Sugar has been getting loads of media attention of late and not just in delicious food ads! The effects of consuming too much sugar and what it does to the body are being broadcast loud and clear but not everyone is on board. Some dismiss this as yet another fad diet while others may be curious but not game to explore this territory yet. Wherever you are on this spectrum – there’s a little something in here for you all, with a healthy dose of Chinese Med explainers too!
The decision to give up sugar is one I’ve been playing with for a while now (cue some intense debates with friends and family over the years) but for me this choice has been one that has come out of necessity and something I now feel very passionate about!
I first started paying attention to the amount of sugar I was consuming while I was at university. I was studying full time, working in my spare time and eating lots of cheap processed foods (despite studying a health degree, but hey – student life!). I was struggling with energy, moods, concentration and I always felt bloated. Plus, I was addicted! Not the cute ‘Oh gosh I ate 2 squares of chocolate, forgive me’ type, but the serious ‘chocolate bar a day and however much else was hidden in my processed foods’ type of addiction. Not a pretty sight.
Having a massive sweet tooth I would buy something sugary for almost any reason; to pick up my energy, as a reward for something good or to bring me a little joy when I wasn’t feeling great. The problem with mixing sweets (or food in general) with emotions is that you always feel you ‘need it’ or ‘deserve it’ and things get out of hand pretty quickly. So when my then housemate lent me a quitting sugar book, I knew I needed to give it a try.
Before I keep going on my journey here, let me back up and explain exactly what I mean by sugar, as even the idea of ‘quitting sugar’ can leave many feeling confused. After all, aren’t there different types of sugar? Doesn’t our body need sugar to live? Doesn’t fruit and veggies contain sugar? Why don’t we just have it in moderation?
Here are a few facts to get us going:
- The ‘sugar’ in our coffee or in cake etc., its scientific name is sucrose. It’s made of equal parts fructose and glucose and it’s the fructose part that is of concern.
- The cells in our bodies and brains need glucose. The body is very clever and can convert fats proteins and complex carbohydrates to glucose but it STRUGGLES to convert fructose, meaning it’s not useful to the body at all*
- Fruits and veggies do contain fructose. Some more than others. They also contain lots of fibre to fill us up (unlike cake!) and many essential vitamins & minerals. – (Enjoying 1-2 pieces of low fructose fruit a day like berries and heaps of veggies I consider fine and is my middle ground)
- Moderation is a tricky beast. You can see here sugar is an addictive substance that activates part of the brain in a similar way to cocaine. So if you do have an ‘addiction’, keeping it within healthy guidelines is very. very. hard.
For those of you lucky people who don’t feel this need to eat sweets daily and who avoid sugar laden breakfast cereals, muesli bars, juices, sauces etc then this probably isn’t a concern for you.
Now for the CHINESE MED stuff. Normally our happy, functioning digestive organs absorb nutrients from the food and turn it into Qi (energy) and blood, so our bodies function well and we feel great. When we eat sugary foods not only is that a missed opportunity for nutrients, but sugar is a really big stressor to the digestive system. Sugar slows it down, wreaks havoc, limits Qi and blood production so not giving our mind or body what it needs to function well. You can read my blog piece on that here.
Too much sugar results in excess mucus being produced** (preventing proper nutrient absorption, also acne or the constant phlegm in our nose or throat) and zaps us of energy. On the Chinese Med lists of Do’s and Don’ts for a happy digestive system and healthy person, eating lots of sugar is a big no no. So it makes sense to not overdo it – but to actually quit it??
There has been many fantastic vocal people before me who have done a great job uncovering as much scientific research as possible, dispelling myths and getting some serious facts out there. The Sarah Wilsons’, David Gillespies’, Damon Gameaus’ of the world have done an amazing job! But for me, understanding the HOW of why sugar is so bad for you is what separates this from mere crazy diet to actual science. This videohere from endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig is in my opinion THE big explainer and though lengthy, well worth a look (or you can see a short version here). It explains exactly how fructose and glucose are broken down in the body and what happens when we consume too much. Check it out, because knowledge is power right?
There is more and more research linking excessive sugar consumption with poor gut health. And connecting poor gut health with many conditions ranging from allergies, eczema to mental health conditions. ** That the World Health Organisation has set new targets for sugar to be 5% of total intake or 25g or 6 teaspoons a day should reiterate that excess sugar in the diet is a real health concern.
So what happened on my quitting sugar journey? Well I quit and relapsed many a time! But each time it became a little easier to coax myself back and see this more as a wellness decision rather than a ‘diet’. I’ve been pretty consistently avoiding sugar for the past year now, with the results more and more obvious and rewarding. My troubled skin is clearing up, my very up and down moods have leveled out to a nice happy medium (well mostly), my almost constant bloating has gone and I actually have energy – not just the caffeinated type!
Is this the only way to be healthy? No. its only one piece of the puzzle, but it IS a huge step.
Is this the only way to restore digestive health? No. Many more things need to be considered from a Chinese Medicine, Western Medicine and Nutritional point of view. But quitting sugar DOES stop feeding the bad bacteria in our gut, lets it heal and eases the strain on our digestive system allowing your body to function so much better!
Do I still fall off the wagon? – Yes, (Gelato Messina and burgers are my weakness!) but each time I cave – I pick myself up, gently reminding myself why I’m doing this and keep going. I now recognise a slip up doesn’t mean I’ve failed. Gentle & kind people, gentle & kind.
Every person is different and while in an ideal world no one would eat much sugar – for me it’s about knowing exactly how much you’re consuming in your food (use thisapp!), acknowledging an addiction if you have one, and making decisions so your body & mind can begin to heal. If you are reading this and can empathise with any of the above, hopefully this provides some extra motivation – because this really works!
** GAPS Gut & Psychology Syndrome by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride