Want to give up sugar? Healthista writer and self-confessed sugar addict Parisa Hashempour is taking on a strict 31 day sugar-free diet and reporting every Thursday on what happens. Here’s how she got on with week one
My 4pm ritual is the same most days. I stand up from my chair, wander over to the office kitchen and put on the kettle. Then every day, without a doubt, I will spot the freshly stocked biscuit tin. I circle it once or twice like a lion sizing up its prey, take a peek, shake my head and then put back the lid. I sideways glance at the tin, take another peek and by the time the kettle has clicked, I’ve gone in for the kill.
My name is Parisa and I’m a biscuit junkie. I can never say no to a piece of cake and there is nothing in this world that makes me happier than a creme egg. But as the evidence weighs up against the sugar industry and I notice the impact that binging on sugar is having on my daily life, I’ve decided it’s time to take action – I need to kick my sweet tooth to the kerb before I wreak lasting havoc on my body. For that reason, I’m undertaking 31 days without sugar.
And it really won’t be that easy. According to research by Epic Health, 1 in 3 people have described sugar as the hardest thing to give up, beating cigarettes and alcohol to the top spot. On top of that, it was found that over three-quarters of Britons want to give the sweet stuff up but lack the motivation or find it too addictive (tell me about it!)
The sugar-free craze is everywhere. From Davina McCall to Sarah Wilson, it seems that every nutritionist, celeb and her granddad have something to say on the topic. But cutting out sugar can apparently help aid weight loss, liver function, clear up your skin and give you an energy boost (yes, please). So the celebs are all at it but why have I decided to go sugar-free?
Why am I going sugar-free?
I physically find it impossible to say no to sugary foods and once I start eating them I won’t stop. My brain seems to switch off at 4pm in the afternoon and I end up eating until I’m feeling totally stuffed and guilty. If it’s not biscuits I’ll raid the cupboard for chocolate or look for a fruity health bar.
My brain seems to switch off at 4pm in the afternoon and I end up eating until I’m feeling totally stuffed and guilty.
After bingeing on sugar mid-afternoon, I start to feel sluggish by the end of the working day. It turns into a vicious spiral. Motivating myself to do things becomes so much more difficult and then I look to the next sugary snack for a pick-me-up which only ends up putting-me-down. I’m a very emotional eater so whenever I’ve had a tough or stressful day I reach for something, anything with sugar in. Usually a Jaffa cake or five.
Needless to say, I never feel full for very long. Every day I tell myself that it will be the last day of sugar but by mid-afternoon my body is crying out to me that it needs something sweet. I want to see if I function differently without sugar in my diet. I want to feel energised without a sugar or caffeine kick and I’d love to lose a little bit of stubborn weight around my middle while I’m at it. I want to feel energised and full of beans (sugar-free beans of course).
by mid afternoon my body is crying out to me that it needs something sweet
I’d like to prove to myself that I’m not dependent on sugar, especially during times of stress (plus my partner has promised to make me an incredibly huge and delicious chocolate cake at the end of the month – told you I was an addict, I’ll do anything to get my fix).
Sugary foods rack up our calorie count without providing us with any nutritional benefit. We know that sugar is responsible for a lot of our visceral fat (aka the tyre around our middles) and because it stops us feeling full it causes us to binge eat, put on weight and leaves us feeling sluggish. But did you also know that it is believed to be as addictive as drugs like cocaine? In fact, 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.
How to go sugar-free
So that all sounds great but how to go about it? I spoke to Sarah Flower, nutritionist and author (and my sugar-free coach for the course of this month) about exactly why I should be going sugar-free and what I can expect. Flower explained that many people that overeat sugar never feel satisfied because their bodies aren’t getting the right nutrients. I know that this certainly feels true for me. I often feel unsatisfied and I’m always peeking into the window of newsagents on the way home, weighing up whether or not I should jump in for a snack.
