How to Become Fully Sugar-Free

First published 26 Jan 2016

Traditionally, the advice we’ve received from dieticians about healthy eating is to eat all foods in moderation. For decades, I unsuccessfully tried to control my sugar-consumption and chocolate-eating this way. I tried limiting chocolate to just ‘a little’ or ‘occasionally’. I even tried building in ‘chocolate-free’ days and marking them off on the calendar. I’d sometimes last a few days, but the craving was always there, the energy-crashes were many, and sugar or chocolate remained my remedy for any emotional upset.

We’re often told that we can eat a small amount of dark chocolate if it’s over 70% cacao content and best if it’s 85% cacao. In this article, for example, we’re told that ‘the sugar content [of dark chocolate] is minimal compared to milk chocolate’ (Kamb, 2013). However, commercial dark chocolate still has a significant amount of sugar (and needs to in order for cacao to be palatable for most people). Regular dark chocolate (54% cacao) generally contains around 44g of sugar per 100g, more than the sugar content in regular milk chocolate (42g) and not far short of the sugar content of white chocolate (46g). And even when we’re talking 70% cacao content of dark chocolate, almost all the remainer is sugar; that is, about 29g sugar. That means 85% dark chocolate generally contains about 14g sugar per 100g chocolate.

Now if, like Sarah Wilson from I Quit Sugar fame, you’re able to limit yourself to just a few squares of dark chocolate, then more power to you. You’re what I call a ‘moderator’; that is, you’re able to moderate your intake like Sarah does, as she describes in this blog post:

‘I eat a few squares of the commercial 85 per cent cocoa stuff. Or, sometimes, the 70 per cent stuff.  In a small serve (three big squares or so), that’s about 1.5 (or three)  teaspoons of sugar. I weigh it up. I would rather eat great fats and proteins and veggies all day, plus some chocolate, than negotiate over a fruit salad or some tomato sauce on a burger. I choose, at times, to get my sugar through a small amount of sugar’ (Wilson, 2012). 

But if – like me – you are ‘sugar sensitive’ or have a ‘sugar addiction’, even a small amount of sugar (in any of its forms, even simple carbohydrates that are converted to glucose in your body and spike blood sugar) will keep your sweet tooth alive. It was only when I joined the Sugar Free Revolution that I learnt just how similar the over-consumption of chocolate is to other addictions (and how quitting sugar can be more difficult than kicking a cocaine habit). And like all addictions, it requires a combination of abstinence and shifts in behaviour to overcome it.

Early last year, I became FULLY sugar free (FSF) for the first time in my life: no sugar, no ‘natural sweeteners’, no ‘sugar alternatives’, no ‘artificial sweeteners’, no ‘sugar alcohols’ etc. When I wonder whether a food has sugar or any other sweetener in it, I apply the ‘duck test’: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

By way of example, here’s my response to a question posted on the Real Meal Revolution site about a (supposedly) ‘sugar-free’ maple syrup product. After checking out the ingredients, I posted the following reply:

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
  • maltodextrin
  • cellulose gum
  • salt
  • sucralose
  • potassium sorbate (to preserve freshness)
  • lactic acid
  • beta carotine, and
  • caramel coloring

And if you haven’t already seen the video on reading labels and which ingredients to avoid, you should do so. The directions on the bottle are to ‘Refrigerate after opening’. Mine would be ‘Throw in bin before opening!’

Sweet foods can definitely derail you if you have a sweet tooth. The good news is that it’s possible to change this but you really need to abstain for some time .. maybe forever? I cut down my sugar consumption considerably at first – in fact, I ate no obvious or hidden sugars for three months in 2012 when I first serioiusly gave up sugar. I wasn’t aware of Low Carb High Fat at the time, so I was still consuming simple carbs. After three months (and losing 15kgs in the first 8 or 9 weeks), I started adding glucose back into my diet believing, as David Gillespie advises in Sweet Poison, that I just needed to avoid all fructose. He does, of course, probably say somewhere that glucose should be consumed in moderation (there’s that word again; I just don’t DO moderation!).

I thought I would be fine and I was, for a couple of years. But gradually I noticed my energy had dropped, my consumption of glucose-sweetened chocolate was getting out of control and I was struggling to keep away from other sweet treats. Generally I’d succumb to the temptation when I was stressed, tired, uncomfortable, happy .. you name it!.

Then in 2015, I cut out ALL sugars (sugar alternatives, alternate sweeteners etc – you get the picture!). I keep adding all those different terms for what is essentially SUGAR because I know how my mind worked, searching for a loop-hole, hoping to find some exotic alternative before finally coming to the realisation that if it’s sweet, I’ll overeat it.

