Health benefits of doing Sugar Free February and 12 tips to help you succeed
The health benefits of reducing your sugar intake are numerous, including weight loss, reduced chance of diabetes, improved mental clarity and younger looking skin. In this article we will look at why you should give up sugar, and how to cut back without feeling deprived.
Give your health a boost with Sugar Free February
Giving sugar up completely might seem daunting at first, and for some, the prospect is too off-putting to give it any consideration. So, if you can’t go completely sugar free for one month, then why not consider cutting it back.
Cutting down on sugar is something that everyone can do. By making small changes to habits that have formed over a lifetime, you can make progress to improve your way of living and your general health and well-being.
Every February, Cancer Research UK challenge people to give up refined sugar for one month while raising money for the charity. This is a great opportunity to experience the benefits of cutting sugar out of your life while supporting a great cause.
In this article, we will cover the main reasons why your body will thank you for going sugar free for February and share our favorite tips on how to get through the month successfully with your sanity intact.
Why should I give up sugar?
Everyone knows that sugar is bad for our teeth, but many of us don’t realise what a devastating effect too much sugar can have on our overall health. As more research comes to light on just how much damage refined sugar can cause, more people are making the sensible decision to cut down on their sugar intake or cut out sugar completely.
So if you have decided to embark on this sugar-free journey, you are not alone. Taking the step of assessing lifestyle habits and making a conscious choice to cut down sugar in our diet is gaining popularity as more and more people begin to take their health seriously.
Guidelines on sugar
The NHS recommends that sugar consumption should not be more than 30g per day as added sugar from food and drink. That comes in at about 7 teaspoons. However, the National Diet and Nutrition survey figures from 2014 to 2016 outlines that in England teenagers on average are consuming 84g per day, which is nearly 3 times the recommended amount.
Unfortunately, the situation in the USA is just as bad, with a recent study finding that 99% of toddlers in America consume more than 7 teaspoons of sugar each day. This is a huge concern, considering that the recommendation is that children under 2 years old should have ZERO added sugar in their diet.
The long term effects of overconsumption of sugar from such a young age will be catastrophic. As habits form and this pattern of eating continues into adulthood, it increases the chances for obesity, health issues, including heart disease, strokes and possibly type-2 diabetes later in life.
Obesity is currently the second largest preventable cause of cancer and sugar overload is playing a huge part in this.
By choosing to take part in Sugar Free February, you will be making an enormous step towards improving your health. This will likely also have an impact on your loved ones, as they see the positive difference it has made to you by the end of the month.
Natural Sugar vs Added Sugar
Firstly, this is slightly misleading, since all sugar is natural and not man-made! When we say natural sugar, we mean ‘naturally occurring’ sugar, which is found in its whole, natural state, such as fruit.
Added sugar refers to any refined sugar which is added to a product to make it taste sweeter. This includes any sugar on the ingredients list of processed foods, as well as table sugar, caster sugar and icing sugar which you may add to your foods at home.
Natural free sugars
There is a third category of sugars- ‘natural free sugar’. This refers to the sugars in honey, syrups and fruit juices. Although naturally occurring, these sugars cause a spike in blood sugar levels and should be kept to a minimum. They are slightly more beneficial than refined sugar, but should still be limited where possible.
The reason that natural sugars are not as damaging for our health is that they are normally found ‘wrapped up’ in a food which contains fiber, vitamins and minerals which are all beneficial for our bodies.
The fiber in fruit slows down the absorption of the sugar, meaning the effect on our blood sugar levels will be much less than eating added sugars.
The amount of sugar consumed also increases hugely when you consider added sugars compared to natural.
Think of how difficult it would be to eat a whole bunch of bananas, compared to eating a whole box of chocolates! Or to eat 3 whole oranges compared to a glass of orange juice.
The fiber in the fruit fills you up and prevents you needing more food. The added sugar will simply spike your blood sugar, leaving you hungry a short while later once the short-term effects wear off.
Watch out for sneaky sugars
Checking ingredient labels will be crucial for this month, and if you are not used to checking them, you may be in for a surprise! Of course, we all know that chocolate and soda contain sugar, but you will find the white stuff lurking in lots of savory items too.
Crackers, ketchup, salad dressings and bread all contain sugar as well as most breakfast cereals that are loaded with it. Even so-called ‘healthy’ cereal bars often contain sugar as one of the first ingredients.
Also, watch out for sugar masquerading as something else. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), dextrose, brown rice syrup and maltodextrin are just some of the aliases that added sugar goes by. As a general rule, if you don’t recognize an ingredient, don’t eat it!
What can I eat?
Naturally occurring sugars are found in all fruits and many vegetables. There is no reason to exclude these sugars from your diet unless you have a reason to do so.
If your aim is to give up sugar permanently and you feel that cutting out all sugars will help you to do this, I would recommend reading Sara Wilson’s ‘I Quit Sugar’. She has an eight-week program to reset your body and allow you to give up the sugar for good.
Otherwise, feel free to enjoy a few portions of fresh fruit as part of your day. Increasing your vegetable intake will also help keep you fuller for longer and keep those pesky cravings at bay.
