Day 14, 5.45pm. The defining moment of my month without sugar. One of my colleagues leaves a packet of biscuits on his desk. When you give up sugar, as it turns out, afternoons are the hardest part. You’re tired and stressed and you long for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
I had decided to give the white stuff up for two reasons: first, a nutritional rap sheet that starts with empty calories and, evidence suggests, proceeds to addictiveness and the promotion of obesity. Second, there’s no such thing as ‘cutting down’ on sugar as you might cut down on booze or impure thoughts. Sugar is packaged and processed with so many products, many of which give the impression of being healthy, that it’s full-time vigilance or nothing.
So it’s bad for you. Some experts would go so far as to call it a poison. And it has invaded apparently unrelated foods to such an extent that it’s difficult to avoid. I know all this, and I still want a biscuit. So what do I do? We’ll come to that. But first, the science.
I start my experiment by asking, ‘What’s so bad about sugar?’ But the real question is, ‘What’s so bad about sugars?’ The plural is important, because when you start digging it’s clear that the flower-pattern bowl is the least of your worries. ‘Sugars, plural, include table sugar (sucrose) and its constituent sugars glucose and fructose, as well as high-fructose corn syrup (glucose plus fructose), honey (also glucose plus fructose), and the synonyms for all of these: cane sugar, grape sugar, juice concentrate and so on,’ says Marion Nestle, a doctor of molecular biology who writes extensively on nutrition and for foodpolitics.com. 'All of them are sugars, plural. All provide four calories per gram.’
We’re used to hearing that these four calories are ‘empty’ – energy poured into the body with no additional nutritional value. But this message has been drowned out by government warnings about fat. We’ve been told for 30 years that fat is what makes us obese and gives us heart disease. ‘In 1982 the US Department of Agriculture, the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association all told us we had to reduce our consumption of fat,’ says Dr Robert Lustig, a specialist in child obesity. So we succeeded in reducing our fat intake, from 40% to 30% of our overall diet. Obesity more than doubled. ‘It ain’t the fat, people,’ says Lustig. ‘It’s the carbohydrates.’ One carbohydrate in particular.
Sugar consumption is at an all-time high. In fact, while everyone was busy demonising fat, carbs – including sugar – took its place in many foods advertised as healthy ‘low-fat’ options. Steps taken to defeat obesity drove millions of us to increase our sugar intake, which in the Western world has tripled in the last 50 years. In the UK our consumption is around 567g per person per week, an increase of 30% in 30 years. Meanwhile, according to NHS statistics, the prevalence of obesity in the UK rose from around 6% in 1978 to 26% in 2010.
Grain of truth
I start planning my escape from sugar by degrees. The first things to go, in week one, are the hits that make up my most obvious sugar consumption – the sprinkle over my cereal, the two I take in tea, the afternoon flapjack, the occasional chocolate bar.
I soon discover that I find tea without sugar disgusting. Luckily I also find that I like black coffee, which is important because I get energy slumps. I’m fine in the morning, because I’m replacing sugar with dried fruit or a sliced banana. But without the sugar bump at around four o’clock, I get irritable. Still, I last the week, and add up all the grams of sugar I’m no longer consuming, arriving at a figure of 304g. Which is a start, but barely half of that 567g that we’re all eating on average. So where’s the rest of it?
The childish but true answer is that it’s hiding, according to Aubrey Sheiham, professor of dental public health at University College London. ‘The proportions of what we call “visible sugar” to “invisible sugar” have changed dramatically,’ he says, explaining that while sales of bags of sugar have fallen since 1975, consumption has increased as people eat more processed foods. ‘They have no idea how much sugar they are consuming in canned drinks and pizzas.’
Week two is a week of discovery – specifically, discovering how much sugar is in things I like to eat and banning them. Cereal is first to go – without exception, every box I look at contains added sugars, even ‘healthy’ options such as bran flakes and muesli. Fruit juice is next: while fruit is high in fibre and healthy, juice is refined. Flavoured yoghurt is the same, especially low-fat variants which – like so many snacks boasting of lower fat levels – add sugars to improve the taste.
It’s within this fraught context that my biscuit battle occurs, at the end of week two when I’m feeling confused and hopeless. This becomes a pivotal moment because I eat the damned thing and don’t feel bad about it. (On the contrary, it’s very tasty.) It doesn’t lead to a relapse. I don’t end up on the sofa at midnight, trousers open, surrounded by chocolate wrappers. It tastes good, but I don’t get the moreishness that normally comes with junk food. I start to believe that giving up sugar isn’t impossible.
