Sugar is in everything, or so it seems. Food manufacturers know we’re addicted and keep adding it into the last places we’d think to find it. Pasta sauces can have up to four spoonfuls of sugar per jar – even smoked salmon is laced with the stuff. Recently, I’d come to hate the effect a high sugar diet was having on me. As a working mum who needed quick energy fixes, I would treat myself to biscuits, sweets and chocolates throughout the day, a habit which was making me feel physically sick and constantly tired. I knew I was in a vicious cycle and, beginning to hate the control it had over my thoughts, I resolved to reduce the level of sugar in my diet.
I re-read some articles online on the benefits of quitting sugar, including having better energy levels and reduced weight, and took action in the form of a Whatsapp chat group with my self-aware and health conscious friends. We all vowed to attempt a detox and to help each other through the sugar minefield which was our normal everyday foods and drinks.
It all started so promisingly. “We Are Not Slaves to Sugar!” exclaimed the title of the group. Motivational messages were coming through, temporarily replacing the comfort of a sugary morning latte. Like addicts in therapy, we discussed the triggers that may bring on a slip up. Doughnuts in the office, sweets in the staffroom, a birthday cake for a colleague. It was only Monday but the temptation was everywhere!
Day 2 – 3
Congratulating each other for getting through 24 hours, we proudly listed what we had avoided. By day three my mood and energy levels were down, but I knew why. I just had to get past the first four days. It felt liberating to just say no to sugar, rather than being stuck in a cycle of binge/guilt, always deliberating Should I? Shouldn’t I?.
Day 4 – 5
In order to truly detox from sugar, some nutritionists advise to avoid fruit for the first week. Not everyone realised this, as one of us announced happily in the group chat that, instead of their morning croissant, they had a banana. Panic ensued.
9:33 “Have you eaten all of it? Put it down or you have to start again!”
9:34 “They’re 90 percent sugar! Secretly manufactured by Cadburys.”
9:37 “But it’s a fruit! A world without bananas…” *sad face emoji* *crying emoji*
Day 6 – 7
Thankfully, we were slightly less hysterical by the end of the week. The first week of a sugar detox is always gruelling because, sugar being highly addictive, it needs to leave your body for your cravings to actually, chemically reduce. We shared healthy recipes, someone posted a step by step video of themselves making a sweet potato curry – an easy and healthy way to get ‘good’ sugars into your diet if you had a craving. We made sure we didn’t use the weekend as an excuse to give into cravings. This was social media at its best and we were beginning to feel better.
Becoming ever more savvy, and having given up obvious sources of sugar, such as cake and biscuits, we now focused on those hidden sugars in savoury foods. We shared what we knew about reading food packaging. To assess whether a food is high or low in sugar, you must look at how many grams of total sugars there are per 100g of food. High sugar content is more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g, low sugar content is 5g or less of total sugars per 100g. When we analysed the packaging of different loaves of bread, we were shocked to find some were displaying sugar content above 6g. Therefore it’s worth reading the packaging to find a lower sugar content loaf. We discovered that if you wanted crisps as a treat then some had significantly more sugar than others, whereas some brands had none at all. A healthy diet where you can eat crisps in moderation seemed to be evidence that we were onto a good thing.
Week 3 to 4
I no longer felt deprived or edgy if I hadn’t had a biscuit with my tea, as I was eating whatever I wanted of everything else. The sugar laden treats I had once craved now looked sickening and poisonous. Hummus, breadsticks and sundried tomatoes were becoming a satisfying snack. My relationship with food was better as I was no longer stuck in a guilt-filled cycle of wanting something, having it and regretting it. I ate what I felt my body needed and didn’t count calories. I felt and looked better!
At some point over the past weeks, we all fell off the wagon. At a child’s birthday party, I had a lot of cake. A trip to a theme park saw me eat candy floss, two ice creams and some sherbet sticks. Needless to say, I felt ghastly afterwards. Months after the group chat had died down, someone satirically posted: “Remember when this was a thing?!” It seems our initial fastidiousness was ambitious in the long term, but it did serve to heighten our awareness of all the hidden sugar lurking in our food.
Overall, my sugar content has definitely reduced since the detox. Owing to hidden sugars, few people manage to truly be sugar-free, and for most of us some sugar in our diet will be unavoidable. Although I now try to make my own sugar-free pasta sauce, sometimes I use a pre-packaged jar and I don’t beat myself up about it. When I do have a sugary treat, I enjoy it and try not to make it habitual. However, greater awareness of the health implications of too much sugar – especially for our children, is urgently needed. I would recommend a sugar detox to everyone – as it really highlights how much we depend on sugar, but how little we actually need it.
More information about reading food packaging is available on the NHS Live Well website. (http://www.nhs.uk/LiveWell/Pages/Livewellhub.aspx)
Aisha Afzal is a teacher from London who enjoys painting, history and anything creative in her spare time.