I’ve already touched on this in my Diet Tips post, but I strongly believe nothing good comes from sugar. Don’t get me wrong – I do eat the occasional sweet treat. You may have seen eclairs, chocolate fondants, and doughnuts sprawled across my instagram page. But I actually have a very firm line with these sweet things, and I’m extremely careful with how often I eat them.
Sugar is the one thing I think we could all do without. And when I say sugar, I of course mean refined sugar.
Why is Sugar so Terrible?
It all started in 2016, when I read this New Yorker article, titled “How the Sugar Industry Shifted the Blame to Fat”. I highly recommend giving it a read, but I’ll summarise: essentially, the sugar industry is to blame for many Americans believing, still today, that fat is the main cause of obesity, not sugar. This led to a lot of people eating high-sugar, low-fat foods, which they believed would help them lose weight. Experts are now blaming this for fuelling the obesity crisis in the US.
The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.
In 1967, the Sugar Research Foundation paid the equivalent of $50,000 to three Harvard scientists to publish a review of research on sugar, fat, and heart disease in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, coming to the conclusion that saturated fat was a bigger factor than sugar when it comes to heart disease. Coca Cola has also provided millions of dollars to fund research that downplays the links between soft drinks and obesity.
Sugar has always been a bit of an issue for me. Those who knew me at school would probably tell you I was addicted to it (and I would have to agree with them). I didn’t grow up eating huge amounts of sugar – my parents were very careful not to overindulge me on “junk food”, which is probably why I was lucky in that I never gained too much weight from it – but when I started sixth form (or “high school”, for non-UK folks), I gained an element of freedom which I had previously lacked. I used this newfound freedom to gorge myself on as much sugar as I could get my hands on. My father and I would stop at a bakery for breakfast, and I’d start the day with my favourite: a coffee eclair. I’d follow this up with the largest, richest hot chocolate Starbucks had to offer, often with various syrups and toppings, and finish off the day with an entire family-sized bar of Galaxy milk chocolate (or cookie crumble if was feeling adventurous). If I wasn’t feeling the chocolate I might go to a local patisserie for “lunch dessert”. I kept this up for a good couple years before realising I needed to stop, and I’ll be honest, cutting out sugar was painful. I remember the first time I did it properly; the first 3 days were the hardest. I was constantly craving it. I never felt full without it. So I’ve always thought of sugar as incredibly problematic, and ever since then I’ve been wary of over-indulging in it.
Fast forward to that New Yorker article in 2016, and everything seemed to click into place. I had, subconsciously, internalised this message that “fat makes you fat” (it’s even in the name, duh!) and that the way to lose (or maintain) weight is to essentially go hungry whist “indulging” in the occasional sugary treat. I’d always known sugar was bad for you, but not like this. Diets still encourage this way of thinking – and it baffles me.
Pair that with this article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which basically confirms that sugar is more addictive than cocaine, nicotine, morphine, and opioids, and you’ve got yourself a problem. The study shows that there can be withdrawal symptoms such as depression and behavioural problems when people try cutting out sugar completely, and that eating sugar produces significant drug-like effects such as bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, dependence and reward.
Although some of the research has been contested, with claims that sugar doesn’t hijack the brain’s dopamine receptors in the same way cocaine does, the results of the study are consistent with not only my own personal experience, but the effects I’ve seen sugar have on others around me. I know the feeling of craving sugar, of needing it. It’s not the same as being hungry for some pasta or a nice, hearty stew. It’s eating and eating, and still not feeling full at the end because you “haven’t had dessert yet”. It’s knowing you’re not hungry, and yet still wanting more. To be honest, it’s the most addictive substance I’ve ever ingested.
How you know if you’re addicted
As someone who has been “on and off” sugar a lot throughout the years, I am very familiar with the sense of being addicted to it. The following thought has also crossed my mind many times in the past: I’m fine; this is all fine. I can stop whenever I like, and it’s important to have things you enjoy in life. Even though I don’t crave sugar *at all* when I’m not eating it, it’s still enjoyable to want to eat it, so I’ll keep it in my life for now.
Beware of this feeling! A sugar addiction might feel like a choice. You might feel like, each time you’re eating something sugary, you’re choosing to do so. Ask yourself, before you order that cake or buy that chocolate bar, whether you really, truly, could say no right now.
If you stop eating sugar and end up with headaches, or feeling lethargic, grouchy, anxious, or irritable, along with of course craving sugar, you’re most likely addicted. Healthline highlights the symptoms nicely.
High-fat, low-sugar diet: a solution?
As I mentioned before, I do eat sugar now and then. But I am very careful. My solution to this entire situation has actually been, counter-intuitively, to go for a high-fat, low-sugar diet. By high-fat, I don’t mean unnaturally high in fat. I don’t mean eating-entire-sticks-of-butter levels of high fat. But I do mean: deliberately making a choice to not be afraid of fat.
In my Diet Tips post I also mentioned that I switched to full fat milk. I’ve been drinking full fat for a while, and it’s now the only thing we have at home. Why? The idea is that full fat milk is naturally sweet enough that I don’t – ever – need to add sugar to it. When I make hot chocolates at home, I use the darkest, most bitter cocoa available, with 0% sugar (Green & Black’s has a fantastic one). It’s naturally sweet enough with porridge that I don’t need to add sugar (although sometimes I can’t resist a drop or two of maple syrup). It also makes you feel more full. Here’s the thing with high-fat diets: they don’t trick you. If you eat an entire tub of whipped cream, you will feel FULL. You’re not going to want another tub 20 minutes later (sure, you might have a stroke, but still). High-fat foods at least are upfront about what they are. They don’t trick you into thinking you’re full, only to leave you wanting more. I therefore refuse to eat “low fat” anything – coconut milk, cream cheese, mayonnaise – the answer is always to get the full fat option, but to stop when you’re actually full.
How does this translate to desserts?
I’ve found that being “high in fat” tends to correlate with tasting “richer”. I’d never fully put it together before, but this is why I now prefer a rich chocolate fondant or a creamy tiramisu to a chocolate bar. High-sugar desserts tend to taste “lighter”. I therefore recommend sticking with richer, darker desserts. They’ll feel “heavier” to eat, but that’s sort of the point. You’re more likely to feel satisfied with less.
A Sugar Detox
I think everyone should do a sugar cleanse, at least once in their life. By this I mean a solid week of no soft drinks, no desserts, no jars of tomato sauce with added sugar (I’m looking at you, Every Tomato Sauce Manufacturer In Existence; seriously, just make your own tomato sauce). In fact, I’ll add at this point that SO MUCH FOOD contains added sugar – this is why it’s so much better to make your own. Make your own soups, make your own sauces. Even make your own bread! Finally, something good comes out of 2020 – the barrage of self-proclaimed bread-makers.
This will show you a) whether or not you’re actually addicted, and to what degree, and b) how little you miss it when it’s gone. It goes without saying that this applies exclusively to processed sugar. Natural sugars are fine. If you’re struggling, I’ve made a list of sugar-free desserts to fill the void initially. You will be surprised how little you crave this stuff once you stop eating it.
I highly recommend using this quarantine period to cut out sugars and see how you do. In fact, document your week if you fancy it, and drop the result in the comments! I guarantee you’ll be a happier person afterwards. And don’t be afraid of fat. After all, we do need it to live, and it’s much, much easier to replace one type of fat with another (say cooking with olive oil sometimes rather than butter) than it is to replace sugar once you’re hooked.
Let me know how you do! Xxx