance my hormones naturally, and I know that sugar is a hormone disrupter - ironically it is all I want when I have PMS! Sugar can cause inflammation in the body, which is at the root of a host of health issues. There's no doubt in my mind I am dealing with this.

The last few years I have noticed a little excess weight sneaking on, and I know this is from my sweet tooth. I want to feel vibrant, energised, look my best, and be as healthy as possible as I age.

Speaking of ageing, sugar is a major culprit. Aghast at this discovery, I dug a little deeper.

When I feel stuck in life I turn to books, and my research led me to "Sweet Poison" by David Gillespie, and "I Quit Sugar" by Sarah Wilson. What I learnt not only shocked me, it spurred me into instant action. It turns out that humans are biologically wired to desire sweet foods, given the energy they can provide us. Ancient humans may have stumbled across fruit on occasion, eaten their fill, and gone merrily on their way with a store of energy for a rainy day.

Modern humans, on the other hand, are bombarded with sugar, without the need for stored fat (it's unlikely in this age of gluttony that we will be faced with famine, now, is it?). Sugar is literally in everything. Our yearly consumption continues to rise and put incredible strain on our bodies, putting us at risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other health conditions. We are simply not designed to process any more than a few pieces of fruit per day. 

I also learned that there is no such thing as good sugar. Honey, agave, maple syrup, brown sugar, coconut sugar: They all contain fructose. They all do the same damage as good old table sugar.

 

  Fruit, thankfully, isn't the enemy.

Fruit, thankfully, isn't the enemy.

When I speak of sugar here, I am talking specifically about fructose. Glucose, found in all other foods, is readily used by the body and brain as fuel. Too much glucose can cause insulin spikes and result in weight gain, but we cannot go without this essential fuel. Fructose, which is found naturally in fruit, and also in honey, agave, maple syrup, sucrose (table sugar), and, of course evil high fructose corn syrup, heads straight to the liver for processing, bypassing our natural appetite control (meaning we can binge on sugar endlessly without registering that we are full). Fructose is converted into fats in the liver, which are circulated back into the bloodstream and also stored as fat on our bodies. Get the low down on the science here.

No wonder I never felt satisfied when I ate sweet foods. No wonder I was helplessly addicted to sugar.

Important note: The fructose in fruit is buffered by fibre which slows the release down. Fruit is good. In fact, it's great, and an essential part of a good diet. I was relieved to hear this because I adore fruit. It was the hidden sugar in everyday foods and the 'good' sugars that I was ingesting that I was concerned about. After delving deep and educating myself, I had to take action.

So I simply stopped. I decided to give it a month, and if I felt good I would continue. To recalibrate my taste buds, I decided to eat minimal fruit for the first month. I avoided everything with sugar in it, including sauces, relishes, packaged foods, muesli etc. As a lover of sweet chilli sauce, this was going to be tough. Here's what I ate: 

  • TONS OF FAT. Avocado, plain coconut yoghurt, olive oil, almonds, seeds, and halloumi. 
  • Protein with every meal. Lean free-range chicken, fish, free-range eggs, vegan protein powder.
  • Veggies galore! Particularly leafy greens.
  • Kumara, quinoa, gluten-free seeded sourdough toast, organic oats, and the odd tortilla wrap.
  • Blueberries and coconut water (once a week as a treat).
  • Thankfully, a little (low-fructose) alcohol was allowed. White and red wine, and the odd vodka and soda.

NOTE: I slipped up a few times and had some champagne, which is high in fructose. I attempted to make up for it the next day with tonnes of veggies and lemon water. 

MY EXPERIENCE

During the first week, I adjusted relatively well. I removed all temptation from my path and made sure I had plenty of healthy snack options around.

To my surprise, I found my energy levels regulating after a few days. The ups and downs were gone. 

I'm not going to lie though, I fantasised non-stop about chocolate. The texture, the taste, the sweetness... There were moments when all I wanted to do was indulge. But each week it got easier, and I started to notice some unexpected benefits:

 

  • My sleep improved - I'm prone to nightmares and the odd bout of terrifying sleep paralysis, but I started to fall asleep straight away and sleep through the night. I was getting up at 6.00am with no difficulty, and enjoying mental clarity during the day that I rarely experience.

 

  • I started to really taste my food again. The simplest things tasted so delicious. Raw carrot was beautifully sweet, and blueberries tasted like lollies. Sweet potato was like dessert! I remember after lolly and chocolate binges, whole foods and veggies tasted so bland and boring. My poor taste buds had been thrashed, and I welcomed them back with open arms.

 

  • After a few weeks, I realised I was incredibly chipper: I felt happy for no reason, with no mood swings or down days, and I was enthusiastic about life and my day to day activities. I couldn't believe that sugar had been causing me so much grief in my day to day life. I kept busy and was always full from all the good fat and protein I was eating - If I had a craving I would have a liquorice tea and it would pass in an hour or so.

 

  • My body started to change slightly. I noticed one day during week three that the waistband on one of my skirts was really loose. My waist seemed to have shrunk, I felt leaner and I even had some muscle definition coming through. My cellulite seemed less noticeable and the general tone of my body had improved.

 

I started to feel like a different person in every way. I was astounded at the change in my energy, mood, and body in a matter of weeks, all by cutting out sugar.

 

Before I knew it, a month was up.

And you know what? I feel so damn good, I'm not stopping here. Will I eat sugar again? Perhaps. Sarah Wilson, the author of I Quit Sugar, recommends viewing each day of sugar-free life as an experiment: If you slip up, just keep going, don't berate yourself.

For me, the experiment continues, and I feel so differently about sweet food now. It no longer has a hold on me.

I know if I'm tired that fuelling my body with whole foods will make me feel better, and the temptation to grab a piece of chocolate has gone. I have probably only lost about 1kg, but my body feels fantastic, and my stomach is always flat. The difference in mood alone is enough incentive for me to continue on this lifestyle (with the addition of fruit). I'm aiming to do another full month. Wish me luck.

Have you ever quit sugar? Would you ever quit for good?