Body: Sugar

I'm sure you've all seen or heard about the reports published a few weeks ago on the effects of sugar in our diets. Most of us think of fat as our number one enemy to looking good and feeling healthy, but evidence shows that sugar in our diets will prematurely age skin, as well as contribute to causing other conditions such as tooth decay and diabetes. Sugar is proven to be as addictive as heroin, with tests showing withdrawal symptoms like headaches, cravings and forgetfulness when it's removed from the diet. Have you ever felt like that after a bowl full of broccoli?

So what happens when we consume sugar? The basic science is that sugar is energy in one of its simplest forms. This means that the body can instantly absorb it without having to convert it or break it down into a usable format, which is why we so often reach for a chocolate bar when we're tired or need an energy boost. But did you know that it takes only half a teaspoon of sugar to pick up our energy levels, when the average chocolate bar contains seven teaspoons? After eating such quantities of sugar, our bodies need to control this energy spike, so insulin is produced to regulate our blood sugar levels. Insulin promotes the storage of fat, so a diet high in simple sugars will mean that you're more prone to weight gain, putting you at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Is that chocolate bar sounding less appealing now?

If that wasn't enough to put you off, how about the fact that sugar contributes to skin ageing? According to Dr Frederic Brandt, "In a nutshell, sugar hastens the degradation of elastin and collagen, both key skin proteins. In other words, it actively ages you." This process occurs because sugar consumption triggers a process called glycation, where sugar binds to the collagen and elastin fibres in our skin, making them less elastic until they break. The collagen and elastin proteins then mutate, resulting in the formation of new molecules called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs) which destroy the stronger type II and type III collagens, leaving skin without its spring. What this basically means is that skin sags and wrinkles because there is reduced collagen and elastin to prevent this from happening. Estimates say that a diet without sugar helps people look up to 10 years younger!

I've always known about the health impacts of sugar, and thought that I had a fairly healthy diet (despite my love of white pasta). After researching the impact of sugar on the skin, I have to say, I was shocked to realise that my love of fruit, honey and even the occassional diet drink and glass of wine are all contributing to my continued cravings for the sweet stuff.
Consequently, I have cut down on all sugar sources over the past six days (although I am still keeping some fruit in my diet), and I have to say, I feel great. I am a big advocate of a balanced diet which in my opinion has to include carbohydrates (unless you have a medical reason to exclude them), so I have swapped refined white pasta and rice to the wholewheat 'as nature intended' versions, the teaspoon of honey I have in my daily berry smoothie has been replaced with a squeeze of agave nectar which tastes as delicious as it sounds, and the cans of Diet Coke I would treat myself to every now and again will be skipped to ensure that their artificial sweeteners don't continue to fuel my cravings for sugar.

Here are my top tips for cutting sugar out of your diet:

1. Even those of us who consume relatively little sugar will find this a struggle for the first few days. Headaches and cravings are all likely on days 1-3, and you may feel like crap by day 4. But by day 5, you'll have increased energy and will start to wonder what you ever saw in sugar!

2. If you already consume a lot of refined sugar, this is going to be a tough one. Instead of cutting it out completely and going cold turkey, do it stage by stage. For example, if you have more than one sugary snack per day, try replacing one of those snacks with a slice of wholemeal toast with a thick spread of humous, or a handful of unsalted brazil nuts or almonds, which are packed with good fats and will release energy slowly. If you have one sugary snack a day and don't want to stop straight away, buy a smaller version (i.e. swap a Mars bar for a KitKat - there's no way I'm recommending you eat half and store the rest of it for tomorrow as chocolate can speak to you from the fridge!) for the first few days and then switch over to the snacks suggested above. For sugary drink lovers, fill a two litre bottle of water and drink from that all day. When your energy dips, reach for nuts or seeds instead of the Coke.

3. Check the labels on EVERYTHING you buy, and avoid processed foods as much as you can. Any ingredient that ends is '-ose' is a sugar (i.e. glucose, fructose) and is therefore to be avoided. Fruit juices should be cut out wherever possible, and healthy looking snacks like dried fruit are one of the biggest sugar fiends, so avoid them if you're serious about this! Nothing is safe from sugar: check your 'healthy' breakfast cereals and even your loaf of bread. Sugar is added to so many more products than you would expect!

4. Get organised: plan your weekly meals (including lunches at work) and shop for ingredients at the beginning of the week, including buying a good stock of snacks. Knowing what you're going to eat for every meal and being prepared will mean that you are less likely to order a pizza because there's nothing to eat.

5. Swap refined, white carbs for their wholewheat equivalent. Yes, brown rice takes ages to cook, but some genius realised that it can be frozen, so buy yourself a bag and don't give me any excuses about not having time :) The texture and nutty taste can take a little adjustment at first, so plan meals with tasty sauces like a homemade chilli con carne with rice (or 'chilli con Quorn-ay' as the meat-free version is known in our house!) or a pasta bolognese. Remember, pre-prepared sauces will often contain sugars, so source some good recipes (I'm happy to help with this).

