This is the story of how I managed to quit sugar.
My health has been a worry to me for a long time. In my late teens I started to get hypoglycaemic attacks which I’ve had ever since, and despite numerous interventions they’ve only gotten worse, sometimes several times a day for days in a row. Most people have probably had a few and know they’re pretty unpleasant. It was a vicious cycle for me because I’d want to eat well to lose weight, and then a hypo would strike and I’d be diving for the nearest anything I could find to shove in my mouth to feel better. My blood glucose rollercoaster meant that energy wasn’t getting into my cells where it was needed, and I was/am tired and craving sugar ALL THE TIME.
In my early 20s I was reasonably fit and active, and kept my weight stable despite the insulin resistance by just having a generally good lifestyle and going to the gym often. Then, I fell in love and surprise surprise, I stopped going to the gym took on additional responsibilities of step-parenting and over the course of 2 years put on 20kg.
On my wedding day in 2008 I was a size 18 and I was 91g. Early in 2009 something snapped and I started calorie counting and for some reason I found it easy. I lost 15kg over 6 months, never felt better, and the insulin resistance improved marginally. I was still eating sugar though, in fact I was eating whatever I liked, just in smaller quantities to fit it into my 1500 calories a day.
Then my marriage broke up. In the midst of all the stress and the adjustment and the change, my weight again began to gradually creep up again. The insulin resistance got worse and my doctor said I was on the fast track for diabetes if I didn’t make some drastic changes. An ultrasound showed I have polycystic ovarian syndrome and my immune system had been severely compromised (I believe), by the kilos and kilos of sugar I’d funnelled through my body for so long. Plus I subscribe to some of Louise Hays’ theories around the impact of stress on the body. I had constant headaches and picked up every bug going around. I went on Metformin for awhile, which is an insulin sensitivity medication and it was HORRIBLE. The nausea was constant. My weight slowly increased and then 8 months ago I started a new job where I attend a LOT of catered events, morning teas, afternoon teas, lunch meetings and the food is always abundant and tempting and bad for me. My weight ballooned. I didn’t quite get back to 91kg, but I was heading there – fast.
So, this brings me to 12 weeks ago, when during a particularly bad sugar hangover (after eating a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s the night before), I went searching online and found Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar e-book. She based this partly on David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison and other research about the impact of sugar on our bodies. I bought it and read it, and believed its message that sugar really is the root of all my problems and I decided to banish it out of my life indefinitely.
I’ve used Sarah’s book as a basis for trying to educate myself more about nutrition. I knew the basics, that protein makes you feel full, and low GI is best, but applying those had made shit-all difference to me while my cravings for sugar were so constant and intense. Her plan is fairly simple. You spend two or three weeks weaning off sugar, and then 5 or 6 weeks with no sugar. By no sugar she means no fructose or table sugar (a combination of fructose and sucrose), so no fruit in any form, no sweet things, lollies, cake, honey, jam etc. You also have to avoid any products like bread, bottled sauces etc that have sugar added. Even weetbix has sugar added. Some natural sweeteners are ok if you feel you need it (although not having them much so that I get used to the absence of sweet flavour). Lactose is fine so I’m glad I didn’t have to give up dairy except for those sneaky products with lots of sugar added.
The thing I have missed most is fruit. It sounds extreme to give up an entire food group but if your problem is sugar, then I believe what Sarah says about having to give your body that time to completely detox and recalibrate. The idea is then you can work fruit gradually back into your diet because the fibre is good and helps to process the fructose. I’ve probably misunderstood some of the fundamentals of the nutrition science here but I wasnt stressing too much about that – her plan came highly recommended so I trusted it.
Around the three week mark I noticed that I started to get cold more often (which is normal apparently) and a bit grumpy (also normal) and I’m sure there’s a link with an abscess on my leg which I developed after falling down the stairs at work. Possibly all that detoxed sugar floating around in my system?
Around the same time I had a very interesting convo with my doctor, who is just fabulous. I was whinging about my shortened achilles, and saying I ‘had’ to get it fixed because I ‘had’ to get back into exercise to lose weight. She then said “do you really think you need to lose weight?”
My reply was “um… yeah! Don’t I?”
Then she proceeded to tell me that she’s “not in the business of prescribing unhappiness” and that perhaps I should make fitness my goal, because people who are fit and a bit overweight live longer, healthier, HAPPIER lives than people who are unfit and the ‘proper’ weight. She also gave me a bunch of info about metabolic set points, but the bit that struck me was about being fit and happy.
So with the new found energy from quitting sugar I joined the gym and started personal training (via a Living Social deal. Aren’t those awesome?! Not sure I could afford a PT otherwise). This really helped to capitalise on all the good feelings and distract me when it started to feel too hard.
Around weeks 5 and 6 it got tougher. I’m not sure if there was a particular reason – possibly I’d been allowing too many sneaky sugars through and these little ‘hits’ were feeding my cravings. Examples of sneaky sugar are flavouring on rice crackers and rice cakes, salami, bread products where I can’t read the labels and of course lemon pepper – my condiment of choice. In the scheme of things that’s not too bad, but as Sarah Wilson points out, if you’re going to detox from fructose you need to get rid of ALL of it.
