A couple of years ago, the idea of cutting refined sugar out of my diet sounded absurd to me. After all, we need a little sweetness – why deny ourselves such a simple pleasure? However, I discovered during lockdown that it’s possible to stop eating refined sugar while still enjoying chocolate, ice cream, cakes and cookies thanks to a growing range of amazing products. So, if you’re always craving your next sweet rush (or struggle with PMS, like me), then here’s how to quit sugar for good.
Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist or health practitioner. I’m sharing my experience about a gentle change to my diet that worked for me. Everyone’s dietary needs and restrictions are unique to the individual. If you have any health concerns or are planning to make a significant change to your diet, you should speak to a professional, licensed nutritionist or doctor first.
When it comes to refined sugar, I can’t help myself. I’ve always been that person in the office who would rush to gobble up any sweet treats that someone bought in. There was never any pacing myself; once I’d had the taste of candy or cake, I would instantly crave more and more. Blocks of chocolate were never safe around me as I could never, ever save some for later.
I used to try and do a trade-off with myself: if I didn’t eat anything sweet for three weeks of the month, then I could have as many sugary treats as I liked with I was pre-menstrual. This was a good idea in theory but after spending a week demolishing multiple bags of Haribo, family-sized blocks of chocolate and packets of cookies, I always found it hard to press stop on sugar again.
As someone who has always struggled with intense PMS, I began to notice that my symptoms would always be at their worst in January. After a month of festive bingeing, endless Christmas treats and sweet celebratory drinks, I would experience an especially crippling bout of mood swings and mental health problems during my next cycle or two as my body attempted to deal with this sudden surge of sugar and alcohol (while also struggling with depleted levels of vitamin D).
So, at the start of 2020, after another hellish bout of post-Christmas PMS, I decided it was time to make a change. I wanted to work out how to quit sugar and see if it made any difference to my hormones. As I approach my first anniversary of life without refined sugar, I’m happy to say it has both been surprisingly easy and effective. I’ve managed to significantly reduce my mood swings and crappy feelings each month while also still being able to occasionally enjoy some amazing chocolate, ice cream and sweets.
Why is refined sugar bad for you?
When we think of refined sugar, which is extracted from processed sugar cane or sugar beets, we usually think of those little white cubes of wonder. This is sucrose, a combination of glucose and fructose, which we call white or brown sugar. You put in your tea, bake it in cakes and whip it into icing and desserts.
Food manufacturers also add chemically produced sugars like high-fructose corn syrup to all kinds of food and drinks, some of which might surprise you. Yoghurt, tomato sauce and salad dressing are big offenders. However, you may be surprised to learn that the worst ones are anything that is labelled as ‘low-fat’. Manufacturers try to make up for any loss of flavour by loading it with sugar.
These differ from the naturally occurring sugars that you’ll find in fruits, vegetables and dairy because of the way that your body metabolises them. No matter how much fruit you eat, you’ll never achieve that ‘sugar high’ that comes from eating sweets, for example. That’s because of the rapid way that your body breaks down refined sugar – it causes your insulin and blood sugar levels to skyrocket, giving you that addictive rush.
There is one way that naturally occurring and refined sugars are similar: once they reach the small intestine, your body digests them in the same way. So, as we’re already eating lots of naturally occurring sugar from apples, milk etc, it’s good to always be mindful of how much added sugar we eat, as our body only needs so much.
Refined sugar and hormones
According to a study from the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 1983, women who suffer from PMS eat 275% more refined sugar than those without these symptoms. That’s a pretty shocking difference, which makes you wonder what the relationship is between sugar and hormones? Let’s look at how it affects people who menstruate.
Aside from giving you a dizzying rush, refined sugar messes with your insulin – one of the most powerful hormones in your body. When your insulin level spikes, it can deplete the levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) in your body. This vital protein is important for binding together excessive amounts of estrogen and testosterone in your blood. So, when we lack SHBG, we see the level of these two sex hormones rise.
