Giving up sugar has made Healthista writer and self-confessed sugar addict Parisa Hashempour more emotional that usual. Find out why in week two of her strict 31-day sugar-free diet diet diary
Two weeks ago I decided to give up sugar for 31 days and its been a rollercoaster of emotions since then. And is it any wonder when sugar is such an ingrained part of our lives? Hiding in our tinned foods or parading in our ice creams, biscuits and cakes, it almost seems impossible to escape its clutch – because we don’t really want to. The stuff tastes addictive – and it is. A 2007 study showed that sugar can lead to a natural form of addiction and it has even been described as more addictive than cocaine.
But it isn’t just the taste of sugar that we love so much – it’s the way that it makes us feel. If I’ve had a hard day at work, I’ll convince myself I deserve to mope in bed caressing a packet of Maryland cookies and nursing a builder’s brew. There’s no better feeling in the world than the soft melting on the tongue of a soppy biscuit soaked in a strong cup of tea. And two weeks without the sugary stuff has made me realise that so much of my relationship with food is related to my emotions rather than simply taste. This week I’ll be exploring the ways that sugar can affect our mood and also the way that going cold turkey can make you feel.
How am I feeling in week two?
For the first seven days of this challenge, it’s safe to say I felt pretty miserable on the whole. I skipped my morning gym session because I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed in the morning, I felt completely sorry for myself (not only when I saw other people tuck into my favourite foods but also just in general) and while not overwhelming, feelings of anxiety started to cloud my mind and I was prone to bouts of unexplained crying.
My skin was starting to break out, I felt bloated and fatigued
And while I saw some small improvements by week two – I still wasn’t feeling my best. I’d traded in sugar and carbs for dairy and nuts. And while I’m pretty happy with my newfound obsession with cashews, the high fatty diet that I was following after eating all of that cheese, dairy and butter was making me feel gross. I’d decided to go totally low-carb for the first two weeks and I desperately missed them. My skin was starting to break out, I felt bloated and fatigued and at times I felt ready to give up. Even though I thought my cravings would be gone by now I was still lusting after chocolate cake, brownies and ice cream and at one point stood for a full minute in front of the Tesco freezer section staring at a tub of Ben & Jerry’s – in fact, I have definitely been thinking about sugar and carbs much more than I usually do.
But there were high points too. I had a productive day of meal prepping last Sunday and this diet has forced me to get a little bit more experimental in the kitchen. I made my own pesto (a first) and I’m switching things up in the morning with green sugar-free smoothie recipes using the Healthista vegan vanilla protein, avocado, kale, spinach, chia seeds and unsweetened almond milk (a killer combo). Plus I’m sending smug little glances over at the biscuit tin every afternoon and that’s a pretty great feeling as well.
But at this point, it just didn’t feel sustainable. I wanted to know why my diet making me feel so rotten and more importantly, when would it stop. I turned to nutritional therapist, May Simpkin for advice. Simpkin explained the different ways that sugar and sugar withdrawal can impact our mood and she gave me some tips for beating the sugar blues.
Why am I feeling so low?
We all recognise the feeling of coming down from a sugar high. According to Simpkin, when you eat a high sugar meal your body will take the sugar it needs and get rid of the rest. Because it processes this sugar so quickly, after a while there’s no sugar left in your blood and you end up feeling low, jittery, hungry and anxious. But I’m not eating high sugar meals anymore, so why am I feeling so down?
Simpkin revealed that being on an extremely low sugar diet (and cutting out carbs) means essentially keeping your body in a constant state of stress, ‘when your body has less sugar it’s not going to prioritise getting energy to the areas of the brain that you don’t need it – it’s going to prioritise getting it to the areas of brain that are essential for your body to work.’
From vegetables to grains, sugar is what gives our bodies the energy to properly function. Without the pick-me-up of sugar, your body slows down completely because it doesn’t want you to waste any of the precious sugar that it does have and on my low-carb, low-sugar diet this is exactly what has been happening to me.
complex carbs such as sweet potato, quinoa and brown rice will all help to keep my energy levels up and stop me from feeling so miserable
Plus my spot breakout was also caused by my body totally slowing itself down too. ‘When your body slows down, your digestive system slows down and therefore foods aren’t broken down as efficiently as they could be. Toxins are allowed to fester and hang around and then when these toxins and gases get released, you feel a bit bloated and it can manifest in breakouts.’
We need carbs (yay!)
