Until recently, I ate too much sugar. You’d never know it from my Instagram feed, which is full of arty shots of homemade brunches and healthy salads, but I was a slave to the sucrose monster.Sure, I don’t eat biscuits and cake because wheat makes my stomach a little crabby. But what I missed out on in baked goods, I more than made up for in desserts, ice cream and chocolate. If there was an excuse to eat salted caramel, I was there.
I blame my parents, cause well, why not. Growing up there was always pudding. It was the 90s, when the frozen dessert reigned supreme and there could be a cheesecake or pavlova defrosting on the side with no mixing, beating or baking required. My mum ate black forest gateau for breakfast when she was expecting me, so was it any wonder I came out with a sweet tooth to rival Violet Beauregarde’s?Unsurprisingly, I was a tubby child. I tried to scale back the sugar consumption in high school, because no-one wants to be the fat kid, but I had a full-blown addiction to Polos which were the cause of my first filling. By the time I went to university, it was a junk food free-for-all. I would think nothing of drinking sugary cocktails most nights then treating my hangover with crisps and chocolate the next day.
But I’m in my 30s now and therefore ~wiser~. I realise this is no way to treat my liver and pancreas. Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried to give up sugar cold turkey with minimal success – because I know that unless I have a motivation beyond ‘because it’s healthy’, making a commitment to a sugar-free life was never going to be something I achieved solo.And so, I parted with money. Because what greater incentive to succeed than knowing you’ve spent cold hard cash? In June, I signed up to Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar (IQS) programme which promised to help me find “food freedom” through its structured daily recipes and helpful advice. This is how it went down.
Week One – 13 June
Week one promised to “gently reduce” sugar intake so you were still allowed fruit, sugars and sweeteners in moderation. So far, so easy. What wasn’t so easy was finding time to bust through the suggested prep for the week ahead – an integral part of the eight week IQS plan which earmarks Sunday not as a day of rest, but as one to get very friendly with Tupperware and the washing up bowl.For someone who already has a lot of the required store cupboard “essentials” (coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, buckwheat, the like), even I struggled with the first recipe – a paleo courgette bread which was inevitably well worth the effort, but had me running around several supermarkets trying to source arrowroot powder (Sainsbury’s, btw). Made from eggs, Parmesan, the aforementioned arrowroot, courgette and carrot, once sliced up and in the freezer this gluten-free loaf saved my bacon on more than one occasion. As per the recipe, I ate it topped with avocado and feta many, many times. Other notable meals included a chicken peanut satay which involved making the sauce from scratch. Served with rice noodles and lashings of coriander and seasame seeds, it was better than any takeaway Chinese I’ve ever had and got me thinking about how the shop-bought stuff is probably laden with nasties. Gross.
Though I had picked the “summer” programme, there were some recipes in week one that seemed slightly off-season. A roast sausage number was really enjoyable and introduced me to fresh fennel, but it had the feeling of being rather autumnal and so I filed it away for winter use.Perhaps it was a result of lowering my sugar intake, but I came down with a cold halfway through the week and would have killed for fruit and juice, but I resisted the urge after seeking advice on the forums – an element of the plan the IQS team encourages you participate in. I was told as long as I stuck to the plan, I would get all my vitamins from the vegetables, which were in abundance at almost every meal.
Week Two – 20 June
This was the start of the four-week detox: no sugar, fruit or sweetener of any kind.
Though it’s called I Quit Sugar, what they’re actually referring to is fructose. Sucrose (table sugar) is roughly made up of half glucose and half fructose. The former is used up by our bodies for energy, the latter, not so much. You can read more about their stance on it here, but in a nutshell, they say it’s bad for you because it’s addictive, has no “off switch” in our brains, gets converted straight to fat and can lead to certain illnesses.I could – and still can – get on board with some of the science. One of the examples they use is how you can neck a bottle of Tropicana but you can’t eat the equivalent number of oranges it would take to get all that juice. Reason being there’s no fibre in the liquid stuff to slow down the absorption in your liver, which therefore gets overloaded and farms out the excess to fat stores around your body. Scary.
