Sugar free February: Top tips for success!
Sugar Free February is an initiative by Cancer Research UK, and supports evidence that excess sugar consumption underpins many chronic diseases. Taking part in the challenge is a great way to do something positive for your health and raise money for a good cause all at the same time. But if the thought of cutting sugar for a day let alone a month sounds impossible, read on…
Why is cutting down sugar so hard?
It has been shown that sugar activates the same reward pathways in our brains as opiate drugs, This gives sugar a highly addictive nature and makes it extremely hard to quit. The more you consume, the more your body craves, and cutting it out suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches. There’s also a hormonal response – when we eat sugar the body releases insulin to remove excess sugar from the bloodstream. But if we eat something unnaturally sugary the amount of insulin increases and this can cause blood sugar to fall too rapidly, leading to cravings for yet more sugar.
During the 80’s there was a fad for low fat diets, and manufacturers laced food with sugar to make it palatable once the fat had been removed. This has led to generations of sugar addicts, with few people realising that sugar was actually a bigger enemy than fat. As well as obesity, diabetes and dental caries, research now shows sugar is at the root of conditions like heart disease and fatty liver disease, and may contribute to menstrual pain, migraine and depression.
If you are thinking of taking the sugar free challenge this February, be sure to prepare yourself with our top tips for success:
Many people attribute failure to a lack of willpower, and it is incredibly hard to resist sugar when it’s all around you. Get other members of the household on board and ask them not to buy biscuits, cakes or sweets for the month. If they are not within easy reach you are less likely to slip up. If others in the house want to carry on eating sugar, ask them to keep their goodies out of sight.
2.UNDERSTAND WHAT SUGAR IS
There are many ways that sugar is described on food labels – look out for syrup, cane sugar, molasses or any word that ends in –ose (including fructose). Of course, some of these substances are present naturally in foods – it’s impossible to cut out glucose completely (and in fact your body needs it to survive) but we are aiming to cut down on anything with added sugar or highly concentrated sugar, and that includes honey, dried fruit and undiluted fruit juice.
3.START WITH OBVIOUS ITEMS
There are some very obvious high sugar items like cakes, sweets, honey, jam and soft drinks – make these your first target. If you want to go further look out for things like granola, cereal bars, ready meals, pasta sauces, Chinese sauces and fruit yogurts. Check the amount of sugar on the nutritional panel – 15g is over 3 teaspoons! Seek out foods with less than 5% sugar (5g per 100g) and make these the foundation of your diet.
4.DON’T GO COLD TURKEY
Sugar is highly addictive and sudden withdrawal can cause side effects like severe headaches and lack of energy. So always reduce before you remove (especially if your consumption is high). For example, if you currently have 2 sugars in your coffee cut this in half for the first week, then half again for the second week. If you eat milk chocolate, then switch to a high cocoa variety (e.g. 70%) – the sugar content is much lower. If you already eat 70% cocoa then move towards 80%. If you drink fruit juice then dilute it with 50% water to start with, and work towards plain water with a slice of lemon or lime.
5.BEAT YOUR CRAVINGS
If you are constantly craving sugar then the month is going to be an uphill struggle. Swapping sugary foods for those with sweeteners might sound like a good idea but is counter-productive as it will do nothing to reduce your sweet tooth. Sweeteners also cause the body to release insulin which causes further hunger and cravings. To lessen your cravings you also need to be cautious of any foods with a high glycaemic index (GI). So get rid of refined carbohydrates (white flour, rice and pasta) and use high fibre, wholegrain versions instead.
6.KEEP OTHER OPTIONS CLOSE AT HAND
When you feel a craving for a snack it’s important to have some healthy options ready – whether this is at home or out and about. Seek out low-sugar snacks, and remember that foods high in fat and protein will help you feel satisfied for longer. Make sure you always have things you like readily available ready for when a sugar-craving strikes: try nut butters, natural yogurt, hard boiled eggs, hummus and olives.
You may have come across SMART targets before – these are targets that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound. Just saying “I’m going to cut out all sugar” is probably unrealistic for most of us. So think about making yourself a list of a few SMART targets so that you can measure your success at the end of the month. For example, “by the end of the month I will no longer be taking sugar in my coffee”
8.INVOLVE COLLEAGES AND FRIENDS
It’s important to let others know what you are doing and explain why. The last thing you want is a well-meaning friend bringing you a box of sweets as a thankyou gift, or being offered a sweet by a colleague and feeling obliged to eat it. Even better - find a willing friend and make a pact that you will do this together. We are more likely to stick to promises made to others than promises we make to ourselves, and it’s also great to have a sugar-buddy to speak to when things get difficult.
9. BE PATIENT!
It can take several days or weeks to reduce the craving for sugar, but over time your taste buds will change and you will find that foods you once enjoyed now seem far too sweet. This is great news for your health, and also means you will be able to appreciate the subtle flavours of non-sugary foods more fully.
10. PLEDGE TO DO IT AGAIN
Once you have managed the month, try to keep up some (if not all) of your new habits, and make a promise to yourself to take the challenge again next year. The idea is to change your relationship with sugar, even if you have not quit completely, you will find it much easier in future.
Congratulate yourself on any achievement you made, no matter how small, and be proud that you have done something so positive for your health.
To find out more, go to https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/get-involved/find-an-event/sugar-free-february