So today is the 24th of November, and I have decided to sign my family up for a sugar-free month. Seems pretty harsh in the run-up to Christmas, but actually I think it's very logical.
We are always trying to eat as little sugar as possible, but we are sugar junkies. It’s a disaster. We try to be careful but it’s just not good enough. Life and circumstances seem to conspire to confound our efforts. Birthdays, special occasions, a bad day that seems to have earned you a treat... and there can be a lot of those. Or a good day that merits celebrating. And suddenly sugar isn’t the occasional treat it should be, it’s a habit. A dangerous, addictive habit which is having an insidious effect on your health.
It's really difficult if you're hooked like I am. You really have to mean it. So the month directly preceding Christmas actually seems like a great idea. It’s so difficult to limit the sugar at this time of year that I have decided the best way – as with all things, but especially sugar – is not to have any. The problem is that having a small amount doesn’t work with sugar because it makes you crave it more, so cold turkey is the way forward with kicking it. No worrying about how much is too much, or allowing a bit for a special occasion. Nothing. You don’t need it, you can live without it, you’ll feel so much better – the list is filled with logical arguments you can't deny. Apart from the health benefits, imagine how amazing it will feel in January when you’re not suffering from a mammoth sugar-comedown, and you're not 10lbs heavier. Who’s with me?
I sense your reticence, and I understand it, but is it because you don't think it's a necessary change, or because you don't think you can do it..?
One way to give yourself a kick up the backside is to Google the negative effects of sugar. It’s not pretty. Actually, it’s terrifying, and as I have said in previous posts, I am certain that eating too much sugar has caused me health problems of magnitude. I am of course referring to refined, added sugar. Naturally occurring sugars in fruit and dairy should still be limited, but it's added sugar that you want to cut out.
A few reasons to avoid added sugar:
it often replaces nutritious food in the diet, so you end up not eating enough real food
sugar is inflammatory - bad news for basically every illness there is, but especially for autoimmune disease
it messes with your appetite rhythms and causes you to overeat
it impacts your hormones, causing a chain reaction of internal signals which can create a vicious cycle, and numerous consequences for the body over time
it puts a strain on your liver
it depletes minerals in the body
it disrupts sleep
it brings you nothing nutritionally
studies are now showing the long-term detrimental effect of sugar over-consumption on the brain, and linking it to diseases like Alzheimer's
All this really makes me wonder what my state of general health would have been like throughout my life without the mountains of sugar I have eaten.
For inspiration, I like the website iquitsugar.com. They don’t go too far into the details of why sugar is so detrimental, which I think they should because that’s what will really make your mind up, but it’s very motivational. They recommend an 8-week period to really wean yourself off it, including 4 weeks without fruit (maybe a bit much but if you have an addiction apparently it's necessary).
But, well, I want some Christmas pudding, so four weeks it is, and if I manage this I will be so amazingly pleased that I can actually do it, I feel certain I will be in a better position to make every effort to carry this over into 2018. The idea is to break the cycle, reduce the cravings and control the intake so it's at a normal, respectable, healthy level.
iquitsugar have just started selling baking kits, some using rice syrup as a sweeter, so no fructose, and some without any at all. I plan to try some when I feel the need for a treat (I bought these in Sainsbury's).
It’s going to be tough. If you love baking like I do, you eat sugar very often without even really noticing or meaning to. If you have kids, and they see sugary treats everywhere, you can’t help the pang of guilt at always having to say no, even though you know it’s bad for them, and sometimes you just have to give in. All the more reason to avoid casual sugar consumption.
When I was a kid we were told that eating sugar was bad for your teeth. When I was a teenager, and until recently, I thought the main issues were diabetes and weight gain. I had no idea about the numerous negative ways sugar can affect you. When you're young your body can withstand a lot of abuse. It's as you age that you start to feel the impact of your choices more acutely.
