Could you go sugar free? Actually, no, you probably couldn’t for long, because sugars occur naturally in all sorts of foods, from apples and carrots to milk and eggs. Cutting out sugar completely would mean cutting out fruit, which wouldn’t be very smart.
But it is quite possible to cut out, or at least vastly cut down on, added sugars. And I’m not just talking about the teaspoon of granulated sugar you drop into your coffee, I’m talking about the 10 teaspoons of sugar you might find in a jar of shop bought pasta sauce.
As a food writer, I am quite conscious of the food decisions I make for myself and my family. We meal plan to ensure we get our five-a-day and despite the recipes for cakes and treats you see adorning these pages regularly, they’re not a daily occurrence in our diet.
However, when Canderel challenged me to get ‘Sweet Smart’ and cut out the added sugar in my diet for a few days, there was still a lot to think about.
Once we start talking about cutting out added sugar, we get into the realms of comparing the health impact of refined sugar such as the bag of granulated sugar you have in the cupboard, versus the 100% natural maple syrup you might drizzle on your porridge oats. The latter is healthier in that maple syrup has a lower Glycemic Index, meaning it will have a lesser impact on your blood sugar levels, but it is still sugar, of course.
There are all sorts of other factors in the sugar debate, and the artificial sweetener debate, but the bottom line for the purposes of this experiment is that sugar is sugar – sweet, tasty calories with little nutritional value – so for this experiment, I focussed purely on reducing the added sugar in my diet.
Save for mid-afternoon energy crash (more on that later) I found that breakfast was the hardest point in the day to avoid reaching for the sugar. I work long hours and get up when my body is still in need of rest, so I tend to start the day with a sugar hit. I have never had sugar in my tea, but I do like honey on my toast, maple syrup granola, something to kick start my blood sugar.
For this challenge, I switched to plain porridge or toasted oats and seeds, and varied between dairy and homemade, unsweetened hemp milk. Some days, I added a sprinkle of Canderel, other days I went with a sliced banana or grated apple on top. Adding fruit means increasing the sugar content, of course, but as we’ve discussed, naturally occurring sugar as part of fruit, veg and dairy is ok for this challenge.
For lunch, it was easy to go the ‘no added sugar’ route. I generally cook from scratch, filling myself up with a quick soup made from fridge leftovers, noodles and tofu, or stirring up some rice with veg. I don’t tend to use jar sauces and I’m not a huge fan of ketchup or pickle, so that was all fine. There’s a tiny bit of added sugar in the bought stock I sometimes use, but at less than a half a gram per portion, I let that slide.
What was harder was not reaching for a sugar-laden yoghurt for afters. On some days, I managed to resist entirely, on others I had fruit, and on a couple of occasions I tried blitzing 1/2 cup of silken tofu with a generous spoonful of cocoa and a pinch of Canderel Red – it’s actually pretty good, and there’s no sugar crash afterwards.
Similar to lunch, the trick here seems to be cook from scratch, avoid pre-packed meals, jars and cartons. That’s fine for a few days, and I was quite happy making a fresh vegetable pasta dish, a simple shortcrust pie, mashed potato and good quality sausages (tofu for me) and so on.
However, I think in the long term this would get more challenging. It would be those times when you’re tired and the kids are tired and there’s a huge temptation to grab some frozen mash, tinned beans etc. Is that so bad? I really think it’s not.
I’m a realist and sometimes convenience wins, but to stop it becoming a daily habit, I’ve often written of how it makes sense to make double portions whenever you’re cooking a healthy meal from scratch. Whack the spare portions in tupperware, stick them in the freezer and then the next time you feel like reaching for the sugar-laden jar of pasta sauce, you can reach for something healthy and homemade in the freezer instead. I’ll be following my own advice more on that score.
I get a pre school-run energy drop every day. It’s the point in my working day where I feel like I need to sleep and know that I can’t, so I reach for a sweetened cereal bar.
We’re pretty well stocked with healthier sweet treats like these strawberry smoothie lollies with no added sugar, but I didn’t want to cheat the system by loading up with fruit sugar, so I knew that my mid-afternoon lull would be the single most difficult point in the day.
I decided to head the cravings off at the pass and switched to a 2.30pm pint of water every day of the challenge, putting a reminder in my phone. I figured I was probably more tired and dehydrated than actually in need of sugar, and it worked pretty well. I still craved sweetness but I think over time my blood sugar will even out more and I probably won’t have to battle the cravings so much.
During the challenge, I was drinking more water, eating less sugar and generally making fresh, healthy, veg laden choices at meal times. That’s the good side.
The bad side is that by the end of my experiment, I had a nagging headache. If sugar withdrawal is a ‘thing’ then I had it. Once I started actively denying myself a sweet treat, all I wanted was a bowl of sugary cereal, and I don’t even much like sugary cereal!
The decision I’ve made is to stick to a relaxed version of the no added sugar approach. I’ll still allow myself a sweet treat now and then, but I will avoid eating sugar just for an energy boost, aiming to grab a glass of water instead.
I’m also going to try to keep convenience options down to a minimum not only by freezing more good, home-cooked meals, but also by consciously knocking jars and packets off the list of weekly groceries. Again, however, I’m not going to worry if now and then I use a jar of something from the supermarket in my cooking – ‘everything in moderation’ has always been my approach and it’s one I still firmly believe in.
Going sugar-free, even for this very short period, has reminded me what I already knew, that it’s easy to make smart, healthy decisions, and that if you do so, it soon becomes habit.
Check out the Canderel Facebook Page for more Sweet Smart tips.
This is a commissioned post for Canderel Red