So, with the theory explained, it was a fond farewell to my 3pm Diet Coke, sugar free squash and “natural” sugars like honey – because as we’ve learned, regardless of what form your sugar hit comes in, the liver reacts the same – or worse.I missed drinks that weren’t tea or water but did learn to enjoy coffee without sugar. I was weirdly aware of the general taste in my mouth having realised chewing gum was also a no-no, so I had to settle for breath spray when brushing my teeth wasn’t an option. Have you ever tried to find breath spray in Boots? It’s by the dental floss, next to the portal for the 1980s.
I thought now there were no options for snacking I’d feel hungry between meals, but the recipes are (supposedly) engineered to fill you up and I was surprised to find I didn’t feel hungry at all, in thanks, I assume, to the uptake in protein and good fats.I had been told to expect crippling headaches, fatigue and all manner of nastiness in week two as my body cried out for a hit, but didn’t experience any. The only craving I really had was on EU referendum day when everyone around me was mainlining biscuits and chocolate eclairs to quell their misery.
The week’s recipes included a halloumi “bowl” of almonds, quinoa and broccoli, which was nice but a bit of dry. A salmon traybake with coleslaw veg and sweet potato wedges was a real winner and the Turkey San Choy Bow in lettuce cups was both visually pleasing as well as tasty.
A pork meatball dish – while a faff – made me finally appreciate courgetti, the trick being to cook it in a dash of apple cider vinegar and garlic and top the lot with a crap-load of Parmesan. Definitely a recipe I’ll be revisiting.
Week Three – 27 June
If one thing was becoming clear about the programme it was that you need to be the mother of all organisers.
I work four ten hours shifts which can start as early as 6am or as late as 10.30pm. The upside to this chaos is I get an extra day off in the week and a few random hours around everyone else’s normal working day, meaning I can squeeze in food shopping and cooking quite easily if I manage my time right.But I don’t exaggerate when I say I genuinely don’t know how anyone working a regular 9-5 manages to complete this programme, especially if they’ve got kids. My day off was almost always spent cooking, freezing and cling-filming in prep for dragging my meals halfway to London.
This week was no different. There were muffins to make (they sounded more exciting than they tasted), sauces to prepare and fritters to throw together. The recipes themselves were simple but not particularly visually appealing, hence the lack of pictures. Despite their unappetising appearances however, they were filling and I was still really surprised to find I didn’t miss the afternoon sugar binge.
The only real hissy fit I threw about the restrictiveness of the whole experiment was on a really hot Sunday afternoon when I would have happily shoved my boyfriend into the road for a bite of the cold, juicy peach he was eating. I still can’t believe I was that upset about not being able to eat a piece of fruit.
Week Four – 4 July
The beginning of week four coincided with my best friend’s 30th, in which I managed to say no to celebratory fizzy booze, peanut butter birthday cake and baked beans with my hangover breakfast. I did feel slightly miserable about this but consoled myself with the fact then when the programme was over, I’d be able to control myself and eat these things when that special occasion arises. And that, I reckon, is progress.Week four’s meals were a turning point in my patience for the programme – vastly unappealing and not worth the money I paid. Sorry, but nothing on this earth would make me eat curried mince for breakfast and I didn’t even bother to make a recipe parading as a chicken Caesar salad because it involved an oven which went against every fibre of my being. The chicken burrito bowl was nice but very simple and hardly a stretch in the culinary department given it was 80% raw chopped vegetables. But, I have to give credit where it’s due: a mid-week kedgeree was definitely a highlight – so much so that I’m still thinking about it a month later. I swapped super fishy mackerel for tuna but I doubt it made much difference. Emotionally, I was noticing that I was replacing the chocolate I normally reserved as a reward or commiseration for something else -namely wine – which meant I was probably not really severing the tie of reaching for a pick-me-up out of habit. One particularly low day at work had me treating myself to new makeup in a bid to cheer myself up, which was a damn sight more expensive than a bag of Minstrels.
