Giving up sugar is tough, but if you have set yourself the goal of ditching the sweet stuff in 2018 (or at least limiting your intake), then be safe in the knowledge that we've got you.
I gave up sugar a few years back for a three-month stretch, and I noticed that I was less sluggish upon waking and didn't suffer from the 4 p.m. slump. My skin was better too. And it's not just me who has reaped the benefits, as my colleague gave up sugar before Christmas and noticed her breakouts diminished, but they came back when she started eating chocolate and drinking fizz over the holidays. Coincidence? We think not. And it's not just anecdotal accounts that point to sugar being a health enemy, as many scientists and experts denote sugar as the single-most destructive (and addictive) ingredient in the average modern diet. "High-sugar diets can also cause us to pile on the pounds (especially around the middle), but they are also linked to an increased risk of a number of health conditions such as PCOS, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease," says nutritional therapist for Lepicol Lighter Hannah Braye.
It's also pretty tricky to avoid, not just because it tastes so good, but "because there are over 50 different names given to sugars, it can make it even harder when reading food labels to determine what foods actually contain added sugar," explains nutritionist Emily Maguire.
Pre-packaged dips, bread, you name it—chances are that it contains added sugar, which means even the healthiest among us might not even be aware that we're addicted.
Add to the fact that it's incredibly addictive, it can be tricky (but not impossible) to beat. Studies show that it's even more addictive than cocaine—so it's worth knowing you might even experience some withdrawal symptoms in addition to cravings. "These symptoms usually occur in the first few days and can include headaches, stomach upset, irritability and fatigue," says psychologist and nutritionist Candice Seti. "They will pass, so stick with it!"
Keep reading for your guide to ditching the sweet stuff. We called on Braye, Maguire and Seti, to share their tips for limiting your sugar intake this January (and beyond). We challenge you to try one or more of these sugar addiction–busting tips this month, and then try the seven-day challenge below.
1. Clear Out Your Cupboards
If you do nothing else, do this. Clear out your cupboards and fridge of any offending snacks or foods because out of sight, out of mind(ish). Then, your best strategy is to plan most of your meals. If you need some inspiration, there are so many websites and food blogs that specialise in recipes that are so tasty that you won't feel like you're missing out on anything—Minimalist Baker, Green Kitchen Stories and Sprouted Kitchen are a few favourites.
"People are less likely to crave certain foods when they are not in close proximity to them," says Braye. "Walking to the corner shop late at night in the pouring rain is far less appealing than just grabbing a pack of biscuits out of the cupboard. Out of sight, really can help put sugar out of mind, so clear out any sugary treats that might tempt you. Donating them to a local food bank or taking them into the office to share is a good way to avoid waste."
2. Just Eat Real Food (JERF)
"The simplest way to cut down on sugar is to eliminate processed foods from your diet and instead cook from scratch using whole food ingredients and lots of vegetables," explains Braye. "This way you know exactly what is going into your food and you can adapt recipes by reducing the sugar content. You don't need to be the best cook in the world to do this. Simple salads and soups are quick and easy to make. Or avoid slaving over a hot stove entirely and simply throw some ingredients in a slow cooker for a few hours whilst you get on with the rest of your day."
"Look at the recipes and meal plans that you want to follow and get any ingredients that you will need," advises Maguire. "Remember the age-old saying that is if you fail to plan then you plan to fail. Look at your schedule for the coming week. Are you travelling a lot or have any dinners out? Plan by looking at the menu beforehand or have handy go-to sugar-free snacks. It will make sticking with this all the easier."
3. Always Read the Label
We know it's not always practical to JERF, but if you're buying packaged food, always read the label.
"If you take a look at the ingredients list of some of the foods in your cupboard, you will be shocked by how often sugar appears. From condiments to breakfast cereals, pasta sauces, yoghurts, baked beans and seemingly health snack bars, sugar is ubiquitous in the food manufacturing industry. In particular, pay attention to the section that says "Carbohydrates (of which sugars)."
