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What I Learned from Quitting Sugar

At the end of last year, I decided to try quitting sugar. For a while I’d been noticing articles popping up in the media about the negative health impacts of sugar. I looked into it a little more: I read David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison and also I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson. I had long conversations with my next-door neighbour about the book Primal Body Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas (which I attempted to read myself, but couldn’t motivate myself past the introduction – it’s a dry read). I decided to jump on the sugar-quitting bandwagon, and try it out myself.

The Science-y Bit

If you’ve missed the “sugar-is-actually-really-bad-for-you” frenzy, let me briefly explain. The word “sugar” actually refers to a number of different compounds characterised by a sweet taste. Simple sugars include glucose and fructose.  Table sugar (sucrose) is actually a double sugar made from fructose and glucose. Carbohydrates are complex sugars that can be broken down by the body into glucose.

Our body needs sugar (namely glucose) to function. But it doesn’t need the immense quantities that most people eat every day. Almost all packet foods have added sugar, even the “healthy” ones like muesli bars and granola. Those low-fat options that we were told were better for us? All have far more sugar than the standard versions. Sauces and condiments are also often packed with extra sugar. It’s everywhere.

After the low-fat revolution of the 1980s led to higher rates of obesity and diabetes, researchers discovered that fat wasn’t making us fat. The culprit is sugar. The American Heart Association recommend only 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (one teaspoon is a little under 5 grams). It is estimated that the average American consumes more than 42 teaspoons of sugar every day!

The sugar that’s receiving all the bad press is fructose. It’s the sugar found in fruit, and also in table sugar and honey (which is usually around 50% fructose). Our bodies don’t respond to fructose in the same way as with other sugars. Whilst eating glucose or carbohydrates causes a hormonal response that makes us feel full, fructose doesn’t work in this way. Not having an off-switch means we’re far more likely to over-indulge. And when we have more fructose in our bodies than our liver can break down, our bodies convert it into fat.

It’s not just about weight-gain, either. Research has suggested that fructose is linked to the development of a number of cancers including pancreatic and small intestine cancers, it inhibits our immune system, causes inflammation,  it speeds up aging, it impacts our digestive system, and many more.

All of this is pretty scary stuff. If that wasn’t enough to convince me to give it a try, the promises of feeling clearer mentally, of having more energy, of not succumbing to sugar cravings (and accidentally eating an entire chocolate bar when I only meant to eat two squares) definitely were.

Quitting Sugar

What I didn’t Eat

In order to quit sugar, there’s a surprising number of things to avoid:

  • There’s the obvious added sugar of course, which means avoiding most packaged foods. As I don’t eat packaged food anyways, this wasn’t a problem for me. If you do eat anything from a packet or jar, check the label – the amounts of sugar might shock you!
  • All of the “natural” sugars, like honey, maple syrup and molasses are still sugar, so they were crossed off too.
  • All fruit, including dried fruit…and this includes tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. Remember how in school we were always taught that they were a fruit? Well, it applies now. Have you ever seen how much sugar sun-dried tomatoes contain? No wonder they are so tasty!
  • Sweet vegetables, including sweet potatoes, beetroot and carrots, which all contain fructose.

What I Did Eat

So what was left?

  • Proteins such as fish and eggs. I don’t eat meat, and I don’t eat a lot of fish, so this meant eating a lot of eggs.
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • Leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables.

How Did I Find It?

If you’re looking at that list above thinking it all sounds very boring, then I’m going to tell you – it was. It was extremely boring. In I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson advocates eating a lot of meat and dairy. I don’t eat either of these, and this severely limited my options. I ate virtually the same meals every day for two weeks – which made me question whether I was missing out on valuable nutrients by cutting out so much.

As to how it made me feel… I didn’t get the amazing clarity of mind that I was expecting. But I didn’t get the sugar cravings that I read I should expect, either. Everything just carried on as before. I don’t really know how much sugar I was eating before, but I guess my body didn’t need the big sugar detox I had expected it would.

