13 October 2014

How I quit sugar

I was hard-core addicted to sugar. I would crave it every day. The prospect of dessert had me giddy. When I started eating something sweet I wouldn't be able to stop, going back for more and more. And when I say I was addicted to sugar, I don't mean that lightly. I mean that I was actually addicted. Here some classic signs of addiction:

"Tolerance - the need to engage in the addictive behavior more and more to get the desired effect." I definitely felt like it took more sugar to get the same "hit".

"Withdrawal happens when the person does not take the substance or engage in the activity, and they experience unpleasant symptoms, which are often the opposite of the effects of the addictive behavior." Um, yes. Sugar gave me a "high" and I'd be very low afterwards, or when craving it.

"Difficulty cutting down or controlling the addictive behavior." Absolutely. Cutting down was impossible. I would simply crave sugar more and more until I gave in again.

"Social, occupational or recreational activities becoming more focused around the addiction, and important social and occupational roles being jeopardized." If you mean planning get-togethers with friends around eating treats, or my role as a good mother being jeopardised by moodiness and low energy from the effects of sugar, then yes. 

"The person becoming preoccupied with the addiction, spending a lot of time on planning, engaging in, and recovering from the addictive behavior." Do you want to know how many baking recipes I have bookmarked?
"Changes in energy – unexpectedly and extremely tired or energetic." Sugar sure does a number on your energy.

"Weight loss or weight gain." Guess which one.

"Seeming unwell at certain times, and better at other times." I knew sugar was making me feel unwell, but felt powerless to stop eating it.

"Secretiveness." What, do you mean my hidden stash of chocolate?

I'll stop there. In summary: I felt like I was a slave to sugar and I hated it, especially because it made me feel so crummy.

The good news is that sugar has now lost its power over me, and I'll share with you how I broke the addiction. My methods may not work for you, but I wanted to write this post to give hope to anyone who is horribly addicted to sugar: if I can break free, so can you!

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Tip 1: Avoid carbs in the morning

My first tip is to avoid carbs in the morning. I'm not saying you need to go on the Atkins diet, but I would strongly suggest you base your first meal of the day around protein and vegetables. I'd even limit fruits to start with, or stick to low-carb fruits such as berries and apples.

Simple carbohydrates are essentially sugar. Call it fructose (naturally occurring in fruit) or lactose (naturally occurring in milk) or glucose (naturally occurring in honey, dried fruit, flour) - if it ends in "-ose" it's sugar. Yes, it's natural, but no, it's not good for you if you are wanting to cut out sugar. Sugar is sugar and it will begin the addiction cycle of craving, indulging, crashing, and craving.

The sooner I started eating carbs in the day, the sooner my sugar / carb cravings began. I found I could have relief from cravings for longer the later I started eating carbs each day. This meant that cereal, toast, waffles, pancakes, muffins, in fact any baked (or traditional "breakfast") goods were a no-no for breakfast for me.

Fruit may or may not trigger the cycle in you - experiment see how you do. I found I was okay with fruit in the morning; it didn't trigger the cycle.

So what to eat? You want some veggies - whatever takes your fancy - and you want some protein (from eggs, meat, beans, cheese), and include fruit if you can handle it. Here are some examples of breakfasts:

Omelet with goat's cheese and fresh tomato (from our garden) with some sauteed ham; a little melon.

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On omelet - I stir-fried some finely-chopped onion and yellow pepper, adding garlic and half a diced tomato towards the end. I put it into a 2-egg omelet with some Parmesan cheese and sprinkled it with salt and pepper.

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Ham and egg breakfast muffins - recipe here.

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Think outside the box - it doesn't have to "a breakfast food" to be breakfast. Click here for another post I did about starting your day right with breakfast.

Tip 2: Cut it all out, don't try to cut back

I mentioned the addiction cycle. It can be triggered by the smallest amount of sugar, although the amount will vary from person to person. Happily, fruit doesn't seem to trigger my cravings or addiction cycle, and I concentrated my recovery on avoiding anything baked or made with flour, and processed sugar. These were my nemesis. Your experience may vary, but I urge you to completely avoid the foods that trigger your addiction. You won't see a heroin addict in rehab having "just a little" heroin. You can't quit something you are still using.

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I know this sounds a bit idealistic - you may be thinking, "Just cut it out? If it was that easy, I wouldn't still be addicted to sugar!" Boy, do I know how hard it is. But if you ever hope to overcome the hold that sugar has on you you have to go hard out in your recovery efforts. In my experience, weaning off it doesn't work. It's cold turkey, baby. I promise that if you stick to it then the cravings will go away - not just for sugar, but all cravings. Just hang in there for 2-3 weeks and the worst will be over.

I also avoid artificial sweeteners at all cost. They are no good for you and the sweet taste can trigger real sugar cravings. Google for more information.

