Words by Sahar Adatia
Each day, Australians consume on average more than 20 teaspoons of sugar, alerts the Australian Diabetes Council. Not only is it making us fat, it’s rotting our teeth, causing diabetes, and can even contribute to cancer. Sugar is the sweet poison slowly killing us – and that’s the bitter truth. For those of us who live for sweet rewards, perhaps it’s time to adopt a sugar free diet. Your life may just depend on it…
Sugar is the femme fatale of the food narrative. Part seductive, part sinful, it tantalises our taste buds in an enticing tease, luring us into irresistible yet compromising health quandaries where dangerous consequences are certain. Then, once it slips past our lips (and often straight to our hips), it’s too late. Slowly, we become fat. Some, even sick. And before we know it, those all too familiar villains – obesity and diabetes – are lurking around the corner.
Sugar is beguiling at best, and yet so ingrained is our desire to succumb to the sweet stuff that we are left begging for more. And it’s not entirely surprising. The taste of sugar on the tongue is almost intoxicating, provoking profound feelings of pleasure as it releases a deluge of dopamine in the brain. Equally, we are a Pavlovian population made up of chocolate and cheesecake addicts, drawn to the taste of sweetness like bees to honey. The thought alone, therefore, of vowing to a sugar free diet and somehow quitting sugar is seemingly absurd. Almost as absurd as the Cherry Ripe you probably just unconsciously reached for and unwittingly inhaled whilst reading this paragraph.
That said, sugar is now hailed food enemy number one. In the last year alone, the vast and devastating effects of sugar on our health have been documented in great abundance. In fact, a relentless onslaught of damning research now reveals that sugar is the sweet poison slowly eating our lives away. Needless to say, rarely does a week go by that we don’t hear about Australia’s obesity epidemic. Or the increasing incidence of diabetes. It’s no wonder health care providers and sugar free diet devotees alike advocate quitting sugar as the key strategy to living a healthier life.
Undoubtedly, it’s time for a reality check. If cookies and cakes are your Achilles’ heel, then read on for the unsweetened truth on how your sugar obsession is putting your health at serious risk. Rest assured, our sugar free diet survival guide is at your fingertips to help you conquer quitting sugar in no time.
GETTING GRAINY: MAKING SENSE OF SUGAR
When it comes to understanding sugar, things can get confusing. Indeed, all sugars are not created equal. So making sense of them can get gritty.
In basic terms, sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate. The body converts it into glucose and uses it for energy. However, the effect on the body and your overall health depends on the type of sugar you consume.
Sugar falls into two main classifications: Natural or refined.
Natural sugar is derived from fruit, vegetables, whole fresh foods and grains. Here, it is found as fructose. It is also found in milk and cheese as lactose.
Natural sugar is packaged with fiber, water, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, disease-fighting phytonutrients and other essential nutrients. Foods containing natural sugar have an important role in a wholesome diet. Specifically, they keep the body healthy and help to prevent disease.
Refined sugar, in comparison, is derived from sugar cane or sugar beets. Both of these are processed to extract the sugar. It is typically found as sucrose, which is the combination of glucose and fructose.
Refined sugar is commonly used to sweeten cakes, biscuits, coffee, cereal, and sometimes even fruit. Food manufacturers use this chemically-produced sugar to add flavour to a variety of food and beverages. Low-fat foods are the worst offenders. In these, a lack of flavour is recompensed with significant quantities of added sugar. These sugars also lurk in household staples you may not expect. Some of the worst offenders include pasta sauces, salad dressings, and canned fruit.
REFINED SUGAR: THE REAL FOOD VILLAIN
Ultimately, refined sugar is considered the real food villain. Nutritionists frown upon this substance gravely. The reasoning is twofold:
1. It has well-known links to weight gain and cavities.
2. It delivers “empty calories”. These are calories unaccompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. An abundance of added sugar can crowd healthier foods from a person’s diet.
FOOD ENEMY NO.1: WHY SUGAR IS SO BAD FOR YOU
Unless you’ve been hiding under a stack of Krispy Kremes for the past few years, you'll be aware that sugar poses far greater dangers than cavities and love handles. Indeed, a relentless barrage of damning research now exists to show the vast harm that sugar has on our organs. Similarly, it disrupts the body’s usual hormonal cycles. Making matters worse, it impairs immune function.
Excessive sugar intake is also the chief reason that numbers of obese patients in Australia are now skyrocketing. This goes for diabetic patients, too. Sugar is also the dietary cause of several other chronic ailments. These are widely regarded as diseases of Western diets, and include hypertension and depression. Of significant concern, sugar is also a culprit of cardiovascular disease.
And yet, sugar is downright irresistible. Therein lies its next cause of concern. Sugar is highly addictive.
The reason behind this?