Week Five – 11 July
I started to drift from the rigidity of the plan at this point due to time constraints. I was away in London at the weekend which made it impossible to stick to the prescribed meals and I was not going to cook up a bunch of meals and take them away in plastic boxes, because that would be insane.So I embraced the beer of the festival (even though all I wanted was a cold G&T) and I behaved myself at the hotel breakfast the next morning, where – even with a fairly horrendous hangover – I managed to say no to the orange juice and muffins my body was screaming out for. I did eat three squares of melon however, on the basis that it might curb the shaking and because I knew I would be allowed to reintroduce fruit the next day. If that was cheating, I don’t care. I would not have made it home without raising my blood sugar.
Of the things I did manage to cook up, the pulled pork was genuinely incredible and the accompanying cauliflower cream was so rich and tasty even my dad, who hates all veg, ate it and said it was “quite nice”. The abject failure of the week was the pesto zucchini bread which was entirely my fault as I obviously failed to squeeze out enough moisture from the courgettes. I ended up with a soggy loaf of mush which went straight in the bin. Fail.
I had high hopes for the KFC-style chicken recipe but the end result was a bit powdery and weirdly tasteless considering the amount of spice that was used. Overall though, I was pleased with week five – I wasn’t hankering after sugar at all, but I did miss fruit. I still find the IQS stance on that front a bit bizarre. Nothing will ever convince me that eating a banana is worse for you than eating a bar of Dairy Milk.
On a side note I jumped on the scales and was pleased to find I’d lost four pounds. Not a great deal but I was pleased nonetheless.
Week Six – 18 July
There had been a big build up to week six because it was the week where the plan “reintroduced a little sweetness”. I had visions of making desserts with IQS-approved and fructose-free rice malt syrup, but alas, it basically meant three strawberries on some avocado and toast.That combo struck me as a little weird and so I skipped it and had them with a blob of full fat yoghurt in the garden on the hottest day of the year. It was basically the best thing ever and perfect for the weather. The next day though I found myself daydreaming about eating more fruit so I decided not to for a couple of days. I didn’t want to slip so easily back into my old ways after my hard work thus far, so my flirtation with fruit was short. There were loads of tasty looking meals on the week six menu but a glitch with the IQS website on my allotted cook-up day meant I couldn’t access the recipes. I was away from home by the time it was fixed and didn’t have the facilities to roast an entire chicken, so was left to my own devices. Luckily, I had created a “freezer stash” as per the IQS mantra earlier on in the programme, and ended up either reheating a few meals from previous weeks or eating out and choosing sensibly, which had been one of the tasks in week five anyway. On one occasion we went for Mexican which is typically low in sugar anyway and made a nice change from being chained to the oven. Week six also brought back the peach (at last!) in a raspberry and oat ‘crumble’ form, which I ate for dessert one night instead of breakfast as suggested. Call me crazy but I like my pudding after tea.
Week Seven – 25 July
I kicked off week seven with the organisational skills of a demon, knocking out the buckwheat granola, buckwheat bread and quinoa in about two hours, while also finding time to make raspberry chia jam on a whim. This was particularly pleasing as unbeknownst to me, week eight’s cook-up would have me make said jam, so I had saved myself a job.The granola was the first recipe in the programme to introduce rice malt syrup into the mix which didn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference to the taste, though it remains to be seen whether it makes any sort of impact in larger quantities.
