Surprising things I learned when I gave up sugar for a week

by Sophie Whitbread

A friend recently told me giving up sugar was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. I thought it sounded pretty easy! I don’t eat many cakes or sweets (Christmas aside), after all. But not wanting to knock it before I tried it, I decided to go on my own no-added sugar (NAS) mission for a week.

I know cakes, biscuits, chocolates and the like will be off the table, and I'll have to alter other parts of my diet slightly. But it turns out I have little idea how many road blocks lie ahead.

10 minutes in, I stumble at the first hurdle

It’s day one of my challenge. I naively assume I can eat my favourite lunches and dinners without making sacrifices. I’m excited about fajitas for dinner tonight... then I discover the shop-bought wraps contain sugar. Noooooo! That’s 50 percent of my meals off the menu (yes, I really do eat wraps that often!).

With a rising sense of panic, I check the labels on the foods in my cupboard – and find many of them contain sugar, even the wholemeal bread! I decide to make lentil dal instead, but then comes the second setback: there’s sugar in my stock… STOCK! I make do without it. I’ll have to put extra effort into flavouring dinner this week.

Sugar is a master of disguise

I nip to the supermarket, expecting it to be a quick visit. How wrong that turns out to be! I scour ingredients lists for added sugar – and added lots of things ending in 'ose' (fructose, glucose, dextrose and maltose). Honey, all kinds of syrup and even fruit juice are classed as free sugars too, so are off the menu.

I’m surprised to find the second ingredient on the label for my favourite massaman curry paste is sugar, with a small jar containing more than 10g. That’s around two and a half teaspoons. This means ditching the dish or making my own paste. I decide on the latter. Armed with chillies, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and star anise (I have the remaining ingredients at home), I spend much longer than usual in the shop and cooking, but it is much tastier.

Learn more about different sugars on BBC Food

Day 3: all I can think about is biscuits!

It’s been 48 hours since I started my NAS mission. I don’t make a habit of scoffing biscuits (often), but today I feel like the cookie monster.

I casually eat NAS peanut butter from the jar. I eat way too much and feel a tad sick, but at least I get rid of the craving.

Wanting to know why I have a one-track mind for digestives, I ask dietitian Sophie Medlin. “If you deprive yourself of something, you will think about it more often,” she says. “It can work both ways: if you only eat junk food for a week with no access to a homemade healthy meal, you might start craving a salad.”

EVERYONE tries to give me sugar

From leftover Christmas chocolates in the office, to biccies in meetings and the free croissant I’m given for cycling to work, EVERYONE is giving me sugar! Even the church I walk past at lunchtime is giving away free brownies.

Being a sucker for a freebie, I’d usually eat everything without thinking about it. I also feel rude turning things down. I’m not sure if it’s the universe making my challenge harder or if this is the way it always is and I’ve never noticed. Either way, avoiding sugar requires a lot more restraint than I’d anticipated.

Day 5: dried fruit isn’t classed as free sugar, but...

I’ve never eaten 10 fresh apricots or figs, but pass me a bag of dried fruit and I’ll tuck in. Dried fruit contains fibre, so it isn't classed as a free sugar. But it’s so easy to eat loads of it that I decide not to tuck into it this week, as for me it might as well be a bag of sweets.

Some dried fruits, such as some dates and cranberries, do contain added sugar, in the form of sucrose or fruit juice from concentrate.

Say goodbye to (most) sauces

Some people can’t do without ketchup, but I have Sriracha or soy sauce with almost every other meal. These generally contain sugar, and finding a replacement can seem impossible. I’ve found a hot sauce without added sugar, but it’s more suited to Mexican than South-East Asian food. There’s no good replacement for soy sauce, eliminating some of my favourite dishes.

And then I reach for the cough sweets

It’s winter, so naturally I have a cold and cough. Normally, I’d reach for cough sweets or syrup, but the clue is in the names, as both are full of sugar. I also realise most of my homemade remedies contain honey, which is off-limits for the week too. Turns out “a spoonful of sugar” really does help the medicine go down! I take uncoated paracetamol with hot ginger water, grab a hot water bottle and hope for the best.

What’s the verdict?

I’ve coped with eating no added sugar because I’ve only done it for a week. There were no birthdays or celebrations. If I’d given it up for longer, it would have been tough.

Sophie Medlin says many people who give up sugar might end up replacing it with other foods that should be limited. “Replacing maple syrup pancakes with sausages and bacon won’t necessarily be beneficial, though some people may argue with that,” she says. It’s important to eat a healthy balanced diet and be mindful that restricting one type of food could lead to over-eating another – or make you crave the banned food so much you eat lots of it.

There’s also something that feels a bit intense about obsessively reading ingredients labels. If I ate more fresh food and fewer foods with ingredient labels, it wouldn’t be such a challenge. But not everyone has time to make tortilla wraps from scratch!

SACN (Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition) defines free sugars as all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. The sugars naturally present in milk and milk products (lactose) and those naturally in foods are excluded.