Breakfast, lunch or dinner: the joys of savoury porridge

How I did it, less elegantly but very deliciously.

How I did it, less elegantly but very deliciously.

I got it into my head this morning that I had to make savoury porridge. I’ve been trying to find interesting ways to get veggies into my breakfast for a while but I wasn’t in the mood for an omelette or frittata (the omelette’s slightly more sophisticated cousin).

I was also in the mood for porridge, and a couple of weeks ago I was in 26 Grains at lunchtime inhaling a gorgeous Indonesian chicken brown rice porridge, so the idea of making it savoury had obviously been in my mind for a while.

How 26 Grains did it all professional and proper like.

How 26 Grains did it all professional and proper like.

I had neither the time nor patience to make brown rice happen, but there’s genuinely no reason not to cook porridge oats in a savoury dish; after all, it’s generally the sweetness of the milk (and our habit of adding fruity toppings) that makes them taste more puddingy. While most of the traditional savoury porridge type dishes that you might think of from elsewhere in the world (such as congee) are rice based, there is simply nothing stopping you experimenting.  Inspiration and ancestry need not go hand in hand. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So after poking around the fridge and cupboards and supplementing with whatever looked interesting as we took an early morning turn around the supermarket, this is what I made. It’s a bit fast-paced but it’s super easy, all done in under half an hour and MFP tells me it only has 4g of sugar – perfect if, like me, you prefer a low-fructose diet.

Ingredients

(Makes one serving)

40g porridge oats
300ml water*
Vegetable bouillion powder*
85g mushrooms, sliced
A generous handful of spinach, whole or loosely torn
2 spring onions, chopped
A few leaves of basil, rolled up and thinly sliced
An egg**
Coconut oil for frying

Method

Prep all the vegetables first, and boil a full kettle – you’ll need it both to make up the stock and to poach your egg. Make up your stock, and get water into a pan to simmer for your egg.

Start off your porridge on the hob, using the stock. This recipe uses too much water on purpose as I wanted a really soft, swollen-flaked porridge – quite different to the thick, almost chunky “sweet” porridges I prefer. Adjust this to your own preference, but if you use my amount you’ll need a longer than usual cooking time to give the oats time to absorb the liquid. You’ll need to stir this quite frequently to stop it burning, so keep the heat medium-low. This is not a restful recipe, but you’ll make up for that when you eat it.

Put the coconut oil in a pan and start it melting. As it does so, check the poaching water – when it’s right, tip in the egg (this is the method I use). While the egg is cooking, put the mushrooms in the pan to sautee in the coconut oil. I also added all but the green fronds of the spring onion as I find it too strong  to have too much of it raw, but it’s up to you.

When the egg looks done – I like it with a runny, gluey middle – fish it out gently on a slotted spoon and set it to one side to drain. Duck egg whites are a bit more rubbery and translucent, so don’t worry if you haven’t used these before. Also, it will cool a little but this will not matter at all.

Go back to stirring the porridge until it’s the consistency you want. At the same time, the mushrooms will be almost ready – chuck in the spinach towards the end to just wilt, plus half the basil to warm it through. Season.

Pour the porridge into a bowl, spooning the vegetable mix on top. Gently tip the egg onto the top of that, and then sprinkle with the spring onion ends and remaining basil. Season again to taste, and dig straight in.

Runny yolks. Not beautiful to look at but SO GOOD.

Runny yolks. Not beautiful to look at but SO GOOD.

I meant to add a squirt of ketjap manis over the top for a hint of sweetness (and just to complete the ludicrous clash of multiple cultures already going on); I forgot, and it was still the most delicious thing I’ve made for some time. Also, it could probably have done with another texture – some nuts or pine nuts, or even steel-cut oats – but I have to admit for a fondness for comforting, baby food simplicity sometimes.

This is very much a ‘substitute what you like’ type recipe – in fact, it’s not even a recipe; it’s basically an elaborate serving suggestion.

I can feel a new obsession brewing already, as I try to work out what the next wonderful combination I can squeeze onto a plate is. And of course this is far from just breakfast. I’m a big fan of all foods at all times (pizza for breakfast; Shredded Wheat for dinner), but I particularly like the little glow of smugness you get from starting off the day with a couple of handfuls of veggies. Especially on the days when you know you’re likely to finish it on a dinner of a multipack of questionably flavoured crisps.

Oh dear. This is going to be a whole Pinterest board, isn’t it?

*I would usually just use my own stock here but I wanted a lighter vegetable stock and also it was frozen and I was feeling lazy
**I used a duck egg for richer flavour as I was feeling fancy, but as with all the above this is completely optional

Tasty Tuesdays on HonestMum.com

Free From Farmhouse

A Year of Living Sugar-Free

A year ago, almost to the day, I began an experiment: quitting sugar.