An increase in insulin also causes the production of more testosterone. This in turn is converted by your body into even more estrogen, upsetting the natural balance between this hormone and your progesterone levels. The is bad news as progesterone is the hormone that helps keep us calm and happy, so this disruption can lead you to feel irritable, anxious and sleepless. For people who menstruate, it also adds to the symptoms when you reach perimenopause, causing night sweats and hot flashes.
Refined sugar: detox, cut down or quit?
If you’re someone who struggles with sugar cravings or PMS, then instead of trying a temporary detox it’s probably a good idea to try and work out how to quit sugar altogether. A short-term solution won’t change anything once you go back to eating refined sugar.
You can try to ease your way out of your sugar addiction by switching to products with a reduced amount of refined sugar. In the UK, Cadbury’s recently brought out a chocolate bar and block with 30% less sugar, which tastes surprisingly good. I also like Halo Top‘s range of ice creams that focus on being high in protein and containing a reduced amount of refined sugar. They combine it with artificial sweeteners to make their ice cream delicious (their Peanut Butter Cup flavour is my favourite).
One thing to be mindful of when you reduce the amount of refined sugar in your diet suddenly is that you may find yourself craving bagels, pretzels, white bread, crisps, pasta and fries. That’s because your body breaks down starchy foods like these into simple sugars. So make sure you consume these carbs with something more nutritious – otherwise, your blood sugar with still surge then crash, replacing this high for you in other ways.
Another thing to be aware of is that it’s much harder to control your intake of refined sugar when you eat out rather than preparing a meal at home. It depends on how militantly you want to erase refined sugar from your diet. For me, it’s about using alternatives at home and being mindful about it when I’m dining out.
Refined sugar can be found everywhere from East/Southeast Asian sauces to syrup in cocktails (both of which I love). So, I prefer to be a bit more relaxed when I’m not at home but monitor any potential cravings in the days afterwards. You can also talk to the restaurant or bar in advance (or when you arrive) to see if they can suggest so alternative low or no-sugar options.
My favourite refined sugar alternatives
Ok, onto the best part. I’ve discovered some deliciously sweet products since I decided to cut refined sugar out of my diet. These are all available in the UK but if you live elsewhere, I’m sure you can find similar products in your country. Try Google or ask at your local health foods shop for options.
One deterrent from quitting is that many refined sugar alternatives are expensive. As with many parts of the ‘wellness’ industry, affordability is a big issue. Plus, our food industry has spent decades making addictively sugary treats as cheap as possible because they want us to binge on them constantly. So, for people who are not on a living wage, working out how to quit sugar can feel like an impossible task. To help, I’ve added some links below for bulk buying options that can help to reduce the overall cost.
Sugar is sugar. Whether it’s refined or not, there is no such thing as ‘healthy sugar’ and you should use all sugars sparingly. So, while some people may promote coconut sugar as being better for you, that’s not true. Coconut sugar is almost identical to regular cane sugar in terms of nutrients and calories.
The only benefit to using coconut sugar is that it has a lower chance of a blood sugar spike. This is because it contains a small amount of inulin (a type of soluble fibre) that makes that sugar rush sensation less likely. From my experience, this is true: I can have something sweetened with coconut sugar and not feel the sugar rush that leaves me craving more.
This means that on occasions when you need to make something that contains refined sugar, you can substitute it with coconut sugar. That birthday cake can still be made at home and your dinner party need not go without dessert. I recently baked a batch of cookies with both coconut sugar and coconut sugar chocolate chips in them, which were described by everyone who tried them as something along the lines of ‘heavenly’.
Coconut sugar is now available in most UK supermarkets, but it is astonishingly expensive, currently costing around £8 per kilo. I bulk buy mine online from Real Food Source, which works out to be slightly more reasonable £6.60 per kilo (including delivery), and use its price as inspiration to only use it occasionally.
When I was first considering how to quit sugar, I tried some chocolate with artificial sweeteners but it left me with a weird sensation in my mouth. So, I was really happy when I discovered there are now some amazing coconut sugar chocolates available in most UK stores.
