The directions on the bottle of the sugar-free maple syrup said to ‘Refrigerate after opening’.
My advice would be ‘Bin it before opening!’
In answer to a question by a fellow low-carber who was looking for a sugar-free syrup, I posted the following message, tongue firmly planted in my cheek:
Hey, I found one for you!! It says ‘Made with real maple flavor, but no calories, fat, carbs, gluten or sugars of any kind’. Perfect eh? Here are the ingredients (with my emphasis on the sugars):
- triple filtered purified water
- maple flavor
- natural flavors
- cellulose gum
- potassium sorbate (to preserve freshness)
- lactic acid
- beta carotine, and
- caramel coloring
This just goes to show how important it is to read labels carefully if you’re trying to avoid sugar and sweeteners. Sweet foods can definitely derail you if – like me – you have a sweet tooth.
The advice we’ve traditionally received – and continue to hear from most dieticians other than a small (but growing) number of low-carb specialists – is to ‘eat in moderation’. For decades, I unsuccessfully tried to control my sugar-consumption and chocolate-eating this way, attempting to limit my chocolate-eating to ‘just a little’ or ‘occasionally’. I tried building in ‘chocolate-free’ days and marked them off on the calendar. Sometimes I’d last a few days, but the cravings were always there, the energy-crashes were many, and within a short time I’d return to over-eating chocolate.
We often hear the advice that a small amount of dark chocolate is fine but what most people don’t realise is that usually all but 1% of the ingredients other than cacao content is sugar. This means that regular dark chocolate with around 54% cacao generally contains 44g of sugar per 100g of chocolate. This is, in fact, slightly higher sugar content than most milk chocolate which sits around 42g of sugar per 100g and not far short of the 46g of sugar in white chocolate. So when we’re talking about 70% regular dark chocolate, the sugar content is still around 29g. And even if you’re eating 85% dark chocolate, there will be 14g of sugar per 100g of chocolate.
Now if you’re actually able to limit yourself to just a few squares of dark chocolate with 70%, 85% or higher cacao content, then more power to you. But if, like me, you are very ‘sugar sensitive’ then even the slightest amount of sugar in any of its forms, will keep your sweet tooth alive (I’ve recently experimented with eating 99% dark chocolate and can moderate how much of it I eat, but any other chocolate, even 90% dark chocolate, sees me going back for more).
It was only after I went low carb that I recognised that my over-consumption of chocolate was really a sugar addiction. And like other addictions, it requires a combination of abstinence and a shift in behaviour to overcome it.
In early 2015, soon after going low carb, I did a fabulous 6 week on-line course with the Sugar Free Revolution (SFR). There I found out just how similar the over-consumption of sugar is to other addictions. According to SFR’s founder, Karen Thomson, quitting sugar can be more difficult than kicking a cocaine habit. In the past, I’d found it almost impossible to reduce my sugar intake for very long, but when I gave up all sugars – including hidden sugars, natural sugars, artificial sweeteners, sugar alternatives and sugar alcohols – it took only a few days before I felt in control of my eating. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I could say that I was fully sugar-free.
My first serious attempt to give up sugar was in 2012 when I was still consuming simple carbs and before I was aware that carbohydrates are metabolised as glucose in your body and therefore contribute to keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels high. My first step was to avoid any obvious or hidden sugars for 30 days. But after just a few days, I felt so good and was losing weight so easily that I continued to keep off sugar for 3 months. By Week 8 or 9, I had lost 15kgs and was back to my target weight. I had been motivated to give up sugar – fructose in particular – after reading David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison. I followed his advice to avoid all fructose but then trialled some of his recipes sweetened with glucose. He probably warns you to only consume glucose in moderation (there’s that word again!), but as I’ve already explained I just don’t DO moderation. Initially, eating glucose-sweetened foods – even glucose-sweetened chocolate – did not seem to affect me much. But gradually, over a period of a year or two, I noticed that I was starting to get addicted to this sugar too. My chocolate-eating was getting out of control again and I was struggling to keep away from other sugary foods. For some time I tried to replace glucose with even ‘healthier’ sweeteners, searching for a loop-hole, hoping to find some exotic alternative that I could safely (over)consume. Finally, I came to the realisation that if it’s sweet, I’ll overeat it.