A friend of mine, Erin, was raving about it, and – skeptical though I was – I knew I couldn’t continue living with the bizarre relationship I had with food. I’m a restrictive eater / binger of old, and every time I thought I’d cracked the formula for eating really well (I’m a great fan of the principles of the HAES movement) I would, sooner rather than later, come to realise that my internal cues about satiety and my visual ideas of portion control were so heartily messed up I didn’t even know where to begin. I’d made a fair amount of progress in getting rid of some of the worst habits, but I still wasn’t in the place I wanted to be. I needed a line in the sand, a way to move along that line towards freedom from the ridiculous deprivation and overindulgence cycles that – at least from what I’ve observed – seem to plague a lot of women in our privileged society.

Where we have ready access to food, we don’t seem to know how to use it without abusing it; plus I work in London, and am lucky to be able to eat out a lot. More to the point, I bloody love food (I’m not sure I can separate it from love) and cooking, feeding people and being fed. Like, I give people who talk about being ‘so full’ after half their ‘delicious’ breakfast some serious side-eye, because I have been a member of the clean plate club since birth. I wanted to enjoy that relationship more without feeling so damn guilty and compulsive about it.

So I thought “what the hell? I can’t make things any worse”. The programme my friend was on was Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar, so I read the books, found most of it made sense (even if some of it was a bit scientifically woolly and made huge assumptions about budget and accessibility) and started out on week one of the plan. The ‘sugar’ in question with IQS is actually fructose, specifically, and I had a lot of questions about this as I’d always been told fruit – most commonly associated with fructose although table sugar is 50% fructose – was ‘good’ sugar, yet always found bananas (supposed to fill you up for hours) left me ravenous, apples gave me acid stomach and my beloved citrus fruit made me nibbly as hell.  I dipped into David Gillespie and Robert Lustig and gradually came to believe that ditching the fructose was indeed a good health move. Even after I reintroduced some fruits I kept it fairly low fructose and felt better for that (because contrary to misconceptions you do still eat fruit; I tend towards berries and apricots these days, with the occasional kiwi, apple or pear thrown in).

After the eight weeks were up I found I didn’t really want to stop. And a year later I know I don’t want to, even if it’s not always easy for me. I really believe I’ve made a substantial amount of the progress I’ve been looking for and mostly it’s come as a huge relief. While I won’t pretend that everything is now 100% perfect and I never have weird cravings or madly snacky days, they are considerably fewer and my approach to eating is considerably more free.

The fact is, I live and work in a world full of temptations and quitting sugar has made me feel so much better. Of course, I am not immune to making a less sensible choice in this ongoing experiment. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. You live and learn. Plus I still have some chronically unhealthy habits (is there an I Quit Crisps programme? Because I really need help. I Quit Sitting Down A Lot would be great too). But on the whole quitting sugar is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I have no intention of ever permanently going back on the white stuff.

So, here are some of the things I have experienced in a year of living sugarless (yes, I heard that in my head as ‘Mississippilessly?!’). As with any personal account – just put a bullet in my sugar head if I start calling it a ‘journey’, yes? – your mileage is bound to vary, but I wanted to give a bit of a warts and all, ups and downs perspective with as much balance as I can bring to the discussion. Zealotry and glowing before-and-after testimonials are unconvincing to me; they seem like a wagon you fall off, an infatuation you grow out of. This is going sugar free after the honeymoon, when the toothpaste caps come off and the toilet seat stays up.

Lets start at the lowest point. If you’ve never gone sugar free you’re probably wondering about what happens when you decide that a slice or three of birthday cake never hurt anyone. Well, a little reframing goes a long way. If I thought of every time I had sugar as ‘backsliding’, ‘coming off the wagon’ or ‘being naughty’, I would be no better off than I was before quitting. I’d just be miserably restricted and the vast, vast majority of the time I don’t think about being sugar free at all until someone else points it out. Unless it’s something like an afternoon tea where almost everything is doused in sugar and I want to avoid feeling the effects too much, I don’t make consciously sugar free choices. I just eat stuff that I like and it usually doesn’t contain much sugar because now sugary stuff is not very appealing most of the time.

Once in a while I do  splash out and if I think negative thoughts my lovely Erin points out that it’s an experiment. No one is coercing me to do this; on the contrary, a lot of marketing, my friend’s eating habits and the reaction of anyone I talk to about this would suggest the pressure is all going the other way. I continued living sugar free after my initial curious commitment because I felt a lot better. My skin improved. My health measures improved. I felt comfortable with the changes to my body. From now on, I choose whether or not to continue, whether or not to make a different choice, how I want to listen to my body’s and mind’s desires. I’m probably never not going to want ice cream, and I’m comfortable with that; if it’s really good ice cream, or, you know, it’s not but I really feel like it, then I’ll have ice cream. Usually, actually, eating sugary stuff really validates me not wanting to eat it more often since I invariably get headaches, sickness or dizziness (I’m sure some might say psychosomatic, but I’ve sometimes found out after the fact and still felt terrible, so…).