Regardless, the granola mixed up my breakfast routine which had become a bit of a feta-egg-scramble boreathon. It did however make me miss cereal, which could be my gateway drug back to Sugar Town, so I had one or two bowls and decided not to make any more for a while.The other side of the buckwheat coin didn’t fare so well. While it held together in the tin it crumbled into a pile of misery dust when I sliced it, which led to a disastrous incident at work in which I had to tip out chunks of ‘bread’ and about five years’ worth of crumbs from the toaster in a bit to save my breakfast. The week also called for a slow cooked lamb dish which I met with some ambivalence as I only really like my sheep in shank form. I sabotaged this meal from the outset by choosing a cheaper cut of meat than specified which probably contributed to its weird, fatty taste and just to boot, my pomegranate seeds were on the turn and I couldn’t be arsed with the faff of making the accompanying ‘pilaf’, so all-in-all, it was a bit of a fail. First world problems.
The highlight however was a halloumi and corn salad which I demolished so quickly I forgot to take a picture. It contained peaches (I frigging love them) though so here’s a picture of that instead.There was one day towards the end of week seven where I almost caved to a square or two of 85% chocolate only to find it had mysteriously disappeared from the cupboard. But, given that I could easily have caved to the Hotel Chocolat selection gift box that had been sat in my kitchen since week two instead, I must have developed some sort of self-control. In the spirit of full disclosure however, I did accidentally ingest some sweetness when my well-meaning boyfriend bought me some Doritos. I didn’t look at the ingredients and it turns out there’s sugar AND glucose syrup in them. Both gross and mildly disappointing, but as it wasn’t intentional it doesn’t count.
Week Eight – 1 August
I spent most of my final week telling anyone who would listen that I couldn’t believe I’d gone two months without sugar. I also spent the whole week fantasising about what I would eat once freed from the shackles of the programme. This slightly worried me because it suggested I might go back to old habits, but more on that later.I also could not wait to see the back of the awful IQS “app” which was clunky, more often than not inaccessible, and not actually an app – just a slightly crap website. On the final day I had gone out to buy all the ingredients for the courgette and pear brownies – the one dessert allowed on the entire programme – and flew into an apoplectic rage when I could not download the recipe because the site was down. I did eventually get to make them and they did taste nice, if not a little dry. Another final week recipe highlight was the coconut fluff pancakes, which tasted just fine without the impossible-to-source coconut flour. They’re probably dreadfully bad for you in the fat department given that they contain coconut milk and are cooked in butter, but my god do they make a great Saturday brunch. They were closely contested by the sausage sandwich recipe which has transformed all sausage sandwich recipes for life. Why I ever thought a load of ketchup on my pork products tasted better than garlicky, oniony, mustardy kraut remains a mystery. I will (probably) never go back.
And so, here I am at the end, having survived a sugar-free existence for 60 days. This morning I got up and made those damn fine pancakes again, ate some pork meatballs and courgetti for lunch and cooked up some curried mince for my dinners later in the week. There’s two of those weird muffins, a shed load of sweet potato puree, and possibly the best tip IQS has given me – portioned up quinoa in the freezer – to keep me on the straight and narrow.This afternoon I had a cup of tea and cracked open that box of Hotel Chocolat goodies. I ate four pieces and went… “meh” and put the lid on. I’m not sat here jonesing for my next hit, I didn’t immediately go out and buy a box of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, and I have no plans to inhale a pint of Haagen Dazs any time soon.
What I will do, however, is treat myself from time to time. I go to America in three weeks and when I’m there, if I want to sit on a bench in Portland and eat a weird ice cream from Salt and Straw, I’m going to. If I’m in a bar in San Francisco with my friends and I really want a G&T or a White Russian, I’m going to drink it. But then again, I might have a beer. Who knows.The point is, I can now make a choice because I don’t feel like I’m a slave to the sugar monster. I don’t advocate IQS as the best way to quit the so-called demon – nothing will ever convince me fruit is bad and did I mention how much I hate their app? – but it’s not a bad way to make a start. What I learned is I didn’t die giving it up. And even if I do “relapse”, I now know giving it up is perfectly achievable. I’m proud of that, even if everyone else thinks it’s insane. ✌️