I love sweet things. Is there anything yummier than sticky toffee pudding with custard on a cold winter’s day? Or a cool, sweet ice-cream when it’s hot? Or perhaps, peculiarly for me, Liquorice Allsorts on Christmas morning? But as much I really love sweet things, I tend to keep foods with added sugars to a minimum these days. Why would I choose to do such a thing when I love sweet foods so much? I know it sounds crazy (and possibly boring!), but over the last few years I have learnt that eating sugary foods (and unknowingly eating sugar in a myriad of guises in processed foods) impacts dramatically on my weight, my moods, my sleep and my inner peace. When I cut added sugar out of my diet completely, I feel so much better—really better—which is why these days sweetness in my diet is mostly from naturally sweet fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, the occasional square of dark chocolate and not from foods with sugar added to it.

It doesn’t come easily: I am addicted to sugar. I hate to admit it, but I am. Over the last 3 weeks whilst on holiday I have had more sweet treats than usual, and today, my first ‘no-added sugar’ day after my holiday is tough. I am really craving something sweet. It will take up to a week for this desire to subside. Aghhh!! I’m not selling this idea very well, am I?!! But please read on…

I suspect that most of you are just as addicted to sugar as I am. And I’m guessing that most of you will not want to do what I’m doing with my diet. So… why am I writing this Tip? Because none-the-less I hope it may inspire some of you to try cutting added sugar out of your diet. Or at least make you think about how much sugar you consume and that you may begin making some changes to your diet too.

What is the big deal about sugar?

Sugar is loved for the sweetness it adds to food, but nutritionally all it offers to the body is instant energy. Do you also know about the damaging cycle that sugar can have on your body? It goes something like this. You are stressed-out and/or tired and you find yourself craving sweet foods like chocolate, confectionary, biscuits, cereals, toast, cakes etc to give you a boost. After eating sugar-loaded foods your body indeed gets an immediate boost of energy. But the body can’t cope with a sudden excess of sugar in the blood stream, so insulin is released from the pancreas to mop it up and transport it from your blood to your cells. This increase of insulin in your blood makes your blood sugar level drop, making you feel sluggish once more, making you crave yet more sugary foods. And so a cycle is formed—and it can be hard to break it.

Many mouthwatering snacks with a high sugar content (especially when combined with fats) trigger dopamine pathways in your brain to light-up in a very similar way that other recreational drugs and alcohol do. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter connected to the brain’s complex system of motivation and reward. When your blood sugar rises, another neurotransmitter also comes into play: this time serotonin, which makes you feel happier and less anxious. In other words sugar is working far more like a drug rather than nourishing the body as foods do.

This is an extract from “Spent: End exhaustion and feel great again” by Dr Frank Lipman: “My take on sugars may seem a little extreme to you, but my opinion is informed by more than a quarter of a century of clinical experience with people who are Spent [exhausted]. As I see it, sugar is a socially acceptable, legal recreational drug. Like other recreational drugs, sugar can lead to mood highs and lows. And like other drugs, sugar can destroy your health over time.” In “Lick the Sugar Habit” by Nancy Appleton she states that sugar also has these not so sweet side effects:

• Sugar can suppress the immune system
• Sugar feeds cancer cells and has been linked to breast, ovarian, prostate and rectal cancer.
• Sugar can weaken eyesight and cause premature skin aging.
• Sugar can cause premature aging in general and increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
• Sugar can cause autoimmune disease, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, migraines and multiple sclerosis.

Are you eating sugar—unknowingly?

When my youngest daughter, Tabs, was a toddler, she was allergic to eggs and many food colourings and preservatives. As a consequence I had to read the labels of tinned and packaged food before buying them to make sure it was safe for her to eat. It was a time-consuming process, but none-the-less an education. I discovered that most packaged food contains all manner of ingredients that are not found in your kitchen cupboards.

As well colourings and preservatives there are many different thickeners and stabilizers (typically starches and gums) and many other chemicals that I have no idea what they do. Then there is sugar, which is added in alarming amounts to virtually all processed foods. If food labels simply stated, sugar, it might help people see what they are eating more clearly, but they don’t. The food industry uses sugar from a whole host of different sources and it is not uncommon to find many different sugars in one processed food. All of these listed below are a form of sugar:

barley malt dextran lactose
beet sugar dextrose malt syrup
brown sugar diatase maltodextrin
buttered syrup diastatic malt maltose
brown sugar ethyl maltol mannitol
cane-juice crystals fructose molasses
cane sugar fruit juice concentrate refiner’s syrup
caramel glucose sorbitol
carob syrup golden syrup sorghum syrup
corn syrup grape sugar sucrose
corn syrup solids high-fructose corn syrup turbinado sugar
date sugar invert sugar yellow sugar

One of the biggest intakes of sugar in our diet is from eating breakfast cereals. Not only does the cereal have added sugars, but the processing of the wheat, corn and rice, which makes up the bulk of any breakfast cereal, has been processed to the point that nutritionally they are largely a form of sugar too.