"If your brain doesn't work in grams, the equation to remember is 4 grams = approximately 1 tsp. of sugar. When you visualise it like this, you'll start to realise just how much sugar you've been consuming unknowingly," explains Braye.
The equation to remember is 4 grams = approximately 1 tsp. of sugar.
4. Drink More Water
"A helpful tip while adjusting to a sugar cleanse is to drink a large amount of water throughout the day," says Seti. "Water will help balance your blood sugar, keep your system running effectively and minimise the impact of any withdrawal symptoms."
Use a BKR water bottle made from glass, as they are a stylish alternative to disposable plastic bottles that are wrecking the environment and your health. The BKR co-founders, Tal Winter and Kate Cutler, are on a mission to get everyone switched to reusable bottles, plus drinking more water is great for your skin. "[Drinking more water] helps to create the foundation for a gorgeous complexion so skincare and makeup can do their work," they say.
For me, gentle exercise and getting lots of sleep also helped immensely. Getting your fill of adaptogenic herbs could help to balance your mood swings and appetite, since they help regulate cortisol (which is often the culprit behind these symptoms).
Maguire adds that in cases of extreme cravings, your best strategy is to allow your body to indulge—the healthy way. "The body is looking to satisfy the reward centre in the brain," she explains. "If you find that any craving hits, then reaching for good low-sugar snacks such as dark chocolate (above 70% cocoa), nut butter, nuts and seeds or berries with Greek yoghurt can kill the cravings."
5. Eat Strategically
"Eating a breakfast rich in protein and healthy fats has also been shown to help reduce snacking on sugary foods later in the day," says Braye. "Ditch the breakfast cereals and toast, and instead opt for protein-rich alternatives such as eggs and avocado with lots of vegetables such as spinach, kale, mushrooms and tomatoes"
Another tip is that you should always have healthy snacks in your handbag. "This is another really good strategy to avoid impulse snacking. Unsalted nuts, boiled eggs, veg sticks and hummus and chia puddings made in a jam jar are all great sugar-free options," adds Braye.
Filling up on fibre from vegetables and whole grains is another great way to curb appetite and reduce sugar cravings, says Braye. "You could also consider taking a high-fibre supplement, such as Lepicol Lighter (£12), which contains seven strains of live bacteria; chromium, which is an essential mineral that helps the maintenance of normal blood glucose levels; glucomannan, a plant fibre which contributes to weight loss in the context of an energy-restricted diet and psyllium husk, which contributes to maintaining normal bowel transit," she adds.
6. Sweeten Right
So many people give up sugar but then switch to sweet, unrefined alternatives like maple syrup, coconut sugar, rice syrup and honey. You should proceed with caution. "Whilst these do have some nutritional benefits over processed white sugar, containing certain vitamins and minerals, they have the same effect on our blood glucose and can be just as addictive, so it's best to steer clear for a while until cravings are under control," explains Braye.
Instead look to cinnamon to add a natural sweetness to coffee or porridge. "It has hypoglycaemic effects, helping us to regulate our blood sugar levels," says Braye. "Cinnamon tea is particularly good at curbing those midafternoon or after-dinner sugar cravings."
Get creative with your sources of sweetness. Foods like sweet potatoes, beetroot, bananas, apple puree or a few dates can often be substituted for sugar when baking. "The internet is full of inventive recipes!" says Braye. "Whilst these do contain natural sugars, they are also packaged with lots of fibre and resistant starch, meaning they cause less of spike in our blood glucose levels."
7. Stick With It
Finally, when trying to reduce sugar in your diet, it is important to remember that balance is key, says Braye. "Extreme diets and eating regimes rarely work and often going cold turkey isn't the best strategy," she adds.
"Making long-term and meaningful changes to diet and lifestyle doesn't happen overnight and can be a gradual process."
If you reach for a biscuit at work or a dessert when you're out for dinner, don't beat yourself up about it or go on a sugar binge. "The next time you eat, you'll have another opportunity to make healthier choices," notes Braye.
Try our seven-day sugar-free challenge below.
Next up, this diet burns fat like no other.