When I discovered abstinence, it was easy (hmm, I use that word carefully). Well, I’ll qualify that: 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 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, of course, 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’ and it doesn’t seem to rekindle their cravings. Personally, I’m not ready to try it and I’m not sure if I ever will.

Some foods that used to taste ‘neutral’ now taste naturally sweet to me. Sorry folks who are just coming off sugar, I know it sounds annoying. I used to think ‘Yoghurt? Sweet? I don’t think so!’ But yes, it happens. The three sweeteners recommended to Banters 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 Banting desserts without fear!’ .. a word of caution. Personally, I can use a little of any of these sweeteners in savoury-tasting food (such as Banting bread, ketchup or nut granola), BUT if it tastes sweet, I end up over-consuming that food, I’ll go back for a second or third helping or I’ll start consuming it way too often. The test for me is whether I would eat as much of the same food without the sweetener and the answer is always ‘no’. I also soon realised that by over-eating sweet-tasting drinks or snacks, I was missing out on more nutritious meals. For example, I’d drink a fat shake instead of cooking a much more nutrient-dense breakfast 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 helped me cut out all sweeteners from my life, to become FULLY Sugar Free?

Here’s what I recommend, based on everything I’ve learnt through the Sugar Free Revolution and my sugar-free on-line friends who helped me finally become FSF:

  1. 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).
  2. Make sure you have enough healthy fats to satisfy and fuel you.
  3. Eat sufficient (moderate) protein as this can help to dull cravings.
  4. Identify the triggers that led to your over-consumption of sugar or carbs and explore your emotional connection to sweetness.
  5. 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.
  6. Focus on progress not perfection.
  7. 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 for the past year. That’s 3,650 positive statements I’ve made about myself and my life that have finally shifted my mindset from being a negative to a positive thinker.
  8. When you quell one addiction, just be aware of the possibliity of transferance to other addictive behaviours.
  9. 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.
  10. It’s a journey so take it one day at a time .. and more of a marathon, than a sprint.

The longer you stay away from sugar and all sweeteners, the easier it becomes. Not only do you lose the cravings, your friends may actually give up trying to tempt you. In the early days, however, you will 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 because of hunger.
  • Occasionally, I’ll pull the ‘allergy’ card. Afterall, it’s true. I’m carb-intolerant. If I eat sugar or chocolate, I can’t stop.
  • Accept the plate of food and eat only what you want to put in your body; leave the rest (It’s amazing but most people don’t even notice).
  • Play for time by saying ‘Not now, but 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.

In my experience, an addiction needs managing not breaking and it can take time to learn new responses to emotional issues. Initially, when I first gave up sugar, I experienced success. Then I experimented with using alternate sugars, and this led me back onto regular sugar and sweet foods. When I switched to a low carb lifestyle, I again experiemented with the three alternate sweeteners recommended for Banters, but soon found it just kept my sweet-tooth alive. Eventually, I discovered abstitenceand it worked for me.The cravings deminished relatively quickly and the sort of sugar-crashes most people are used to just never happen to me any more. So if you’re after constant, unstoppable energy, go NO sugar and low carb.

In terms of the amount of carbohydrate I can tolerate, I haven’t been able to establish my upper limit yet, so I keep it very low (under 20g daily) where I know it works. Could I be eating more carbs? Possibly. Would I eat anything ‘Red Listed’ (see the Real Meal Revolution’s Food Lists) to raise them? No way. I want to keep protecting myself from elevated insulin, inflammatory disease and so on. Of course if you can tolerate higher carbs than me, then eating a few more things on the Orange List is an option.

I used to wear the badge of perfectionism proudly and was constantly told by friends how hard I was on myself. Not anymore. I’m not perfect (who knew!) and that’s ok.

References

Kamb, S. (2013). Why sugar is the worst thing ever for you. Seriously. Ever. Article posted on Nerd Fitness, http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2013/06/17/everything-you-need-to-know-about-sugar/, last accessed 23 Jan 2016.

Wilson, S. (2012). 15 tips + recipes for a sugar-free Easter, blog post 13 Mar 2012, http://www.sarahwilson.com/2012/03/how-to-navigate-easter/, last accessed 24 Jan 2016.

Acknowledgements

* It took me years to get to the point of even realising I needed to give up sugar. But once I did, I couldn’t have done it without the support, guidance and encouragement of a few special people. I would like to thank Karen Thomson for her programme, Sugar Free Revolution; and acknowledge my deepest gratitude to my three closest ‘Sugar-Free Sisters’ for their ongoing friendship: M, W and F – thank you 🙂