If you went into a supermarket and took away everything that has added sugar in you’d be left with about ten percent of the food
‘We live in a society where obese people are malnourished and eight-year-olds are showing signs of fatty liver disease,’ explained Flower, ‘what you’re eating stimulates hormones which make you crave more, it’s a perpetual cycle.’
After this chat, I was 100 percent on board. When I really thought through the fact that the sugar I’m consuming is just storing as fat in my body (and probably wrapping itself around my liver) I was horrified and although I know sugar is bad, it took Flower spelling it out to me to really make it sink in.
if you go sugar-free and you’re still having honey and maple syrup and still having lots of carbohydrates you will really struggle
But what does cutting out sugar really mean? I knew I wouldn’t be allowed my beloved Creme Eggs anymore but it’s hiding on our supermarket shelves in items from spices to gravy or bread. As Flower explained ‘If you went into a supermarket and took away everything that has added sugar in you’d be left with about ten percent of the food and that’s it.’
So what exactly was I allowed to eat?
There are a few different ways to approach a Sugar-free diet. Some people choose to cut out simply added or refined sugars and others go the whole hog and say no to all things sugar-related from honey to carbohydrates (eek!). I quizzed Flower on a little advice on finding my approach.
Q. What counts as sugar on a no-sugar diet?
If you want to go sugar-free then just cut out the crap – cut out all processed food because if it’s processed it will have added sugar in so you basically go back to eating real food and cooking everything from scratch. The problem is if you go sugar-free and you’re still having honey and maple syrup and still having lots of carbohydrates you will really struggle. The key to doing it and sustaining it is to limit your carbs right down.
Q. I can’t eat any bread or pasta then?
Not on this diet – when you reduce your carbohydrates right down you don’t have as many spikes in your blood sugar so you don’t have issues with cravings or hunger. You obviously can’t cut out all carbs because they’re in everything but carbs are not essential to your body at all. Your body actually produces its own glucose out of protein. There is no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates so you can bring it right down and not have any negative health effects. That means you should make sure you’re eating no refined carbs or anything that has come out of a factory. Stick to complex carbs like brown rice and pasta, oats and sweet potato.
Q. So no honey, no maple syrup. Is fruit okay on this diet?
You have no dried fruit at all – none. It’s a sideways step. Your body doesn’t differentiate if it’s white sugar, brown sugar, sugar from fruit or any source it just sees it as sugar. If you want to eliminate sugar you have to do it properly because otherwise all you’re doing is a sideways step and you’re actually going to perpetuate your cravings and you’re going to make it far, far more difficult to sustain.
Whole fruit is okay but if you’re going sugar-free you really don’t want to be eating a lot of fruit. Basically the only fruit that you’d want to be having over that time is berries. You need to view fruit as nature’s candy and just have it occasionally.
Q. But what about bananas? I have them every day in my morning smoothie!
Banana is just pure fructose so it’s basically pure sugar and smoothies again are really not good, particularly if they’re from a fruit base. Fructose shuts down the leptin response in the body. Leptin is a hormone that sends a signal to your brain to tell you to stop eating when you feel full. Fructose blocks this response which means you never feel full. So if you think you have a glass of orange juice, in that orange juice you might have five or six oranges. Could you eat, within a few seconds, five or six oranges? You naturally stop.
Q. So what can I do when I really fancy a sweet treat?
So you might have some blueberries or raspberries with some full-fat natural yoghurt or something like that for breakfast or as your treat. You can have things like chocolate but obviously, the chocolate needs to be as near to 100 percent as you can get.
enjoy butter, full-fat yoghurts, cream and cheese
It’s all about fat
So at this point, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t be eating carbs on this diet so that really threw me off balance. I was also intimidated about whether I actually had the willpower to make it – the fact that sugar is hiding in so many of the foods that I already eat made me realise that I really had to be prepared and organised to make this happen. I was also afraid that I’ll cave at social occasions – what about when my friends are drinking cocktails? What am I supposed to eat at the cinema? What would I eat at all?
