London - I have a blinding headache and I feel dizzy. I’m in my study, barely able to concentrate. My brain seems to have turned to cotton wool and I am behaving like an ill-tempered despot.
“Mommy, mommy, mommy,” starts my four-year-old. Sometimes I find her drip-torture attempts at attracting my attention amusing. But not now. “GET OUT!” I blurt, and instantly feel guilty.
This is not – as you may have assumed – a hangover. Nor am I ill.
Rather, I am suffering from the effects of sugar withdrawal, and it is excruciating. So why have I quit sugar? We know too much rots the teeth and makes us fat. But cutting it out of my diet completely – what is the point of that?
A growing number of American scientists believe the sweet stuff contributes to 35 million deaths worldwide each year. They say added sugar (rather than natural sugars found in fruit, for instance) is in part responsible for obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and liver problems.
And it seems the message has hit home. In the States, there is a whole genre of literature devoted to sugar and its evils. Endocrinologist Robert Lustig’s Sugar: The Bitter Truth lecture has been viewed almost three million times on YouTube.
Sugar is addictive, says Lustig. He claims sugar causes insulin levels to go up, which interferes with the appetite-supressing hormone leptin.
His devotees say the only route to good health is to cut out added sugar completely in what has been dubbed “The Sweet Nothing Diet”. Advocated on countless blogs – and by a couple of my friends – those who follow it say they have bags more energy, have lost weight (if they were fat) and have better skin.
So I decided to give it a go. I expected it to be dull, but I wasn’t prepared for how horrific I felt to begin with. Yet despite that, the experience has made me vow to change the way I eat for ever.
When I tell a friend about my project, he laughs in a way that suggests he doesn’t believe I can do it. ‘You are a sugarholic,’ he says. Is he right?
I calculate my average added sugar consumption and am horrified to discover that it is about 100g (or 25 teaspoons) a day. I drink about a bottle of white wine per week, which contains 15g of sugar.
Despite not adding sugar to tea or drinking coke (which has a staggering 35g or nine teaspoons of added sugar per can), I am hoovering down 40kg – about six stone – of added sugar a year.
The Food Standards Agency recommends we consume no more than 60g (about 15 teaspoons) daily, but surveys suggest the average Briton eats closer to 20 teaspoons. Experts say most people vastly underestimate their sugar intake, not realising that it is added to bread, ready meals, pasta sauces and even bland breakfast cereals.
Anna Raymond, spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, says: “When surveys are conducted, people don’t necessarily remember all their snacks and drinks. Cereal bars and diet yoghurts contain masses of sugar. Six stone a year for a busy mother sounds quite feasible.”
So what is this sugar onslaught doing to our bodies?
“Sugar is a carbohydrate,” says Dr Ashley Brown, a liver specialist at St Mary’s and Hammersmith hospitals in London. “Complex carbohydrates – such as bread, pasta and potatoes – are like chains of sugar molecules. The gut breaks them down into single beads so they can be absorbed into to the liver.
“Processed sugar, which is single- molecular beads, is instantly absorbed. In the case of a high-sugar diet, glucose is delivered to the liver in a big lump. When the liver’s reserves of glycogen – the storage molecule for glucose – are full, a biochemical process converts it into fat. Obese patients have a fatty liver, like foie gras.”
Yet being slim is no defence in itself. “People who diet without exercise are prone to excess internal fat,” says Dr Brown. “Excess fat means our bodies become less sensitive to insulin, which helps store sugar in the cells. This can lead to type-2 diabetes.”
Statistics from the Department of Health show almost three million Britons have diabetes, while heart and circulatory diseases account for more than 191,000 deaths a year.
My blood sugar is within the normal range, but I suffer from mood swings, bloating and energy slumps. And, as I approach my 40th birthday, my skin looks drained. Could going sugar-free help?
“We don’t recommend completely cutting out sugar,” says consultant dietitian Sian Porter. “But if you are trying to avoid added sugar, look at labels – anything with glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, honey, molasses or treacle contains added sugar.”
