Sugar-free January: weight loss, zealotry and a couple of falls from the wagon
After a hellish start, I begin to crave healthy things. I become a sugar fundamentalist, someone who won’t change his mind or the subject. But even zealots can lapse
Darragh Murphy: ‘The dangerously seductive charms of raisins necessitated a muesli embargo.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
Thirty-one days. Thirty-one days and nights without sugar. Originally envisioned as a way to cut down on eating rubbish, my January experiment became something slightly more demanding.
With the decision to renounce sweeteners, all added sugar and even certain fruits such as apples and bananas, it became, in effect, an effort to wean myself off sweetness itself.
Helped by the Dublin Nutrition Centre, I undertook a rough rule of no foods with more than 5g of sugar per 100g. So no Corn Flakes for breakfast, no banana at lunch, no apples or fruit juice, no jam on toast after dinner – no toast at all, in fact, unless it was wholewheat.
The first week of the sugar-free regimen was hell. I’m not sure what was more discomfiting: the moodiness and irritability that accompanied the initial sugar withdrawals or the fact that family and friends didn’t notice the difference.
Dante reserves the third circle of his Inferno for us gluttons, reduced by the “imperceptible degradation of self-indulgence” to bask in the empty sensuality of our cold, bleak lives. And after the sweet, sticky extravagance of Christmas ended, to be replaced by the brave new world of honeyless porridge, I kind of got his point.
Some things were easy. Thanks to living with two excellent cooks, eating a healthy dinner was simple. In between meals were another matter.
After dinner, in that period when the sun is done and the vast January night stretches out before you, my disgruntled stomach would pipe up and ask: “Where’s dessert? Where’s dessert?” I hadn’t the heart to tell the poor bugger the truth: dessert doesn’t exist any more.
Four weeks later and the cravings have levelled off. The benefits of the month are many and varied. My taste buds are more evolved. Raspberries and strawberries, once bland excuses for actual sweets, have taken on an almost mystical importance.
I’m thirsty less frequently. Occasional flatulence has thankfully receded into the noxious mists of time. I’m also a better lover, although this could be hopeful speculation on my part.
More importantly, however, is the sweet-tooth test. The once-ubiquitous cravings for chocolate or jellies have largely disappeared.
Weight loss wasn’t a goal. Given my January exercise regimen consisted of a jog to the chipper in Cork, there wasn’t much physical change expected at the end-of-month check-up at the Dublin Nutrition Centre. It turns out, however, that all that uncharacteristic self-control burned flab. I shed half a stone in the first three weeks alone.
The professional verdict
Aveen Bannon, my dietician for the month, looks pleased. “All told, you lost two kilos of fat,” she says. “Although you could kind of do with some of that back. That physical response is very dramatic. To be honest, if you were exercising you would have been starving.”
She hands me a kilo of a squashy synthetic “fat” to show how much was actually shed from my torso. It’s about the size of a bag of sugar.
“You’ve also lost around 1kg of water. Sugar tends to hold on to water a little bit. That water should come back on, but if anything you should continue the fat loss.”
It wasn’t easy, let me tell you. Imagine being a recovering drug addict where hard drugs are legalised. Imagine stopping to buy a paper on the way to work, and being herded through aisles festooned with “healthy” treats laced with smack, or trying to buy some soup only to see that producers have added a dollop of opiates to give it that extra kick.
Well, my experience wasn’t quite as bad as that and I can’t seriously compare giving up sugar to the withdrawals experienced by heroin addicts.
Craving healthy things
After forging new paths in patience in the first week, and mocked by the sweet remnants of festive excess, the efforts paid dividends. Instead of craving sweets, chocolate and beer, I began to crave healthyish things: apples, bananas and cereal. Also, the sacrifices saved money, with which I bought a Nutribullet ninja for fruit-and-veg smoothies.
Shopping was still a military-style exercise. Some soups had added sugar, some didn’t, while some breads exceeded the 5 per cent cut-off point. The dangerously seductive charms of raisins, meanwhile, necessitated a muesli embargo. Yet I could eat a few “junk” foods, including red Pringles and some Taytos. McDonald’s, meanwhile, was out for coating its fries in dextrose, among other things.
