'Sugar-free September’: The month I broke up with sugar

By Danielle van Wyk

People often joke about feeling uncomfortable and lethargic after a meal - whether it be a hearty Sunday lunch or a bite-on-the-go. But few stop to question this long enough to realise that they may be slowly eating themselves to death.

I was one of them.

To me, a balanced diet consisted of fruit, vegetables, proteins – oh, and copious amounts of fats, carbs and sugars. While many of you may relate and still maintain that you’re in pretty good health, will your body agree?

It was this singular question that made me decide to break-up with the food group whose company I most enjoyed – sugar! 

What does a “sugar-detox” entail?

A sugar detox involves eliminating sugar, in all forms, from your diet. To me this meant sweets, soft drinks, cakes, ready-to-eat cereals and most take-away meals. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the number of other foods I also had to rethink. Things like bread, sauces or condiments, fruit juices, snack bars, crisps, alcohol. Which meant that after clearing out my fridge I was left with a bottle of still water, some carrot strips and three onions.

“A sugar detox is the act of cutting out anything, food or drink, that contains processed sugars for a certain period of time,” says AlphaFit trainer and nutritionist, Lucienne Vogel.

Are all sugars bad?

No, and here’s why.

But apart from fruit there are other sugars that are positioned to be “healthier alternatives” like raw honey, stevia, dates, coconut sugar and pure and organic maple syrup. While the sugar content in these options are far less than in a glazed doughnut, in excess they too can prove harmful.

But the devil is in the detail, or in this case the labelling. According to The Heart Foundation these are alternative names for sugar you may be overlooking.

What effect does sugar have on the body?

According to the Noakes Foundation, when simple sugars are ingested the body secretes insulin to get these sugars into our cells. If this process continues repeatedly, it can cause insulin resistance, leading to belly fat and metabolic complications.

Sugar is also a big role player in many of the non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cholesterol and high blood pressure. Excessive intake of sugar can also lead to kidney damage.

“The kidneys play an important role in filtering your blood sugar. Therefore, an excessive intake puts excessive strain on your kidneys,” says Vogel.

Sugar also:
* Affects your body weight rapidly.
* Causes extra insulin in your bloodstream that negatively affects your arteries and your body’s circulatory system. 
* Leads to heart damage. In the long run your artery walls grow faster than normal and tense up, which adds stress to your heart and damages it over time, says Vogel.

Which are the best foods to detox on?

Where to start

Coming from the “doughnut a day keeps the doctor away” mentality, it took quite a mind-shift to adapt not only my diet, but also my relationship with food. Where previously I associated sugary foods with comfort and ate because of cravings and emotion, I now was eating for nutritional value.

But still unsure of how to do so, I resorted to an eating plan that I thought would work for both my taste and my pocket. These days eating plans are easily available. There are dozens on the internet alone but referencing plans from sites like the Heart Foundation or the Noakes Foundation will ensure that you’re not doing more harm than good to your body. What’s more, these plans are free and dietician approved.

“An eating plan that cuts out too many food groups without replacing it with items of a similar nutritional value should be avoided. Depriving your body of essential nutrients can be dangerous,” says Vogel.

Alternatively, if you have the money, paying a visit to a dietician or a nutritionist for a full assessment and the development of an eating plan is always advised. Here you will receive a tailor-made eating plan that is specific to your body, dietary needs and goals.

“Making a big change in your diet can signal quite a bit of adjustment and instability. This could result in you giving up. It is always advisable to incorporate an eating plan or schedule. This way you’re able to adjust and target your shopping and plan for meals so you avoid relapses,” Vogel says.

What my diet consisted of

Greens, greens, greens and more greens. Cutting out sugar didn’t mean eating less. Instead, it meant eating more of the good stuff.

My diet was filled with:
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, carrots, green beans, cabbage, green peppers, kale, beetroot, lettuce)
- Lean protein (eggs, chicken breasts, lean mince, steak, fish)
- Good fats (olive oil, avocado)
- Flavourings/Flavourants (onion, garlic, ginger, lemon, fresh herbs and spices, chilli, cinnamon)

And when the sugar cravings came, and boy did they come, I ensured that a piece of fruit like an apple, grapefruit, pear or banana was always in reach. Further, I incorporated honey and cinnamon to naturally sweeten and flavour dishes.

The costs involved

Hearing the phrase “I can’t afford to eat healthily” is not uncommon. I’ve probably uttered it a few times myself. But that was when I was trying to squeeze all the good stuff into a cart that was already filled with biscuits and slabs of chocolate, fizzy drinks and take-away meals.

And no, I’m not denying that certain fresh produce items are expensive, but I had to adjust the way I shop to make it work. Once I made that shift I ended up not only being able to afford what I needed but shaving off an average of R200 on my weekly spend.

Here’s how:

1. Avoid bulk buying: Instead of buying in bulk, which may be your inclination, shop only for what you need for that week. Fresh produce is often cheaper in bulk, but if you’re not going to use it within the space of a week don’t buy it. The other alternative of course is buying your vegetables in bulk and par-boiling it, putting it in airtight containers and freezing it. This way you’re ensured they stay fresh.

2. Cut out luxuries: By cutting out all the sugary luxuries and redirecting this spend to good nutrient-based food, you’ll find you’re able to not only afford what you need but you’re also fuller for longer resulting in you eating less.

3. Shop quality items: Instead of buying items to appease your pocket, rather buy quality items. This will ensure prolonged freshness and you will know what you are putting into your body.

4. Change the way you snack: Always pack in healthy snacks like a packet of nuts or a fruit or a boiled egg so that you are not tempted to buy snacks during the day. 

5. Planning ahead: Draw up a budget and plan your meals, so that you can keep within your allocated spend.

My Journey

Week 1:
As with most new things I started out bright-eyed (and hungry) and ready to start resetting my taste-buds. But three days in, and countless hours spent on meal-prep, I was exhausted. Not only did I feel physically drained but nausea, frequent headaches and joint aches set in. Not sure whether this meant that the detox process was working or if my body was rebelling, I consulted a nutritionist. What I found astounded me.   

The most common symptoms in the early stages of a detox is affectionately called the “detox flu”. It is not a contagious virus, but instead mirrors the symptoms - headache, fatigue, body aches, chills and/or mild fever. These are typically most common in the first few days of a cleanse.

Week 2: Having pushed through the worst of it, I soon set into a pattern of meal-prep and smaller portions and eating regularly. By mid-week I had become accustomed to my new way of life. Not only had I started to form good habits, but I noticed differences in my body. For starters I was more regular, my skin was glowing, and I felt lighter. And what’s more the sugar cravings and routine visits to the office vending machine were no longer there.

20 days in and I feel as though my palate has completely altered to be able to appreciate natural sugars. I can’t say the thought of a thick slice of chocolate cake doesn’t appeal, but I am learning to listen to my body and give it what it needs as opposed to what it wants.

It's an ongoing journey.

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