Anyone who embarks on a sugar ban usually has had a pivotal moment that prompted it.
Mine was when I stared at my reflection in a petrol station mirror post Christmas and saw something hideous staring back. I looked bloated, spotty, utterly unhealthy and this was more than just overdoing it in a festive way.
What had been an occasional chocolate after dinner turned into a daily treat ‘because I’d had a hard day’. I would try and solve the bad weather with hot chocolate drinks, and soon, any minor wrinkle in a day was fixed with something sweet.
What’s worse: because I never saw myself as someone with a sweet tooth, I kept kidding myself that this was a temporary lapse.
The miniature volcanoes on my forehead begged to differ.
Before embarking on my ban, I did my homework to figure out whether I actually needed to. Yes, it turns out, and yes, it needed to be cold turkey.
What I read frightened me: anxiety, headaches cold sweats, body aches and general unpleasantness of Thinking About Sugar All The Time. But what worried me more was that if a substance most of us consume daily can have that effect while NOT taking it, what the hell was it doing to my body?
Zoe Williams wrote a helpful piece outlining 11 easy steps regarding a sugar ban.
From that I understood how strict I would have to be, but the one thing I couldn’t do was give up alcohol.
Williams explained very well why you would have to: “Many drinkers think they don't have a sweet tooth; indeed, they are faintly derisive of people who do. In fact, they get all their sugar from alcohol and if they ever gave it a rest for even two days, they would realise they have an incredibly sweet tooth.”
But as I only consume a couple of glasses of wine a week, I just didn’t think I’d be able to handle a sugar ban and booze at the same time.
But why even do it in the first place?
I wanted the expert view so I asked Sarah Wilson who came up with the hugely popular I Quit Sugar programme. Wilson said: “Leaving aside the very serious health issues - cholesterol, fatty liver, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and diabetes - I think the real problem with sugar is its addictiveness (some studies show it's more addictive than cocaine).
“We are prisoners to sugar, in part because we lack the hormone to tell us when we're eating it...so we keep eating it and eating it (by contrast, we have hormones that tell us when we've eaten enough fat and protein). If we weren't so addicted, we wouldn't be killing ourselves with it...we'd have done something about it.”
If we follow the line of thinking that our bodies haven’t evolved in 10,000 years, then it makes sense. Back then, our cavemen ancestors would eat sugar in very sparing quantities via fruit, which they would usually only eat from one type of bush while on their travels.
Take that into consideration and now consider your average supermarket which bombards you with sugar from the moment you step past the automatic doors. Tubs of brownies and flapjacks at the entrance, chocolate by the tills, the smell of pastries in the morning. You don’t stand a chance of resisting.
Wilson would not have approved of my sugar ban proviso: two glasses of wine a week, but I also believe that the human mind needs some cheats or leeway to fool itself into thinking it has some free will.
The first obstacle was getting rid of the leftover Christmas swag – cookies and chocolate. These went into a sack that I secretly earmarked to pillage once the ban was over.
I then had to get rid of the immediate sugar – squash and granulated sugar. But the hardest part over the week was figuring out what I could and couldn’t have - Wilson has a good guide here. The part we are trying to avoid is not only the kind of sugar you put in your tea but fructose - the worst part that causes all the damage.
"The way fructose is converted in our bodies means it's not used upfront as energy," says Wilson, "but converted directly to fat. It also becomes like a porridge in our arteries, leading to cholesterol and cancer... and the rest. Eating fructose is like eating fat that your body can't detect as fat."
Agave? Forget it. Wilson says it is as bad as corn syrup. Honey also has a high level of fructose.
Don’t even think about fizzy drinks – even diet versions have a lot of fructose whether or not they have no calories.
Pre-made sauces needed to be checked – particularly pasta sauces which are loaded with sugar. One from Tesco was made of 10% sugar – that’s a lot. Bread and pasta was also out – these convert to sugar quickly, and bread tends to have added sugar anyway. I replaced this with brown rice pasta which was actually yummier than it sounds and way less bloating.
There’s no way of sugar-coating it (see what I did there?) but the first week was pure hell.
I realised that chocolate wasn’t the problem – biscuits were. They had inserted themselves into part of my daily diet, and without them, there was no pick-me-up when things went a bit rough.
The week was divided into psychological difficulties – I thought about sugary treats every minute of every day, and my mind was constantly caught between sticking with it and trying to persuade me to break it. I had countless arguments with myself where I kept saying: “One won’t do any harm, go on.”
But the physical side effects were worse. Headaches, grumpiness, lethargy – you name it, I had it. My body just felt awful, like I had the flu. The keys to getting through this week were snacks and occasional pieces of fruit.
By the second week the worst of the physical side effects were over but psychologically, it was all I still kept thinking about. It didn’t help that colleagues and friends were enabling me, saying that I could have the occasional treat and that moderation was key.
In the third week, I learned why that is a total crock. Under the pressure of work and moving house, I cracked and had a coffee after getting up at 4.30am for a business flight. I told myself I deserved it, and boy, that was the best sugary cappuccino I probably ever had.
But I used that one lapse to have another, and then another. And while I was in my meeting, jittery as hell, I realised that yes it’s about moderation but you have to actually break the habit in the first place otherwise you’ll go back to old habits almost immediately.
But the most important thing I realised when it comes to bans of any kind, is to just keep going. So you had a fall? Just pick yourself up and trudge on because part of being human is to err.
While it may sound a bit superficial, what kept me going in the last week was a) people kept commenting on how amazing my skin looked and b) I started to lose weight imperceptibly off certain places such as double chin and stomach. I felt tighter, cleaner and brighter.
In the last week, I had a scary appreciation for the addictive nature of sugar as I looked at my diary notes. It had all the markings of a junkie in withdrawal.
But by this week, things start to taste differently, and when I had a pasta sauce meal out of desperation, I could tell how much sugar was actually in it which was really off-putting. And considering when I make pasta sauce from scratch there is no sugar in it, the only reason to add it is so that people find it palatable and want to eat more of it. Which explains why we have an obesity crisis.
I’m not saying I didn’t nosedive into a massive chunk of cake the moment I knew I could but it didn’t feel great – physically and emotionally.
Cutting back on sugar isn't a niche health fad. According to the British Heart Foundation, "in a single day the average person in the UK consumes 13 teaspoons of sugar with some people consuming up to 46 teaspoons. Even so-called healthy foods are not immune with muesli containing up to four teaspoons while one cereal bar contains as much as eight teaspoons of sugar. "
Since the ban, I have pretty much sworn off chocolate and biscuits. Not because I have to but because I don’t really need them to perk up my day. My deadline is still going to be waiting for me at the end of scarfing down a Hob Nob. The only place I fall down is when I need a cup a sugary tea which I’ll have no more than once a day, and not necessarily every day.
It certainly won’t be something Sarah Wilson approves of, but it’s just about all I’m capable of doing now. And what’s more, I’m proud I got through (most of) it.
Would I recommend it? Hell, yes. It will be one of the hardest things you do, but I finally feel like I’m not enslaved to sugar. When I choose to eat chocolate next it’ll be because I want to, not because it’s a substitute emotion.