When I discovered abstinence, it was .. well .. easy. I use that word carefully but truly it was easy in comparison with the hell of a full-blown sugar- or carb-addiction. I still occasionally think about sweet treats but it is such a mild, fleeting thought (like remembering an old lover) that it’s fairly easy to resist. I no longer struggle with the incessant internal dialogue: ‘Just a little won’t hurt’, ‘I’ve worked hard today; it should be fine’; ‘I deserve a treat’, ‘I’ll just make this dessert for my partner’ and on and on and on until, inevitably, I would consume the lot.
I have heard of people who, after a year or more of being sugar-free, are able to tolerate an occasional ‘treat’ that doesn’t seem to rekindle their cravings. After avoiding all sugars for 2 years, I don’t feel ready to try and I’m not sure if I ever will. Some foods that used to taste ‘neutral’ now taste naturally sweet to me. If you’re still consuming large amounts of sugars, I know it sounds annoying but it’s true. I used to think ‘Yoghurt? Sweet? I don’t think so!’ But yes, it happens.
The three sweeteners recommended as ‘safe’ for those on a low carb diet are stevia, xylitol and erythritol (be careful using xylitol around animals as it’s toxic to dogs in particular). If you’re now thinking ‘Yay! Now I can eat all those low carb treats without fear’ .. a word of caution. Personally, I can use a little of any of these sweeteners in savoury-tasting food (such as low carb bread, ketchup or nut granola), BUT if it tastes sweet, I end up over-consuming that food, I go back for a second or third helping or I start to consume it way too often. The test for me is whether I would eat as much of that food if it didn’t have any sweetener in it and the answer is always ‘no’. I also realised that by over-eating sweet-tasting drinks or snacks, I was filling up on them and reducing my intake of more nutritious meals. For example, if I had a fat shake sweetened with xylitol in the morning, it would fill me up and I wouldn’t bother cooking a more nutrient-dense meal such as eggs, tomato, spinach and sauerkraut. It was a slippery slope back to being hooked on particular foods. And the thing that really pulled me up was finding out that even these low-carb sweeteners could spike my insulin, which would ramp up my hunger and so on. Just the taste of something sweet on my tongue (even the thought of a sweet food) was enough to signal my brain to release a small amount of insulin to deal with the expected onslaught of sugar.
So, what are my top 10 tips to help you cut out all sweeteners from your life, to become fully sugar-free?
- Observe total abstinance from all sugars, sweeteners, alternate sweeteners etc. Aim to do so for 30 days, then reassess (by that time you’ll be feeling so great, you won’t want to return to your old sugar-eating ways).
- Make sure you have enough healthy fats to satisfy and fuel you.
- Eat sufficient (moderate) protein as this can help to dull cravings.
- Identify the triggers that cause you to over-consume sugars or carbs and explore your emotional connection to sweetness.
- Substitute non-food ways of soothing yourself from emotions you may be trying to bury: stress, grief, anger, boredom, feeling ‘unsettled’ or whatever it is that sends you to sugar or carbs.
- Focus on progress not perfection.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Don’t skip this step. I still write 10 daily gratitudes – 5 general and 5 personal – and have done so every day since January 2015. That’s thousands of positive statements I’ve made about myself and my life that have finally shifted my negative mindset to being a positive thinker.
- When you quell one addiction, just be aware of the possibliity of transferance to other addictive behaviours.
- Heal your body by controlling blood sugar, avoiding insulin spikes and improving your gut flora (microbiome) all of which probably took a beating in your high-sugar days.
- It’s a journey and more of a marathon, than a sprint. So just take it one day at a time.
My experience of a sugar addiction is that it needs managing not breaking and it can take time to learn new responses to emotional issues. But the longer you stay away from sugar and all sweeteners, the easier it becomes. Not only do you lose the cravings, those closest to you may actually give up trying to tempt you. In the early days, however, you’ll probably need to find ways of dealing with friends, family and eating out. Here are some ideas to get you through those tricky social situations:
- Eat before you go out, so you won’t be tempted to eat something just because of hunger.
- Pull the ‘allergy’ card if you have to. After all, it’s true. If you’re addicted to sugar, then sweeteners and simple carbs are toxic to your system. Your body may be able to tolerate eating one chocolate or one sugary dessert, but will you be able to stop?
- Accept the plate of food on offer and eat only what you want to put in your body and leave the rest. It’s amazing but most people don’t even notice.
- Play for time if necessary. Respond by saying ‘Not now, maybe later’ or ‘I couldn’t eat another thing just now’ etc. You’ll be surprised at how little attention people pay to these things if you keep it low key.