Sugar has had a really bad press lately, with national newspapers and prominent scientists labelling it a poisonous substance when it comes to health. The truth is they’re not wrong. At Nourish we are well aware of the many ways in which sugar can disrupt and damage health, and we know the difficulties faced when it comes to giving it up, because it is EVERYWHERE! Most processed foods contain it, and they are cheap, readily available, attractively packaged, cleverly marketed and have a hugely profitable industry driving their manufacture and sales. Most of us, including our children, are addicted to the sweet taste and the rush of energy that sugary foods give us.
More about the problems associated with sugar in a moment, firstly let’s focus on the positive aspects of giving up sugar. Our clinical experience and a whole host of research suggests that giving up sugar will not only make a difference to how your body works at a deeper level, but it will help you to actually feel better on a day to day level too, which is what we’re all looking for. You can expect to:
- lose weight
- have more energy throughout the day
- be clearer headed and more able to concentrate,
- see an improvement in the quality of your skin
- feel more level headed and balanced in mood
We think that if you give up all sugar for just one month you’ll look and feel so much better that you won’t want to go back to your old ways and you’ll have made some important changes for good. So why not join us, give up sugar for just one month – your health will thank you for it, and here’s why…
Why is sugar bad for you? Sugar encourages weight gain, especially around your middle, through stimulating insulin release (insulin is the fat storage hormone), it upsets energy levels by disrupting blood sugar balance which can lead to hypoglycaemia and even type 2 diabetes, it causes digestive problems by feeding unhealthy bacteria and yeasts in the bowel, and hinders the immune system by suppressing white blood cells. It robs the body of nutrients because it uses them up but doesn’t give any back, it impacts on sleep quality, hormone balance, liver function, skin health, and it is very, very ageing, encouraging brittle collagen and elastin which means more wrinkles. Surely that’s enough! But on top of all that, sugar is really addictive – very few people who enjoy eating sugary foods are able to be moderate with their intake because of the way it disrupts blood sugar levels and changes their metabolism. Added to this, most people find sugar cravings are linked to emotions, caused by repeated habitual eating of sugary foods when we are sad, stressed, even happy – by rewarding or comforting ourselves with sugary and refined foods over and over again we have formed a link in our brains and an ingrained behaviour that is very hard to change.
Feeling at the mercy of sugar cravings is really disruptive to your day to day life – you are literally on a sugar roller-coaster that rises and falls repeatedly over and over again, causing a whole range of symptoms and emotions – you may feel shaky or even lightheaded, you probably have powerful cravings for caffeine, sugar and starchy food like bread, leaving you much more likely to choose the wrong foods, you may well feel unable to concentrate properly, as well as being more irritable and moody, not to mention tired all the time, especially in the afternoons – three o clock slump anyone? If you can relate to this, maybe it’s a sign you should join us and give sugar a miss for a while.
But surely nutritionists don’t eat sugar? Well, while it’s true that we don’t very often eat the refined stuff found in ice cream, biscuits, cakes and chocolate, we do eat natural sugar in the form of honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and fruit. And of course we can’t resist dark chocolate… Although natural sugars contain nutrients and can be lower on the glycaemic index (although not always), sugar from any source can have a negative effect on the body in the ways described above, and consuming even natural sugars in all but very small amounts keeps the desire for sugary foods alive, meaning we are more likely to be a slave to sugar cravings rather than in charge of them.
Sugar comes in many forms. It’s frighteningly easy for sugar intake to creep up even if you think you’re being good – you may avoid chocolate, cake and biscuits in an effort to be healthy, choosing cereal bars, fruit bars, weight loss bars and fruit yoghurts instead, but if you read the small print you’ll see that these foods still contain lots of sugar (or artificial sweeteners), and added to the sugar in bread, breakfast cereals, refined carbohydrates and fruit, your daily intake can easily exceed healthy amounts without you even realising it.
So, what is sugar? Sugar comes in many forms – basically anything with an ‘ose’ at the end means it is a sugar. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose, dextrose, fructose and galactose. Disaccharides include what we know as table sugar -sucrose, as well as maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides, including fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS, often included in probiotic supplements because they have a prebiotic effect, meaning they feed the probiotic bacteria – they can cause bloating and discomfort in sensitive people.
What will you have to give up? If you want to join us on our sugar-free June, we advise that you completely exclude the following forms of sugar and all foods that contain them:
- White and brown sugar
- Unrefined or organic cane sugar
- Evaporated cane syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Agave syrup
- Coconut/palm sugar
- Fresh and dried fruit (apart from organic fresh berries – one serving per day)
- Fruit juice, fruit juice concentrates and squash
Why are berries OK? Berries are low in natural sugar, very low on the glycaemic index, and if you go for organic berries, they are very high in beneficial antioxidants and free from chemical sprays. They are also in season in June, and we feel this is the one exception to our sugar free rule that we can’t do without!
Remember hidden sugar – sugars are hidden in many foods that may not be obvious, like sauces (ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard), flavoured yoghurts, cereal and snack bars, flavoured crisps and nuts, smoked salmon, bacon, bread, croissants, breakfast cereals, sugar free jams and spreads. So you need to check labels carefully to make sure you’re not consuming sugar without even realising it.