We know that fat doesn’t make us fat otherwise we’d all be really skinny by now
But then Flower provided me with a nugget of hope – I’m allowed to embrace fat on this diet (hallelujah!). She explained that the reason we’re now demonising sugar and carbs is because we’ve come to realise that fat isn’t as bad as we once thought it was, ‘you can see that when you look at the rate of obesity and diabetes and cancer since the low-fat revolution began. We know that fat doesn’t make us fat otherwise we’d all be really skinny by now and in fact, the exact opposite has happened.’
She advised me to enjoy butter, full-fat yoghurts, cream and cheese. ‘Eat what nature has supplied and when you do that it will fill you up.’ Because according to the nutritionist, fat is fuel. ‘Don’t be frightened of fat. The more fat you eat, the more fat you burn. You burn more body fat and energy so you stop running on glucose, you start running on fat storage.’
Well, any excuse to gorge on cheese.
So what happened in week one?
I started my challenge on the Monday of the bank holiday weekend. I was staying with my parents for the weekend and I’d drummed up support from my mum and sister who both decided they’d get involved. On Monday morning, we woke up and headed straight to Lidl where we stocked up on dairy, meat and veggies. Then we headed home an whipped up a Persian-style green lentil and onion soup for lunch.
I was feeling optimistic and spent the rest of the day planning my meals for the week but disaster struck on the train home to London. I didn’t take any snacks with me for the journey and I always get motion sick on trains. Usually, the only way I can overcome my nausea is to use food to distract myself and settle my tummy. Heading down to the shop carriage, I surveyed the snacks on offer and felt deflated. Everything had sugar in. Even the roasted nuts were packed with sugar.
Sidling up to people drinking cocktails while holding a jasmine tea doesn’t seem to make people warm to you
At this point, I realised it wasn’t going to be such an easy ride. The first week has been a little bit tough. I can’t help but stare at tourists in the street that are tucking into ice creams. My eyes pop out my head and my mouth instantly starts to water. Everywhere I look there are people eating sweets, chocolate, crisps and all of the foods I love – this isn’t something that I would usually notice but this past week it feels as though they’re everywhere.
That being said. I’m feeling proud (if a little bit sorry for myself) because this week I’ve turned down pick ‘n’ mix, Aperol spritz, champagne, pastries and even GREEN SMOOTHIES (because of their sneaky fructose content). One of the hardest parts has been socialising without sugar – especially with strangers. Sidling up to people drinking cocktails at events while holding a jasmine tea doesn’t seem to make people warm to you and refusing a green smoothie while others feel they’re choosing the healthy option can leave you feeling a little self-conscious.
When it comes to sugar we like to feel that we’re all in it together and we laugh about not being able to resist that second piece of chocolate. In fact, we encourage others to tuck into the sweets that we’re eating so that we don’t have to feel bad. Sugar is such an accepted part of socialising that acting like a sugar snob is alienating in many ways and at this point, I feel that it would be hard to keep up forever, if only for this reason.
acting like a sugar snob is alienating in many ways
Constantly saying no to sugar over the course of the past week has made me realise just how many times I must unconsciously say yes to it under normal circumstances. I’ll admit that at an event last week I helped myself to a bag of sweets and hid it in the back of my food cupboard to open at the end of the month – I just couldn’t bear to feel as though I’d missed out. There have been times this week when I’ve felt stressed and biscuits haven’t been there to comfort me. I do miss the happy bursts of feeling that comes from tucking into sugar, but I hope that this subsides as the weeks go on.
Some people can develop feelings of dizziness, headaches and nausea and while I don’t want to speak too soon, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid those so far. But that doesn’t mean I’ve escaped all withdrawal symptoms – surprisingly rather than giving me an energy burst, going free from sugar has made me feel incredibly low, at the end of the day I feel exhausted as though the day has been too much and I’ve been prone to a few crying bouts. Apparently, feelings of depression can be associated with sugar withdrawal which only gives me more motivation to rid my body of the stuff (but more on that next week).
