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How I Quit Sugar

January 3, 2013

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In January 2011 I quit sugar – in all its forms. I’d been told by specialists and nutritionists for years that I should. I have an autoimmune disease (Hashimotos, a disease that attacks the thyroid and mostly affects women over 30) and sugar flares up my condition terribly.  Some even argue sugar causes the disease in the first place.

I was also addicted to the stuff, eating upwards of 25 teaspoons of sugar a day  - honey in my chai tea, dark chocolate every afternoon and sweet treats after dinner. It all looked like “healthy sugar”, but as I soon learned, sugar is sugar, whether it comes from a beehive or a sugar cane field.

Today I’m still off the sugar; I’ve lost weight, no longer have 3pm slumps ever and manage my disease much better. I went on to write an ebook about how I quit the white stuff – an 8-week program that steers people to eating whole foods and replacing sugar with, yes, healthy saturated fats and protein.

Curious to try it for yourself? Then these techniques might just help:

1: Ditch fruit juice and dried fruit

I’ll cut to the chase here: a glass of apple juice contains the same amount of sugar as a glass of Coke. That’s about 10-12 teaspoons in one standard glass.  And dried fruit contains 70 per cent sugar.

Oh, but the sugar in fruit is natural, you might say. True, but so is petroleum. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean we’re meant to eat it. Fruit is very high in sugar. Eaten whole, with the fibre and water intact, we’re able to metabolise the fructose. But when the fibre or water is removed, in the case of juice and dried fruit, we’re left with a whole heap of sugar that our system simply can’t process. The best trick: opt for low fructose whole fruit, such as berries and kiwi fruit.

2. Learn how to read labels

The only way to keep an eye on your sugar intake is to know how much is hidden in the products you’re eating. To do this, look on the “Nutrition Information” chart on the back of the packet and find “serving size”. Look at the amount of sugar listed in this column. It will be in grams or mls. Then divide the grams of mls by four to get the number of teaspoons. If your muesli lists 30g of sugar per serve, you’re eating more than seven teaspoons of the stuff before you’ve left the house.

Many experts and institutions, including The American Heart Association, advise we should be consuming about 6-9 teaspoons of sugar a day only.

As a rule of thumb: try to only eat products with less than 6g of sugar per 100g or 100mls. More than this and you’ll find by the end of the day your “incidental” sugar intake is way too high. 

3. Eat full-fat dairy

Know this: when fat is taken out of products like yoghurt, it’s often replaced with sugar (and a bunch of other nasty ingredients) to make up for the lost texture and taste.

Take a look at the back of a yoghurt punnet. Any sugar listing over 4.7g/100g (which is the fructose-free and safe lactose content) is added sugar. Some yoghurts contain six teaspoons of sugar in one individual serve.  The same applies to mayonnaise – always choose whole-egg and full-fat versions to avoid the fattening sugar dump.

4. In fact, eat more fat…and healthy  protein!

Of course, I’m not talking fried fats or trans fats. I’m talking the kinds of fats our grandparents ate – eggs, cheese, butter, chicken (with the skin left on). The French eat this way and, like our grandparents’ generations, do not have an obesity issue. It adds up. The other thing about fat is that it fills you up, which helps with sugar cravings. Some ideas that work: when out at a restaurant, order the cheese platter instead of dessert; eat cheese and crackers at afternoon tea; swap muesli for eggs and ham.

5. Avoid sauces

Did you know barbeque sauce contains roughly the same amount of sugar as chocolate topping? About 50 per cent? Tomato sauce is much the same. My advice is to develop a taste for good quality mustard and whole egg mayonnaise instead. Tomato-based sauces are also full of sugar, especially when you consider you rarely eat a mere 50g of it at a meal, but more like a cup, or 250g (which entails multiplying the sugar amount by 2.5).

6. Eat simply

Again, I consult my grandmother’s way of eating here. She didn’t eat food slopped with lots of fancy, sugar-laden sauces. It was meat and vegetables. The easiest way to eliminate hidden sugars, especially when you’re out, is to choose food that has as few ingredients as possible. At a restaurant or pub, go for a steak and vegetables drizzled in olive oil instead of the Thai curry (Thai food is brimful of sugar), and in the supermarket opt for the version with the shortest ingredients list. This, again, will see you eliminate a lot of processed foods.

7. Watch out for health products

Some of the most sugar-laden foods are often found in health food shops. To avoid the “sugar” tag, many seemingly nutritious packaged foods are sweetened with honey, palm sugar, coconut sugar and agave, all of which are sugar with another tag. Agave is one of the most problematic at more than 70 per cent fructose.

8. Allow eight weeks

According to various studies, it takes between 21-60 days to reverse a habit. Sugar is a particularly tough habit to kick, and one with many deep-rooted emotional ties. I find it takes most people about 6-8 weeks of going cold turkey to get sugar out of their system. After about two months their bodies are then able to determine how much sugar want. When they reach for sugar, it’s not because they’re addicted.

Sarah Wilson is the author of the best-selling I Quit Sugar: an 8-week program, and the follow up I Quit Sugar Cookbook. She's also a TV host, journalist and health coach.