I’m the first to admit I have a sweet-tooth and my number one love is chocolate. I love chocolate! Like really, really, really L-O-V-E chocolate! And it wasn’t something I would ever imagine giving up. Unfortunately, my sugar addiction didn’t just stop at chocolate. Diet coke, fruit juices and biscuits were also very good friends of mine.
I’m a personal trainer as well as a yoga instructor so admitting that I’m a sugar addict isn’t exactly living up to the healthy image everyone holds me up to. I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back now, I can see how much sugar had a hold on my life.
My job keeps me active so I can eat what I like (within reason!) as I burn it off through exercise. Or at least that’s what I would tell myself every time I would have a sneaky biscuit or sweet treat. I eat healthy most of the time and make good food choices but I also know that from a young age I was an emotional eater and my go-to food of choice was chocolate. Over the years I’ve changed my habits, educated myself on the benefits of regular exercise and healthy eating but sugar is something that’s always been hard to resist.
I would often justify my ‘bad’ food choices as not being really that bad. I mean, I would drink Diet Coke, which has zero calories unlike regular Coke, fruit juice is healthy because it comes from fruit, a little honey in my porridge is a must otherwise it doesn’t taste good and a biscuit here and there never hurt anyone right? And let’s not forget that everyone needs chocolate in their life. Fact.
That’s what I would tell myself and I wasn’t about to change anything.
It wasn’t until I watched Jamie Oliver’s Sugar Rush on Channel 4 last year that I began to question my habits and realised that I needed to make a change. Not only did it show the effects sugar is having on people across the world but it also highlighted how many hidden sugars there are in every day food products.
Years ago, we were told by the media that ‘fats’ where the enemy and should be avoided at all costs. Now sugar is the new threat and its effecting the population in a BIG way. Not only are obesity levels rising in the UK (and globally) but type 2 diabetes is on the rise and the NHS cannot cope with the staggering numbers.
Research is constantly being published about the negative effects of consuming too much sugar in our diets and a recent study on the effects of sugar on rats revealed that sugar is 9 times more addictive than cocaine!!!
With so much information readily available on the internet and mixed messaging on “good” and “bad” foods by the media it’s easy to feel confused about what we should be feeding our bodies. However, I think one thing we can all agree on is that too much sugar isn’t good for our health.
The Department of Health for the UK set up Change 4 Life, a public health programme, in 2009 to help tackle the causes of obesity. It aims to help families make small, sustainable changes to improve their health. They recommend that the maximum daily amount of sugar for adults should be no more than 30g of free sugars a day, which is equivalent to 7 sugar cubes. Children should consume no more than 24 grams of free sugars, which is equivalent to 6 sugar cubes.
So how do we go about reducing sugar in our diet?
Here are 5 tips from my own experience of going sugar free:
When I finally made the decision to start cutting down my sugar intake I made the choice to take baby steps rather than going cold turkey. I started by cutting down on my Diet Coke fix. It wasn’t unusual for me to drink two cans a day so I starting by reducing my intake to one a day. I also began watering down my orange juice.
After about a month I then cut out all juice and reduced my Diet coke intake to once or twice a week. Now I’ll only have the odd Diet Coke, maybe once a month, when I’m out with friends. I also swapped milk chocolate (my favourite!) for 70-80% dark chocolate whenever I need a sweet fix. The good thing about dark chocolate is that it’s much richer than milk so you don’t need to eat much to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Whatever your vice, maybe its sugar in your tea, fizzy drinks, cakes or biscuits, pick one thing and start there. Have half a teaspoon of sugar instead of a teaspoon in your tea, or just have one biscuits instead of two or three or four.
Be prepared for the withdrawal
Once you start cutting out sugar you will get withdrawal symptoms, which is why I recommend doing it slowly. If you go cold turkey then you might find you get headaches, mood swings, shakes or feel fatigued and lethargic. Remember, sugar is addictive so give your body time to adapt to the change.
