Following a healing diet means removing all added sugar from your diet – that is, sucrose/table sugar and unhealthy fructose – and it can be really, really hard.
Where you’ll find added sugar
When you start reading food labels, you’ll probably be shocked to discover just how many foods contain sugar. Apart from the obvious culprits like cookies, cakes, chocolates, sweets and fizzy drinks, you’ll also find added sugar in cereals (even ones marketed as ‘healthy’), bread and bread products, canned fruit and vegetables, sauces, condiments, pickles, savoury crackers, processed meat, biltong, fruit juice, some packaged non-dairy milks, flavoured water, peanut butter – the list goes on. Foods that are not supposed to be sweet; foods that you’d never imagine would contain sugar, all do.
Recently, a colleague discovered that the small jar of guacamole he purchased from Woolworths (South Africa) contained a whole teaspoon of sugar. Why? I don’t know about you, but I for one have never put sugar in my guacamole!
Last week, when K and I ate out at a smart restaurant, we found that our starter (carpaccio, which is simply very thin slices of raw meat) was covered in a sweet glaze and topped with grilled pear. The couple at the next table ordered two meat-based main courses that must’ve been completely drenched in something sugary, because I thought they’d gone straight to dessert when I smelt the food being carried up behind me.
And, when I worked as a TEFL teacher in Cape Town, my students (particularly those from other parts of Africa) constantly complained to me that the food here was ‘too sweet’. “Sugar in everything, teacher,” they’d say. “Sugar in the rice, sugar in the meat, sugar on the pizza.” From raisins in the rice (a Cape Malay tradition) to sweet chilli sauce on pizzas, they were right. I was at a loss to explain it. After all, I love nothing more than a rich, decadent chocolate chilli steak myself. But even I knew that the amount of sugar we were all consuming was ridiculous.
Why it’s so hard to give it up
If you’ve tried to give up sugar, or are in the process of doing so, I sympathise. It is almost everywhere, which is why it’s so important to read food labels. Whenever possible, eat foods with a single ingredient – like fresh vegetables and fruit, unprocessed meat, raw seeds and nuts, and home-cooked food.
But it’s not just about avoiding foods that contain sugar. If it were that easy, it wouldn’t be difficult to give up the sweet stuff. A bit of a bind, maybe; a bit time-consuming perhaps, but not hard. However, if you have tried to quit it, you’ll know just how challenging it can be. Why? Because sugar can be addictive, and food manufacturers are banking on this fact – literally banking on it – to keep you hooked and keep their millions and billions rolling in.
Have you ever had a sugar craving? Ever desired ‘something sweet’ straight after finishing a healthy meal? Ever associated sweet food with an event or special occasion – cake on your birthday; ice cream on the beach; cocktails at sunset; cookies with your coffee? Most people do, and for some people, it can be more than just a craving – it can actually be an addiction.
Recently, I discovered a website called Authoritynutrition.com and it’s been a complete wake-up call for me. It’s helped me to understand why I battle sugar cravings and why, from time to time, I have uncontrollable binges. It’s helped me to realise that I am addicted to sugar (that’s the first time I’ve written that), and that, for me, there’s only one way to stop it (although I’m going to discuss two ways here): abstinence. I highly recommend visiting the site if you battle with cravings, food addiction and/or bingeing behaviour.
How sugar addiction works
Here, I am borrowing greatly from Kris Gunnars’ book, Vicious Eating, which is a valuable tool for food addicts and available for free download here.
Gunnars explains that added sugar triggers reward-seeking behaviour in our brains, which leads to a vicious cycle of repeated unhealthy eating/bingeing. Essentially, eating sugary foods releases dopamine in our brains, a hormone that gives us a feeling of pleasure. Because our brains are wired to seek pleasure, we start to seek out these sugary foods – and the more we consume, the more we require to achieve the same levels of pleasure over time. Simply put, we get used to the amount of sugar we’re eating, and we start to need more of it to attain the same ‘high’. The enjoyment we used to get from eating a single chocolate can now only be achieved when we eat three chocolates and half a box of cookies. You can read more about how sugar addiction works here.
Two types of sugar
It’s important to point out at this juncture that there are two types of sugar in food. First of all, there are the natural sugars you find in carbohydrates. We need these sugars to function, survive and perform at our peak. They fuel our bodies and brains and give us the energy we need to complete everyday tasks.
The other kind of sugar – the bad kind – is not actually required at all by the human body. This is the sugar I’m talking about in this post. Added sugar, table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose – it has many names but it’s all the same thing. It’s the stuff that food manufacturers want us hooked on. It’s also worth noting that while honey contains natural sugars, it’s not wise to consume it with abandon, especially if you’re watching your weight or simply concerned about your health. It’s true that honey is healthier than sugar, but as Gunners points out, it’s not entirely healthy either.
How to give up sugar: Two approaches
So now you understand why it’s so difficult to give up sugar, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it: we’ve been conditioned over decades to want, desire, even crave the stuff. We’ve consumed it at almost every meal, some of us since we were kids, so giving it up is no mean feat. Then of course, there are those of us who are actually addicted to the stuff, and for us, it’s an even greater challenge.