I also started to realise, after OD-ing on “sugar-free” (artificially sweetened) chocolate, that physical cravings are the least of my problems. I’m thinking that I might need to just not have it in the house because I can’t DO moderation..yet. What drives us to over-consume, well past the point of physical satisfaction? With that in mind, I plan to investigate hypnotherapy to change the way I think about food (and will blog about the results). Perhaps I’d better do that sooner rather than later before finding other, almost as unhealthy, ways to fill that ‘gap’ that sugar has left. Hmmmm.
Having gotten through that week 5 slump, by the 8 week mark I was flying high on success. I’d only lost a couple of kilos but wasn’t too fussed about that. My clothes were definitely looser, I could SEE the difference when I looked in the mirror, and knew that I was doing everything right in terms of diet and exercise and general wellbeing, so that I could just relax a bit and let my body find its own rhythm and ‘new’ metabolic set point.
I was also fine-tuning my eye-roll-inducing sugar-free evangelist routine by this point, likely testing my friends’ patience. It was hard to hide the excitement at having seemingly conquered some of the problems that had ruled my life for YEARS. Here’s a true confession: I used to have this ugly habit of waking up at 2 or 3am every night craving something and I would snack on whatever I had in the house, preferably sweet. All it took was the sensation of food in my mouth to make me fall back to sleep and I’d wake up again later with food still in my mouth, or on the pillow. Gross. That isn’t normal behaviour, I’m sure.
I’ve also tried to change how I think about success and view every lesson as a win. One example was when I had an all day conference and stupidly I didn’t take any snack foods with me. I was just hoping there would be something savoury for morning and arvo tea. By morning tea I was really hungry because I’d had breakfast earlier than usual, and sure enough there were only biscuits, pastries, croissants and slices on offer. So I had a tiny little piece of shortbread which felt like the best option. I felt fine afterwards and it got me through until lunchtime no worries. Lunch was salad and sandwiches so that was fine, then arvo tea was scones with jam and cream – no other options. I had one because I knew I’d be having a hypo before dinner if I didn’t eat.Sure enough by the time I walked in the door at home 6.45 I was shaking and ‘dinner’ that night was a selection of sliced meat, cheese, crackers and hommus followed by a few spoon fulls of plain yoghurt.
Where’s the win in this, you might ask, since I had sugar twice in one day? Well, the win was that I wasn’t tempted to any eat of the sweet stuff at morning tea – I didn’t have to fight temptation to wolf down two or three pastries and the shortbread was more than enough. Had I been better organised I wouldn’t have had anything at all. Same goes for arvo tea. And the reaction of my body, with a hypo 3 hours after a scone and jam was a predictable and timely reminder of why I was doing this.
Now, 12 weeks in, I can vouch that this really works. I feel amazingly lighter and more energetic and I’m sleeping better. I thought this would feel like hell but except for the odd moment, like a hen’s night recently where there was cake and sweet stuff everywhere, and morning teas at work, the cravings haven’t been too bad. The weaning over the first few weeks definitely helped – I now don’t even have sugar in my coffee which I NEVER thought I’d be able to do.
A ‘typical’ days eating for me includes:
- Vitabrits and plain yoghurt with chia seeds for breakfast.
- Cracker biscuits with hommus or cottage cheese, or grilled haloumi for morning tea
- Mixed salad with plenty of protein, a bowl of vegie soup or left-overs for lunch
- A bar of Well Naturally sugar-free dark chocolate or a small packet of twisties (sugar-free would you believe? Still plenty of other crap in twisties though) with a cup of tea for afternoon tea.
- Fish or meat with veggies for dinner.
- After dinner I might have a piece of toast if really hungry, or just a cup of tea or glass of hot milk. Hot milk is sweet enough without anything in it, as I’ve discovered.
In addition to plenty of good food, the key to success on this ‘journey’ (poxy word that it is) is to celebrate the knowledge gained about how our bodies work. Observing how my body reacts to sugar, without being caught up in the emotional entanglement of it is actually very freeing. Knowledge is power! Also being organised is critical – always having well stocked cupboards and fridge, with a variety of options on hand so that I can fill whatever gap it is that makes me think I want sugar. So far what feels right is definitely:
- No, or at least very low sugar
- High protein
- Lots of good fats
- Small amount of bad fats
- Low GI, small serving sizes when carbs are involved
- LOTS of water – I dated a guy once who told me that everyone should drink enough so that by the afternoon your pee is clear – I try to make that my goal
- Definitely not interested in overly processed food, and meal replacement shakes – forget it! Unnatural and unsustainable in most cases I think.
Honestly, after the wild ride I’ve been on over the last few years, if I can do this anyone can. There’s not nearly as much will-power involved as you might think. Once you start eliminating sugar your body’s natural processes will take over and help you to recalibrate. Try it, I dare you!