That said, I think it can be helpful to re-quit if something has happened to make it all feel a bit like hard work. Eating out a lot, a special occasion, working long hours, stress, illness (or, in my case, a back op – worry not, I’m totally fixed now), going on holiday or some other general disruption to the eating routine knocks me out for anything from a day or two to several weeks and I find myself making food choices that leave me sluggish, snacking, grumpy and constantly hungry (many of the issues I managed to move away from by doing the programme in the first place). Twice in the past year I had a bit of a ‘reboot’ – a few weeks more strictly, consciously sugar free – to lift myself out of it and feel better.

You’d be forgiven for asking yourself if the programme really works if it’s not a permanent ‘fix’, but – contrary to some of the marketing – the original book was really much more what you’d call guidelines. Also, we live in the real world, and not a lab. As soon as it’s embraced as a specific diet programme, quitting sugar fails in doing the very thing I did it for – being free to make food choices based on what I will enjoy eating, without a cloud of sugar cravings and energy slumps hanging over me. But I can only do it if it’s fun, and positive. If it moved from “I don’t fancy that because it makes me feel a bit crappy / I like that savoury thing better” to “I can’t have that because it’s demonically possessed evilsugar and I promised myself / my friend / Sarah Wilson / the world / God that I wouldn’t”, I’d just give it up as a bad job. That way madness lies.

I have just one diety habit, and it’s one not actually ever mentioned or recommended on the programme. I still habitually track my food intake out of curiosity, but I do not consciously adapt what I eat to suit it. I don’t work to goals in my tracking app, just observe what I’m having. That’s sometimes how I realise there has been a correlation in more disordered eating and feeling rougher. But it’s something I think can easily make quitting sugar turn into a weird competition with yourself, so it’s not actually something I recommend – I just wanted to be totally honest. It’s something that’s become a bit of a habit, and I rather like having data about myself to look back on. Marketer’s occupational hazard, I guess…

I realise all of the above sounds negative, which is weird for a decision that has made me very happy. So here are some of the things being sugar free has done for me.

I cook more, and better. And I’m more creative and less wasteful. Recipes that use up bendy veg, a freezer full of homemade stock after every roast dinner; it’s bloody great. I need to step up my game because I’m still spending way to much on lunch instead of generating more leftovers, but I’m generally moving in a fresh, lovely food direction that is making me fuller and happier without me having to spend any more money (boxed sugary stuff is expensive, man).

I’ve also been introduced to new ingredients that I probably wouldn’t have used. While I’m not a coconut fanatic, and regularly reduce the amount used in recipes, I really enjoy using coconut oil in stir fries and granola (and, erm, on my daughter’s dry skin patches on her face, though not from the same jar). In my everyday eating post I mentioned adding chia seeds to Ready Brek (not very JERF of me, is it?!), and I find them kind of fascinating because they do make quick breakfasts more filling and add a bit of texture.  I was already a nut butter fan, but in seeking out sugar and added oil-free versions I’ve become obsessed with crunchy Biona peanut butter (no, I’m not paid to say any of this, yes, I know it’s a legume and not a nut).  I’m not a full-on convert to almond milk, but I do love it for chai and in oatmeal.

Weirdly, I now appreciate sweet stuff a lot more, as I really enjoy the tingly tartness of a fresh, ruby raspberry rather than the increasingly sickening taste of, say, cupcake frosting. I never did do much in the way of artificial sweeteners (aspartame doesn’t agree with me and I’m a full fat or go home kinda gal), so I use glucose in the form of rice malt syrup on the few occasions I cannot fathom not adding sweetness (eg to pancakes). I had a splash of maple on holiday and it actually tasted weird to me now as I’ve grown used to my syrup not having a strong taste. Lovely, because maple syrup is lovely, and I definitely enjoyed it, but it’s funny how tastes change.

It’s funny how I’ve changed.

When I look ahead, I find it impossible to imagine a time when I might want to eat large amounts of sugar again. I don’t know that I’d have felt entirely confident saying that at the end of the programme, or even six months ago, because I know that people fall in and out of these patterns in their lives. But right now, a year on, it seems really, really unlikely. And I’m happy with that.

Here’s to another year, and all it has to show for itself.

IQS: What I actually eat – and how to have a sugar-free birthday

Genuinely, I never expected to write this much about sugar – or lack of it. But it seems to now be a Thing That People Know About Me that I don’t, for the most part, eat sugar; although it’ll be a year in June, there’s an on-going sense of curiosity from others and (I guess related to increasing news coverage) questions about how it all works, and why. Across my office, at least three other colleagues have started the process of ditching the stuff – though I’m pretty sure Sherri had more to do with that than I did.

In fact, Sherri and I were having a conversation about this the other day, and the question we agreed we both hear which prompted this post – and that I didn’t mention in my last – is “but what do you eat instead?”. ‘Instead’ is a curious addition, isn’t it? I think it’s probably the first thing I thought when I first started considering quitting sugar, and it’s so telling. Telling that we are so used to eating so much of it, that it’s not a case of getting rid of something unnecessary but of replacing something essential.

