I quit sugar for one month – here's what happened

By YOU
17 April 2017

With a sugar tax on the cards, not only are sweet treats making you heavier -- they're making your pocket lighter. Kim Arendse tells of her struggle to live without sweet things.

Self-professed sugar addict Kim took on the challenge of giving up the sweet stuff for a full four weeks. Here's how she fared. PHOTO: Megan Miller Self-professed sugar addict Kim took on the challenge of giving up the sweet stuff for a full four weeks. Here's how she fared. PHOTO: Megan Miller

Hi, my name’s Kim and I’m a sugar addict.

I don’t say this easily. I eat sugar, plenty of it, on a daily basis. When I’m down, up, bored, occupied, alone or in company – any excuse to get my fix.

For me, a meal isn’t complete without a sugary, creamy dessert and snacks aren’t satisfying unless they’re sickeningly sweet. One chocolate stopped being enough a few years ago and sugary binges became the new norm. I was always thinking about where the next sugary hit would come from and binges always ended in bouts of selfloathing.

Read more: The secret’s out – SA to get a sugar tax

Diets were always going to begin “next Monday” and this binge was always going to be my last. It’s clear as day – I’ve become dependent on sugar, a foodstuff that has made headlines for being as addictive as tobacco and as deadly too. And it seems I’m not the only one who’s addicted. Last year a Swiss study found that globally the average person consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar a day – that’s 12 more than the healthy recommended amount. And one in five South Africans eat too much of the sweet stuff, according to a 2013 study by the Human Sciences Research Council. I decided to go sugar-free for a month, or at least as close to sugar-free as possible – the stuff’s in almost everything.

Could I live without it? 

After doing some research I realised I showed all the signs typical of sugar dependence. Increasingly studies are showing the devastating effects of sugar on our health – tooth cavities, insatiable hunger, weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes,  obesity, liver failure, some cancers, kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive decline and nutritional deficiencies. My goal going sugar-free was to be able to feel comfortable enough to get into a pool with my son this summer, get rid of my horrible mood swings from the sugar highs and crashes, limit my risk of some of these deadly diseases and cut my dependence on it.

Is sugar really addictive? 

Sugary foods or drinks release the feel-good hormone dopamine, which is the ultimate reward signal, says Dr Nicole Avena, an American neuroscientist, expert on nutrition, diet and addiction, and author of Why Diets Fail.

“When dopamine is released, we feel good about what we just ate, and our brain tells us we want more,” she says. “However, overeating sugar overstimulates dopamine hot spots in the brain, similarly to drugs of abuse. Putting the reward system into overdrive, either from sugar or drugs such as cocaine, nicotine and alcohol, is what leads people to constantly seek the high they get from dopamine release.

"In terms of sugar this feedback cycle can lead to loss of control when eating and craving.”

The same effect applies to refined carbohydrates such as cakes, biscuits, pasta, white bread, pretzels and crackers. “When you eat carbohydrate-containing foods, they’re easily converted to glucose, which is our essential fuel source for all our bodily functions,” says Kelly Schreuder, a Cape Town dietician. “However, when you eat excessive amounts of carbohydrates at one time, your body produces a lot of insulin to regulate the effects on your blood-glucose levels, leading to more sugar cravings. This can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes if done often.”

Want to cut out sugar? Here’s how

Four weeks without sugar: my diary

Week 1

My first step was to get rid of all things sugary. It amounted to two large plastic bags and included not only biscuits and chips but condiments, cereals, jams, peanut butter, juice, baking ingredients and some canned goods.

In its place I stocked up on macadamia nut butter which replaced my much-loved peanut  variety, spices instead of sauces, rooibos tea to replace juice, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I decided to cut out all items with added sugar but kept in my diet things in which sugar naturally occurs and is beneficial to my health, such as milk, and consumed these in moderation. I realised how much sugar we consume without knowing it (it’s in things such as pasta sauces, cereal bars, salad dressing, low-fat yoghurt, dried fruit, wine and dark chocolate) and it felt good to shop for heathier options. The first week of having no sugar was horrible. I suffered bad headaches and felt tired all the time. Just goes to show the constant sugar high I had been on! Week 2

By now I began feeling less tired, especially in the late afternoon when I’d usually needed my sugary pick-me-up. The cravings for sweets were still there though and going out with friends and family became a challenge. It seemed everyone was tucking into pasta and desserts when I couldn’t.

My mood also improved. I was no longer as irritable as I used to be. One big change this week was that I was no longer waking up starving. Before, I’d wake up and my first thought would be about what’s for breakfast. Now, I could easily wait an hour or two before feeling hungry. I also began noticing what “real”  hunger felt like. When I was eating so much sugar and carbohydrates, I was always hungry because my body craved it. Week 3

By week three the cravings became significantly less. I ensured I had a plan of what I’d eat each day, including snacks, and that seemed to help keep me satisfied. I was eating more nutritious food and this left no room for cravings. I also began sleeping better and I started waking up feeling refreshed for the first time in as long as I could remember. I began to notice when I most still craved sugar – when I was bored, stressed and in social gatherings. Armed with this knowledge, it became much easier to manage as I anticipated it and planned for it by eating healthy snacks and drinking water – lots and lots of water. Week 4

By now, my sugar-bingeing days felt like a bad dream. I’d lost 3 kg in the past three weeks and I felt like a new person. My tummy felt less bloated and looked it too. In this week I felt so good I decided to have a slice of bread at the beginning of a meal at a restaurant.

It couldn’t hurt, I thought. Well, it did. Even before I’d finished my main meal I was craving a glass of wine and dessert. I felt the famous sugar crash. I still found it incredibly hard to find sugar-free treats. I don’t know if a life without sugar is a possibility or practical, but this month has given me a new insight into what I put into my body and the devastating effects of sugar.

Some of my swops

Sugar – Xylitol

Peanut butter – Macadamia nut butter

Mashed potato – Puréed cauliflower with Parmesan cheese, or sweet potato mash

Cereal – Yoghurt with a topping, or eggs

Juice – Tea

Condiments – Spices

Sugary desserts – There are many sugarfree dessert recipes online. My favourite’s a cheesecake made with sugar-free biscuits. I also made chocolate balls using sugar-free hot chocolate powder, coconut, coconut oil and macadamia nut butter.

Pasta – Protein with creamy cream cheese and herb toppings

Sugary snacks – Cups of filling vegetable soup

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