How to cut sugar intake without making your life miserable

    3 August 2016

    Going sugar-free is de rigueur these days but going cold turkey won’t suit everyone. In my experience the complete avoidance of specific foods is problematic. Unless one has an unpleasant allergy to something, giving it up won’t have any immediate repercussions, and so motivation can wane.

    Although cutting down on sugar intake is advisable, complete abstinence may not be required and is not especially practical. I know of several people who avoid sugar by carefully checking labels, eating at home as much as they can while extolling the benefits of their newfound way of eating, only to be found face down in a pile of Haribo a couple of months later.

    This isn’t so much of a relapse, more an understandable response to having been too strict. Short of feast or famine, surely there has to be a way that we can have some sugar in the diet without suffering guilt and enrolling in recovery?

    I have found that rather than try to avoid sugar altogether, minimising the desire for sweet food allows you to take it or leave it rather than crave the stuff and rely on willpower to see you through. The good news is there is an easy way to achieve this.

    The processes of digestion and energy creation are obviously highly detailed, so forgive the simplistic one-line description but, in essence, food is broken down in the digestive system to provide glucose that circulates in the blood, allowing cells to absorb it for use as fuel to create energy.

    Insulin stimulates cells to absorb glucose and so eating triggers the pancreas to release insulin to deal with the resulting glucose. Cells are limited in how much glucose they can process at any time and so when glucose levels in the blood exceed capacity the excess is stored away, a process also attributed to insulin. As glucose levels fall the hunger response is triggered and that’s when we make choices about what to eat.

    Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are broken down with varying degrees of ease by the human body. Carbohydrates are relatively easy to digest and, as such, are a ready source of fuel. Proteins take longer, while fats are slowest. Carbohydrates come in two forms — complex and simple. The former contain more fibre and take longer to pass through the digestive system. The latter contain less fibre and their journey from food to glucose is more rapid. Sugar is, in effect, the simplest of simple carbs.

    Eating sweet food is likely to result in wanting more as glucose levels rise and fall like a rollercoaster, with cravings increasing as glucose drops.

    The way around this is to combine the food groups so that glucose levels remain more consistent. In short, a drip-feed of glucose results in stable energy levels and easily managed appetite. This is remarkably easily achieved — simply combine the food groups every time you eat, be that a full meal or a snack, and ensure that there is a little protein and complex carbs in each.

    In practice that means a breakfast of toast with smoked salmon instead of jam, or adding a palmful of nuts to a bowl of porridge instead of honey. Lunch might be a chicken or hummus salad sandwich made with fibre-rich granary bread rather than a pasta salad. Plain yoghurt with fresh fruit works well as a snack or if you are on the move an apple and a few walnuts will do just as well. I find that asking oneself ‘where’s the protein?’ is a useful way to get into the habit.