Healthista writer Parisa Hashempour has just completed a 31-day sugar-free diet – now she’s questioning whether the war on sugar really is justified
Hurrah – I’ve done it! The month is over and I’ve gone from a total sugar addict to being sugar-free for 31 days (if you’re just joining us, click here to read week one of my sugar-free diet diary). The month has had its ups and downs but it’s safe to say I’m glad it’s over.
It’s unbelievable how hard it is to stay away from the sweet stuff day-to-day and while I’m not planning on rushing back to my old ways, it feels good not to have to obsess over the labels of every single thing I choose to put in my mouth. But now that the challenge is over and I’ve allowed myself to get back on the biscuits, I’ve got to thinking whether we really should be giving up sugar completely. Is the war on sugar justified?
It’s true that we pay a pretty hefty price for our sweet tooths. Not only can it impact our mood and energy levels but it can cause weight gain, inflammation, bad skin and can even tamper with our immune systems. Plus, the stuff is physically addictive. A 2007 study found that when lab rats were hooked to both cocaine and sugar – given the option, they chose sugar 94 percent of the time. One of the reasons I decided to give it up in the first place was because I felt as though I was hooked.
I shouldn’t be demonising certain food groups for select periods of time in order to physically force myself from eating them
But as the war against sugar rages and I slowly reach the end of my challenge, I’m starting to wonder how bad sugar really is. Should the whole planet be giving it up altogether?
What happened in week four?
I thought that by week four I would have the whole sugar-free thing under wraps – that really wasn’t the case. As it got closer to the end of this challenge, I actually found sugary things MORE tempting than I had done earlier on because I knew that the month would soon be over. The end was so close I could almost taste it (literally) and that taste was delicious. When my sister had a pint of cider, I found my resolve weakening as I stole a little sip and by the last day, it was taking all of my best efforts to stay on course.
While week four carried on in pretty much the same way as the past three weeks it was in this week I had my moment of realisation – I shouldn’t be demonising certain food groups for select periods of time in order to physically force myself from eating them. I’ve tried to cut out sugar in the past, I went on a vegan mission in January and I couldn’t even count the amount of times I’ve decided to cut out ‘carbs’. Cutting out these foods to the point of obsession is not healthy and this was proven to me when my challenge had ended and I was allowed sugar again for the first time.
What happened after the challenge?
My first breakfast after the sugar-free diet had ended was PHENOMENAL. I had a slice of banana bread slathered in Nutella and honestly, it was almost worth the wait. I have never tasted something so amazing in my life, my taste buds were tingling, my eyes were wide and I very nearly stood up in my chair and did a little dance with glee.
As I write this, digestive biscuit crumbs are jumping across my keyboard
After breakfast, I was satiated. I was a happy cat and I really just didn’t feel the need to eat any more sugar. But by the time midday hit, I couldn’t stop thinking about tucking into something sweet and I made the mistake of reaching for the biscuit tin. That’s when the sugar binge began and it lasted three whole days – from Dominoes to Oreos, I had it all. And I was not feeling good. By the time Monday had rolled around I felt groggy and lethargic and uncomfortably full all the time. I realised that sugar really doesn’t fill you up and as all the nutritionists warned me, it constantly left me wanting more.
As I write this, Digestive biscuit crumbs are jumping across my keyboard and while I’ve proven to myself that I can go a prolonged period without sugar, I know that my journey to sugar-free me is far from over. And now I’ve started to question whether a cold turkey approach was the right way to tackle my unhealthy relationship with sugary foods.
Week four taught me that the biggest problem between me and sugar is psychological. I automatically label sugary foods as ‘bad foods’ and that when I’m eating them I’m treating myself. I feel as though this attitude has resulted in me obsessing over these kinds of foods and rather than avoiding them I just end up thinking about them (and now eating them) more. Going forward, I’d love to figure out a way to find a happy medium. To see food as food and not overthink the process.
Sugar gives you energy. Sugar helps with concentration, it can even help improve your mood sometimes.
French cooking is an abundance of cheese, pastries and bread and yet French women are famous for their slim frames. Yes, they’re also famous smokers but I don’t for one second believe cigarettes and starvation are the reasons they maintain a slight frame in the face of all that delicious food. No, they seem to have a brilliant balance. Food is just food – they eat but they don’t over indulge. In fact, until very recently there wasn’t even a word in the French language to encompass binge eating or drinking.
So, should we cut out sugar?
As the increasing evidence mounts against the sugar industry it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify eating sugar. I spoke to nutritionist Rick Hay, who is an advocate of the dangers of sugar. I asked him if we really need to be giving it up completely.
‘I don’t think so, I don’t think you have to give it up, I just don’t we should have it as much as we sometimes do,’ explained Hay. ‘I will have a spoon of coconut sugar in my tea because I want something sweet and I want a treat, that’s my choice.’ In fact, while sugar is demonised, it can in some ways have a beneficial impact on your body and mind. ‘Sugar gives you energy. Sugar helps with concentration, it can even help improve your mood sometimes. But of course, if you’re eating too much and you have a blood sugar spike, the opposite will happen.’
