Sugar detox: Why and how to quit the sweet stuff

It's making us fat, giving us diabetes and zapping our energy levels. And after decades under the influence, we're finally cottoning on to the fact that sugar is the enemy.

But as it seems to be in everything we eat, how can we stop scoffing sugar? And should we go cold turkey?

We spoke to nutritionist Vicki Edgson, co-author of Honestly Healthy, to find out why all the celebs are sugar detoxing and why it's vital for our health and our waistlines that we wean ourselves off the white stuff.

When we talk about sugar we don't just mean the granulated stuff you definitely don't sprinkle liberally on your cornflakes in the morning. It's in many, many foods - not all of which are bad for you.

So it's not just what kind of sugar you're eating, it's how you're eating it too.

"From a biochemical point of view – the problem with sugar is that it interferes with your blood sugar levels and the production of insulin," Vicki explains.

"Our body breaks down our food into energy. Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of energy and are broken down into glucose in the body. If we don't use that glucose, it gets stored as fat."

And with the amount of refined sugar we're used to eating in the west, it's no surprise we have an obesity crisis on our hands.

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Sugar, sugar everywhere

We've heard the rumours that even fruit is packed with sugar and should be avoided if you're trying to lose weight, and smoothies are getting an increasingly bad rap because they're full of, albeit natural, sugar. But fruit is great for you, stuffed with vitamins and fibre. So what gives?

"Take an apple," says Vicki. "It contains sugar (fructose) and it gives your body energy. But you're eating something that's natural and complete - with its fibre.

"Now take a milk chocolate bar. To stop the milk going rancid, manufacturers use sugar so you'll find that these bars are full of refined sugars. All the fibre has been taken away, the sugar's been bleached and generally mucked around with and there's nothing to slow it down in your body when you eat it so the glucose is almost instantly available.

"That raises the blood sugar levels very rapidly. The pancreas increases the amount of insulin it makes, your blood sugar levels spikes and then about 10 or 15 minutes later it falls quickly. So you get these peaks and troughs that make you feel high and then awful.

"You'll experience that if you eat a doughnut, a bagel, a biscuit, a cupcake - anything that gives you loads of sugar. Immediately you think 'that was great' and a little while later you're thinking 'why did I eat that?!'"

And worryingly, it's not just the obviously sweet things we love that are full of sugar. Vicki continues: "The big problem is with the refined sugars that are added to all the convenience food we pick up on a daily basis. Bread, bagels, croissants, sandwiches. Everything that's grab and go."

And while we rely on these quick carb hits, our body doesn't actually use up the energy they've given us.

"If you're sat at your desk all day not moving around much and then not having time to go to the gym or do any exercise around work, all those excess sugars will be converted to fat.

"You might feel tired and that you need to eat something to give you energy, but you need slow release energy that stops these blood sugar level peaks and troughs - that keeps it stable.

"People walk around with smoothies or juice thinking it's healthy but it's just another sugar high, without the added components like fibre that slow down the sugar's absorption. If you want to drink juice, go for vegetable juices or ask for a carrot or stick of celery to eat in combination."

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Other reasons to say no

Sugar doesn't just make us fat, it's also now thought to interfere with the way our body's hormones and metabolism works.

"It's a hormone disrupter, and not just insulin," Vicki warns. "It interferes with the female hormones and also affects the thyroid. The thyroid is basically the steam engine of your body. It produces the hormone thyroxine which controls your metabolism and affects everything from how you feel to how your basic body functions work.

"If people are eating sugars all the time - snacking mindlessly on things to keep them going –  the metabolism starts slowing down rather than speeding up. So you'll have even more trouble keeping off or losing weight."

And Vicki has one last stark warning for sugar-lovers everywhere that may see us putting down the cupcakes.

"Sugar feeds cancer cells. If you need something to scare you off it, just remember that."

A word on sweeteners

A new study has found that calorie-free sweeteners that give us that sugar kick we crave without the calories aren't a good idea either. Researchers showed that sweeteners don't cause the same reaction in the brain as sugar, so we're left craving even after we've drunk are synthetically-sweetened tea.

Vicki also reminds us that we don't have all the facts about sweeteners yet and there are some studies that suggest they're not quite such a healthy option.

Weaning yourself off

It seems like a monumental task but the key is to start weaning yourself off sugar by making some key food swaps and broadening it out.

Vicki suggests wraps instead of sandwiches. (Regular bread uses yeast to rise, which feeds on sugar, so going for a flat bread option avoids this.), cinnamon to sweeten porridge, brown sushi rice, as opposed to white, which is traditionally made using sugar, and agave syrup instead of granulated sugar.

"If you eat food as close to nature as nature intended – without processing and in its natural form, you will do no harm. I'd recommend plenty of fresh fruit, combined with nuts, fresh veg and good quality proteins."

It will be especially difficult because in the west we really are addicted to sugar and have grown up with it in all our food, so our taste buds expect it.

"You'll be eating something delicious and healthy and be thinking 'I know it's good but I'm just not sure if it tastes good'. But it will. You just have to retrain your taste buds to appreciate the flavours without stunning them with a huge amount of salt and sugar."

We're taking the sugar detox challenge - will you join us?

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