I think there are two elements to the ‘instead’, too. It’s ‘instead of cake etc’, yes, definitely. Fully half of each sugar-free cookbook I’ve ever so much as glanced through is packed with alternatives to classic desserts and sweet snacks. I think the people writing them mostly know you’d be better off not replacing them at all, but take the pragmatic view that in a world filled with biscuits, better to have something barely sweetened with a little rice malt syrup and coconut than nothing at all. And there’s probably something in that (though I’d still recommend keeping the habit of eating sweet things to a minimum). And the other part is ‘instead of breakfast cereal etc’.

Breakfast is, I think the hardest meal to imagine in a post-sugar world. Toast and jam. Cereal. Granola. Honey (in, near or on practically anything). Fruit, yogurt and fruit yogurt. But it’s actually one of the most delicious meals you can have after quitting. I’m pretty much obsessed with breakfast, as anyone who follows me on Instagram will know, and I regularly have brinner (frankly, if I had access to facilities that allowed me to make toast and poach eggs at work I’d probably have it for every meal). But once I started thinking about sharing what kinds of things I have for breakfast, just in case that’s helpful, I thought I might as well do a sort of menu for each day of the week, with a few suggestions for each meal. If you’re right at the beginning of a sugar quitting process, I hope it will come in useful. Then I also have some tips to share about having a sugar-free birthday.

Note: I am low-fructose and like to make stuff from scratch, but I’m not a JERF obsessive. I use some processed stuff and spend less money in the week before payday. I work long hours and enjoy a kitchen shortcut. Also, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old to get out of the front door every morning, and it’s only thanks to the fact that I have a husband who is far more of a morning person than I am that I manage to eat at all.

Breakfast

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Weekdays:

  • Quick nut butter porridge (above) – 30g Ready Brek, 150ml almond milk heated for 2mins in the microwave and 1/2 tsp chia seeds, stirred together. A dollop of peanut, almond or cashew butter on top, plus some strawberries or raspberries.
  • Avocado toast – exactly as it sounds. Half an avocado mashed onto two slices.
  • Fancy avocado toast (below)– the above, but with goats’ cheese and raspberries on top, popped under the grill for a couple of minutes.
  • Nut butter crumpets (above) – Usually with a handful of raspberries, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds or a sliced strawberry on top.

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Weekend treats:

  • Poached eggs and veggies (above) – the above was actually a birthday breakfast from my lovely husband, including fennel, courgettes and mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and crumpets with smoked salmon and poached eggs. We use silicon poachers, hence the perfect egg-boob-shape.
  • Veggie omelette – whatever your favourites are, two eggs and a 20g block of cheese, fried gently and finished off under the grill.
  • Pancakes (above) – yes, really. I use Nigella’s recipes for American pancakes (minus the totally unnecessary spoonful of sugar) or ricotta hotcakes. I also use GF self-raising flour, because it keeps the fluffiness and prevents accidentally chewy pancakes. I top with a small squirt of rice malt syrup, a smear of nut butter and fresh berries; my husband and daughter usually add a little maple syrup too.

Lunch

  • Buying lunch – it’s generally best to try not to buy lunch, for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is expense. But if I do have to I tend to go to Pret or the Japan Centre; Pret has recently started listing the sugar content of everything, which is ace, and the Japan Centre has started doing tonkotsu ramen which is fatty and meaty and noodley joy. (You might find my Eating Out on IQS post helpful here….)
  • Stir-fry, stir-fry and a side of stir-fry – I’m a bit obsessed with throwing everything that’s about to go soggy into a wok full of coconut oil, chilli, garlic and ginger. A splash of tamari, and the basis of any meal is done. I could probably get shares in Amoy Straight-to-Wok udon noodles. I can’t really think of a better way to get your 5+-a-day in than stir frying, and it’s dead easy to pop in the microwave at work. This is also the perfect side-dish for my most common lunch which is…
  • Leftovers – well, obviously. Roast chicken, baked salmon, slow-cooker stews etc.

Dinner

  • Chicken soup – about once every other week I make a roast chicken. If they’re on offer, I make two together, in the oven with a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice and some whole, peeled garlic cloves (plus some rosemary if we happen to have any). Afterwards the juices and the carcass go into a saucepan with a couple of kettles of boiling water and I simmer the lot for 3-4 hours before straining it. There’s always loads more stock than I can use in a couple of days, so I freeze the rest, as well as some freezer bags of shredded chicken if there’s enough left over. This is about the only domestic goddess-like thing that I do, ever, and it’s totally worth it. Because I’m obsessed with chicken soup in all its forms. A pack of ready noodles (see? I told you I could have shares) and some random bits of veg and the job is done.
  • Everything slow-cooker – a load of (usually less-sugary) root veg, some protein or other and some sort of flavouring. Could be tinned tomatoes, could be coconut milk and curry paste, could be stock. Could be chicken, fish or the cheaper cuts of red meat. Could include potatoes for bulk, could be designed to be eaten with cous cous or rice.