Before you run for the nearest piece of chocolate. Hay explained that the important thing is to carefully choose the types of sugar you’re consuming and to make sure you’re consuming them in moderation. ‘If you’re going to have something sweet I much prefer it to be something natural that the body can recognise as sugar. Use honey, use maple syrup, use agave nectar. Although there are downsides to all of those, they have vitamins, minerals and the body knows what it is.’
Every five years there is one big enemy and at the moment it seems to be sugar
Hay went on to explain that he would never encourage a client to eliminate any one particular type of food unless they have good reason to do so. ‘Of course, there are going to be some times in your life when you need to cut it out – if you’ve got eczema, psoriasis, candida or really big weight management problems. But for most of us, we don’t need to cut out sugar just like we don’t need to cut out fat, carbohydrates or protein. Every five years there is one big enemy and at the moment it seems to be sugar.’
However, that’s not to say we should go OTT on the stuff. Hay is a keen advocate of the sugar tax and warns that eating too many sugary foods can have huge health implications.
How to be sugar smart
If we’re going to eat sugar, it’s important to get sugar smart. Hay shared his top tips on playing it safe when it comes to sugar.
Don’t go cold turkey
Hay advises that you don’t do it the way I did. ‘Don’t cut it out, cut it down. Just like you would with coffee. Take it step by step and reduce your sugar intake and if you’re not overweight, enjoy sugar. Just don’t have too much. I don’t think its totally evil.’
Choose your poison
Hay stresses the importance of staying away from refined sugars and opting for natural sugars instead. Aside from the more obvious choices of honey and maple syrup, Hay suggests opting for natural sugar substitutes. ‘I’m a fan of stevia because it’s a natural sweetener from a plant, it doesn’t have calories. I like its chemical structure because it’s not confusing to the body. Xylitol is another great natural sugar alternative and some research has shown that it even helps prevent tooth decay.’
Keep it fresh
It’s hard to keep your sugar intake low and natural when you’re eating lots of processed foods. ‘There’s hidden sugar everywhere that we don’t know about – in baked beans, bread, tomato sauce, peanut butter, ready meals, kids breakfasts, natural food bars and yoghurt.’
Learn to spot hidden sugars and try and keep your sugar intake as natural as possible.
According to Hay, fresh fruit gets the thumbs up and doesn’t even have to be factored into your daily allowance of sugar. ‘I don’t want people to start looking at the amount of sugar in fruit and start cutting it out of their diet.’
Watch your glycemic load
‘It’s not just about sugar but it’s about having foods with a low glycemic load,’ this basically means foods that are going to keep your glycemic index low – which means your blood sugar levels won’t spike. ‘Fruits like berries and watermelon are a better choice than something like mango. But you don’t need to worry about fruit too much unless you’re having five mangoes a day. That would have a high glycemic load and would cause a sugar spike and put pressure on your pancreas.’
if you really want to have a juice, have orange juice with the bitsin… fibre will regulate sugar
‘If you have a smoothie instead of a fruit juice then you don’t throw away the fibre and you won’t have the same blood sugar spikes. And if you really want to have a juice, have orange juice with the bits in it because again, that’s fibre and fibre will regulate sugar. Have a banana with peanut butter, grapes with almonds or a date with some yoghurt – it’s about adding that protein to calm down the effects of sugar.’
Be bitter about it
According to Hay, bitter foods help the liver and gall bladder in metabolising fat. ‘When we have sugar, we should also in the same day have something bitter to help balance it out and help the liver and gall bladder function. That’s why super dark chocolate is a really good choice because it gives you a little bit of sugar but it also gives you that bitterness.’
Steer clear of artificial sweeteners
‘The problem with artificial sweeteners in our diet drinks is that while it comes with no calories, there is research out there that shows your body will go looking for calories anyway. If you give yourself something super sweet without the calories you may just make yourself hungry.’
Not just that but your body has a hard time recognising and breaking down artificial sweeteners. ‘There are also a lot of studies out there that suggest artificial sweeteners can have some harmful effects on the body,’ revealed Hay.
If you’re looking to cut down on sugar but you’re not ready to ditch sweet things all together, here are three sugar-swaps you can make right now.
Not only is this stuff super sweet but it’s medicinal too. This New Zealand honey is golden brown and deliciously thick. Stir it into your favourite tea, add it to smoothies or even just have a spoon by itself – this is the stuff that would make Winnie the Pooh run for his hunny.
Meridian Organic Maple Syrup is sustainably tapped from North American Maple trees. The sap is then concentrated into a syrup that retains the natural nutrient content and unique flavour. Try this instead of sugar in your tea but also in porridge, smoothies, on ice cream, pancakes or with greek yoghurt and fresh fruit. Meridian even suggest marinating pork with the syrup before roasting or drizzling over some scrambled eggs topped with salmon – YUM.
Agave nectar is a super trendy foodstuff right now. It has a low natural GI is light and is absolutely delicious. Use it in place of sugar and artificial sweeteners to help keep your blood sugar levels balanced.