TEN TIPS FOR CUTTING OUT SUGAR – You know how when you really want some chocolate, or a stack of biscuits, the lifestyle columnists’ advice is to, ‘go for a walk,’ ‘drink a glass of water’ or ‘distract yourself’? Frankly, if you want a piece of chocolate, or maybe the whole bar, that kind of notion just isn’t going to cut it. So I thought I’d share with you my top ten tips for cutting down on eating sugar.
It’s more than a decade since I first started researching sugar for my book, ‘Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World’. I realised back then that I needed to eat less sugar – but it’s an uphill task (‘give it 20 min, then see if you still want that chocolate.’ Er, yes.). What’s going to work longterm is retraining your tastebuds so I’m going to share with you some of the things that worked for me.
Believe it or not, when my book was published, most people weren’t worried about sugar consumption and I had to argue strongly that sugar really, truly, honestly could make you fat! Now we’re much more aware that sugar can lead to dental caries, obesity and diseases like diabetes. Sugar is in almost everything processed, not just fizzy drinks, but also in foods like curry or breakfast cereals.
Cutting out sugar can be really hard – especially as sugar is pretty addictive and you’ll miss it and quite probably crave it. I have a sweet tooth, so I know how hard it can be. I do eat sugar – but I do so mindfully. I know when I’m eating sugar and I’ve made the decision to eat it and not feel guilty about having a treat when, 90 per cent of the time, my diet is pretty healthy.
1.Cut it out. if you’re the kind of person who is all or nothing, you could go ‘cold turkey’ and stop eating sugar completely overnight. You may end up with headaches and mood swings, but then your body will adjust. For the rest of us, cutting down gradually is easier. From my own experience, it takes at least three weeks for your taste buds to start to adjust and for food that isn’t sweetened to begin to taste palatable.
2. Ditch the junk food. Don’t keep any junk food in the house – even savoury foods can have sugar in. If you’ve got a stack of biscuits hidden somewhere, you will eat them at some point when your will power is low. I hide things in the garage and the freezer. But then I find them again.
3. Stop buying processed foods. This won’t happen overnight, but you can slowly start replacing bought meals with homecooked food. I plan what we’re going to eat as a family over the course of the week and then make a few things at the weekend, like a big pot of soup, a Quorn or bean stew, a healthy treat and sugar-free granola. It’s less expensive too. Of course, we also have stand-bys like baked beans that frankly, taste disgusting if you buy the no-sugar version.
4. Don’t drink sweetened drinks. There’s a huge amount of sugar (sometimes in other forms, such as high fructose corn syrup) in fizzy drinks. A standard can of coke has the equivalent of ten teaspoons of sugar. Government guidelines suggest we should eat no more than five teaspoons per day. Even drinks with low calorie sweeteners should be avoided: your body still thinks you’ve eaten sugar and you’ll end up with the same sugar rush followed by a craving to eat more (see my nutrition chapter in my ‘Sugar’ book for how this works and the evidence to back it up!).
5. Replace sugary drinks with healthy substitutes: sparkling water with lemon, lime and cucumber; freeze blueberries and raspberries in ice cubes and add to water with slices of orange; make a posh drink for the weekend with a blend of fruit, herbs, such as watermelon and mint, stewed pears with ginger, ice, mint and whole limes; blend and sieve, then dilute to taste with water.
6. Replace sugar with healthy substitutes. There are a number of healthy alternatives you can add to anything from porridge, to yogurt, to smoothies, to cold drinks or your cup of chai. Fruit, obviously, is a great source of natural sugar and is packed with vitamins, antioxidants and fibre. A compote of blueberries and apple on top of porridge, a banana and a handful of raspberries in a smoothie, chopped kiwi in freshly squeezed orange juice with homemade granola and yogurt, are all delicious options.
Other healthy sweeteners are coconut sugar, honey, coconut nectar, date syrup and stevia. To begin with even fruit with full-fat yogurt is not going to taste sweet initially so you may need to add a drizzle of honey. Stevia is an amazing product as it’s natural (it’s made from the stevia leaf) and it’s much sweeter than sugar. It’s also virtually calorie and carb-free. One to five drops in a cup of tea or a smoothie will make it taste really sweet but it does have a slight liquorice after-taste if you add too much.
7. Replace sugary snacks with healthy snacks. I have a couple of squares of dark chocolate every day with a cup of coffee. It takes the edge off my sugar craving, it’s not too sweet and it’s pretty hard to eat a lot of dark chocolate. Initially dark chocolate won’t taste brilliant, but you could try chocolate with a low per centage of cacoa solids and then gradually increase to at least 70 per cent cacao solids. If you need a chocolate hit, you could always make a milk shake or a smoothie using raw cacao and adding honey, dates or a banana for the sweetness.
8. Have a couple of healthy treats a week. There are now so many delicious biscuits, cookies, raw fudge and cake recipes out there that don’t use refined sugar, but instead rely on honey, dates or coconut sugar for sweetness (have a look at my blogs on Sweet Teeth, and Sweet Teeth Two). These forms of sugar have a lower glycemic index than sugar, so won’t cause a spike in insulin production as swiftly as refined sugar does; they also contain fibre (in the case of coconut sugar and dates) and antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. However, they are potent sources of natural sugars and will still lead to insulin production and weight gain (if you don’t exercise too). So refined sugar-free cake or ice cream should still viewed as a treat, not eaten every day!
9. Up the bitterness. Adding more bitter or sour foods to your diet can help your tastebuds adjust – so stick a handful of spinach or rocket in your salad; blend parsley, celery, lettuce, beetroot or spinach with your daily smoothie! The more whole fruit you blend with your vegetables, the better they’ll taste – and then you can gradually reduce the amount of fruit.
10. Eat less fruit. Fruit is delicious and so good for you – and it’s way better to be eating fruit than a Twix – but fruit is still high in a type of sugar called fructose. I used to use fruit as a crutch to replace sweet treats – snacking on apples, pears, bananas and dates throughout the day and eating fruit as a pudding after every meal. Now I try and keep fruit as a treat – in a refined-sugar free crumble, cake or ice cream once or twice a week. I have fruit in the mornings for breakfast too, but I try and stick (mostly!) to fruit that’s low in sugar, such as berries.
And one bonus tip!
11. If you want to eat sugar, do. There’s nothing quite like a big slice of pie or cake. If it’s a treat, or someone’s birthday, eat it, enjoy it and don’t feel guilty. Then go right back to where you were the day before on your journey to cut down on sugar.
Let me know how it goes!