For me, the first month was the hardest. Even though I starting cutting out sugar gradually, it’s amazing how your body reacts to the withdrawal. I know it’s hard but if you hang in and make it through the first month then something amazing happens! You find that you begin to stop craving sugar and your taste buds change. I remember after cutting out fruit juice I went on holiday and had a small glass of orange juice. It tasted soooo sweet. I could actually taste the sugar in the juice and I realised that my body didn’t want to have this anymore.
During those early days when you feel like caving and raiding the biscuit tin, remind yourself why you’re doing this. Making healthy choices can be hard at the start but it’s so worthwhile and will really change your life for the better.
Check the label
I truly believe that education is the key to success. If you want to make life-long changes to your eating habits, then knowing exactly what you’re putting into your body is crucial. It is shocking the amount of hidden sugars there are in food products! From your ketchup bottle, to baked beans, pasta sauces, bread, yogurts and even so called “healthy” cereal bars.
Don’t be fooled by labels that brand products as “healthy” or “reduced fat”. When fat is taken out of a food it is usually replaced by sugar or sweetener to give that food its original “full-fat” taste. When it comes to reduced fat products, go for the real thing and just be mindful of portion control.
As for sugar, there are 50% less sugar products like ketchup and baked beans which are simple and easy food swaps that mean you don’t have to give up eating some of your favourite things. Another easy food swap is buying plain yogurt rather than flavoured yogurt and then adding fresh fruit to it instead. You’ll still get the natural sweetness from the fruit but you’ll also be getting the fibre and vitamins from the fruit as well.
When reading food labels, anything that has 20 grams of sugar or more per 100 grams is classed as high in sugar. Ideally, you should be looking for food products that contain 5 grams of sugar or less per 100 grams.
Get creative in the kitchen
Once I realised how many hidden sugars there are in every day food products I decided to take things into my own hands and get creative in the kitchen. I’m not a great cook nor do I particularly enjoy cooking but I got fed up of not knowing exactly what I was putting into my body, so the only way I could get around that was to actually cook for myself. Not only did it make me accountable for what I was eating (as I could see exactly what I was cooking for myself) but I also gained some new skills in the kitchen too!
Now I know time is a big issue for most people. If it’s one thing I hear my PT clients say over and over again, is that they don’t have time to cook. Well, I’m here to tell you that where there’s a will, there’s a way! You just have to get organised.
I set aside one day in the week (usually a Sunday) to do most of my food prep for the following week. It means I cook in bulk so that I have enough for the week or I can freeze half which I can use at a later date. There’s no reason why you can’t whip up a quick tomato based pasta sauce which can keep in the fridge or you can freeze. As I mentioned before, pasta sauces contain a lot of hidden sugars!
I’ve also found lots of great recipes online for sugar-free muffins and energy balls which contain natural whole foods rather than adding refined sugar. If you do some research you can find something to suit your needs.
Don’t beat yourself up if you relapse
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I’m not perfect and I’ve fallen of the wagon on more than one occasion. The last big fall was over Christmas where I literally ate and drank what I wanted, when I wanted. While it was good to indulge in some of my favourite sweet treats I did feel that after I gave myself permission to “go crazy and let loose”, I soon wanted to get back on the wagon and stay on track.
We all have our weak moments and its ok to stumble along the way. As long as you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going that’s what matters the most.
My journey towards living a sugar free life hasn’t been easy. To be honest I don’t think I’ll ever be completely sugar free and that’s ok. I love food and wouldn’t give up on the enjoyment of savouring lots of different flavours. However, I now have the understanding and knowledge to know what works for me and my body. I know what it feels like to have that sugar “high”, which feels amazing at the time, but I also know what it’s like to “crash” soon after too. I’d much rather avoid the highs and lows of a diet high in sugar and instead eat natural whole foods that nourish my body without the ups and downs.
I’d like to point out here that I’m not a nutritionist or dietician, this is just my experience of going sugar free. Everyone is different so you have to do what’s right for you and your body.
My hope is that by sharing my experience it might inspire you to think about reducing your sugar intake and living a healthier and happier life.