How do you know if you’re addicted to sugar, or other kinds of foods? You’ll probably have a suspicion, but here are 8 useful ways to tell.
If you are not addicted to sugar, you can give up sugar by gradually removing it from your diet and/or enjoying it in moderation.
If you are addicted to sugar, you need to cut it out altogether.
First approach: Cold turkey (for ‘addicts’)
I know that I’m addicted to sugar because once I start eating it, I can’t stop. I can go months and months without the stuff, but when I binge, I binge hard. Which is exactly what happened to me a few weeks back, when I consumed the following in a single day (this is everything and all I ate this day):
- 1 x 65g bag chocolate shortcake balls
- 2 x 25g milk chocolates
Rest of the day
- 150g slab of wholenut chocolate
- 45g Kit-Kat
- 1 x kitka roll (this is relevant because kitka bread is sweetened)
- 1 x large slice caramel éclair cake
- Several small bowls of raw almonds
- 1 chocolate Pop Tart
- Wine (also contains sugar)
This is what I consider a proper, all-out binge. I probably consumed around 3500 to 4000 calories in a single day (more than twice what I need per day at my height and weight), and I felt guilty, remorseful and quite nauseous. I loved every bite as I consumed it, but afterwards I felt awful.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat, even though I keep promising myself that I won’t.
Clearly, I cannot control myself around sugar, and I can honestly tell you that I’d have eaten more chocolate that day if there had been any in the house.
For me, ‘moderation’ doesn’t work. It used to, but clearly my recent years of bingeing and restricting have broken that mechanism in my brain. I can’t have ‘just a little sugar’ from time to time. It’s all or nothing – but when I set my mind to ‘nothing’, and don’t even give myself the option of eating it, I do just fine. This is something that Gunnars talks about a lot in his book.
This is why when I started the SCD diet, I was able to cut out sugar fairly easily. I of course had lots of cravings but never once did I consider giving in to them, because it simply wasn’t an option. When I switched to paleo, and started seeing a nutritionalist, the lines started to blur. She told me (not knowing about my problem – I hadn’t even identified it then) that it was okay to have a bit of gluten-free chocolate from time to time, or to enjoy foods on the odd occasion that I was craving. In my mind, this information caused a weird and constant battle between abstinence and bingeing and I simply couldn’t find a middle ground.
This battle continued until I discovered Vicious Eating and read it from start to finish. Now I realise that moderation isn’t an option for me, because one bite, two bites, ten bites, are never enough. No amount of sugar will ever be enough, and every time I give in to my craving, I make it worse.
I’ve now made the conscious decision to eat NO sugar. I am having cravings but, taking Gunnars’ advice, I’m working hard to break them. I always crave something sweet after supper. Now, I won’t even touch a piece of fruit after supper (even though I still eat fruit), because I’m trying to stop the cravings. I am trying not to think about the next time I’ll binge on cake, because there won’t be a next time. I’m not telling myself that this is ‘just for now’, because that leaves the door wide open for relapses. It’s not easy but for me, it’s the only option.
Second approach: Reducing/limiting sugar intake
If you aren’t addicted to the stuff, that’s awesome. It’s going to make it a lot easier to avoid it. Not only will you find it less of a challenge to remove it from your life, but you’ll also find that even if you do happen to consume some sugar inadvertently, you won’t fall right off the wagon.
Check all your food labels and start to remove the biggest culprits from your home – the processed cakes and cookies and cereals. If there is sugar listed in the ingredients of food you like, but it’s not one of the main (top four or five) ingredients, you could let it slide.
You could also slowly start to remove sugar from your life, until you reach a point that it’s mostly gone. Remember that alcohol contains high amounts of sugar, and that when you drink it, it also lowers your inhibitions about eating other foods you shouldn’t be.
You could also allow yourself to enjoy sugary treats in moderation, from time to time, because you know it won’t spark an all-out spiral into bingeing and regret. This might also help you to give up sugar at first – knowing that on special occasions, you could enjoy a treat or two. This doesn’t work for everyone but it might work for you.
How to handle cravings
If you experience cravings, push through them – don’t give in to them! They WILL start to ease up, as long as you ignore them. You are trying to undo years of habit, so it will take time. For some people, just a few weeks can break the sugar habit; for others, it takes a few months, but it WILL happen and you WILL get through it.
Make sure all your meals are healthy and satisfying, and always carry healthy snacks with you (nuts, biltong, fruit) so that you avoid getting hungry and bingeing sugary treats.
For me, it’s a huge help knowing I’ve made this decision and the option to eat sugar isn’t even there. Last night, my post-supper sugar craving hit and I pushed through it. Within minutes, I actually realised I was too full for any more food, and that was it. I had a glass of sparkling water before bed (very satisfying for some reason) and I was fine until breakfast this morning. It was a small achievement, but a significant one for me. And it’s all about the small, significant achievements – after all, these are the ones that become habit.