The evils of sugar: confessions of an addict

When the sugar tax hit the headlines, I was just a couple of days into an aptly timed challenge: I’d decided to quit refined sugar for Lent.

I’m not religious but after a pretty major operation towards the end of last year, I’ve since been on a mission to get back to full health.


My name’s Annabel, and I’m a sugar addict

I have a very sweet tooth. As a child I had to have all my milk teeth removed because they were rotten; I refused to sleep at night without a beaker of apple juice. Breakfast during my college years was a big bag of pic ‘n’ mix that I’d graze on up until lunchtime. Even now, I would always pick pudding over a starter.

Sugar is my comfort blanket. When I feel unwell or emotionally low I reach for sugar in its many guises. I generally prefer a sweet breakfast and a mid-morning or mid-afternoon sugary snack is a necessity to make it through the working day. Each day ends with some kind of chocolate.

I’ve come a long way in addressing my “addiction”. In fact, by common standards my diet is on the whole, very healthy.

Having worked in healthcare for the past 10 years and with a personal interest in nutrition and wellbeing I make eating well a priority. I avoid processed foods and refined carbohydrates, preferring wholegrains and home made foods. Vegetarian since the age of four, I eat more than my five a day and tend to choose organic veg, eggs and dairy products. I invest in quality ingredients, make time for daily exercise and walk everywhere.

Why then the need to take on this challenge?

I saw this as an opportunity to keep me on track as having a goal is proven to help put good intentions into action.

Bad habits were mounting. Life pressures meant I’d become increasingly lazy in resisting my sugar cravings and I didn’t think twice about a chocolate bar for lunch or a slab of millionaire’s shortbread at 11am. Modern living is a common excuse for de-prioritising health but have we all just become a bit lazy?


What’s so bad about sugar, anyway?

Sugar has been the focus of public health campaigns for some time now. Awareness of the evils of the white powder has increased in recent years, as have accusations against the food industry, which, it could be argued, coerces scores of people to endanger their health in the name of profit by hiding sugar in every day foods and marketing directly to children.

And the impact cannot be ignored.

As a nation, we are fatter than ever. Alarmingly, almost two in three UK adults are overweight or obese. Type 2 diabetes, which in 85% of cases is caused by obesity, is at an all time high and it is estimated that five million people will be obese by 2025.

Childhood obesity is also on the increase; 20% of children under five are obese and one in ten children are obese when they start secondary school. The latter statistic rises to two in three when you add in overweight children.

Diabetes UK issued a position statement in November 2015, urging the Government to put sugar and childhood obesity on their health agenda. The sugar tax is a step in the right direction but is just the tip of the iceberg.


Widespread concern

TV chef Jamie Oliver launched a campaign against hidden sugars and led the way in introducing a tax on sugary soft drinks sold in his restaurants. His TV show, Jamie’s Sugar Rush, reported shocking statistics on the number of children globally who are suffering ill health as a result of excessive sugar consumption.

Most alarming was the footage of babies in Mexico being bottle-fed Coca-Cola, which scarily is the norm in the country. One can of coke contains 35g, or seven teaspoons, of sugar – 5g higher than the recommended total daily amount.

The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey programme indicates average sugar intake is three times higher in school-aged children and teenagers than recommended, with soft drinks providing 29% of this intake for those aged 11-18.

But what about all the hidden sugar and the fact that it is often cheaper to buy unhealthy, processed foods, than good quality, natural alternatives? Whose responsibility is this – the industry’s, the Government’s, ours as individuals?


How hard is it to quit sugar?

Pretty hard, actually, even if you’re not a sugar fiend like me. Sugar is hidden in everything – from vegetable stock-pots, to Quorn products, to wholegrain mustard. In preparing for my challenge I quickly learnt I’d have to rigorously check the ingredients in everything I ate and that socialising was going to be awkward.

I found myself asking, what impact is modern food production having on those people who need to be hyper aware of how much sugar they are consuming – like people with diabetes who are insulin-dependent and whose doses depend on the quantity of sugary carbs consumed? Our work in diabetes highlights what a fine balance this is for those affected and the arduous task of carb counting is complicated further by unclear food labelling and hidden sugars.

Ironically, the introduction of the sugar tax has been met with disdain by some people with diabetes, who point out they depend on fizzy drinks like Lucozade to rescue them during hypos.

Are the Government’s efforts misguided? Should they be looking to the root cause instead and imposing stricter regulations on modern methods of food production?


Education is key

Wider issues aside, we all have a responsibility for our own health and the choices we make. But to make those choices, we need education.

I’m reminded daily how fortunate I am to be, on the whole, fit and healthy. The patients I meet in the work I do are an inspiration. Despite living with disabling conditions, these people are making healthy choices every day – they are participating in marathons, treks, races and more. And it is no coincidence. They repeatedly seek out advice on healthy living. They are a well-informed group who out of necessity make health a priority. They do everything in their power to be as fit as they can be.

At Oyster, we understand the empowered patient is a happier, healthier patient. That’s why the materials we produce for patients focus on giving people the tools they need to self manage their conditions. Sound advice on healthy living – including nutrition and keeping active with disabilities – makes its way into our websites, magazines, patient guides, and patient interviews.

In the coming months, we’ll be producing a healthy guide for people with MS, with top Nutritionist Azmina Govindji and a focus group of patients. We don’t rely solely on expert knowledge because we know the people living with these conditions often have the wisest advice. That’s why we collaborate with them on all our projects.


Start small to get results

When combined, small changes can have a big impact and are a good place to start when trying to make any kind of change.

Taking the stairs instead of the lift can burn five times as many calories per minute – 12 calories compared with two calories for a person weighing 210lbs. And a brisk 20-minute walk adds about 2,500 steps to your daily total.

Most of us could make some minor changes and gain a health boost, perhaps with fairly minimal effort. An NHS campaign is encouraging people to do just that.

“One You” asks people to take a quiz and offers advice on diet, sleep, exercise and more. The quiz is a good place to start as highlights what areas you might be falling down on.

Making healthy choices has a snowball effect – we get a high from feeling like we’re succeeding. As we start to feel the positive impact of the associated health gains, this becomes the reward and we seek out other ways to get this buzz.

This is definitely something I’ve observed on my 2016 health quest. Though hard, quitting sugar has been an entirely positive experience. I’ve had more energy, have effortlessly cut back on caffeine and alcohol, and finding the motivation to exercise has also been easier. My sleep and digestion have both improved and my jeans definitely feel looser.

Yes, there was effort but the more time that passed, the easier it became. I had to be more organised but I got into a flow with it. Batch cooking on a Sunday afternoon became an enjoyable activity that set me on the right path for the week and proved to be pretty economical – an added bonus.

My cravings diminished and by the end, I found myself thinking I could happily live without sugar for good. I was living proof that it takes a minimum of 21 days to break a habit and perserverance is key to adherence to any regimen.


A sugar-free future?

I’m the other side of Easter and have had sugar every day since Good Friday, mainly in the form of cake. And I’m not feeling great for it.

I’m not saying I’ll never eat sugar again – it would be unachievable and unnecessary, but I definitely intend to follow a low sugar diet. I’ve enjoyed that by banning processed foods, I’ve been forced to routinely make healthier choices every day.

What small change could you make today?


Published on: March 30, 2016