You’ll have noticed I tend to batch cook and make extra helpings. I look for large pieces of fish or meat that will last for several days. We also get through a prodigious quantity of eggs as a household, since they’re a quick, cheap, adaptable and easy source of fat and protein that are delicious at any time of day.

I also don’t really go in for sweet substitutes on the whole – you can go far on cheese, some very dark chocolate and, every couple of weeks, a stack of pancakes – but I do rather rate this salty, chewy, nutty bark from the IQS recipe list. Also, I had a surfeit of squishy looking pears that my daughter hadn’t finished and whipped up this pear and almond upside-down cake which was moist and moreish.

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And now… to birthdays. I recently celebrated mine, and it was very lovely indeed. One of the things that made it really wonderful was having friends and colleagues at work who were incredibly kind and thoughtful. On the day itself, instead of surprising me with a cake, I was brought three immense blocks of cheese – with candles! – and a heap of crackers. It ended up being both treat and lunch, and nearly made me cry as it was such a nice gesture.

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A few days later, my gorgeous friend Christina did make me a cake – which she was prepared to try to make with glucose only until I told her that it was her kind gesture and she should do it as she pleased.  Said cake was absolutely 100% worth the deviation from my low-sugar life. Partly because the generosity of a friend always tastes amazing (especially a friend who is well on her way to being a baking professional) but also because if you give up sugar but stop appreciating when someone makes you a delicious orange, polenta and pistachio cake, then you have given up too much.

The (additional, metaphorical) icing on that cake was that because I knew a gorgeous slice of home-made affection was coming my way, I didn’t feel the need to symbolically over-indulge on our amazing night out at Bob Bob Ricard, which I’ll write about soon.

So, I guess paradoxically, my best tip for having a sugar-free birthday is to accept that some sugar might happen. It doesn’t have to. If the snacks are on you, then a savoury treat disappears just as fast as a cake in an office (possibly faster, due to the novelty). If you don’t want it, then you don’t have to have it. But if you do, it’s not a reason to berate yourself or the opening to go off-track. It’s been almost a year, so for me it’s becoming more and more like second nature to avoid derailing myself; it might well be harder if you’re still breaking the habit. I’m not saying you should feel obliged to eat sugar just because other people expect you to – and if my amazing birthday cheeseboard is proof of anything, it’s that you can set different expectations by being honest with others about yourself – but if you want to  eat something sugary (and I did want to) then so be it. Give yourself permission, and you’ll find it actually gets easier to just have what you want: no more and no less.

I’m always open to a tip or two myself, so if you have any great low-sugar meals or birthday ideas, let’s hear ’em.

IQS: Things you will hear when you give up sugar

When you make the decision to change something that can’t be hidden – something that, eventually other people will have to know about – you do have to gird yourself for the inevitable battery of opinions you will be faced with. Many of us in parts of the world where food is fortunately in great abundance have troubled relationships with it (particularly women, in which this is all bound up with the public messages about our bodies and our ownership of said bodies). So taking any sort of food-related stance – particularly if you’re passionate about it – immediately marks you out as making a moral decision. It’s not hard to see how that happens with offensively stupid terms like ‘clean eating’ being bandied about (what if I washed my cheeseburger before I ate it?).  But it can be frustrating to keep having to explain or defend your choices because they make someone else feel uncomfortable, or like you’re sitting in judgement of theirs (and maybe you are, in which case do try to stop, because that makes you a bit of an ass).

So, what to do? Well, the first thing is to assume you’ll hear at least one of the below. And then decide how much of your time it’s really worth addressing it – and whether the comment comes from a genuine place of interest or is simply a knee-jerk reaction. Personally this is how I’ve come to react to other people’s reactions to my quitting sugar. YMMV.

1. I couldn’t live without sugar!

Well, obviously not. No-one can, since our energy comes from glucose. But clearly I am still alive… Hey. A little melodrama makes things fun. For me, this is a nod and smile, because what is to be gained from arguing? They don’t want convincing (unless you genuinely think they secretly do, in which case, have at it).

2. Are you making your family do it too? I think that’s cruel.

Genuinely, I have heard this, and there is so much that’s weird in there. From the ‘making my family do it’ (well, I do make my daughter do stuff, because she is four, but Ash is full-on a grown up and makes his own food choices) to the – admittedly joking – idea that preferring a particular diet is cruelty…. Well, I guess I know how people who raise vegan kids feel now. I think I mostly laughed.

For those interested: no, I don’t make my daughter follow my own choices in exactly the same way as I do. I do restrict the overall amount of ‘treat’ food she has at home, since I know she has desserts at school and in childcare and with her grandparents. But everything is in the context of conversations about general health, keeping our bodies fuelled and the importance of foods that we need (plants, fats etc) versus foods we want (treats). I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained at this stage from making her stand out among her peers – or crave the ‘forbidden’ – as long as there’s some reasonable moderation being practiced and good habits modelled by her parents (eating our veggies, eating when we’re hungry but not clearing plates just because).