Lessons from Quitting Sugar

It was a good experiment, and I’m glad I did it because it made me more mindful of the sugar in my diet. More importantly, it made me realise how much enjoyment I get from food – from cooking, to eating, to sharing with others – and that wasn’t something I was willing to sacrifice. Food is my creative outlet. My experiment coincided with the start of mango season; I realised I didn’t want to be eating omelettes for breakfast when there was so much beautiful fresh produce out there for me to enjoy.

fruit2It is worth recognising that other people’s journeys aren’t the same as our own. David Gillespie, who wrote Sweet Poison, was struggling with obesity when he quit sugar; he was also eating and drinking a lot of processed food. Sarah Wilson has an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s, and reducing her sugar intake helps her manage this. Neither of these conditions apply to me, and so I don’t have the same incentives to make quitting sugar a way of life.

Plenty of bloggers, writers and recipe creators out there talk about quitting sugar, and being sugar free, when what they mean is refined sugar-free. Don’t get confused by the two. Honey, particularly raw honey, is thought to have great health-improving properties, but it is still sugar. Berries, such as blueberries, are extremely high in antioxidants, and are considered superfoods because of their high nutritional content, but they are a fruit, and fruit contains sugar. If you want to enjoy these and many more amazing foods, then do! Just don’t kid yourself that you are eating a completely sugar-free diet.

What works for me is quitting refined sugar. That means I can still eat fruit, and I can still bake, but I choose sugars that have not been highly processed and still retain nutrients. They are more expensive than table sugar – which helps limit the quantities I eat! (I’ll cover unrefined sugars in another blog post.)

If you want more information about sugar, I’d recommend reading both the books I mentioned at the start (I found both of these in my local library). The science behind sugar is really interesting, and I think it’s important that we connect with the food we eat in as many ways as possible.

Have you tried quitting sugar? How did you find it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

We’re all on different journeys

Last week I wrote a blog post about toilet paper. Eco-friendly, ethical toilet paper. Toilet paper that’s even more eco-friendly and ethical than the previous eco-friendly and ethical toilet paper I used to buy. It feels kind of absurd, really – writing blog posts about toilet paper. I pondered what friends I’ve not been in contact with recently might think if they stumbled across the post. I wonder what Lindsay’s up to these days? I’ll check her blog. Oh. She’s writing about toilet paper. Is that really how she spends her time these days? Does she have nothing bigger to worry about? Read more

Blogging, not blogging and holidays

You may remember that I wrote a post in September about how my life was going to be ridiculously busy over the coming three months? And how I was hoping that I’d be able to juggle everything successfully? Well, it hasn’t quite been the plain sailing that I’d hoped. I knew it was going to be a challenge, and whilst I was hopeful that I could manage everything, I knew it was a long shot. In fact it’s been super hectic and stressful, and of course some things have had to give. One of those things has been the blog. I haven’t been posting as frequently as usual because I’ve been so busy.

Fortunately, the end is in sight and we are due to go on a long (four week) holiday in just under two weeks. Bliss. Of course it would probably be a little less stressful if we’d actually done something in the way of preparations other than make sure our passports were valid and book flights, but no matter. Next Friday night we will be off, and leaving all this busy whirring spinning busy-ness behind us. Read more

Zero-waste kitchen

After my recent blog post on trying to make my own tahini, which was motivated by my desire to use less packaging, I thought I’d write about my quest for a zero-waste kitchen. Let’s be clear, though. I do not have a zero-waste kitchen. It is something that I aspire to, something I’m working towards, but I am not there yet. I might never get there completely either, but it’s something to strive for.

This is my journey so far.

My zero-waste successes

I predominantly buy my groceries from bulk-buy stores. I have a few local stores to choose from that sell nuts, seeds, flours, grains, pulses, beans, herbs and spices in bulk, and I store everything in the pantry in glass jars. I can also buy some condiments in bulk, such as tamari and soy sauce, and cleaning products like dishwashing liquid.

bulkRather than use the bags supplied by the stores, I take my own. I re-use old paper bags (I once read that a paper bag takes three times more energy to make than a plastic bag, so my goal is to use each bag at least 3 times), and also have reuseable washable cloth and netting bags. If reusing paper bags, it’s worth checking what was in there last time. Cinnamon-flavoured brazil nuts are a pleasant surprise, chilli-flavoured sugar is less delightful! I also have a rule that I can’t take any new paper bags from the shop – if I don’t have enough then I have to go without. It’s a good lesson in being more prepared next time!

bags

At my local farmers market there is an egg seller who takes back old egg cartons for re-using. I store my eggs in their boxes at home, so I have four of these so I can return the empty ones to swap with new ones without running out in between. We also have local olive oil producers at the market who sell oil in bulk and refill bottles.

eggs oilIt goes without saying that I only buy loose produce from the other stalls.