While we’d all agree it takes a mental effort to resist sweet foods, research suggests there’s a physical basis to our sugar urges too. The National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan ran a study with mice, which showed that when they expected to eat something sweet their bodies released orexin, a chemical which encourages the muscles to take up sugar from the bloodstream. If the food arrives as expected, this keeps the level of sugar in the blood steady. But if the food doesn’t arrive, the mice are left with an urge to eat and less energy with which to resist.
Following BiscuitGate, with nothing to tempt me cravings disappear. My energy levels are less prone to spikes and dips. For the first time in my life it feels like I’ve reduced the sugary noise in my diet to the point where I can feel the effect of certain things, such as the increased alertness caffeine brings, or the extra energy a carb-heavy pasta lunch gives me before evening football.
After this my experiment becomes easier. I don’t lust after sugary foods at all – in fact, I become unbearably pious, exclaiming airily how easy it’s been. This is desperately annoying for those around me – but it’s also true. Looking at cakes, fizzy drinks and chocolate doesn’t trigger any kind of response at all. In fact the way I view food as a whole changes. Stomping up and down supermarket aisles inspecting labels for sugar has led me to the realisation that, as our food has become more processed, refined, stripped of fat and fibre and built for a long shelf life, sugar has seeped into just about everything as the easy way to keep the stuff palatable.
What I get particularly cross about is that it can be difficult to spot, thanks to inconsistent labelling. The UK has no single, mandatory system. There’s the government-backed traffic light system, which colour codes key nutritional values (fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt) for an at-a-glance guide; and, sitting somewhat awkwardly alongside, the What’s Inside Guide alternative, which lists selected guideline daily amounts (GDA) as percentages.
‘We were all jealous of the traffic light labelling system over here,’ says Michele Simon, an American public health lawyer and author of the book Appetite For Profit: How The Food Industry Undermines Our Health And How To Fight Back. ‘Of course industry hates it, because they don’t want anything to indicate why you shouldn’t buy a product.’
The response of the food industry, Simon explains, is to argue aggressively for self-regulation. That’s how the What's Inside Guide was created. It is organised by a group called the Food and Drink Federation, whose members include Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé and Tate & Lyle. ‘The industry isn’t going to tell the whole truth about what's in their products,’ Simon says. ‘They only want to give positive information. So the labels might have calories and vitamins, but they don’t want to tell you about anything you should avoid.’
More worryingly, the food industry is also involved in government-sanctioned nutrition studies and in the bodies which decide the daily guidelines themselves. In Britain, these guidelines were first drawn up in 1979 by a committee chaired by Professor Philip James of the Medical Research Council’s clinical nutrition department. They recommended reductions in our intake of fat, salt and sugar. But the British Nutrition Foundation, which accepts financial donations from the food industry (including Tate & Lyle and British Sugar plc) and was involved in the committee, objected. ‘The sugar industry has learned the tricks of tobacco,’ says James. ‘Confuse the public, produce experts who disagree, try to dilute the message.’
The link to tobacco might seem extreme. Tobacco is addiction-forming and has widely documented harmful effects. Surely calling sugar a poison is a little far-fetched? Not according to Lustig. This is exactly how he describes sugar: ‘I said it – poison.’
It’s the fructose that’s the problem. Glucose is the ‘fuel of life’, the energy supply that our body’s cells use, while fructose is the evil twin, which is metabolised primarily in the liver. Thanks to complex chemical effects, fructose can suppress the body’s natural hunger feedback loop, says Lustig. ‘It’s not about the calories,’ he says. ‘Fructose is a poison itself.’
This forces me to think carefully about what I’m consuming. The ‘Is it sugar?’ that pops up every time I go to snack makes me conscious of just how much I snack. As soon as I realise nearly everything has added sugar, I resent it and want something naturally good and enjoyable. ‘It’s not about fat or sugar or salt,’ Simons tells me. ‘It's about eating real food. If we were to design a food system from scratch that was to be health-promoting, it wouldn’t look anything like the one we have now.
‘What the food industry does is take the natural ingredients of food and grind them up and strip them of their nutrients, and add a lot of artificial flavours and colours, and call it food. But it's really not.’
When my month without sugar ends, not only do I not go back to cereals and flapjacks, I’m not tempted to. My energy levels are more consistent, I’ve lost weight easily (5kg in under two months, while exercising less than normal) and, most importantly, I’m looking carefully and critically at the food I eat. That probably deserves a biscuit.
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