When we indulge in our sweet tooth, we trigger a pleasurable and captivating sensation in the body. Specifically, sugar arrests brain chemistry, then floods it with a delectable high. Scientifically, this high is caused by the creation of feel-good chemical, dopamine – a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centre. As a result, we instantly feel happy and energetic. It’s a high we can very easily become dependent upon. So much so that sugar is now hailed the new tobacco and arguably even more addictive than cocaine.
THE DEPTHS OF SUGAR DEPENDENCE
It’s no wonder then, that in her recent ebook, I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson challenges readers to an eight-week sugar free diet. She encourages those quitting sugar that this is an experiment to realise how sugar-dependent we are today.
“We grow up with a full-on emotional and physical attachment to sugar."
"Just the idea of not being able to turn to it when we’re feeling a little lost or tired or bored or emotionally bereft terrifies us,” Wilson writes.
According to the author, our resistance to quitting sugar is deep-rooted. Ultimately, however, when we eradicate sugar from our diet, we can see the restraints it has formerly had on our bodies and health.
CONQUERING THE CRAVINGS: YOUR SUGAR FREE DIET SURVIVAL GUIDE
Evidently, sugar remains a sorry state of seductive affairs. And with the disastrous health implications of excess consumption – including liver damage, weight gain, metabolic dysfunction, and increased risk of obesity and diabetes – it is more than ever important to tame your sweet tooth.
Indeed, breaking free from the shackles of sugar dependence poses some tough challenges. Similarly, the thought alone of the transition to a sugar free diet is hard to swallow. But the good news is that it is possible to kick the habit, reset your taste buds and gain self-control.
With these tried and tested tips, you may just be able to conquer the cravings that come with quitting sugar. This way, you can live the sweet life for years to come.
1. START EASY: SWAP FOODS YOU ALREADY EAT FOR SUGAR FREE ALTERNATIVES
When starting a sugar free diet, total deprivation from the get-go will only lead to a face-first dive into a tub of ice cream by week’s (or, let’s be honest, day’s) end. Instead, the smarter plan is to cut back in ways that don’t drastically deprive your lifestyle. And from there, continue adjusting your eating habits gradually.
For example, side-step the sugary minefield that is breakfast by replacing vanilla-flavoured yogurt with low-fat Greek yogurt. Similarly, if you’re a daily fruit juice drinker, try mixing a smaller amount with sparkling water. On weekends, if you’d never decline a slice of birthday cake, grab a middle piece instead of an edge. Less frosting means less sugar.
According to registered dietitian and author of Lean Habits For Lifelong Weight Loss, Georgie Fear, RD, swapping out one variety of food for another can cut your sugar intake by 10 or 20 grams per day.
“Not only does it reduce the empty calories, but it helps reset your taste buds,” the dietitian advises of quitting sugar. This way, you don't expect things to all taste so sweet. Additionally, you can more easily cut sugar going forward.
2. ELIMINATE SUGARY DRINKS
If you do only one thing to reduce sugar intake on your journey towards quitting sugar, avoid drinking juice and sugary drinks of any description. These include soda, sweetened teas, vitamin waters, sports drinks and fruit juice. You guessed it – they all contain extremely high amounts of added sugar.
Instead, to satisfy your sweet tooth, reach for some real fruit, or make a juice using fresh fruit and vegetables. This will eliminate almost 21 grams of sugar per cup from your diet.
That said, if you’re completely serious about quitting sugar, dodge all such sugar-delivery systems entirely and drink pure water. And if you can’t, (we know water gets pretty boring!), opt for a sugar free alternative as a happy medium. REIZE energy drink, for example, not only tastes delicious, it also provides a boost of vitality. So, you can satisfy your sweet tooth, remain hydrated and feel revitalised.
Simply replacing the sugary beverages in your diet for healthier alternatives can go a long way towards improving your health. Not only do these keep you feeling full, over time, they will also help your cravings for sugary beverages to collapse. Hence, the easier it will be to keep on track with your sugar free diet.
3. FILL UP ON WHOLE FOODS
To stay on course with your sugar free diet, it is imperative to fill up on whole foods. This also works to cut cravings for the sweet stuff.
Whole foods are complete foods that come straight from nature’s table. These include vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, legumes, wholegrains, herbs and spices. The closer food is to its natural form, the less processed sugar it will contain.
In the transition to a whole foods approach, it is also helpful to modify your eating patterns to prevent sugar cravings. Ideally, eat food in small portions, and regularly - say, five small meals a day. For those who don’t eat regularly, a drop in blood sugar levels and increased hunger throughout the day is likely to occur. From there, the cravings for sugary snacks sneak in. So, aim to eat wholesome food from each food group, and regularly. With a satisfied appetite, you have a better chance to kick your sugar habit to the curb.
4. DO NOT ADD SUGAR TO THE FOOD AND DRINKS YOU ARE CONSUMING
Many people freely add sugar to the food and drinks they consume to sweeten the taste. For example, sugar is commonly scattered as a topping on cereal, oats, porridge, fresh fruit, and used to enhance coffee and tea.
