Wednesday, 2 September 2015

What happened when I went cold turkey to give up sugar

It’s not as if I was eating Mars bars for breakfast. But two months ago, after keeping a food diary for a week, I was shocked at how much sugar I was consuming.

What happened when I went cold turkey to give up sugar

I already knew the perils of fizzy drinks and cereal bars but the amount in 

foods I had thought relatively harmless was an eye-opener.

Take the Pret A Manger porridge and honey I’d grab for breakfast – that’s 

33g. A large glass of white wine? That’s up to 8g, while a tin of shop-

bought soup is at least 10g. Something had to change.

The sugar debate has been raging since 1972, when British Professor 

John Yudkin went against the grain to suggest it was sugar, not fat, that 

was to blame for our inflated waistlines. He went as far as saying it was 

also bad for our health.

Contested by food manufacturers and sugar lobbies vested in feeding 

our addiction, Yudkin’s work has now been accepted as prophesy, 

predicting all too accurately the way over-consumption of sugar would 

create an obesity epidemic.

According to the Overseas Development Institute, 64 per cent of us 

Brits are now obese. What’s more, a record three million of us have 

diabetes, say Diabetes UK.

Sugar used to be a condiment,’ says Dr Robert Lustig, author of Fat 

Chance and the man responsible for the renewed focus on Yudkin’s work. 

‘Now, it’s a staple. Just as with alcohol, we have a limited capacity to 

metabolise it before it does damage.’

Our bodies can handle sugar in small doses, using insulin to break it down 

and use it as energy. But beyond a certain amount, it is converted into fat.

This has two important effects. Firstly, you get fat. And secondly, after the 

initial hit, your blood sugar level falls lower than it was to start with, 

meaning you need a bigger hit to satisfy you next time.

Over the past year, there’s been a mass of revelations about the way 

sugar consumption impacts on our health. It causes more obesity than 

saturated fat, it’s the root of that worldwide diabetes epidemic, it creates 

a hospitable environment for cancer, anxiety, poor concentration, and 

premature ageing.

No wonder England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has 

suggested the government should implement a sugar tax.

With this in mind, I began my quest. The first step was to throw out 

everything that would feed the addiction. Next, I owned up to the two 

main reasons I used sugar as a crutch: stress and laziness.

I started in earnest after a consultation with nutritionist Vicki Edgson. 

‘Sugar doesn’t just mean Jelly Babies,’ she says. ‘A regular yoghurt can 

contain as much as eight teaspoons of sugar.’

So I banished white carbs and booze (they both convert into sugar in 

your bloodstream), processed foods, fruit yoghurts and fizzy or flavoured 

drinks (which pack in excess sugar by the teaspoon-load).

I replaced them with protein and good fats – eggs, avocado, full-fat natural 

yoghurt, spinach, oily fish, nuts, small amounts of berries.

The carbs I did eat (lentils, quinoa, chickpeas, butternut squash) were for 

lunch and I filled Tupperware boxes with sugar-free snacks: boiled eggs, 

cooked prawns, celery and humous, nuts, smoked chicken or feta 

and beetroot.

The first few days were rough. I felt tired, relied more heavily on caffeine, 

which only increased the withdrawal headaches, and my skin flared up. 

Limiting my fruit intake was also tough. Fructose is a natural sugar but a 

sugar all the same.

‘Generally, the higher the water content, the less the sugar hit,’ 

says Edgson. ‘Eat fruits whole rather than juicing them, as juicing 

removes the fibre, which slows down absorption of sugar into the 

blood stream.’

But on day six something miraculous happened. My alarm went off at 

6.30am and, for the first time, I didn’t feel tired.

In studies on rats, sugar affected the dopamine and endorphin receptors, 

which are part of the reward system,’ says nutritionist Patrick Holford.

‘The more sugar they had, the more those receptors shut down. It’s a 

process called down regulation, which means you need more and more 

sugar to get the same effect.

‘When you give up sugar, it takes up to a week for your body to 

re-sensitise to your natural dopamine and for your blood sugar 

levels to even out. That’s when your energy starts to come back.’

My mission was labour intensive but, slowly, it worked. After 

two weeks, I’d lost half a stone.

Unfortunately, the jury is still out on how long it really takes to kick 

the habit. Lustig says three weeks. ‘Just like any other drug, after 

three weeks your palette will be re-sensitised,’ he says.

But at week three I hit a wall. Standing outside a Sainsbury’s 

store inhaling the smell of its bakery was a definite low point. So 

I found new ways to eat sweet.

‘Cinnamon tastes sweet and contains cinnulin, which could help 

to lower blood sugar,’ says Holford. I followed his advice and 

added it to my coffee, yoghurt and quinoa porridge. Vanilla, 

star anise and coconut oil also helped dupe my 

unsuspecting palette.

By week four, not indulging meant the ‘need’ stayed in my head. 

And at the end of six weeks I’d released myself from the 

substance I’d unwittingly been addicted to since I first clutched 

a chocolate bar aged four.

I can’t say I’ve stayed entirely on the wagon but cutting it out 

even briefly is a good way to make you re-evaluate how, when 

and why you let it into your life, if at all.


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