Not a social meal went by without me needing to explain why I wasn’t going to eat the cake or biscuit proffered by my well-meaning host. In short, I became a sugar fundamentalist (sugamentalist?), someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
Yet even zealots have their weak moments. I had two. The first lapse came when I unconsciously nibbled on one of those mini-biscuits that ride shotgun on your teacup in Bewley’s on Grafton Street.
To guard against old habits, it was necessary to enlist the help of mindfulness. Quiet reflection and some sporadic meditation helped me to identify and clarify the triggers for cravings.
It was ironic, therefore, that a Buddhist talk in Dublin provided the backdrop for the second and only significant time I fell off the wagon, when, having skipped dinner, I threw four Fig Rolls into my gaping cakehole with guilty pleasure. Cue sugar hangover.
We all need some sugar. The brain requires about 144g of glucose a day, which it converts from carbohydrates.
“Your diet was stricter in terms of sugar than what we’d usually advise for health,” says Bannon. “What you’ve done is what a lot of people feel they should be doing. But, rather than going all or nothing, what we’re trying to find for you now is the grey area. That’s what all people need to find.
“There’s no such thing as a good or bad food, only a good or bad diet. People need to break the emotional relationship with food. It’s there to be enjoyed, but ultimately it’s there as fuel. How you balance that fuel on the day is the important thing.
“Your protein is fine, your fibre intake is so much better, and you’ve managed to cut out the refined sugars. We don’t want to go back there. By bringing back all fruits and vegetables, and natural sugars into your diet, the sugar cravings will be taken care of.”
No nearer a sugar tax
It is now believed that sugar is largely to blame for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, with the many horrific diseases associated with it. Yet, more than two years after it was first mooted, we are still no nearer a sugar tax, not even in the form of a levy on fizzy drinks like those imposed by France and in the US.
The sugar levy proposals set out by the last minister for health, which were supported by experts in the field, have been put on the long finger by the current Minister, whose self-confident reputation has gone hand-in-hand with a habit of turning up at events eating Jelly Babies.
It’s a stretch to suggest that action to tackle our largest public health issue has become beholden to Leo Varadkar’s own sweet tooth (on which the Department would not comment when asked this week, although a spokesman for the Minister did say a sugar levy “remains under consideration” as part of the obesity action plan). But as long as profits on the more addictive sugary foods such as jellies remain sky high, and good fruit comparatively expensive, sugar addiction is surely almost inevitable.
Over the course of a month, I’ve managed to replace some sugary snacks with sustainable alternatives, but only through dietary help not available to most people. In a country where two out of three adults are overweight or obese (as are a quarter of children), we have just 17 self-employed qualified dieticians.
In the shop near me they sell two-litre bottles of 7Up for €1.50. It’s cheaper than mineral water, and about a tenth of the cost of a bottle of wine. It also includes about 55 teaspoons of sugar.
As I write this, a stranger, a woman clearly struggling with mobility and weight issues, walks up from the shop with a shopping bag.Like us she has grown up in a world where Coke was a sign of sophistication, fast food was progress, big portions signified affluence and you ate sweets in hospital.
Food companies will turn around and lay the blame for her obesity on personal responsibility, trumpeting the myth of free will while simultaneously bombarding generations of us with exploitative messages to buy packets of sugar moulded to look like actual food.
They might make tasty products, but the whiff that accompanies the sugar-trafficking confectionery industry, and its defenders in high office, is anything but sweet.
HIGHS AND LOWS: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BUBBLY
- Tinned mackerel on toast was a surprisingly tasty breakfast even if I had to drain the tomato sauce due to residual sugar content.
- Leaving bags of nuts around the house – in suitcases and coats – saved potential capitulation to the forces of sucrose on several occasions.
- Escaping the tyranny of choice.
- Berries – raspberries, strawberries and blueberries – were oases in a desert of dry, fibrous carbohydrates.
- Parma ham, homemade fruit and veg smoothies, and making soup.
- Scraping the delicious filling out of my sandwich in the excellent Perry Street Market Cafe in Cork because I couldn’t tell if it contained sugar or not.
- Having to make do without ketchup after buying chips in Leo Burdock: agonising.
- Picking the raisins and dates out of a bag of Lifeforce muesli is possibly the most tedious task I’ve ever set myself.
- As late-ripening, neutrally flavoured white wine grape varieties go, Prosecco was drinkable, at least to this wine ignoramus. Ditto Merlot.
- A subdued sweet tooth meant soda water and vodka didn’t taste quite as bad as feared.