When I check the loaf of Hovis sliced brown bread I use for breakfast toast, I see that it contains almost half a teaspoon (1.6g) of added sugar per slice. All Bran has almost 13g – more than three teaspoons – in a 40g bowl, including milk. And marmalade is out of the question, being 60 percent sugar. Instead, I eat six cheese oatcakes, sugar content zero.
Lunchtime is no better. Baked beans – my staple – contains 10g of sugar per 200g tin. I stir-fry vegetables and eat them with brown rice. I have a headache and the urge to eat sugar is agonising. I munch on almonds, which balance blood sugar.
To the disgust of my children, biscuits and chocolate are replaced with oatcakes and dried fruit.
A study by Harvard Medical School found women who ate a high-sugar diet had almost three times the risk of getting colorectal cancer.
Biologist Dr Hans-Peter Kubis, of Bangor University, points out that rats fed large quantities of sugar display signs of Alzheimer’s.
“High-sugar intake appears to damage brain metabolism,” he says. Indeed, studies have shown that those with diabetes and even pre-diabetes are more prone to developing Alzheimers.
For me, the clincher is ageing. Researchers at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands found that people with high blood-sugar levels were judged to look older than those with lower levels.
“Over time, sugar affects the skin by means of a process called glycation,” says consultant dermatologist Shamali Hoque at BMI The Blackheath Hospital in South-East London. “Excess glucose binds protein molecules to collagen and elastin in the skin. Collagen and elastin are important in keeping skin supple .”
On the school run, another mother pulls me aside. “You look great at the moment,” she whispers. “What have you had done?” I assure her, nothing.
Dr Kubis tells me sugar-induced metabolic damage can be reversed. “We conducted a study involving a low-carb diet coupled with high exercise, which suggested you could rectify the damage.
“Fat burning was more effective and the body reacted more efficiently to high levels of glucose.”
I have lost a couple of pounds, and feel strangely calm all the time.
By now, I am convinced that a low or no-sugar diet is the way forward.
When I joyfully pour baked beans on to granary bread, they taste artificial and cloying. It appears you can train your tastebuds away from sweetness.
It is slightly different with the wine and I’m certainly not checking the sugar content on every packet, but the cupboard is still full of oatcakes rather than biscuits.
Dr Glenys Jones, nutrition communications manager for Sugar Nutrition UK, which is funded by the sugar industry, said: “Sugar makes foods palatable. It also provides energy.
“It is important not to demonise any food. Sugar can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet.”
She added that Lustig’s criticisms focused on high-fructose corn syrup, a sugar not commonly used in the UK. - Mail On Sunday
40KG OF SUGAR A YEAR
Cheerios, 15g sugar (4 teaspoons*) or 2 slices toast, 2.4g (half tsp), marmalade, 8g (2 tsp), 200ml orange juice, 20g (5 tsp)
Snack: Twix, 28.5g (7 tsp) or Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bar, 11g (3 tsp)
Lunch: Baked beans on toast, 20.8g + 2.4g (6 tsp) or coronation chicken sandwich, 15g (4 tsp)
Snack: 2 Hobnobs, 6.8g (1.5 tsp) or Nestle Ski yoghurt, 16g (4 tsp)
Supper: Lasagne ready meal + veg, 6.4g (1.5 tsp), Magnum, 23g (6 tsp) or sweet and sour chicken, rice, 21.8g (5.5 tsp), 250ml prosecco, 3.75g (1tsp)
Total sugar: 102.9g / 98.0g (25 day tsp a day)
MY 'SWEET NOTHING DIET'
Breakfast: Rye bread, butter, marmite or eggs (poached or scrambled), mushrooms, no toast
Snack: Cheese oatcakes, almonds
Lunch: Salmon, jacket potato with butter and cheese, spinach, peas or baked potato, cheese, salad
Snack: Banana, apple
Supper: Tuna, onion and cheese on rye bread or roast chicken breast (home-made – watch out for shop-bought as can have sugary marinades), stir-fried veg, natural yogurt with blueberries and strawberries
Total added sugar: ZERO!