Back in April I made a commitment to give up sugar for 8 weeks. I kept in fruit (although not fruit juice), in moderate amounts, and the odd small bit of honey but that was it. I also cut out all processed carbs that turn straight to sugar after eating – mostly white bread and white pasta. I wanted to see what it felt like and to find out if I could develop some different habits. You can read more here.
What many of you perhaps won’t realise, because – due to a combination of factors including moving house – I was woefully bad at documenting it on the blog, is that I did it. For two months, I ate no sugar. I turned down all manner of cake, chocolate and tempting stuff and, crazy as it sounds, I even started to enjoy it!
Just recently I decided that August would be another sugar-free month. And because I was so bad at reporting back on my journey, I thought I’d offer up a little retrospective of the things I learned during (and after) my time off the white stuff.
- James Duigan – personal trainer and creator of The Clean and Lean approach to eating.
- Stonesoup – if you want to develop new habits when cooking and eating, you really should start here. Simple ingredients, simple instructions and an approach to preparing food that starts with an endlessly customisable template rather than a rigid recipe. Try this post and tell me you don’t like salad. Dare you. The only downside is that once you’ve read Jules’ philosophy you’ll never ever be able to say (truthfully) “I’ve got nothing to eat” and order pizza ever again.
- I Quit Sugar – Sarah Wilson’s comprehensive and informative site is now a global mission and impressive business. There’s recipes galore, advice and support plus information about research into sugar and the diet industry. Sarah’s hard-core and has quit the white stuff for good but you can take as much or as little as you’re ready for.
- What should I eat for breakfast today – Marta isn’t a no-sugar cook so there’ll be temptations here, but I love the focus on the simplest and most overlooked meal of the day. I actually followed very few recipes from the site but it definitely got me thinking differently about food. It’s amazing how a lot of habits are formed because we feel there are breakfast/lunch/dinner “foods” that we can’t deviate from. The encouragement to start mixing it up a bit was very welcome.
- Zen habits – I love Leo Babauta’s blog for his simple style of writing, non-judgmental approach to life and his ability to turn life-altering change into simple steps. I don’t think he’s ever told me something I didn’t already know. His genius lies in making me realise that I know it already.
What I learned
- You can’t change your mindset with negativity. I hate the idea of diets. I think I went on a diet once, when I was 15 and it seemed like that’s what everyone else was doing. I lasted about a week and didn’t really get it. The pleasure principle is hardwired into human DNA – if it’s not fun, we’ll avoid doing it. Even those people who slog it out through epic spinning classes where death seems like a viable alternative to carrying on (I’ve been to one spinning class…)? They go back because of the mega high you get afterwards. If you make food negative, it’ll stop being fun. If you take the fun out of something you have to engage with three times a day you’ll doom yourself to failure. I wanted to cut out sugar but that was never my focus. It was about learning new things, trying new foods, finding fun alternatives, feeling better. Be careful about the words you use and how you frame your intentions. Think you can’t have fun with eating vegetables? Bet you haven’t tried. (And do stop sniggering at the back…)
- If in doubt, start small. Eating one more portion of veg a day is not nothing. Swapping one bar of chocolate each week for a handful of chopped veg? Not nothing.
- Cooking really doesn’t take that long. I’ve spent more time in the past thinking about how much effort cooking is than actually doing it. This week alone, I made a cooked breakfast twice before work. Scrambled eggs, spinach and grilled tomatoes takes less than 10 minutes. A dishwasher helps. I love mine almost as much as my husband.
- Don’t be fooled by the fat-free con. I didn’t cut out sugar to lose weight. I did it to be healthier. If you want to, or need to, lose weight, start with the sugar. Not the fat. It infuriates me how the diet industry have demonised fat over the years. Yes, saturated fat and trans-fats (those found in heavily processed food like shop-bought cakes and biscuits) are bad for you. But good fats are the cornerstone of a healthy diet and a comfortable weight. You need the fats in things like nuts, avocado and dairy to give you lustrous hair, healthy skin and – most importantly if weight loss is your goal – to feel full and happy. When you eat a ‘fat-free’ diet food, the lovely umami effect of the fat is replaced with empty sugar that doesn’t give you the same satisfaction. Chances are you’ll eat more in search of that satisfaction. Eat good fat.
- You DO make friends with salad. Salad is my new best friend. We developed a trusted formula for a rocking salad: leafy base, crunchy colour, protein, add an edge (lemon juice, jalapenos, pickled beetroot etc), add some texture (seeds, chopped nuts). Most of the time I didn’t bother with a sauce but you can always bash one out by mushing up some lemon juice, olive oil and a clove of garlic in a pestle and mortar. I’ve had way nicer lunches since I started experimenting with salads than I ever did trying to make a sandwich interesting (or struggling through shop bought ones).
- I am an all or nothing person. After my sugar free stint came to an end in July, some habits stuck (healthy daily breakfasts, packed lunches, more interesting and veg-heavy dinners) and some didn’t (the whole sugar-free thing). But I decided not to beat myself up about it. If I am an all or nothing person, then I won’t waste my energy trying to change it. I’ll just reduce my sugar consumption my way by taking the occasional week/fortnight/month off. By the end of the year, if I’ve spent 4-6 months avoiding it, that’s a 50% improvement!
- What you eat is everything. Without the excess sugar and with a marked increase in fruit and veg I saw improvements in the quality of my sleep, my energy levels, my mood, my skin and my body shape. I lost some weight but this wasn’t because of deprivation or a reduction in calories. I ate less superfluous stuff, sure, but I also ate more consistently. I can’t remember a period in time when I’ve ever had a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for so long. I reckon I ate more food overall but it was healthier and contained less empty calories. Plus it meant I increased the amount of good stuff I was getting with every extra mouthful.
- Recipes aren’t vertical, they’re horizontal. Don’t be afraid to experiment – if there’s something in a recipe that you don’t want to eat, mix it up and find something else. I always had this idea that if I took one thing out the whole recipe would collapse but it’s not true. Everything else just stays where it is and you plug the gap. The one exception to this is baking but greater minds than mine have been tackling the problem and there are sugar-lite (or free) recipes out there. Plus you can always swap sugar for fruit or agave syrup and see what happens.
- Always eat breakfast. Non-negotiable.
- Don’t pigeon-hole foods. I’ve used raw baby spinach in place of pasta, finely chopped cauliflower in place of rice, mashed white beans instead of potatoes, quinoa instead of couscous and chopped nuts instead of crisps or breadcrumbs.
- Taking your own lunch to work is CHEAP. So everyone knows this – including me – but I’ve never really followed through and done it. I saved a bunch of money. It’s not just committing to take lunch – thereby eating healthily and avoiding the yuckiness of pre-packaged sandwiches 5 times a week. It’s the money you save in all those other things you end up buying when you’re in the shop (magazines are my particular bête noire).
- Priorities are everything. I chose to have breakfast and a packed lunch every day. Because it became my top priority, I stuck with it. It can really help to rope someone else in, be it a friend or your other half. Flaking out of making breakfast was much harder if it meant my husband was also going without. And it meant we shared the burden of cooking.
- You can turn a frozen banana into ice cream. Oh yes you can. I learned this trick from Rosie at The Londoner and it is, to put it mildly, FRICKIN’ AMAZING. Check out the recipe here.
- Find what works for you and stick to it. There is SO much advice out there (and I’ve just added to it). You could go mad following this person’s approach or that one’s. Choose to be healthy and then figure out how to do it your way. There are so many places to go for inspiration but someone else’s plan may not work for you. Take hints and tips where you find them, stay positive and most of all – enjoy your food.