Enjoy! and Raw Halo are vegan brands that both make delicious blocks of chocolate without using refined sugar. You can find them at your local Holland and Barrett for about £2.50 per 70g block, plus I also recently spotted Raw Halo in my local Sainsbury’s and Waitrose (always check the ‘free from’ section if you can’t find them in the regular chocolate aisle).
However, the champions of coconut sugar chocolate have to Ombar. These cacao-rich blocks of heaven are superior to any chocolate I have ever had, so the fact that they are made without refined sugar is astonishing to me. Their almond bar is my ultimate treat, which you can find in Whole Foods, Planet Organic, Waitrose and some health food shops. It usually retails for about £2 for a 35g bar or £3 for a 70g block, which is very expensive. However, they do occasionally sell 500g bags of ‘broken bars’ on their website for £12 (plus postage).
On a sunny day when you can’t do without ice cream, look out for Booja-Booja. This award-winning vegan brand makes deliciously decadent tubs of heaven from surprisingly few ingredients. For example, their popular Chocolate Salted Caramel flavour is made from water, cocoa, cashew nuts, sea salt, coconut syrup and agave syrup – that’s it. You can find them in the frozen section of Holland and Barret, Whole Foods and Waitrose for about £5.50 for a 500ml tub.
If you want to try your hand at making ice cream at home, I whipped up some delicious no-churn ice cream last summer with just coconut milk, almond butter, maple syrup and fresh raspberries. You can make up your own flavours too – such as peanut butter and grated coconut chocolate or mango and macadamia nut butter.
Maple syrup and agave nectar
You may have noticed above, maple syrup and agave nectar are often used as refined sugar alternatives. As with everything on this list, neither of these sweeteners are in any way healthy and should be used sparingly. But here is why I prefer to use them instead of refined sugar.
When buying maple syrup, make sure it is pure and not mixed with anything else (such as high-fructose corn syrup), which is usually added to make it cheaper. Even in its purest form, maple syrup still has very high sugar content. What makes it a slightly better option as a natural sweetener is that measures about a 54 on the glycemic index (GI), while refined sugar has a GI of around 65. This is probably why I don’t crave more sugary treats after using maple syrup in baking, sauces and as a topping on my pancakes.
Agave nectar is another syrup that is used as an alternative to refined sugar. However, it’s highly processed and refined, so there is little about it that could be considered natural. It is dangerously high in fructose and should be used in very small amounts. The reason it is often seen as an alternative is that it has a very low GI, usually about 25-30, making it very unlikely to cause a blood sugar spike. Personally, I find it quite tasteless so I don’t use it that much but some people really love it.
I remember watching my mum batch make jam when I was a child and being shocked by the enormous amount of that white stuff that goes into it. As a sugar fiend, I really love jam and was worried I wouldn’t find anything that would feel like such a treat. So, I was very surprised when I recently discovered that you can find great jam without any refined sugar in pretty much every UK supermarket.
St Dalfour makes their ‘fruit spread’ from an old French recipe with fruit juice concentrate as the only sweetener. Astonishingly, they can’t call their product ‘jam’ because UK law requires that any spreads must be made of at least 60% sugar to be labelled as such (which feels like they are encouraging unhealthy ingredients). Thankfully, St Dalfour’s is very delicious without feeling like you are eating a spoonful of refined sugar.
Lollies, candy, sweets – whatever you call them in your country, confectionery is similar the world over. Made almost entirely from refined sugar, it’s no wonder our parents used to tell us that eating them would make our teeth fall out.
If you love gummy bears, wine gums or rhubarb and custard (possibly the most British sounding sweet ever), then you’ll be happy to know that Free From Fellows make bags of these without refined sugar. These vegan ‘candy connoisseurs’ use maltitol syrup as an artificial sweetener in their products, which still isn’t that great for you. However, if you’re having trouble kicking your Haribo addiction, then maybe try these as a way of weaning you off refined sugar – or as a very occasional treat. You can find these sweets at Holland and Barret, Boots and Whole Foods for about £2 a bag.