Here I am at The Grove Hotel for a lovely spa escape tucking into a delicious (mostly) sugar-free, fat-packed bento box (sadly I did have to ditch the chilli prawns as they sneakily contained sugar).
I found that on days 2 and 3 I hardly got hungry
Breakfast has been the biggest change for me – I’ve traded in my morning banana smoothie for scrambled eggs, feta and spinach or yoghurt and berries. While I miss dried fruit, I’m more than happy snacking on nuts when I hit that mid-afternoon energy dip and fish and veg or salads have made substantial evening meals. Food prepping on Sunday this week has made me feel confident that I’ll be able to keep things up throughout the course of this week.
I still find myself lusting after sweet foods but I don’t have the same cravings that I did earlier on
Interestingly I found that on days two and three I hardly felt hungry. On these days I snacked on nuts and cheese and this left me with much less of an appetite than usual by the end of the day – I practically had to force myself to eat dinner when I got home in the evening (something that NEVER happens). By day seven I still find myself lusting after sweet foods – I can’t seem to stop thinking about Battenburg cake after spotting them on offer recently. But I don’t have the same cravings that I did earlier on. Most significantly I’m feeling proud of myself for saying no to mindlessly eating food that is damaging my health.
Sugar-free snack time
Here are some of the sugar-free snacks that have helped get me through the week.
I will admit I couldn’t eat much of this at a time – but that’s definitely a plus. Every time I think I want chocolate I just have a little nibble and don’t need anymore. This is one dramatic cocoa hit from a sugar free, dairy free, soya free, totally natural chocolate bar. It’s very bitter and dry-tasting but it does the trick.
As a huge cinnamon fan, I have quickly become obsessed with this Three Cinnamon tea from Pukka. It’s made from the sweet-heat of the world’s finest three cinnamons from Indonesia, Vietnam and India and they have acted as an amazing way to drive off those sugar cravings. The tea is naturally caffeine-free and ethically sourced and is made using 100 percent organically grown ingredients. According to Pukka the tea can be used to stimulate sluggish digestions and clear mucus in the chest. The Indonesian cinnamon in this blend contains compounds that are also found in strawberries and lavender to give the blend a fruity, floral twist.
Walnuts are super popular here in the UK according to California Walnuts in 2015, us Britons crunched our way through a whopping 8,200 tonnes of walnuts and is it any wonder when they taste so good? Thanks to the unique conditions they’re grown in California Walnuts have a mild, sweet and naturally creamy taste. It’s all down to a combination of soil quality, consistent seasonal weather conditions, hot summer temperatures and a plentiful supply of clean, fresh meltwater straight from the Sierra Mountains. They are the perfect mid-afternoon munch.
CO YO yoghurts are hands down, delicious. They were such a big hit with the team at Healthista HQ, the first batch that arrived in the office disappeared before I even got to taste them. CO YO combines coconut milk with natural vegan cultures to create a yoghurt that is filling, smooth and creamy.
The texture is luxuriously thick and I’d take it over your run of the mill yoghurt any day. CO YO is made from whole ingredients and is free from dairy, lactose, gluten and soya. It has the highest coconut content of any coconut yoghurt available, with 99% of each pot made from nothing but pure coconut. It is the only brand that contains absolutely no preservatives, additives, refined sugar or added water.
Sarah Flower, thoroughly enjoys her job. She writes books and articles, work with PR’s & businesses for brand & recipe development and nutritional consultancy. Flowers also teaches healthy eating and cookery in schools, run healthy eating workshops for businesses and help people back on the road to good health.
Flowers passion for cookery and nutrition started in her childhood. With hours spent in the kitchen with her mother, She not only taught her to cook but also how to prepare healthy meals on a budget.
Sarah Flowers, designs everyday family recipes as well as recipes to suit different diets – such as gluten free, sugar free, low calorie, vegan or low carbohydrate.
She is often asked to create recipes to suit new kitchenware gadgets/utensils too.
Sarah Flowers Sugar-Free Family Cookbook will be out early Spring 2017.
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