If you normally have cereal in the morning, porridge is a great replacement, or muesli without sugar. Better still, try making your own muesli with oats, nuts and seeds.
You can then add fruit to the porridge or muesli and you will have a filling breakfast which will keep you satisfied for longer. Oats are also known to regulate blood sugar levels, so should stop you from feeling prematurely hungry.
Nuts and seeds are a great snack option to replace your sugary treats. They are full of healthy fats and do not have much effect on your blood sugar.
If you are a fan of yoghurt, you can still eat it as long as it has no added sugar. You can add fresh fruit, nuts and seeds to make a tasty snack, or try adding some Ceylon cinnamon to your yoghurt as cinnamon is thought to regulate blood sugar.
And of course, if you are really missing your morning cake, you can always make your own version at home using sugar alternatives such as xylitol or stevia. There are loads of recipes out there, so get creative and try one for yourself!
A great place to start would be our Sugar Free Blueberry and Cinnamon Muffins. They contain no added sugar, but are so delicious you will never know the difference!
HEALTH BENEFITS OF GOING SUGAR-FREE
• Cutting down on sugar will help you lose belly fat
Eating too much sugar will not help your waistline, so it’s clear that cutting down on your consumption will not only help improve your overall health but will help you stay in shape.
An increased risk of diabetes and heart disease is associated with too much visceral fat. So let’s think about cutting down on sugar so that if we are fortunate to live a long life then we are giving ourselves the best chance of leading a healthy one.
• Keep your energy levels constant throughout the day
When we consume sugar, it gives our bodies a spike of energy, temporarily raising our blood sugar levels as the body breaks down the sugar into glucose and energy.
We have a hormone, insulin which moves the glucose from our bloodstream into cells for either energy or storage. If our bodies can’t produce enough insulin, or become resistant to it, then our blood sugar levels can rise and we are at risk of developing diabetes.
It’s also the case that eating too much sugar can in some cases cause our bodies over time to become insulin resistant. If we know we are eating too much sugar then we also know we are putting our bodies at risk in the future.
• Vicious circle
Constantly craving that sugar fix and raising our blood sugar levels may give us that burst of immediate energy. It won’t last long however and soon after our bodies usually react oppositely, contributing to lower energy levels, lethargy and a lack of enthusiasm.
You often see this with children after they eat too many sugary foods. They soon crash afterwards and their buoyant mood soon changes once the spike has dissipated.
So, to keep our energy levels constant it’s wise to stay away from sugar and get the fuel we need from other sources. Great options are healthy proteins and fats, fish, nuts and natural sources such as sweet potatoes.
High octane foods are full of fibre, protein and vitamins which in tandem with healthy fats will give us a constant supply of energy throughout the day.
• Less sugar, better- looking skin
Eating sugar will inevitably have an effect on the condition of your skin in the long term. When we eat sugar, insulin levels increase and lead to inflammation.
This inflammation can break down the collagen structure prematurely, leading to increased wrinkles and skin that is less firm.
Sugar is an inflammatory food. If you have rosacea, eczema or other skin conditions then it would make sense to limit the sugar you consume. This will give your body the best chance at repairing and healing the affected areas.
• Cutting down on your sugar intake will improve your gut flora
The gut biome produces an abundance of neurochemicals that contribute to how you feel. If you eat a lot of sugar, the number of bacteria in your gut that like sugar will grow. The craving for sugar will then increase as your gut makes you feel that you need more.
So although you might feel that you want sugar, it is likely your gut that is having the craving. We would recommend that this is one instance in which you shouldn’t necessarily trust it!
Eating a diet high in sugar will lower the amount of “good” bacteria in your gut. This changes the balance of bacteria within which can directly affect our overall health.
Within our gut, there is a nervous system that produces the sleep regulator melatonin. If a diet high in sugar is being linked to poor quality of sleep then it’s no surprise when you know about the link between sleep and the health of the gut.
TIPS FOR KEEPING ON TRACK
• Don’t allow yourself to go hungry
Especially at the beginning of this month, it is important not to let yourself get too hungry. You are much more likely to succumb to temptation if your stomach is growling, than if you feel satiated throughout the day.
By making sure all of your meals contain healthy fats and protein, you will reduce hunger between meals. This means you are much less likely to be tempted by a sweet snack. Always keep a piece of fresh fruits or some unsalted nuts nearby in case hunger strikes unexpectedly!
• Replace sugary drinks with fruity teas
If you are used to drinking sugary drinks throughout the day, you will likely find that you initially miss having something sweet to drink.
Not only will they satisfy your craving for a sweet drink, but they also count towards your water intake for the day and most are caffeine-free, which will help to keep you hydrated.
If tea is not your thing, you may want to replace your fizzy drinks with sparkling water. Adding a squeeze of lemon, lime or even orange can create a satisfying alternative to soda with none of the nasties.
• Try not to replace sugar with artificial sweeteners
While cutting out refined sugar technically means that you could consume diet drinks and other artificial sweeteners, this is not recommended if you are doing this with your health in mind.