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame K are also off the list, as these have been found to be harmful to health in many ways and certainly not a good alternative to sugar, so you will need to avoid diet drinks, fizzy drinks, juice drinks like fruit shoots, sugar free sweets and chewing gum (unless sweetened with xylitol), low calorie and diet foods. For more detailed information about artificial sweeteners, you may want to read this article.
Don’t swap one form of sugar for another by eating too many refined, processed carbohydrates to fuel your sugar cravings. White foods like white bread, white pasta, white rice and white potatoes are very high in carbohydrates, cause blood sugar to rise quickly, are lacking in nutrients and are ultimately another form of sugar – they turn to sugar once in the body. While wholegrain cereals like brown rice, whole oats, brown bread and wholemeal pasta are a little slower releasing, they are still a concentrated source of carbohydrates and can still disrupt blood sugar levels, so eat them sparingly and combine them with protein to help slow the release of sugar. We believe its best to get your carbohydrates from colourful starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots and parsnips which are much higher in nutrients without the negative effect of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that blocks mineral absorption (more on that another time).
What about alcohol? It’s worth noting that alcohol is a very concentrated source of sugar, and one that hits the blood stream quickly after ingestion. By keeping intake to no more than 3-5 units a week, spread out over the course of the week and only drinking with a meal to slow down absorption, you should be able to minimise these negative effects (one unit equals one 125ml glass of average strength wine/ half a pint of beer/1 small measure of spirits, and don’t forget about avoiding mixers).
Natural sweeteners you can include – there are two natural sweeteners that don’t disrupt blood sugar balance and undermine health and therefore both can be included during our sugar-free June.
- Xylitol – an all natural alternative to sugar. Derived from birch trees, and also found in various fruits and vegetables including berries and mushrooms, xylitol is a white, granular sugar alternative that looks and tastes almost exactly the same as sugar and can be used in tea, coffee, baking and to sprinkle over yoghurt, berries or porridge. It doesn’t feed yeast and is therefore unsuitable for bread making, although fine for those following a an anti-candida diet. Xylitol has been found to be beneficial to dental health and is often found in natural toothpaste, mints and chewing gum. Xylitol intake should be increased gradually as large amounts can promote bloating and loose bowel movements. Stocked in most supermarkets and health food shops.
- Stevia – a South American herb that has been used as a sweetener for centuries. Many times sweeter than sugar, only a very small amount is needed. Beware of the many stevia/sugar or stevia/artificial sweetener blends on the market which are unhealthy and unsuitable for replacing sugar. Go for natural green leaf stevia in powdered or liquid form – easy to obtain from www.amazon.co.uk or www.goodness direct.co.uk.
Tips for success
Be prepared for cravings as your body goes through withdrawal. Giving up sugar is hard at first, and your body will try its best to persuade you to eat some – you may even feel achey and under par as you get the sugar out of your system and start switching to burning quality fuel instead. Stay strong and focused through this stage and in just a few days you will be amazed at how much better you feel very quickly. The cravings should reduce significantly and you’ll feel more in control of your diet than you have for years.
Balance your meals to help you succeed and feel great without sugar in your life. Don’t reach for refined and processed foods, instead base your diet around whole foods that haven’t been processed – you will need quality protein from eggs, fish and meat; fibre from non-starchy green vegetables, salads, nuts, seeds and pulses; healthy fat from avocados, oily fish, coconut oil, organic butter, extra virgin olive oil and flaxseed oil – all of these foods help balance blood sugar levels, keep you feeling fuller for longer, and deliver a wide variety of nutrients that you need to be healthy. Finally add small amounts of slow-releasing carbohydrates from colourful starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash and carrots, or whole grains like quinoa and brown basmati rice.
Eat protein in the mornings to avoid blood sugar drops during the day. Research suggests that eating a protein-rich breakfasts impacts on blood sugar levels for over four hours afterwards. So choose eggs, fish, meat patties and high quality sausages, and add nuts, seeds and yoghurt to your porridge.
Get organised and stay motivated to maximise your chances of success and minimise possible problems and pitfalls. Many of us know that we are firmly in the grip of sugar and that we must give it up, yet find the prospect scary and daunting – as we said, it is addictive! Don’t be put off though, it is very doable, and getting organised and setting clear goals is the best way to make it as painless as possible.
- If you know you eat a lot of sugar, reduce intake gradually over a few days before you cut it out entirely
- Clear your cupboards and fridge of all foods containing any sugar – family members who don’t want to join you will have to eat sugar away from home
- Avoid parties or meals out where you think you will be tempted to give in. Either invite people round to your house so you can choose the menu or put them off for a few weeks
- Plan your meals each week, or for the whole month if you’re really organised, and shop accordingly
- Batch cook sugar-free snacks, soups and sauces so you don’t have to start from scratch at every meal.
- Before you begin, write down in a journal why you want to do it – perhaps you want to lose some weight before your summer holiday, or you want more energy and healthier skin – read it regularly to stay motivated.
- In your journal, also make notes each day about how you feel emotionally and physically during the process so you can keep a track of any progress.
We will be blogging regularly throughout the month of June so please check back and see how we’re getting on and share your experiences too. We’ll also be sharing recipes and tips to keep you on track.
Written by Emma Rushe