Sugar. Its got a lot of flack recently, and rightly so in my opinion.
First, I just want to mention that sugars are a natural part of our diet that humans have been eating for thousands of years, mostly fruit and honey (i.e. ‘natural’ sugars - unrefined sugars that haven't been heavily processed). I don't want to demonise all sugar. BUT these sweet foods were only available at certain times of year throughout most of the world and weren’t found in the abundance that they are in our supermarkets.
That said, there is good reason to be wary of sugar. Sugar can be harmful to our health in so many ways, including contributing to accelerated ageing, acne, brain function, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, reduced nutrient absorption and disrupting the balance of our gut bacteria. (For more of the effects sugar that can have on your health have a look over here.)
Not only this but sugar is as addictive as some Class A drugs. Yep - it has a similar effect on the brain to cocaine and heroin. This is worrying stuff considering that the average Brit now consumes 22 teaspoons of the sweet stuff a day, 3x the World Health Organization latest recommendations. You can find some of the science behind sugar addiction here.
Most of us already know that a slice of Victoria sponge isn't doing us any favours, but the trouble is that sugar is everywhere these days. It is added to bread, chutneys and pickles, salad dressings, tomato pasta sauce, ketchup, even low-fat yoghurts, sushi, protein bars and ‘healthy’ cereals. Check yo’ labels, kids!
Now for the boring sciency bit, so I’ll be brief: as your blood sugar rises after eating (something sugary), insulin is released into the blood in order to regulate the blood sugar level and causes some of the sugar to be stored as glycogen. Eating too much sugar, regularly can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to Type II diabetes and obesity. As your cells become more resistant to insulin, more insulin must be released in order to store the glucose. If your insulin levels rise too high then the hormone leptin can no longer communicate with the brain. Leptin’s role is to tell your brain when you are full, but your brain won’t receive this message if you eat too much sugar.
Oh and being slim doesn't make you immune to the effects of sugar. According to Dr. Robert Lustig (childhood obesity expert and neuroendocrinologist) 40% of normal weight people suffer from metabolic dysfunction, including insulin resistance, usually obliviously. Dr. Lustig has given a really good (and popular - over 4 million YouTube views) lecture on the nitty gritty, which can be found here.
What about fruit?
I know, I know. Fruit is healthy, everyone knows that. And in the small quantities that fructose (a type of sugar) occurs in whole fruit it need not be problematic, especially since fruit contains lots of fibre and water which slows the absorption of sugar into the blood. Fructose is sweeter than other forms of sugar, plus it doesn't cause an insulin response. Win-win, right? Wrong.
In fact, fructose can be a real trouble maker. Fructose causes metabolic chaos in our bodies and seriously taxes the liver making it more likely to be converted straight into fat. It is can also cause leptin resistance (remember this hunger hormone from earlier?). Hello, sugar binge. So when fructose is consumed in large quantities, such as high-fructose corn syrup, agave or even fruit, honey and fruit juice, on a daily basis, its bad news.
The long and the short of it is that sugar is everywhere these days and it pays to be aware of where it may be hiding.
I have had ‘breakouts’ since the age of about 11, well before any of my friends so I was very self-conscious of my skin. I have never had severe acne, but suffice to say that it was bad enough that I was prescribed the pill at the age of 13 and was then put on antibiotics by my doctor.
This worked wonders for 4 years, but my acne returned as soon as I came off the antibiotics. Not impressed. After yet another round of antibiotics failed to work I finally decided to go see a nutritionist because I wanted to find the cause of my acne as opposed to just treating the symptoms.
My nutritionist put me on a sugar-free diet to treat a suspected candida infection in the gut, which feeds off sugar (you can read more about this here), and hormone imbalance. This involved cutting out ALL forms of sugar, including fruit, and refined grains for two weeks, after which low glycemic index (GI) fruits such as berries and apples can be reintroduced once a day for 6 months. I also had to take a probiotic and eat plenty of probiotic-rich fermented food, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and coconut milk yoghurt (LOVE), in order to let the bacteria in my gut recover from antibiotic treatment.
I already suspected that sugar wasn’t doing my skin any good and I have avoided refined sugar for about 18 months but to satisfy my sweet tooth (I used to have a serious pudding obsession) I started eating quite a lot of fruit (3-5 pieces a day). While this might seem healthy, I was still yet to see a real improvement in my skin, even when I gave up dairy, gluten and caffeine for months at a time. So, I Quit Sugar.
My Goodness Me! (ha cringe). I haven’t looked back.
My skin is better than it has been in years and I hardly even had to worry about breakouts over exams or hormonal cycles. Its also kinda nice not to be constantly thinking about my next fructose-fix. I have been amazed at the results and haven’t had a problem slowly reintroducing some low GI fruits back into my diet.
And it wasn't even as hard as I thought it would be. Granted, I had already cut out the major sources of refined sugar from my diet, but I literally lived for bananas. I was definitely bonus to be freed from being a slave to the banana… I tended only to put one or two pieces of fruit in my smoothies but this still racked up if I snacked on fruit. Once I rearranged my breakfast ritual, the transition was pretty smooth sailing.
Will I ever eat a medjool date again or put a banana in my smoothie? You betcha'. That stuff’s too good to miss out on. But I am no longer dependent on them and my skin is thanking me for it. For the most part, though, I’ll be sticking to the less sugary fruits that my nutritionist has recommended.
And for persevering to the very bottom of this post its seems only fair that I share a recipe with you! In the warmer weather I have been really craving smoothies so this is my fructose-free solution:
Creamy Coconut Green Smoothie
2 big handfuls of spinach
3-4 celery stalks, cut up
100-150ml water (depending on your desired consistency)
1½ inch cucumber, cut up
½ lemon, skin removed
2-3 tbsp. coconut milk yoghurt (Coyo is the most readily available brand in the UK)
½ inch of freshly grated ginger (I keep mine in the freezer for convenience)
½ tsp. spirulina (optional)
1 tsp. maca (optional)
Simply place all the ingredients in a high-speed blender and blitz until smooth.
Serve with toppings of your choice, such as pomegranate seeds, coconut flakes, homemade granola or crushed nuts.
(If you don’t have a high-speed blender then you may find it best to stagger the process, by blending the water and the celery first before gradually adding the remaining ingredients.)
P.S. In case you’re curious, Dr. Lustig has also written a really comprehensive book about sugar that I have mentioned here and Sarah Wilson has a website filled with loads of info and advice so go check it out. Her books and IQS programme are a really good place to start if you want to try kicking sugar to the curb but feel a little out at sea.
P.P.S. What did you think? Have you ever tried giving up sugar? How did you find it? Let me know in the comments.
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