Tip 3: Indulge in other ways

I find the easiest way to deal with cutting something out is to replace it with something else. You have to fill that void. When quitting sugar, I'd treat myself in other ways to avoid feeling deprived. I'd eat savoury treats (cheese - but no crackers! - chips, biltong) or fruit I'd not normally buy. I'd try new recipes so I had something to eat that I could get excited about and look forward to.

Tip 4: Deal with chocolate cravings

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I used to hate dark chocolate. It grieved me that it was even called chocolate. But now I enjoy it - I really like Whitakers brand. I find that when I was having chocolate cravings I could appease them with one or two blocks of dark chocolate. It has a low enough sugar content that it doesn't start the addiction cycle for me. If you don't like dark chocolate, try a few different brands - you might be surprised to find one that you enjoy.

I've also heard that if you crave chocolate it's because you need magnesium. Taking 300-600mg of magnesium daily can take care of chocolate cravings.

Tip 5: Banana milkshakes

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Again, this may not work for you if fruit, especially high carb fruit like banana, triggers sugar cravings or an addiction cycle, but thankfully I seem to be okay with it and banana milkshakes were a lifesaver when I would get cravings for something sweet in the afternoon. If I made them with cocoa powder then it took care of any chocolate cravings too. Click here for more information on how I make healthy banana milkshakes - I now like to add peanut butter to mine too. I like the taste, and the protein helps keep my blood sugar stable.

Tip 6: Keep your blood sugar stable

If you are letting yourself get too hungry you will trigger cravings. If you are eating food that causes blood sugar spikes and dips, you will trigger cravings. Try to eat small meals / snacks throughout the day (I eat every 3-4 hours, like a newborn) and try to include protein with each meal or snack.

Tip 7: Drink lots of water

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Drinking lots of water will make you feel better overall, keep you occupied and feeling a little full, and prevent you from getting dehydrated. It really does help when trying to beat sugar addiction.

Tip 8: Delay gratification

If you're really, really craving sugar, promise it to yourself at the end of the day. This helps in two ways: First, you might find that by the evening your craving has abated, especially if you're sated from a good meal. Second, if you do indulge, you're closer to bedtime and don't run the risk of going on a sugar binge all afternoon like you would if you partook of sugar earlier in the day.

For me, once I started eating sugar I couldn't stop. If I had something sweet at lunchtime, you can bet I'd be riding the up-down blood sugar rollercoaster all afternoon and evening, and reaching for more sweet snacks as the cravings overwhelmed me. I'd also give into the "well, I blew it" mentality and write off the rest of the day, resolving to try again the next day, resulting in giving myself free reign to indulge for the remainder of that day.

By having a little dessert (or, let's be honest, even a big one) after dinner I could much more easily call a halt to the binge by going to bed.

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Tip 9: Check for hidden saboteurs

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Let's say that you are doing all you can to avoid sugar or sugar-like foods. You've gone cold turkey and tried the tips above, but are still having cravings. You need to investigate your diet more closely for hidden sugar which can be triggering your addiction.

I'm not talking about burgers made out of cupcakes and brownies like the picture above - I'm talking about sugar in salad dressings, peanut butter, baked beans, even milk (lactose = sugar). You may be ingesting more sugar than you realise, which means that your addiction is still being fed. Try to eat a diet that is as unprocessed as possible. You may be able to go back to eating those foods in the future, but to break the back of your addiction you need to clear them out.

I think that how much sugar to eat overall is a personal decision to make. I allow myself some toasted muesli almost every evening, and also eat fruit yoghurt occasionally, which contains sugar. I sometimes bake wheat-free treats using a little coconut sugar, which has less of an effect on blood sugar. Some may not regard my diet as sugar-free, and I don't claim it is: what I claim is that I am no longer addicted to sugar and haven't been for months now. When I find myself leaning more towards sugar then I pull right back - I am so afraid of becoming addicted again.

I've really noticed the effects. I no longer have the horrible blood sugar crashes and moods. My brain is less foggy. Food tastes better. I've lost weight. My cardiovascular health is improved. I'm less obsessed with food. I don't have cravings. I have more of a sense of wellbeing - I don't feel poisoned anymore. I haven't been sick once this year, and it's September now, which means we've gone right through winter and into spring. That's at least 9 months of no illness, not even a little cold, which is remarkable to me, considering I am still suffering from adrenal fatigue. I put it down to quitting sugar and exercising daily.

I feel relieved to have shed the shackles of sugar addiction, but like any addict I am very aware that I'll never really be free and that I could slip back at any time. It makes me very vigilant as I never want to be in that place again. Although I do indulge in a little sugar, as mentioned above, I keep a strict limit on it and watch like a hawk for any signs of cravings, blood sugar instability, fogginess and obsessive thoughts about dessert. It's no joke to me.

If I can reach this place of peace and freedom, so can you! If you are wanting to quit sugar, I urge you to go for it. Believe in yourself and push through the first two weeks and you will be well on your way. Good luck!

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