The irony is that I have always tried to avoid salt for fear of the health issues associated with it. I would have done better to avoid sugar. I have landscaped my gut flora to be sugar-hungry, and caused the rest of my body to suffer the consequences. For example, I learned recently that too much sugar causes recurring yeast infections – it makes sense if you think about it. Yeast infections can exist in the gut and beyond, and yeast feeds on sugar. I don’t have that particular problem, but I have had bladder problems which I think cannot be helped by sugar, and have noticeably abated since I dramatically reduced my intake about two years ago.
One other thing I noticed immediately when I stopped eating as much sugar was that my restless leg syndrome all but vanished. No one really knows what causes it, but low magnesium is thought to be a factor, and sugar gobbles up magnesium. This deficiency will cause you more serious problems that RLS over time. RLS is a sign that something is wrong, so don't ignore it.
The thing is, sugar is like smoking. It brings you no health benefits whatsoever, it makes every existing health condition worse, and it creates many problems of its own.
Here are a few things to bear in mind which have made me think hard about my choices.
hot chocolate is usually about 60-80% sugar.
don't even consider fizzy drinks. Take some water, pour in ten spoonfuls of sugar and a few drops of food colouring and what you have will be healthier than the stuff they try and sell to kids in shiny plastic bottles, because that's also full of chemicals, for good measure.
fruit juice is dangerous because we think of it as healthy, but it's not. You are not designed to consume the juice of 6 oranges in one go, and without the fibre! The fibre slows the absorption of the fructose, and holds much of the nutritional value of the fruit, so apart from bathing your teeth in acidic sugar, fruit juice spikes your blood sugar, stresses your liver, and is less beneficial than eating an actual fruit. Do not give your kids smoothies, and dilute juice dramatically. It's not doing them any good.
Green & Blacks’s milk cholcoate is 45% sugar – it may be organic but that shouldn’t distract you from the fact that sugar-wise it rivals most brands. An expensive brand doesn't mean it's better for you.
do not be conned that vegan, gluten-free, or low fat means healthier. They almost always mean more sugar. And sugar-free means aspartame, E numbers and a list of chemicals as long as your arm.
this is a Paw Patrol chocolate egg (below) that I briefly considered buying for my 2 year-old recently. Yes that's right, it's 84% sugar. How dare they call this chocolate? Read labels - do it systematically. It will change how you eat for the better, and not just because of sugar-content-awareness, but because of the utter rubbish you will discover we are being peddled as food.
kids’ stuff is the absolute worst. Cadbury mini eggs are almost 70% sugar. It means that if you eat three you may as well just eat a spoonful of sugar. I don’t know about you but I can eat a whole bag, no problem. It makes me feel sick to think about how often I've done that. And that’s part of the problem – sugar isn’t filling and it’s easily digested, so you don’t get the usual signals from your body that make you realise that you’ve had enough. It's not really food, so it doesn't work that way.
So here are my tools for my sugar fast:
100% dark chocolate
It’s bloody great. This is the only one I have found in the supermarket. Some branches of Sainsbury's do it, and I'm truly grateful. Chocolate is good for you, and I find it very tough to go without. And believe me, if you think you can’t hack dark chocolate, you would be amazed at what your palate adjusts to and how quickly. If you can’t quite take it try the Lindt 90% - the next lowest sugar choc I have found.
Sugarless recipes: banana loaf - gluten, dairy and sugar free!
Here is a recipe I have made often. It’s from a paleo website called civilized caveman cooking, and it has no wheat, dairy (you can use butter instead of coconut oil if you prefer) or sugar, and it’s excellent. The bananas give it all the sugar it needs, so don’t get carried away – you still shouldn’t eat a lot in one go! But it’s amazing how nice it is. It's not like a regular cake - it's more dense and damp, so quite filling. Also it’s super-simple. I give little pieces to Flora and I don’t worry. I tell her it’s cake, she’s happy and I don’t feel bad.