For example, Kelloggs All Bran has both sugar and glucose-fructose syrup added to it. The bran itself having gone through processing system has now a higher sugar content than it’s natural state. So much so that in a 40g serving with 125ml milk there is 13g of sugar.

Kelloggs Special K is advertised as a breakfast cereal that can help you lose weight, but if you read the nutritional information you will find a 30g serving with 125ml milk contains 11g of sugar. In other words slightly over one-third of your bowl of cereal is sugar! Their advertising makes me laugh because the nutritional value of their Cornflakes, in the same proportions, has 8g sugar—that is 3 grams less than Special K! Yet Special K is regarded as a more up-market brand (just more expensive advertising?) and so 500g packet today costs £2.99 as opposed to £1.99 for Cornflakes with very little difference in nutritional content. Please note I am NOT recommending either as a healthy option: just pointing out how advertising influences our choices which don’t necessarily give you the full picture about what you are eating.

So, in breakfast cereals you would expect to find sugar, but what about savoury foods? Would you expect it in: Sainsbury’s Broccoli and Stilton Soup, or Tesco’s Light Choices Beef Lasagna, or Walkers Worcester Sauce Crisps, or Asda’s Chicken & Vegetable Bake, or Bernard Matthews Turkey Ham… sugar is in all of these foods. These are NOT exceptions. The proportion of processed food which has sugar added to it, is staggering. It’s added to sweeten the product, to bulk it up (it’s much cheaper to add sugar to products than to use other more nutritious ingredients), to prolong the food’s shelf life and to mask the bitterness that has resulted from the food processing process. Start reading the labels of foods you buy and you will be amazed how much and how often sugar is added.

The misnomer of “Low Fat” foods for health

With so many people struggling with their weight and the spiraling NHS health costs associated with obesity, we are repeatedly encouraged to eat healthier diets. One of the key messages has been to reduce the amounts of fat you eat. Recently there has been a revision to qualify which fats we should cut out, for example Omega 3 is now widely promoted as a healthy fat, but by-and-large most people still believe foods labeled “Low Fat” are better for you than their regular counterparts. But is this so? Let me take Hellmanns Mayonnaise as an example (again Hellmanns Mayonnaises are not an exception however, they have 3 versions which makes looking at what happens when a food becomes is transformed into a “Low Fat” version easier to see).

Hellmanns Real Mayonnaise: Vegetable Oil (77%), Water, Pasteurized Egg & Egg Yolk (8%), Spirit Vinegar, Salt, Sugar, Lemon Juice, Mustard Flavouring, Antioxidant (Calcium Disodium EDTA), Paprika Extract.

Hellmanns Light Mayonnaise: Water, Vegetable Oil (28%), Modified Maize Starch, Pasteurized Egg & Egg Yolk (4.2%), Spirit Vinegar, Salt, Sugar, Cream, Lemon Juice, Mustard Flavouring, Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Stabilizers (Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum), Mustard, Antioxidant (Calcium Disodium EDTA), Paprika Extract.

Hellmanns Extra Light Mayonnaise: Water, Modified Maize Starch, Spirit Vinegar, Pasteurized Free Range Egg & Egg Yolk (3.7%), Sugar, Salt, Vegetable Oil, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Citrus Fibres, Flavourings (Contain Lactose, Stabiliser (Xanthan Gum), Colours (Titanium Dioxide, Beta-Carotene), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Lemon Juice Concentrate, Antioxidant (Calcium Disodium EDTA).

Notice that as the fat is decreased, sugar and starch and gums and other chemicals are increased.

In the “Real” mayonnaise, apart Calcium Disodium (a preservative) more or less it contains recognisable ingredients that we would use if we made mayonnaise at home. Nutritionally, it has 1.3g of sugar per 100g and is made from 11 different ingredients.

Now look at the “Light” version, and you can see modified maize starch (which is quickly digested and acts like a sugar) has been added, plus another preservative plus 2 gums to thicken and stabilize it. There are now 17 ingredients and it has 2.2g of sugar per 100g.

