What you need to know about going sugar-free
If you hadn’t already noticed, sugar is a major topic of conversation in the health world right now. Every day there seems to be another study released that reveals the detrimental effects of sugar on our bodies, from the increased risk to our health to the way that sugar can impact our skin and the aging process. As this information comes to light, people are increasingly ditching sugar altogether and embracing a sugar free diet. But is a sugar free diet really all sugar free recipes and sugar free desserts as social media would have us believe?
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The short answer is no, it’s not. In fact, according to celebrity chef, nutritionist and founder of the Falling in Love With Food program Zoe Bingley-Pullin, going sugar free is a process that can take some time and dedication. “Start by making small manageable changes on a daily basis,” says Zoe. As you slowly begin to eliminate certain sugary foods from your diet, you’ll start to notice the benefits of eating only foods with no sugar. “Your energy should improve, your appetite should stabilise and your mood and concentration levels should be less affected,” Zoe says. “You will feel more satisfied with less food and for longer.”
So what does a sugar free diet actually involve? We spoke to Zoe about the best way to reduce your sugar intake, how to stay on track and the foods you never knew contained sneaky hidden sugars. If you’re ready to give sugar the flick, read on.
Why is sugar such bad news?
You’ve read the articles and streamed the documentaries (I watched That Sugar Film while eating Gelato Messina ice cream, so how’s that for irony), but going sugar free still seems a little daunting. It’s easy to ignore the facts and bury your head in a bag of M&M’s, but you’ll be paying the price in more than just your waistline down the track. And refined sugar, the sugars that are extracted and added to foods to sweeten, flavour and preserve foods, is the biggest culprit. “There are many long-term effects associated with excess refined sugar intake. There is an increased risk of obesity when refined sugar foods lead to excessive kilojoule intake,” says Zoe. “Frequent intake of refined sugar from soft drink, combined with a poor quality overall diet, may also increase the risk of developing type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.” Yikes! A high sugar intake has also been linked to poor dental health and excess sugary drinks may increase the rate at which the brain ages. And if that’s still not enough to get you swearing off the sweet stuff, a high intake of refined sugar can also lead to unstable appetite and overall poor energy.
And while natural sugars such as fruit and root vegetables might be considered the ‘healthier’ alternative, they are still sugar. However, thanks to their natural properties, these sugars are better digested and processed by the body. “Usually foods containing natural sugars also contain protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fibres,” explains Zoe. “This can help slow down the rate at which sugar is absorbed.”
So what does all this mean for our diets? “The research on sugar is still developing and is definitely an area to keep an eye on,” says Zoe. “What we do know is sticking to a primarily whole foods diet and limiting overall refined sugar intake is a healthy approach to take.”
How do I cut down on sugar?
Now that you’re committed to going sugar free and want to cut down on refined sugar, it’s time to start examining how much sugar you’re actually eating every day. “Do a stocktake of your current refined sugar intake – you may be surprised how much added sugar you are actually consuming,” suggests Zoe. “This includes keeping a food diary and reading labels looking for added sugar. From here, you can slowly reduce sugar intake and swap refined sugar foods for better choices.”
Once you’ve identified where and when your sugar intake is coming from, you can start slotting foods without added sugar into the mix. So instead of wolfing down that commercial breakfast cereal that’s secretly loaded with sugar, try replacing it with homemade muesli or some warming porridge with fruit. The key to identifying these food swaps all comes down to reading the labels and investigating certain foods. According to Zoe, there are lots of foods that contain hidden sugars that we might think are otherwise healthy. Some examples of these types of food are bottled salad dressings, dips, nut milks and crackers, which can all be found guilty of hidden added sugars. Bottom line? If you’re not sure, read the label.
When you’re taking sugar out of your diet, it’s important to up your intake of other healthy food groups. Zoe advises that increasing our intake of healthy fats at mealtimes, such as avocado, extra virgin olive oil and nuts or seeds, will leave us feeling more satisfied when we’re cutting back on sugar. Zoe also says that it’s important to eat regularly to keep the cravings at bay. “Eating regularly is an effective way of preventing dips in blood sugar. When our blood sugar is low our body looks out for a quick source of energy, which as you can only imagine, is sugar!” she explains. “If you do not have the time nor the preference for eating regularly, opt for 3 larger meals instead. Make sure such meals contain a good source of complex carbs, lean protein and healthy fats to sustain you for long periods of time.”
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Is giving up sugar going to be hard?
No lifestyle change is ever easy but given how many food items actually contain hidden refined sugars, going sugar free can feel overwhelming. However, Zoe says that most of the difficulties that you could face when giving up sugar all come back to lack of preparation. “It’s all too tempting to retreat to old behaviours if you are not prepared,” she says. “Make a list of healthier alternatives and have those foods on hand.”
The good news is that you won’t have to wait long before you start seeing the benefits of a sugar free diet. “Over time, healthier alternatives will become more satisfying and you will no longer crave sweet treats to the same extent,” says Zoe. “Your energy should improve, your appetite will stabilise and your mood and concentration will be less affected. You’ll also feel more satisfied with less food and for longer.”
Easy sugar free food swaps
Ready to get started? Zoe suggests cutting back on your sugar intake with these easy food swaps.
SWAP: Ice cream or flavoured yoghurt for natural yoghurt with berries
SWAP: Commercial breakfast cereal for oats or porridge with fresh fruit
SWAP: Bottled dressings for olive oil, lemon, garlic and fresh herbs
SWAP: Stir-fry sauces for tamari/soy, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and herbs
SWAP: Muesli bars for raw nuts and seeds
SWAP: Honey/jam toast for avocado, eggs or cottage cheese
SWAP: Sweet muffins for savoury muffins (for example, feta, spinach and pumpkin)
Would you like to cut down your refined sugar intake?