3. When are you going to start eating sugar again?

We’re so in the habit of thinking of nonsensical detoxes, short-term fixes and inevitably failed restrictive diets that it’s almost impossible to take in the idea that this could be a permanent change (I think even sometimes for the person doing it). But if you’re not doing this just for a weight loss fix, there’s really no reason why it might not be an indefinite change. I started the process last June and have yet to see a reason to go back on the full-on fructose.

4. Do you eat natural sugars / fruit / honey / maple syrup instead?

In fairness, this isn’t actually a stupid question, since the term ‘sugar’ is pretty vague. Plus every no-sugar plan you can follow is slightly different; my friend Sherri who did Five Weeks to Sugar-Free with Davina (literally with Davina – how cool is she?!) ate some sugars I didn’t on I Quit Sugar, because they’re different approaches leading to a similar outcome. But it can take some patience to keep answering this one. So be it.

As an aside: When I talk about quitting sugar, I mean a considerable reduction in fructose consumption. Thus for me substituting with honey or maple syrup is pointless as it’s still high fructose (most of my fructose I get from 1-2 helpings of whole fruit a day). But generally I’m not a fan of the word ‘natural’ applied to food; table sugar is natural, if by that we mean ‘it comes from a plant’, but I think there’s a lot of privilege and nonsense to be unpacked around the term. And since even among the JERF crew there are plenty of foods that actually do undergo some form of process (butter and cheese, for a start), it’s a whole area I’m loathe to get too evangelical about. I also recognise the reality of busy people’s lives, and the importance of available budgets and convenience. Basically, I think if you give up sugar but take up being a jerk, it’s not good news for anyone.

5. Isn’t it just a fad?

Maybe. And?

I have delved a little into the science of this and am relatively convinced it’s a good thing to do, but I recognise my limitations in understanding all of it. I know that I feel healthier since starting out. I know I have better skin. (I’ve also lost quite a lot of weight, but I like to steer clear of that subject for the most part because there’s an unhelpful assumption that this means it must be good). I eat (even) more veggies. I cook more. I am much less likely to have binge moments. My blood pressure, always low, has gone down further. Other health measures have also improved a little. You know? It works for me. I appreciate what it has done for me. It’s okay if you don’t want to do it.

If you gave up sugar, what are the comments you heard most of? What did you respond? Did it put you off? I find the politics of eating absolutely fascinating, and would be glad to talk about it more with anyone else who also does.

More posts about sugar you might find interesting:

Thoughts at the end of the IQS process
Dealing with messing up your plan
Eating out when you’ve quit sugar

I Quit Sugar: Thoughts from the end of the 8-week programme

After the half-way point and the week seven screw-up, I’ve had a bit of a chance to examine how I feel about IQS in general and whether or not I think it’s a) worthwhile and b) something I’ll be able to keep up indefinitely – since it is supposed to be a sort of ‘reset’ leading to permanent liberation from sugar binge cycles.

I’ve found it, largely, to be extremely beneficial. There are some caveats and watch-outs that I’ll list below, but on the whole I’ve found that mostly good things have come out of it. Such as:

  • Increased energy (eventually – I did have a two week sluggish dip in the middle)
  • Improved skin
  • A lower susceptibility to bingeing / bloating
  • Fewer sweet cravings (I still turn into a carb addict come Lady Week though I can usually stave it off with cheese and oatcakes – soz for the TMI)
  • More veg cravings (I always liked them but now I actively crave greens if I don’t get them)
  • Rediscovering how sweet certain things – especially fruit – really are (does wonders for your appreciation of them!)

I’ve also lost around 12-14lbs, which has levelled off and stayed stable for a week or two, suggesting that this weight is more or less my natural setpoint. I was aiming for better health, but I’m not going to argue if nature wants me to fit my clothes better. I do still need to work on fitness, but I am walking more than I used to.

On the whole, approached as a programme that is about resetting attitudes rather than going on a mad health purge, it’s a really handy way of structuring a fresh approach to food, and getting into healthier habits. I’ve struggled for years to ‘listen to my body’ and I’m still not 100% there, but without the influence of shedloads of sugar – and I was eating a LOT – I find it a hell of a lot easier than I did. Since completing the 8 weeks I’ve added back 1-2 helpings of fruit per day, usually lower fructose choices like berries, but they’re my favourites anyway; I also nibble on fairly regular infusions of 80-100% dark chocolate and it’s all felt very manageable. I continue to track what I eat out of curiosity, and I can still see patterns of more and less disordered eating here and there (the female reproductive cycle has a lot to answer for), but on the whole I’ve levelled out at around 25-30 grams of sugar a day, and that seems to leave me in a happy place. I had a slice of my daughter’s birthday cake and all was well – and I didn’t want more than a little bit. That was the place I wanted to arrive at, and I’m happy with it.

Now for the caveats.

