As part of my ongoing quest to make ‘better life choices’ (pffft) and to treat my body better, I’ve started to realise that sugar is bad for you.
Clearly, I’m not going to win any prizes for investigative journalism any time soon, but what I mean is, I simply hadn’t realised HOW bad. Not only does it rot your teeth and make you fat, as well as more prone to heart disease, but too much sugar can cause liver damage (similar to that done by heavy drinking) and prematurely age the skin – two areas of concern for me.
Y’see, I’m trying to be kinder to my liver, as not only has mine undoubtedly taken a battering during Natalie: The Party Years, but also, your liver plays a hugely important role in balancing your hormones, and can easily get out of kilter if you overload it with shit. The fructose found in sugar can only be processed by your liver (and not used as energy elsewhere), so too much can send your liver into meltdown.
Added to which, I’m in my early thirties and noticing fine lines (as well as spots still, WTF?) appearing on my face. Sugar is a primary contributor to the ageing process due to a natural process known as glycation. This is where the sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products (somewhat appropriately called AGEs, for short). The more sugar you eat, the more AGEs you develop; these damage surrounding proteins like collagen and elastin, which keep skin firm and elastic. Sugar is also an inflammatory, which can cause acne. Great.
Not only that, but humans ain’t designed to consume large amounts of sugar. Our genes developed in an environment where one person consumed maybe 2kg of sugar per year. This increased by the 1830s to 5kg and rocketed to 50kg by the end of the 20th century.
The NHS says added sugars can safely make up 10 per cent of our daily calorie intake (that’s 12½ teaspoons a day for women, and 17½ teaspoons per day for men) although many researchers claim these figures should be much lower (about six teaspoons a day for women and eight teaspoons for men).
But statistics say on average, we’re eating 700g of sugar a week AKA 175 teaspoons – and double the ‘safe’ NHS limit. Woah.
I knew for me it would be unrealistic to give up sugar completely (what?), and actually, I believe you can have most things in moderation, if you want to. In any case, it’s impossible to be 100% sugar-free. Vegetables have sugar in them, for crying out loud!
And I’ve always been one of those annoying skinny sorts, who doesn’t put on the pounds easily (if at all), so it had nothing to do with weight-loss.
However, I certainly wanted to reduce the amount of refined sugar I was consuming and swerve foods that naturally contain high amounts of sugar (or at least be aware of what they even are).
I decided that I would start to make conscious effort to go what I call ‘low sugar’ by going sugar free where possible and by making easy (‘cos I’m inherently lazy) changes to my diet. And actually, that’s not as difficult as you might think, as sugar gets EVERY BLOODY WHERE! It’s actually terrible. And the main culprit is processed food (found mostly on the Beige Diet which I used to pioneer, oops).
Here are 10 easy ways to go low sugar…
1. Don’t each so much fruit. I know, I know. This kind of goes against everything you’ve ever been told, and feels a bit like the moment you realised the tooth fairy was actually your dad. But understand this: fruit is full of fructose, which can be processed only by your liver and can’t be used for energy by your body’s cells. The liver has to get rid of it, mainly by transforming it into fat and sending it to our fat cells.
Of course, it’s fine to eat one or two pieces a day because fruit is also packed with good stuff like vitamins, fibre and antioxidants, which protect against disease. Just don’t OD on it. Opt for fruits lowest in sugar and highest in fibre, like cranberries, raspberries, gooseberries, peaches, pears and blueberries.
2. Fruit juices are the spawn of the devil. That might be a little dramatic, but bear in mind with fruit juices you’re essentially just extracting the water and sugar from the fruit and throwing away the healthy fibre (apple juice is the worst offender with 6.5 teaspoons of sugar found in a 250ml glass). You might as well be guzzling a can of fizzy pop! (Don’t do that). Shop-bought juices in cartons are the worst, so if you do want juice, make your own, and go for the fruit types mentioned in the previous point.
3. Make avocado your new best friend. This little hero is low in sugar and high in fibre – what a dude. I always find that if I’m going to go on a bit of a sugar binge, it’s when I’m sniffing around for a snack. So change your snacking habits. And I hate it when nutritionists and health gurus go “Simply snack on a bag of wood chippings and you’ll be fine!’ or come up with a ridiculously incomparable substitute for a HobNob, but I have found one snack that’s actually pretty bloody tasty (and easy to make): Mashed avocado (with a bit of lime and pepper) on oatcakes, with a cherry tomato on top. Seriously try it; it’s delish. See also Emily Fruit Crisps, which I reviewed here.
