Veronica Schmidt dropped 3kg and became "freakishly energetic" after she gave up sugar, but it wasn't easy.
The thing that really got me was the dreams: In one, I plunged my hands into a moist, rich chocolate cake and shovelled huge hunks of it into my mouth, crumbs collecting on my chest like a bib of shame. In another, the smoking habit I gave up more than a decade ago came back to haunt me: My packet of cigarettes was empty and I needed one so badly that I crashed a cliff-top party full of shady characters and desperately searched their hands for fags.
They were the dreams of an addict. How mortifying, how incredible, that they were the result of giving up sugar. Who would have thought that saying no to biscuits, bananas and balsamic vinaigrette could have you Jonesing in your sleep? Not me.
I am not the fad-diet type. I last attempted one – the joyless liver cleansing diet – circa 1998. But in the past year or so, books and articles about quitting sugar have surfaced everywhere. Eventually I got around to reading one and immediately recognised myself in the descriptions of lethargic, spotty, overweight sugar addicts.
I was struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning (my husband often had to pull the duvet right off me to instigate movement), yawning my way through the day and constantly fighting chocolate cravings, then beating myself up when I inevitably gave in. As always, I was fighting to keep my weight at the top end of the healthy range for my height and frequently ending up a few kilos over. Oh, and my skin was starting to look like that of a hormonal teenager.
The anti-sugar movement seemed to provide a way to finally ditch the grinding battle between want and will power. Painting sugar as an energy-sapping, skin-destroying, liver-poisoning, disease-causing addiction, it promised salvation. But diet books always do, so I went into research overdrive, reading Sarah Wilson's I Quit Sugar, Why We Get Fat by American journalist Gary Taubes and everything penned by the Australian anti-sugar crusader David Gillespie.
The science behind the movement made sense. Sugar (sucrose) is made of fructose and glucose. The fructose portion is trouble. While our bodies convert food into glucose for energy, our bodies don't make fructose and, until recent times, we only ever ate it in small amounts when fruit came into season. Every cell in the body uses glucose, while only the liver can metabolise fructose. Eating loads of the stuff means bombarding the liver, which turns fructose to fat. Fructose also bypasses the usual appetite control system so we never feel full.
But it was the experiments on sugar addiction that clinched it for me. Lab rats fed a diet high in sugar at Princeton University underwent neurochemical changes similar to those that occurred in the brains of rats addicted to cocaine and heroin. When the addicted rats were denied sugar, they withdrew so badly their teeth chattered.
No wonder that despite my best intentions I could never beat the craving for a chocolate bar: I was a fructose junkie. And what addict can consume their poison in moderation? I was ready to go cold turkey. Slavishly following Sarah Wilson's instructions, I quit all sugar – including fruit – for six weeks, before reintroducing only a small amount of high-fibre, low-sugar fruit back into my diet.
My body tingled with anxious energy and I developed an unattractive habit of ringing my hands. I thought about chocolate. A lot. I also thought about the juicy, sweet flesh of oranges. And the night my husband came home smelling of Snickers, I very nearly crawled into his mouth.
I was surprised to find that it wasn't just the sweet treats that needed to go. My basic diet, which I thought was healthy, was hiding buckets of fructose. The natural, insipid muesli I was eating for breakfast was 18 percent sugar, the balsamic vinegar I was using to make salad dressings was 15 percent sugar, and the organic, probiotic yoghurt I was spooning into my mouth was 14 percent sugar.
The overhaul paid off. The cravings disappeared and so did my spotty skin. There was a surprise bonus, too; my wrinkles retreated. Even the deep one down the middle of my forehead, known in my household as 'the axe mark', looked less cavernous. It was like someone had given me a secret shot of Botox.
I dropped three kilos and my cheek bones made a jaunty appearance. My husband kept staring at me and going on about how white the whites of my eyes were – once he woke up, that is, for I was now freakishly energetic and leaping out of bed long before him.
I felt so much better that I only just managed to stop myself becoming the type of crashing bore that preaches endlessly about her new lifestyle. I was also convinced that of all the ideas swirling around on how to halt the obesity problem – taxing certain foods, limiting food advertising to children, educating people about how to tackle emotional eating – Robert Lustig's was the only sensible one. The child obesity expert and anti-sugar campaigner insists the key to ending the epidemic is to banish sugar. Yes, I had become a sugar-free evangelist.
If only that was where the story ended. But the weight loss stopped and eventually I grew frustrated at trying sugar-free recipe after sugar-free recipe and finding them at best insipid, at worst disastrous.
I was tired of trying to eat out and finding there was nothing sugar-free on the menu, but the disenchantment really set in during times of stress. Buried under a pile of deadlines, I found myself in front of the computer shovelling popcorn into my mouth.
I wasn't hungry; I was comfort eating. Again. It pissed me off. I thought giving up sugar was going to end my long-fought battle with food and yet here I was still eating calories I didn't need, rebuking myself and then continuing to stuff my face.
Four months after I last ate sugar, I mixed up my favourite cake – a syrupy lemon and polenta number – and watched it bake, saliva pooling in my mouth. It hadn't even cooled properly when I sliced a hunk off the edge and scoffed it. It was so sweet – cloyingly sweet – and I was amazed to find that I didn't really like it. I was just as amazed to find that familiar, addictive part of me whispering, "More, more, more!"
In that moment, I realised two things: I wanted to stay sugar-free, and there is no one magic bullet for weight problems – mine or the world's. Like so many of life's problems, the answer is more complex than that. Damn it.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Sugar is found in most things that make up a healthy diet and is actually needed by the brain to function properly, says Auckland dietitian Angela Berrill.
"If someone is therefore to go 'sugar-free', they would in fact be eliminating the majority of foods we eat and need to survive. It's not only used to impart flavour to the food we eat but also as a preservative, and even as a 'filler'."
Still, cutting down is no bad thing. It's just a matter of gradually retraining your taste buds. Here are some tips to get you on your merry way:
- Fill up on nutrient-dense meals and snacks from the four main food groups. It means less likelihood of giving in to cravings.
- Try drinking herbal tea in place of sugary treats, or have a herbal tea after your meals if you're craving pudding.
- Instead of sugary fizzy drink, try soda water with a dash of mint, lemon or lime.
- Look inside your head: "Cravings can often be brought on by a 'trigger' or habit," says Berrill. "Try retraining yourself to work out why it is you feel you need something sweet."
- If you usually have something sweet after a meal, try brushing your teeth once you've eaten.
Dunedin-based dietitian Jennifer Douglas says exercise or gardening are effective distractions when you're on the verge of caving in to your cravings. Add a diet rich in wholegrain breads and cereals, protein and fruit and vegetables, to ensure a good nutrient intake over the day.
Also: "Choose low glycaemic index carbohydrates to maintain steady glucose levels in the blood and avoid the big highs and lows that can lead to sugar cravings," says Douglas.
Skipping meals won't help those sugar lows and things like chocolate and biscuits need to be out of the pantry and out of the house.
If you sense your 'addiction' to sugar may be emotionally driven, "seek support from friends, family or counselling services to work through the causes of this".