According to scientists, sugar is the greatest single threat to health
Experts say that the white stuff contributes to 35 million deaths each year
Today it is found in everything from bread to wine and savory sauces
Along with causing obesity and diabetes, it also wreaks havoc on the skin
My name is Polly and I’m a sugar addict. When I’m tired, upset or hormonal I reach for a chocolate bar, biscuit or cupcake. I add sugar to my coffee and tea and stir honey into my porridge every morning.
I’ve had a sweet tooth since childhood and, until now, I didn’t think it was a major problem. I like desserts — so what?
But a growing number of scientists believe sugar is the greatest single threat to human health, contributing to 35 million deaths worldwide each year.
They say it not only causes illnesses including obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and liver problems, but also wreaks havoc on our skin and ages us prematurely.
It has even been linked to fertility problems in women and increases the risk of dementia and rheumatoid arthritis. Crikey.
Luckily, I’m neither overweight nor unhealthy, so I figure I don’t need sweet rehab quite yet — or do I?
Last month it was revealed the average Briton consumes 238 teaspoons of added sugar every week — an all-time high. Surely to eat that much you’d have to munch on Mars bars while drinking liters of Coke and stuffing your face with Jelly Babies?
But when I work out my daily sugar consumption I’m surprised: 85 teaspoons a week is less than half the national average but it’s still 425g — almost half a normal bag of sugar — a week.
Even more disturbing was how much of it came from what experts call ‘invisible sugar’. This is sneaked into savory foods including bread, pasta sauces and even bacon by manufacturers to make them tastier.
A Which? report found some savory foods contain more sugar than ice cream. So while sales of raw sugar have fallen over the past 50 years, there has been a threefold increase in the amount of sugar we consume and ‘invisible sugar’ is mainly to blame.
‘Food manufacturers have a lot to answer for,’ says nutritionist Dr Sam Christie. ‘Over the past 30 years, they’ve doubled the amount of sugar they add to their products and our bodies haven’t adapted.
‘We absorb sugar very quickly, which causes our pancreas to produce insulin in order for our cells to turn the sugar into energy. If we eat a lot of sugar, over time our cells become insulin resistant and we develop type-2 diabetes.
‘We also become overweight. Glucose is delivered to the liver, and when the liver’s reserves are full, a biochemical process converts it into fat.’
So time for a detox: a month without any added sugar. Cutting out the white stuff en masse is what the growing ‘No Sugar’ movement is all about.
Its chief proponent, endocrinologist Robert Lustig, whose lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has been viewed more than three million times on YouTube, claims sugar, rather than fat, is to blame for our sky-rocketing obesity levels. This could explain how we’ve become so much fatter despite consuming fewer calories than we used to.
The average energy intake per person was 28 per cent lower in 2010 than in 1974.
‘Even for people who aren’t at risk of diabetes or obesity, eating less sugar is greatly beneficial,’ says Dr Christie.
‘Unrefined food contains more nutrients to protect our health, fewer empty calories, and allows us to avoid peaks and troughs in blood sugar, keeping our moods and energy levels stable.’
Only when giving up sugar did I realize that I was far more dependent on it than I’d assumed. And when I began to research its impact, I realized why. Sugar cravings are real. French scientists have reported in animal trials that rats chose sugar over cocaine.
The good news is it’s possible to reverse the impact of a sweet tooth by replacing it with natural foods including wholegrain, vegetables and fish, which contain nutrients to replenish our stores of insulin.
Dr Christie also recommends you take a supplement, such as Nature’s Best Multi-Guard Balance (£19.95 for 120 tablets, naturesbest.co.uk) to help your body cope with the process.
My first challenge was finding sugarless foods to eat. I love toast, but the packet of my usual Hovis granary loaf showed it contained 1.6g of sugar per slice. And that’s before I’d added my preferred spread, peanut butter, which has almost 1g of sugar in 10g.
The honey I use to sweeten my porridge had to go, as did the teaspoon of sugar I usually add to my morning cup of tea. Breakfast tasted the way I imagine Oliver Twist’s workhouse gruel would have.
After a couple of mouthfuls of undrinkable bitter tea, I realized I’d have to give up caffeine, too. It wasn’t a great start.
Lunch was similarly difficult. Without bread, options were severely limited, so I opted for a salad, only to find I was hungry again a couple of hours later.
Unable to snack on chocolate or crisps (they also contain sugar) I ate a handful of cashew nuts to boost my blood-sugar levels.
For dinner, I eschewed my usual pasta (the Sacla sauce I use contains a whopping 6.6g of sugar) and cooked salmon and vegetables. I felt virtuous, but slightly annoyed.
My biggest challenge was alcohol. I love wine and rarely have a day without at least a couple of glasses, but a glass of my favorite sauvignon blanc contains 6.4g of sugar. Red wine is better sugar-wise, but I opted for gin and slimline tonic when I met a friend for drinks.
As I reluctantly refused to share a bottle of wine with her, she said: ‘You won’t be much fun this month, will you?’ I couldn’t disagree.
On my third no-sugar day, I felt awful. Cheery colleagues irritated me and I snapped at someone for offering me a cup of tea. I felt exhausted, teary and had the shakes. In short I was detoxing.
When Princeton University scientists fed rats sugar as well as their regular food, then stopped it, the rats — like me — showed signs typical of drug addicts.
How terrifying that something we eat every day can cause such severe withdrawal symptoms.
Later that week, when my blood sugar levels had evened out and I felt less jittery, I absent-mindlessly stuffed a miniature brownie into my mouth when offered it by a colleague.
I used to love them, but it tasted strangely synthetic — and sweeter than a bowl of sugar cubes. For the first time I was pleased I’d started to retrain my taste buds.
By the second week, I had less frequent spikes in my energy-levels, too. I was cooking more from scratch to avoid too much ‘invisible sugar’ and my skin was clearer.
‘Sugar attaches to fats and proteins in the cells in a process called glycation,’ explained Dr Christie.
‘The proteins in skin most prone to glycation are the same ones that make the skin plump and springy — collagen and elastin. Sugar attacks them and makes the skin less radiant and more wrinkly and saggy.’
I also started to taste the natural sweetness in fruit such as strawberries — previously I automatically added more sugar.
The following week, I noticed I’d lost a couple of pounds and my cravings for chocolate had vanished. I still hadn’t trained myself to drink tea and coffee without sugar, but I was surprised by how quickly I got used to porridge without honey.
At lunch, I opted for sushi and salads and ate plain yogurt, adding my own berries rather than buying sugar-laden fruit flavors.
By the end of the month, I felt more energized and alive, probably because I was no longer trapped in a cycle of blood sugar peaks and troughs. I felt calmer and less prone to mood swings.
So I’ll continue trying to avoid sugary food where possible. After a month without cakes and chocolate, what would be the point of reminding my taste buds how delicious I’d once found them?