Paleo Banana Bread recipe
Serves: 8 - makes 1 loaf
4 ripe bananas
1/2 cup sugar-free almond butter - or any nut butter but almond works best I think
4 tablespoons of coconut oil
1/2 cup coconut or almond flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon gluten free baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of sea salt
a few cacao nibs (optional)
a few chopped walnuts (optional)
1. Preheat your oven to 170 C.
2. Combine all your ingredients in a food processor or a large bowl, and mix well.
3. Pour your batter into a silicon loaf pan and spread it evenly (you can use a loaf tin as well, just grease it well).
4. Place in your preheated oven and bake for 45-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean
5. Remove from the oven and flip your bread out onto a cooling rack and leave for 15 minutes to cool. Then slice and serve! It will keep for about three days.
But not too much! Max two a day, and low-sugar fruit – citrus fruits, kiwi, pineapple, melon, papaya, maybe the odd banana. Avoid mangoes and grapes, for example. They are very high in sugar - I try not to let Flora have these often.
A quick note about dried fruit. They are the absolute worst for sugar. The fructose content is so high that it's actually worse than eating a chocolate bar containing only 20% sugar. Better still, have one chocolate rather than a handful of dried fruit. It's especially dangerous because we think of it as healthy, which it can be, but in small doses. And it's not just the sugar content. Have a look at the ingredients on this pack of dried cranberries: oil, fruit syrup and 67.4% sugar content. Always read the label!
I almost forgot about nuts and seeds! Similarly, you shouldn't have too many as they are high in omega 6 of which you don't want too much, but they really do the job of curbing the cravings and they give you a healthy hit of protein, fibre and minerals. A small handful is enough. And when you're in slightly greater need than nuts can satisfy, try something like this - really delicious and definitely virtuous!
It's remarkable how mixed spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and such create a feeling of sweet warmth without any sugar. For example, adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to a bowl of porridge gives it a sweetness while helping to stabilise your blood sugar - I mix cinnamon into Flora's porridge at home for a bit of flavour. Another option is a drop of vanilla extract, also delicious. It does contain sugar, but comparatively little in a tiny dose.
The better choices
Finally, I think a key is to focus on quality over quantity. Be happy to allow yourself and your kids a couple of decent quality chocolates or a nice cookie, or a mince pie, just as long as you avoid a winter-long sugar-fest fuelled by the sense of occasion, but with no clear limits,or sense of what constitutes "too much". Here are a few ways to improve the source of your sweet fix.
Maple syrup and blackstrap molasses are mineral rich sources of sugar, so you are getting some iron and other trace elements while you satisfy your sweet tooth. Maple syrup is also low FODMAP - hooray!
Honey is high in fructose, but it does have many redeeming qualities, in that it has antimicrobial and healing properties. It also contains vitamins and minerals, as well as being anti-inflammatory. All in all you're better off choosing one of these sources of sugar. I buy the super-expensive Manuka honey because I have chosen to believe the hype. Some people say the claims made about it are untrue, but I love honey, and if there's a chance it's doing me some extra good, I feel I may as well have that particular one than another. That logic makes sense in my mind! Just be careful to assure yourself it's a reliable brand, because apparently there is much more Manuka sold worldwide than is produced in New Zealand where it originates, so there is a lot of fake Manuka honey out there. A good indicator is meant to be a plastic container - lighter to transport, so more credibly imported from the other side of the planet.
Honey is like cacao in that it is heated when processed, and loses a lot of its natural goodness that way, so it's best to aim for raw honey, and set is usually better.
Finally, you can buy jam without added refined sugar. It is still extremely high in sugar, but it's sweetened with juice rather than refined sugar, which is somewhat preferable, and it's delicious.
We sometimes make compote at home, by simmering some berries - frozen works well - and adding a little spice and a drop of maple syrup or honey, which makes a nice accompaniment to cereal or yoghurt as a dessert,