6. Cook with beans, lentils and pulses wherever possible, as they are a great source of energy and very filling. Lentil and vegetable soup, a bean stew or even a delicious cassoulet will be great, easy meal options. I tend to throw a tin of butter beans or a few handfuls of red lentils or barley into most of the soups I make, making them go a little further and giving a healthy boost at the same time.

7. Avoid everything with Nutrisweet, Xylitol and other artificial sweeteners like Canderel and Sweet & Low. Keeping those in your diet ensures you're still receptive to sweet tastes, and will consequently continue to crave them. Use agave nectar to sweeten yoghurt, herbal tea and smoothies.

8. Picking up on your snack supply, keep wholewheat crackers like Ryvita, humous, olives, unsalted nuts and seeds, vegetable sticks (carrots, celery and cucumber with humous makes a yummy snack) and cottage cheese at home and work so that you're always able to pick up a healthy snack wherever you are - remember what I said about dried fruit, so don't be tempted! Don't overdo the nuts. Although they contain good fats, fat is fat when consumed in large quantities. A handful counts as a portion, and you should avoid having more than that in a day. I have two snacks a day - one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon - between my three meals and this keeps me ticking over.

9. Most importantly, eat a healthy, balanced breakfast. I make my own oat and berry smoothies using frozen berries, a handful of oats, a tablespoon of natural Greek yoghurt, oat milk and a squirt of agave nectar to balance out the natural tartness of the ingredients. I'm happy to supply the recipe if you'd like it! Other good breakfasts would be a bowl of porridge, wholemeal toast with humous or scrambled eggs: basically anything that has a good balance of carbs and protein.

10. Take it as an excuse to cut out caffeine as well. You may lose the will to live after the first few hours without sugar and caffeine, but so many good things will be happening to your body alongside this natural energy boost that you may as well try and take advantage of this!

11. If you do get a hideous craving and can't escape it, put half a teaspoon of sugar under your tongue. This is enough to boost your energy without continuing the pleasure cycle of devouring your favourite choccy.

12. Cut down your alcohol intake as much as possible, particularly reducing consumption of beer and wine. I'm not saying rule it out: work, the boss, kids, telesales calls and our beloved partners all play their part in pushing us toward the Chablis, but keep it to a minimum, and save that glass of vino for special occasions. Weight loss will follow!

Finally, have a look at the following sugar contents and imagine what each of those teaspoons is doing to your skin and your body. Not so delicious, is it?

550ml bottle of Coke - 14 teaspoons of sugar
One slice of cheap white bread - up to 3 teaspoons of sugar
Average chocolate bar - 7 teaspoons of sugar
250ml shop-bought smoothies - often up to 7 teaspoons of sugar
Takeaway sweet and sour chicken - a whopping 19 teaspoons of sugar
I'm not saying that I'll manage to resist a nice square of chocolate every now and then, but I think knowing the facts will help me to keep to one square rather than a 1kg slab!!
Did you know about the ageing effects of sugar and will you be cutting it out of your diet? Would you like any more info on meal planning/recipes to help you in your sugar free quest?Image courtesy of 2dayblog.com


  1. Oh god you have depressed me while reading this!
    I really don't do seeds and lentils!

    However going to re-read this tomorrow and start working on improving my diet & eating less sugar!
    Having said that my crime is diet coke and eating jelly, don't do anything else sugary!

    But I do drink ALOT of coke!

    Fee x

  2. Sorry, Fee! Don't despair, though. I'm definitely not one of those people who can sit with a big bowl of lentils and feel virtuous: it's got to be in something like a nice, spicy soup otherwise it's just too boring to contemplate.

    I feel your pain with the diet coke as I love the stuff, but after we went through a couple of bottles last week and started craving it, I knew it had to be cut back (the occasional can won't hurt though).

    The key is to find some meals that are delicious, easy to prepare and fill you up, and supplement that with snacks so you don't go hungry. Like you, I am always trying to avoid winter colds and bugs so this way of eating definitely helps. Going to do another post on winter health soon and will be recommending some brilliant supplements! x

  3. Really fantastic blog post, thank you for posting this up.
    I've certainly learnt a lot from this xxx

  4. That's good to know. I'm glad you enjoyed it :) xxx

  5. Cracking post, brilliantly researched and now suitably ignored in our office as it's cake Friday. We'll be the one's with pensioner's skin on Monday

  6. Great post. I read about sugar ageing us years ago so I immediately cut out sugar from my tea and coffee!
    I don't eat sweets and only sometimes have chocolate and desserts - but was interesting reading about the other places sugar lurks.
    I hope by doing this I look (slightly) younger than my 33 years :-)


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