Simpkin tells me that a lot of people don’t realise it but carbohydrates are sugars too. But that doesn’t mean we have to cut them all out (like I have done these past two weeks). Simpkin explained that without carbs your body has very little energy (tell me about it). Your body needs glucose (sugar) to work properly and when it doesn’t get this glucose straight from sugar or straight from carbs, it turns elsewhere, ‘in the absence of carbs your body will convert proteins into glucose first, which is why on a crash diet you tend to lose a bit of muscle mass, and then if your body hasn’t got enough energy from the proteins it will then go to the fat and take your stores.’ – this is not what I wanted to hear.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean I should be rushing to Zizzi’s and having a carb-loaded feast but it does mean that complex carbs such as sweet potato, quinoa and brown rice will all help to keep my energy levels up and stop me from feeling so miserable. ‘The reason these carbs are better is because they’re high in fibre. If you eat a chocolate there’s no fibre in that at all. Whereas if you eat butternut squash (which can taste really sweet) the fibre will slow down the release of sugar – plus you’ve got all those vitamins and minerals.’
But don’t go OTT.
‘I would definitely advise you to eat grains and starchy vegetables but again in reasonable proportions. I would say about a quarter of your plate. Half the plate needs to be vegetables and the final quarter should be protein.’
Sugar withdrawal: 3 ways to fix it
We all know the feeling. You get to 4 o’clock in the afternoon and all of a sudden the munchies hit. Before you know it you’ve dived head first into a packet of biscuits or crisps. So why do we get the mid-afternoon munch? Simpkin explained that it’s down to your body needing a pick-me-up and it’s not our fault we crave sugar. ‘You’re craving sugar because you need sugar. You need sugar for energy… even if you’re just sitting at your desk you’re using your brain and your body is working so you still need energy.’
I’d thought that by ditching sugar I’d leave those cravings behind me but Simpkin explained that this was far from true and that by avoiding all forms of sugar, my body has started using up its reserves of excess sugar and fat and this results in me craving more, ‘your body is actually quite clever – it’s saying ‘Look, I think you’re going to faint if you don’t have anything, I want you to eat sugar so I can satisfy your needs and body requirements.’
Don’t go cold turkey
Withdrawing from sugar too quickly scares your body into thinking that it needs to hold on to all energy. ‘Your body suddenly loses its source of energy and its then putting you into a very low metabolic state where nothing is firing on all cylinders,’ warns Simpkin. ‘It just makes you feel very lethargic, very slow, very fatigued, a bit sleepy, a bit tired, all of which doesn’t make you feel great.’
Simpkin suggests reaching for an apple or some berries as they’re not as high in sugar as more tropical fruits
Don’t ditch sugar AND carbs
But as I definitely realise at this point, avoiding sugar completely AND cutting down on my carbs was maybe not the best idea. ‘It’s very hard because your body needs sugar all the time but what you can do is manage what sugar you eat and also how quickly it releases into the blood stream, the more slowly it releases the more balanced you’re going to feel and you’re not going to feel those cravings in the same way and you’re not going to feel so low’. So cut out the sugar, but don’t necessarily ditch the carbs.
Pick your foods right
This means eating foods with lots of fibre and protein to prevent cravings ahead of time. Simpkin suggests foods such as starchy vegetables like sweet potato, butternut squash and carrots as well as vegetables – these foods also contain sugar but they’re also high in fibre which slows down the absorption and keeps your body feeling full and energetic.
And if you need to get a sugary fix? Simpkin suggests reaching for an apple or some berries as they’re not as high in sugar as more tropical fruits. And if you’re opting for fruit she advises balancing it out with some protein like nuts, ‘the nuts are going to make that sugar release much more slowly’ she explained. And this means you miss out on the cravings and hunger later on in the day, ‘all proteins take a lot longer to process and digest. And because they take longer to process and digest they stay in your stomach for longer, make you feel fuller for longer and they slow down that sugar release.’
Sugar-free smoothie must-haves
This week I’ve been switching up my breakfast and making some green smoothies – little did I know that all the almond milks I usually use contain sugar (the stuff hides everywhere). So I’ve traded my usual almond milk in for the unsweetened version and it works brilliantly.
The almond milk is made from lightly roasted with Mediterranean almonds then they’re grinded with a creamy almond butter and blended with water – a light, subtle nutty flavour runs through the milk.
It’s not the easiest on the tongue but these veggie blends from Roots Collective pack a powerful nutritious punch and are super filling. Vegetable blends are a big New York trend and Roots Collective are bringing it to the UK. There is over 80 percent vegetable in each recipe, no added fruit juice and the veggies are cold pressed to lock in all that goodness (just be careful if you’re sugar-free as some of the blends do contain honey).
Without my usual addition of banana, my morning smoothies would taste a little bit horrible if it wasn’t for this vanilla vegan protein (and I’m not just saying that because it’s our brand). Whey protein makes me feel seriously bloated but vegan protein doesn’t usually taste too great – that’s the reason I’m a fan of this one. It stops my green smoothie from tasting too healthy. Ingredients like cinnamon and matcha help speed up metabolism – which is probably what I need after my body slowing down to conserve all that sugar energy. The protein is made from pea, rice, hemp and sunflower and it is also packed with foods like maltodextrin (to give me an energy boost) and blood orange (which will help with my digestion).