If I want to buy items from the deli counter or fishmongers, I take my own containers. When you do this, it’s worth making sure that the assistant weighs your container first – you don’t want to pay for the privilege!

As much as possible, I prepare my meals from scratch to save on packaging, because it tastes far better, saves money, is additive- and preservative-free and is FUN! As well as meals, that includes making my own bread, yoghurt, nut milk, dips… and I’m always interested in learning something new.

My Semi-Successes

We get most of our fruit and vegetables delivered via a local organic veg box scheme. The produce arrives predominantly packaging free, but usually there’s a paper bag in there with something inside. Typically the potatoes and carrots arrive bagged. This means that despite my refusal to pick up new bags at the bulk produce stores, I still seem to be gradually accumulating them. The company were very good about not putting any of my produce in plastic when I requested it – I wonder if I call and ask for no bags at all they will be able to accommodate me?

vegbox1finalThe boxes that the vegetables come in get returned each week for re-using.

I have struggled a little with pasta. I have found one shop that sell vermicelli nests in bulk, as it seems harder to find than rice and other grains. Maybe this is because it is bulky. Sometimes we are caught short, and this means we do buy pasta occasionally in cardboard packaging. We try to stick to spaghetti rather than bulky shapes because the packaging is smallest with this.

pasta(In the last month Barilla have been swept up in calls for a boycott after the Chairman said he would never feature gay families in his advertising, and if gay people didn’t like his message, they could eat another pasta. I’m on the fence about this. I like that they package their products in cardboard and support this, yet the idea of importing pasta to Australia from Italy does seem a little unnecessary. Really, I should make my own…or switch to eating potatoes.)

The first tip we picked up from taking part in Plastic Free July in 2012 was lining our bin with used newspapers. If you want to know how to line your bin, check my post about it here. With a zero waste kitchen we shouldn’t need a bin, but we have no composting facilities where we currently live and what we can’t feed to our worms (and what little plastic sneaks in) still goes to landfill.

We buy milk from a local producer called Sunnydale who take back the empty bottles for re-using. We get stuck with the lids (which we can’t return) but it’s pretty waste free. I have a friend who has goats for milking…maybe that is the next step!?

Things to Work On

There’s still things that we buy in glass jars and tins. I buy tinned tomatoes (I have had a go at canning my own once – it was time-consuming and messy, although successful – but I ended up with three jars. Mass production, I think, is the key. Maybe when tomatoes are in season this year I’ll buy a heap and try to can a shedload of them – not that I have a shed to store them in…). I buy coconut milk, and this is on my list of things to try to make. Tahini is another one!

We have just used up our last jar of olives and I want to start getting these from a deli in future, which should mean better quality as well as less packaging.

My boyfriend likes to drink the odd beer, and beer bottles (and occasionally wine bottles) end up in the recycling bin. These are not something we keep for re-using. On the list for the distant future (when we have the space), homebrew is something that I think he’d like to try.

What else? I recently bought some cocoa butter, which came in a plastic lined bag. I know that it is possible to buy this in bulk, but none of my local shops seem to sell it. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and I don’t want to compromise by going without trying new things. I try as much as possible to keep plastic-free and packaging free, but sometimes I get caught out. Unless I change my behaviour (or an amazing bulk produce store opens down the road) I will never be completely waste-free.

So I try to do as much as I can. I might not be able to achieve 100%, but I can get as close to that as possible. As we find a solution or an alternative for one thing, so I can focus on the next thing. Small steps, in the right direction.

Blogging, sustainability…and blogging about sustainability

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be about my sustainability journey. I wanted not only to be able to keep a record but also to share it with the wider world. I felt like I was at a significant turning-point in my life and I wanted to write to help guide my thoughts. So far, I’m really enjoying both writing and being able to connect with a whole online community that I never really knew existed before. Read more