However, topping up with sugar provides no nutritional value. Instead, it endows you with extra kilojoules and not much else. Furthermore, the constant taste of sugar only boosts the appetite for the sweet stuff.
As a healthy alternative, flavour your food by adding spices. Aromatic seasonings such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom will naturally sweeten and enliven your dishes. Over time, taming your sweet tooth in this manner will reset your palate and reduce your sweet cravings. And this means you are more likely to stand by your sugar free diet.
5. KEEP SUGARY SNACKS OUT OF YOUR HOUSE AND OFFICE
One of the easiest ways to commit to a sugar free diet is to avoid buying sweet snacks to begin with. If you are serious about quitting sugar, cross chocolate, ice cream and sweets of any description off the shopping list. That goes for so-called healthy snacks too, which, in fact, hide plenty of refined sugar. So, flavoured yogurts, dried fruit and crackers, for example, are a no-go zone .
Ultimately, if sugary snacks are not on hand, you can’t eat them. It’s that simple.
6. ALWAYS READ THE INGREDIENT LABELS BEFORE YOU BUY
The more knowledge you have about what exactly you are putting into your body, the more likely you will be able to successfully adjust to a sugar free diet.
Evidently, manufacturers want you to eat their food products. This is achieved by enticing you with delicious flavour – the result of plenty of hidden added sugars. So, be sure to scrutinise the ingredients list on food products for the different forms of sugar contained and their quantities. This will make it easier to make healthier food choices.
Indeed, it is surprising to note just how much sugar is found in the products you regularly buy. Registered dietitian nutritionist, Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, warns that even health-food stores have shelved filled with foods that contain added sugars. Accordingly, the representative from Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine also advises that it is incredibly important to educate ourselves about these unhealthy ingredients.
As a tip, when inspecting the nutrition panel, remember that sugar goes by more than 60 different aliases. Some of these include agave, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn sugar, dextrose, honey and molasses. There are also a handful of signals that almost always denote the presence of sugar. One way to identify this is to look for any ingredients that end with “ose.” Some include dextrose, fructose, lactose, glucose and maltose. If any of these crack the top five listed ingredients, purchase another option.
Ultimately, food manufacturers will continue to notoriously camouflage added sugars. Thus, quitting sugar will become easier by familiarising yourself with sugar terminology and learning to recognise the sweeteners in disguise.
7. BE MINDFUL WHEN YOU EAT OUT
Sticking to a sugar free diet when you’re eating out can be tricky and testing. All the while, navigating your way through restaurants, cafes and enticing, sugar-filled menus can be tiresome at best. Let's not even go there with negotiating seasonings, sauces, and salad dressings.
The best way to ensure mindfulness when eating out is to plan ahead. This will prevent you breaking your sugar free diet.
To start, never walk into a restaurant blindly without checking out the menu. Most restaurants have their menus online, which makes research beforehand easy. If you aren't sure which dishes are suitable for your sugar free diet, call the restaurant ahead to clarify ingredients.
Additionally, to ensure your commitment to quitting sugar, before arriving at the venue, take the edge off your hunger by having a healthy snack. A handful of nuts does the job. It will also stop you from devouring the entire breadbasket before your meal is served. Similarly, once you’re at the restaurant, remember that a jug of water at the table is everyone’s best friend. It’s a smarter option than juice or soda, and will help you to feel full.
8.TAKE YOUR SLEEP AS SERIOUSLY AS YOU TAKE YOUR SUGAR FREE DIET
To give yourself the best possible shot at staying with your sugar free diet, it is essential that you get a good night’s sleep. This is particularly important if you find it hard to cut back on the sweet stuff due to cravings.
A 2016 study published in the journal SLEEP found that cutting your sleep short increases levels of naturally circulating cannabinoids. These are the chemicals making you crave food now. They are the same compounds responsible for giving pot smokers the munchies. According to the investigation, those who got only 4.5 hours of sleep for four consecutive nights had levels of cannabinoids 33 percent higher. This was in comparison to well-rested people. This explains why they were agreeable to sweets offered to them, despite consuming a large meal only hours earlier.
So, solidify your sugar free diet efforts by aiming for at least seven hours of sleep every night. This should drastically help to reduce sugar cravings and thus ease the challenges associated with quitting sugar.
TOUGH BUT WORTH IT: SHUN SUGAR TO SAVE YOUR HEALTH
Like it or lump it, sugar remains the greatest threat to human health. And as the evidence continues to stack up against it, succumbing to the sweet stuff only promises to deteriorate our health and expose us to life-threatening diseases. To put it simply – you can’t have your cake and eat it too. That, unfortunately, is the bitter truth.
Indeed, it makes sense that as humans, we have an innate love for sweetness. But the grip of it is far too deadly not to break free. Slowly vanquishing sugar from your diet, although tough, is achievable - and certainly worth the challenges that come with it.
The bottom line? Kick sugar to the curb – your life might just depend on it.