  • Sarah WIlson touches on it in the book, but fat really can be a problem. I think I’m pretty much convinced that there’s nothing bad about fat in general and I’ve made my peace with eating more of it without that automatic feeling of guilt but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing; a few almonds = a good snack, an entire pack of almonds = unnecessary. Now, I refuse to be pejorative about food or eating, and I won’t say that it’s a case of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’, but I do know that there’s such a thing as ‘enough for me’ vs ‘too much for me’. And it’s very easy to blur that line when you’re crowding out sugar with fat. So it’s something to watch out for.
  • As a manifesto, the book has flaws. Some of the science is a bit woolly, the (meaningless) word ‘detox’ pops up and there is the inevitable cherry picking of data to support a particular view (and make the book readable, to be fair). I would have liked to have seen a twice as long introductory sector looking into this in more detail. The fact is, I already wanted off (most) sugar, because I find when I increase the amount I eat, I eat more stuff I don’t really want to and feel emotionally and physically crappy. But I missed the detail and delving of something more comprehensive like HAES.
  • The other thing to watch out for is unrealistic expectations. Wilson is careful not to make any specific health claims, and simply talks about how the knock on effect of her new approach to eating has appeared to improve her thyroid condition, but be wary of assuming that going low sugar will fix everything. If your symptoms improve, then that’s excellent, and at the very least I can’t imagine that putting a bit less crap into the body could be actively harmful. But don’t fall into the magical thinking trap.
  • Although the posters scream “lose weight”, it’s actually (rightly, in my opinion), a very small part of what’s touched on in the book. Wilson basically says some people lose a bit of weight, some people lose quite a lot – ie YMMV. Feeling altogether better is the aim here, not setting any weight or body targets.

This is probably the last I’m going to post about this, apart from if I share a suitable recipe, cos genuinely I think it all gets to be a bit dull and repetitive if all you do is evangelise about some food fad or other. I know that some people asked for an update after the 8 week point, so here’s what I’ve found overall, and I’m really happy to answer any questions here or on Twitter. 

 

I Quit Sugar: a few questions and misconceptions addressed

It was nice to get a little flurry of comments after my last post, in which I explained my having hopped aboard the I Quit Sugar bandwagon. A few comments and questions came out of that that I thought I would address for anyone considering taking part but feeling scared to*.

1. I can’t give up carbs!

Great, you don’t have to! I’ve eaten bread, pasta, noodles, rice (and rice crackers) and sundry other carbs throughout. While watching sugar will naturally reduce the amount of carbs you have overall, fructose is the only thing you’re really watching for. If you have had an indulgent day and want to get yourself back on track it can be helpful to also cut out grains for a day. Plus many of the carb-based recipes that are included are GF or paleo or reduced grain, because this also reduces sugars and increases fats. But it’s primarily not a low-carb diet.

2. I could just rule out processed sugar and have natural sugars…

Yeah, at least for me, for this shiz to work, I had to nix all sources of fructose, including fruit, for the cold turkey part of the programme. Otherwise I find that the cravings are just as severe – and now that I’ve started including the odd helping of fruit here and there I notice it immediately. Sarah Wilson specifically talks about reintroducing – and not demonsing – fruit but keeping it to no more than about two portions a day. This actually chimes with general health advice to get the bulk of your five (or eight, or whatever) a day from vegetables.

3. I couldn’t give up the occasional glass of wine.

You don’t have to do that either. I’ve had a glass here and there throughout (though I’ve found my inclination to drink has taken a nosedive and I’ll just have one drink – or even half – when I do). Wine is actually low-fructose, as are some spirits provided you stick to no-sugar mixers.

I actually had my first bite of dessert the other day at a family lunch, though technically I shouldn’t have for another two weeks. It was one of my favourite kinds of things, and I took a spoonful gladly. And then, having tasted it, I didn’t want any more. I tried one other mouthful – of something else I like but rarely get to eat – and that was quite enough too. It sated my desire for sweetness and being sociable, and then I was done. And, in fact, the next day I felt a bit snacky and substantially bloated, so I wasn’t in any vast hurry to try again.

This doesn’t sound so incredible unless you consider that prior to this I had virtually no impulse control when it came to sweet treats. I texted my friend who got me on the programme with the words “IS THIS HOW NORMAL PEOPLE EAT?!”. It feels really weird to see longer gaps appearing between meals, less snacking, fewer cravings and no propensity to eat until painfully stuffed.

I’m into week six now. I look forward to regrouping at the end of week eight and sharing my thoughts, observations and tips. But so far, so amazingly freakin’ good.

*Why are we so scared of this stuff? Me included! We want to cling to our routines like they’re the only possible way to live, even when they’re hurting us. Ah, humans.

I Quit Sugar: my thoughts from the half-way point

Suddenly, I Quit Sugar is everywhere. Tube ads, articles… maybe I’m just noticing it more because I’m following the programme, but it does seem that it’s the new kid on the food fad block.

I actually didn’t come to it through any of the marketing, but through a very good friend who tried it. I wasn’t immediately convinced, but recognised that I do suffer from poor impulse control and tendencies to binge when around sugary foods – including fruit.

