It’s Monday night, and I’m clutching an eight-pack of mini Kellogg’s cereals in the queue of my local corner shop, hoping I don’t see anyone I know. This is the next best thing to the full box of Coco Pops I’ve been craving all day.
Call it a regression to the simpler snap, crackle and pop of childhood, but there’s refuge in a bowl of something sweet and crunchy, topped with ice-cold milk. And during a particularly trying few months (I’m about to get married, my mother’s been diagnosed with cancer), it has become a welcome part of my evening routine.
From the World Health Organisation halving its recommended daily sugar intakefrom 10 teaspoons (about 40g) to five in 2014, to the UK government’s plans for a tax on sugary soft drinks in 2018, we’ve all had the memo: sugar is evil. But me? I’m a healthy eater. I juice in the mornings; I count my five a day. I keep a pile of snacks on my desk that have wholesome words written on them such as “raw”, “natural” and “nutritious”.
Yet I don’t feel so smug when I’m wolfing down a bowl of chocolate-flavoured puffed rice, barely through the door, coat still on. I feel tired and grumpy. I’ve not been paying much attention to my diet lately; I just know that my moods are all over the place and my tummy is often bloated. Later that night, I log what I’ve eaten into the nutritional app, My Fitness Pal. A typical day – green juice and porridge for breakfast; baked potato for lunch; chicken, brown rice and salad for dinner; plus two pieces of fruit as snacks – comes in at a whopping 47g of sugar. I’m shocked.
Can I really cut out sugar completely, and is there any point? I sign up for an eight-week online programme, I Quit Sugar, created by a glowing, sparky Australian journalist called Sarah Wilson. She’s no nutritionist: she quit sugar as an experiment, and found it so beneficial that she created a step-by-step programme. One and a half million people have since signed up.
Every Thursday, I am sent a shopping list and a meal plan for the week ahead. On Sunday, I’ll prepare in advance and freeze what I can, aka The Cook Off. There’s a discussion forum on the site, as well as experts, including doctors, nutritionists and personal trainers, available to answer queries. It’s a lifestyle change rather than a diet, the idea being that if you switch your palate to savoury, and replace sugar with fat, you’ll eventually stop craving anything sweet. Follow the plan, and you cut down in week one, go cold turkey between weeks two and five, and gradually reintroduce a bit of sweetness between weeks six and eight.
I feel overloaded by information. First, what am I actually giving up? “When I talk about quitting sugar, I’m talking about quitting fructose,” Wilson tells me. “Fructose is the enemy. It’s added sugar hidden in processed foods such as fruit juice, ketchup and bread. It’s addictive, makes us eat more and stores itself in the liver, making it harder to break down than fat.”
To put this into context, full-fat yoghurt naturally contains around a teaspoon of sugar (4g), whereas fat-free fruit yoghurt contains around six teaspoons. Our bodies are designed to metabolise the fructose equivalent of two small pieces of fruit a day. A small bottle of apple juice contains nine teaspoons.
I approach week one feeling motivated (cleaning out every last raisin from the kitchen), until the prospect of cooking a batch of curried parsnip fritters followed by apple bircher muffins (and that’s just on the first Sunday) pushes me over the edge. I fire off a panicky email to the I Quit Sugar site to explain this isn’t for me.
They’re clearly used to sugar-free slackers; I get a friendly email reminding me that all I really need to remember is the slogan Jerf: Just Eat Real Food. “You will be completely fine if you eat an abundance of fresh produce, meats, dairy and fats. If it comes in a packet, try and avoid it. If you can’t, opt for the ones with the least number of ingredients, and always less than 5g of sugar per 100g.” The complicated-looking meal plans are actually flexible, they say, and I am directed to helpful guides on the website (from an eating-out cheat sheet to a sandwich-making guide).
Replacing sugar with fat is easier than it sounds. My new breakfast is eggs and avocado, or buttery mushrooms on sourdough, while for dinner it’s bangers and mash or roast chicken. I don’t find it hard to replace dessert with a cheeseboard, and a glass of red wine with dinner five times a week is encouraged, because it “helps digestion”. But is it any healthier?
Week four is when most people experience a crash, and mine is monumental. I get very drunk on Jägerbombs (25g sugar per drink) at my hen do and nurse my hangover with pizza (7g sugar in just a single slice). I have headaches and emotional outbursts for days. But by week six, I feel as if I’ve come through the other side; I’ve not only stopped having cravings, I have a savoury palate.
I’m hardly a poster girl for the programme – I’ve actually gained weight – but this wasn’t about dieting. Eight weeks on, I’m in control of my cravings, I have more energy, and I can’t even stomach a piece of fruit, let alone a bowl of Coco Pops. Alcohol is another story, but there’s always 2018 to tackle that beast.
The I Quit Sugar programme runs every eight weeks, and costs from £89; go to iquitsugar.com for details.
• Swap juice for a piece of whole fruit
• Ditch processed foods and check labels: avoid anything with more than 5g sugar per 100g
• Switch to full fat foods