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.

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: What happens when you inevitably* screw up.

Before I began the IQS programme, I had afternoon tea booked with a friend for a couple of months down the line. It actually fell in week seven of the programme – around the time a certain amount of sugar, or at least sweetness, creeps back in, but before you’ve really completed the programme.

Now, I know you’re thinking “well, that’ll have been the screw up, then”. But actually it wasn’t. I found myself pleasantly and comfortably controlled on the day – except it wasn’t a case of control but just calmly allowing my body to decide what it was comfortable with. I ate scones, but with a little scrape of jam because more than that didn’t taste that good anymore. I ate half each of three little pastries but then I just felt like I was done. I had half my glass of prosecco because it was too hot to drink any more.

I’ve got to say, I felt pretty smug. It was like everything everyone says about moderation had totally clicked but, more than that, I had gone in with the attitude that I wasn’t going to be restrained or say “I shouldn’t”. I was going to go in and have exactly what I wanted. And by giving myself full permission to do that, I didn’t feel the need to overindulge.

Flushed by my success, I went back to normal eating the following day. And then work book club hit, and suddenly wine and orange juice and crisps and sweet popcorn and fizzy cola bottles and jelly beans were all within a foot of me. And for the first time in weeks they seemed appealing. And I went for it. Spectacularly.

Within the hour, the following symptoms appeared:

  • Itchy, hot skin
  • Jitters / shakes (not the visible kind)
  • Headache

Overnight, I experienced:

  • Poor sleep
  • Anxious thoughts (you know, the 3am type. At 3am.)

The morning I felt:

  • Bloated and rough with a skin flare up.

 

Now, there might of course be other reasons for some of these. While I had very little wine, alcohol does have an effect on sleep so that could be a contributing factor. We’ve had a bit of familial upheaval recently with schools and whatnot – not negative, but stressful. It might or might not be related to things that happen to women on a lunar basis. Hell, there could well be a psychosomatic element. But it seemed thoroughly too coincidental by half that all these symptoms appeared suddenly, en masse, on the night after I chose to gorge on something I’ve been avoiding for weeks.

I do wonder how it is I fell into the trap in the first place – trying to be sociable? Lady cravings? Overconfidence in my new found ability to say no? – but from discussing it with one of my friends it seems she did the same: ate sugar, felt bad, regretted it, got back on the wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat until the message sinks in. And certainly Sarah Wilson talks a lot about ‘lapsing’ (which, as she says, is not a lapse but just an experiment to see if you really want to continue eating sugar). After my experience, I’m not in a hurry to repeat my test, and I’ve been ‘crowding out’ with fats and veggies today to try and stave off the inevitable sugar hangover cravings.

I present this not really as evidence of anything expect my own experience, so do take from it what you will. It’s convinced me to get back on track, but then I’m the only person I have to convince…

*By which I mean when I inevitably screw up. Your mileage may vary, and your engine may be better tuned. But if you were all that brilliant, you wouldn’t be reading about quittin’ sugar, cos you’d have done it already so ha! Now we’re rubbish human together. Group hug!

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…