Still, I had questions. For example:

  • Isn’t fruit sugar good sugar, as long as you eat the whole fruit? (We all know that thing about fruit juice being high sugar without the fibre, right?)
  • Isn’t it magical thinking to claim that quitting sugar will be the answer to various health woes?
  • How is it even possible to live without sugar?
  • Isn’t it rather difficult for anyone on a restricted income to carry out this kind of diet?

So, I thought the best thing to do was read the book, and once I’d done that I was happy to try the programme. Sarah Wilson’s story is necessarily personal, but she does draw on actual research to make her case – and certainly there is something disturbing about the massive volumes of sugar we consume on a daily basis. I also have PCOS, which goes hand in hand with insulin resistance, and a close relative with Type II diabetes. So, no matter what, I needed to reduce my sugar intake, and if starting out by going (more or less) cold turkey on fructose – the only kind of sugar Wilson really sets her sights on – was the way to do it, then I was going to give it a try.

I’m now into my fifth week of an eight week programme, and in that time I’ve had no chocolate, cake, biscuits, table sugar, added-sugar drinks or sweetened processed foods. I’ve had very limited fruit intake, but substantially larger vegetable intake (and I was no salad-avoider before this). Once in a while I have looked lingeringly on a dessert and sometimes I’ve overdosed on fat instead (hellloooo, cheese!), but mostly I’ve kept to an unprocessed, whole food heavy diet. And, to be honest, it’s not been that difficult – once you step off the sugar rollercoaster, it does become easier to resist it.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  • The book and programme themselves are actually very non-specific. Apart from stating things to avoid (and the real cold turkey phase doesn’t hit until about week 3), there are no meal plans. There’s no insistence on what you should eat, but shedloads of recipes that could help. I feel much closer to following a Health at Every Size type approach, because I’m choosing my food mainly based on what tastes good and appeals to me.
  • Some of the suggestions I have simply ignored. I don’t judge anyone who wants to follow Wilson’s advice to beat sugar cravings with a spoonful of coconut oil straight from the jar, but I can’t say I find any delight in the thought of downing something the consistency of petroleum jelly. I like some coconut milk based meals but I’m not that big a fan, so I’ve had to adapt. I simply cannot stomach porridge made with 125ml of coconut milk and use less than half of that per bowl of pumpkin porridge, upping the pumpkin content instead. It means I’m full for a bit less long, but I actually couldn’t finish the first bowl when I made it to the recipe. I also leave off the toasted coconut flakes – too much!
  • There are times when the science gets woolly and that annoys me and makes me question the overall methodology; while it’s true that there might well be some physical symptoms that reflect the adjustment from one diet to another (I’ve experienced some myself), suggesting that this is ‘toxins leaving the body’ sounds, frankly, a bit woo for my liking. On one occasion where I had a meal out and likely ate some sugary sauces, I did find my digestive system reacting negatively.
  • I have lost some weight, presumably because when you replace sugar with fats you feel full faster and therefore eat less overall. Out of curiosity, I’ve been on and off tracking what I ate, and my caloric intake is definitely lower than usual even though I’ve been making no effort to restrict it, or even looking at how many calories anything contains.
  • Over time, sugary foods start to look less appealing. Some restaurant desserts were harder to resist because they’re so beautifully made and really nice chocolate and / or ice cream will probably never stop being appealing, at least to me. But when you’ve committed to low sugar, breaking that promise to yourself means you feel like it had better be worth it – and be the best confection you can get your hands on.
  • It IS expensive – the fact that I reference unprocessed whole foods and restaurant meals should indicate that. I reject the term ‘clean eating’ on several counts; firstly, when a phrase means something different to each person who uses it, it means nothing to anyone, and secondly the implication that anyone not eating like me is ‘dirty’ is pretty obnoxious. There are times when this programme seems as exclusive as so-called ‘clean eating’. No, it’s not impossible to follow on a lower budget, and the slow cooker book in particular will help with batch cooking and family meals. Still, it would be a lot more effort – effort I can’t imagine it would always be a priority to make. So I recognise that to be able to carry this out is a pretty privileged activity.

I still don’t have the answers to all my questions. I’m now more or less convinced that fruit intake is fine provided it’s kept to two small servings per day, but that fructose in general does have strange body effects (I’ve always wondered, for example, why bananas are supposed to be filling when they make me ravenously hungry, and the high fructose content does explain that). I recognise that yes, it is tricky to do this on a restricted income but no, it’s not impossible to keep sugar intake to a reasonable level all other things being equal. The jury is still very much out on the health conditions; while diet clearly can impact, and help prevent, various conditions, I think it’s unquestionably risky to claim that giving up or eating a particular foodstuff is going to be the Solution To All Health Woes. So I choose to continue taking that particular claim with a large pinch of salt.

It will be interesting to see what happens after the eight weeks, and whether the habit really is broken for life – particularly as Wilson does advocate testing yourself afterwards by trying out sugary foods. I can but report back in a few weeks…