Finally, the “Extra Light” also has modified maize starch. Sugar is now listed before the salt (i.e. there is more sugar than salt in this version) and another sugar, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, has been added. There are 17 ingredients and it has 4.8g of sugar per 100g. The calorific difference between the 3 mayonnaises is huge: 100g of Real, Light and Extra Light provides 722, 297 and 73 Kcals respectively. If you choose foods based on calorific value only, then you likely to choose Extra Light, but is it really a good choice? One heaped teaspoon or Extra Light (10g) has only 7Kcals whereas the Real version has 72Kcals. But the latter has higher protein and vegetable oils, which can take the body a longer time to digest (i.e. some of the calories it provides are used up in the digestive process). It also has Omega 3 & 6. When food stays in the stomach for a long time, you feel full for longer. The Extra Light has very little vegetable oil, less protein and much higher sugar content, meaning it will be digested far more rapidly. Mayonnaise alone is unlikely to massively impact how satiated you feel after a meal because it’s not the main part of your meal, BUT if all of your food choices are for the low fat versions you will get hungrier sooner which may well lead you to eating more and can lead to increased weight gain instead of loss.

Again, what we perceive to be good for us—the low fat versions—are not necessarily so, but in case you think I’ve over-egged this example (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!) just look what goes in to one of the “Go-Ahead” bars. Again, I didn’t spend hours researching this to find a good example: it was the first Low Fat sweet product that came into my mind. Tesco’s website helpfully provided the information. Bold ingredients are sugars.

Go Ahead Raspberry Slice: Wheat Flour, Fruit Filling (36%) [Sultanas, Currants, Glucose-Fructose Syrup, Sugar, Dextrose Monohydrate, Humectant (Glycerine), Raspberry Concentrate, Wheat Bran, Gelling Agent (Pectin), Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Rice Flour, Acidity Regulators (Sodium Citrate, Calcium Citrate), Natural Flavourings], Sugar, Vegetable Oil, Glazing Agent [Glucose Syrup, Dried Skimmed Milk, Modified Potato Starch], Maltodextrin, Whey Solids, Natural Flavourings, Dextrose Monohydrate, Salt, Raising Agents (Disodium Diphosphate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Ammonium Bicarbonate).

I find it strange to find sugar in savoury foods that are not supposed to be sweet, but I also find it odd to find potato in so many sweet foods such as this Go Ahead Slice. Potato starch is widely used because it is fairly neutral in taste (so it can be easily masked) it adds bulk with relatively low calorific content, it’s a cheap product and it helps bind the mixture together. Not yummy at all!

How to tackle reducing sugar intake

If you wish to see how sugar is impacting on your health and well being (energy, moods and sleep) the only way to really test this is to completely eliminate added sugar from your diet for 5—6 weeks and see how differently you feel.* Having done this myself, it is challenging, but I did it and I was amazed how differently I felt. After a period of abstinence, it is much easier to either keep to this, or see that sugary foods are the occasional treat rather than a daily part of your diet.

Of course, you may just wish to reduce your hidden sugars, in which case begin by taking the time to read what is in the processed foods you buy and make conscious, informed decisions as to which foods you want to eat. These are my tips to help you go added-sugar free:

• Drink lots of water
• Read ALL labels on packaged, tinned and processed foods! Know it will mean that your diet will be mostly natural and unprocessed foods, but there are some good exceptions
• As you take added sugars from your diet, you need to replace it with lots of nourishing foods. This is not about starving or depriving yourself: it’s about actively choosing nourishing foods that can also be yummy
• Know that you may get some withdrawal symptoms (grouchy, crabby, headaches and craving) in the first week. To help with this, Dr Frank Lipman author of Spent recommends taking 1,000 milligrams of glutamine* (not with meals) every 4 to 6 hours. This is a benign amino-acid supplement that tricks the body into thinking it is getting glucose and so lowers sugar cravings. I found taking this supplement really helped me when I first did this. By the way, Dr Lipman’s recipes for breakfast smoothies in Spent are truly delicious and a great way to start your day

• When you really need some sweetness, try adding just a little maple syrup or raw honey (i.e. honeycomb or raw honey straight from the hive, NOT the honey you buy in the supermarkets). Maple syrup is fructose based which is far less sweet and takes the body much longer to digest than sucrose so doesn’t give your body the blood-sugar roller-coaster effect that sugar-containing sucrose does.

* Please take responsibility for your own health. I am not medically qualified to offer advice about supplements and/or any changes to your diet. Any changes MUST be done in accordance to your own medical and well-being needs. If in ANY doubt, please consult your doctor or medically qualified professional.