Aspartame and other sweeteners are thought to be potentially more dangerous than the sugar they replace.
There are some contradictions as to the detrimental effects of these substances. Some studies suggest a link to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. It can also increase your appetite, which is the opposite effect that we are looking for.
At the very least these drinks still contain several undesirable ingredients. The best option is to cut them out completely and replace them with sparkling water or unsweetened tea and coffee.
• Make meals from scratch
There are so many hidden sugars in today’s processed food that you will spend hours checking labels this month if you are buying pre-packaged foods. Making as many meals as possible from scratch will mean less time spent in the shops. This means more time spent enjoying cooking healthy meals.
By cooking as much as possible in your home, you can rest assured that you and your family will be getting nutritious, sugar-free food every time. Plus it tastes so much better too! Plan your meals in advance so that you are prepared for the week ahead.
For some inspiration, check out our Recipes Page for some easy, healthy ideas to get you started.
• Get Enough Sleep
It may surprise you to know that there is a strong link between the amount of sleep you get and your blood sugar levels.
Not getting enough quality sleep can disrupt your hormone levels. This means that insulin is not released properly after eating the following day. This leaves your blood sugar levels high and will increase the chance of you craving sugar later in the day.
Since eating too much sugar can lead to poor sleep, many of us find ourselves in a vicious sleep-sugar cycle. This is not helpful for our everyday health.
By getting a decent night’s sleep, we are reducing the chances of succumbing to temptation the following day. This will, in turn, lead to another good night’s sleep.
Aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep where possible, and start your day feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world!
• Distract yourself
It is only natural that you will experience sugar cravings, especially during the first few days. If cravings seem to hit at the same time every day, make sure you schedule something during that time to distract you from them.
Convince a friend or family member to go for a walk with you. Getting outside in the fresh air will instantly make you feel better. The exercise should stabilize your blood sugar and reduce the craving. Plus it will give you a chance to have a chat and discuss your success so far!
Or why not grab a great book and immerse yourself in it. You will soon forget all about the chocolate that was calling your name!
This would also be a good time to do some research and find some sugar-free recipes. This means that next time the cravings strike, you will be well prepared with some delicious healthy snacks!
Sarah Wilson of iquitsugar.com recommends two spoonfuls of coconut oil if you really need something sweet. It will satisfy your sweet tooth without spiking your blood sugar and will help keep you full until your next meal.
• Team up with a friend
Most things are better when you have someone to share them with, and this is no different. If you can find a friend or family member who shares similar goals with you, see if they will take the challenge on with you.
As well as making it more fun and giving you someone to discuss your successes and struggles with, you are more likely to stick at it if you have the accountability of not letting your partner down.
• Check for hidden sugars
You don’t want to go to all the effort of planning your weekly meals, only to find that your favorite cereal contains sugar you weren’t aware of. Check food labels carefully, or better still, buy foods that don’t have ingredient labels. As Jamie Oliver says “Real food doesn’t have ingredients, real food IS ingredients.
• Tell friends and family what you are doing and why
Although you may not be able to convince those around you to join you in ditching sugar for a month, it is important to tell them what you are doing and why it is important to you.
They can show their support by not offering you sweet treats and not talking you into eating things which are off-limits.
If family members are keeping sweet things in the house, ask them to store them separately from your healthy snacks. This means you won’t have a visual temptation when you reach for your super snacks!
• Get rid of temptation from your fridge and cupboards
This does not mean that you have to eat all of the sugar in your house on January 31st! If possible, stop buying sugar-laden snacks in the week leading up to the start of the month. This means that your house will be guilt-free by the time you begin your challenge.
If you still have some by the time you begin, store them somewhere you rarely go. This will keep them out of your way for the duration of the month, and ask family members to do the same.
• Fill food with real flavour
As the month progresses, your tastebuds will change as the effect of the sugars begin to wear off. Take this opportunity to get some real flavor into your homemade dishes using herbs, spices and lemon juice in your food.
You may find that even after the month is over, the bland taste of sugary food will no longer excite you compared to the delicious concoctions you have been inventing throughout the month! Have fun and experiment with different flavors.
• Consider including L-Glutamine in your diet
Adding l-glutamine to your diet can help reduce sugar cravings and through time this will help you control your weight. L-Glutamine will also help control any cravings for high-glycemic carbs. It has been shown to assist in helping stabilize blood sugar levels.
You can include it naturally in your diet by increasing the amount of protein you consume. Snacking on nuts and seeds when you have cravings will help as they are high in protein, as are eggs. Beans are also high in protein and are an excellent source of l-glutamine.
Why not have some of your favorite nuts or beans available throughout the day? That way, if you feel you are missing out you can snack on those to relieve your cravings.
• Be proud of yourself and enjoy it!
Instead of feeling like you are missing out, take pride in the fact that you have made this huge decision to make such a positive change in your life.
Enjoy the healthy feeling that comes with being sugar-free and let us know in the comments below how you are getting on. Good luck!
Billy and Elaine