4. Ditch ‘Ready Meals’. I’ve always prided myself on not owning a microwave. Positively brag about it, even. ‘Oh no; zapping your food like that gives me the heebie-jeebies!’ I’d exclaim, never quite comprehending how stone-cold food can go in that little machine and then ping! Two minutes later it’s burn-off-your-taste-buds hot. Turns out, they’re actually not evil and I’ve probably made my life more difficult by not having one in my life.
But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t succumb to the easy dinner fix of Ready Meals during the week. There’s nothing easier than bunging one of those bad boys in the oven when you get home late from work, right? Well, wrong. Not only do most of them take around 30 minutes to heat anyway (in which time, even *I* could have cobbled a freshly made alternative together) BUT the little bastards are packed FULL of sugar. Avoid at all costs. Grill some chicken or salmon and have with a salad instead.
5. Curb your caffeine. What I mean by this, is if you tend to add sugar to drinks like tea and coffee, and are finding it hard to cut down, try not having those drinks AT ALL. I had to do that initially, and eventually developed quite the taste for herbal teas – and I’ve always been a ‘Builder’s Brew’ kinda girl. You know, tea so strong the spoons stands up, with two hefty lumps of sugar thrown in.
This also sounds glaringly obvious, but I used to think I was brilliant and extremely virtuous for not adding any sugar to my Starbucks vanilla/hazelnut latte. WHAT DID I THINK THE SYRUP WAS MADE OF?! So I went cold turkey on that, because I *do* enjoy a coffee now and then. Now I’ll order a small (not humungous) skinny latte from an independent coffee shop, and I really savour the flavour , which I never even used to notice before. In fact, I got over-excited about the arrival of autumn and had a pumpkin spice latte recently and had to throw it away after a couple of mouthfuls. It was so! SWEET! Sickly even, and I could feel my teeth rotting with every sip.
6. Give granola the heave-ho! I feel particularly cheated by this revelation. For a long time, I was a breakfast sinner. Basically, I didn’t have one, not unless you count an extra large latte grabbed en route to work. But when I started making lifestyle changes, I knew I had to make sure I was eating before I left the house in the morning, to fuel myself for the day ahead. Among many of my favourite options was granola. Oh, granola, with your grains of goodness; surely you can do me no harm? WRONG! I only recently realised that most granolas are high sugar, with more than 12.5g of sugar per 100g – much of which has been deliberately added so it doesn’t taste like shit.
Instead, fuel up on nut-rich muesli or Weetabix with almond flakes and grated apple or porridge made with coconut milk.
7. Switch white bread to brown. Or rather, wholemeal bread. This is a pretty easy one, ‘cos to me, wholemeal bread actually tastes nicer, but we all know cheap pre-sliced white bread is excellent for toasting, can be chucked into the freezer and doesn’t leave pesky grains pissing out of your toaster for DAYS. But a messy worktop is a better price to pay than MESSY INSIDES, right?
8. On a brown Vs white (not racist) related note, replace white rice with brown rice. Think about that next time you’re chowing down on a sushi roll, thinking you’re Lil Miss Healthy (I was pretty pissed off TBH). BTW try raw fish with plain rice and seaweed salad or edamame beans instead.
9. Swerve the sauce. Especially tomato and barbecue (i.e. my favourites). And probably chutney but I’m sorry, I WILL NOT DO THAT. My Christmas cheese boards would never be the same.
10. Avoid alcohol. Of course, we’re always told we’re not meant to drink alcohol EVER, blah blah blah. But let’s be real here. I don’t smoke, but I do enjoy an alcoholic beverage on a night out; my turn-to tipple being vodka and coke. And while I’d only ever drink the fizzy brown stuff as a mixer, if I was on a particularly epic night out, that would involve me drinking eight (and the rest…) glasses of the stuff! So one day, I decided to switch to vodka, lime and soda water. Not only very low in sugar (and calories) because vodka is so distilled but the soda water hydrates you and therefore means hardly any hangover the next day, yay!
Gin is also good. In general, but also because it doesn’t have any sugar or carbs. And dry red wine. And whiskey on the rocks. But that’s pretty hardcore. Just don’t turn to tonic water as a mixer – it contains 5.1g of sugar per 100ml! If you can’t face changing your drink of choice, at least try cutting back on your alcohol intake in general, to try and consume less sugar that way.
Look, no one said this was gonna be easy, ‘kay?! It’s gonna be tough to give up the sugary stuff. But results so far? Just a couple of weeks in and I’ve barely had a headache, my skin is in MUCH better condition and I’m not having crazy energy HIGHS and oh-so lows. Seems life without sugar CAN be just as sweet, if not more so.