'My Life Is Basically Over' – 14 Days on a Sugar-Free Diet
Day 1: ‘I spiralise a courgette’
I wake up alarmed and dehydrated with a deep sense of dread. This is not just a hangover – I have agreed to give up sugar and keep a food diary. All I can think is: “Thank God I’m starting today as yesterday’s would have been truly embarrassing. Crisps. KFC. Vodka”. It’s not my fault. I am clearly not an adult capable of making informed choices. So I resemble most overweight and overwrought people. My fat and my sluggishness are not a mystery to me: I eat and drink too much and my January was not dry.
Sugar is the source of all evil, so much so that a sugar tax is now being mooted. But how easy is it to give it up? I call a man who is going to help me, and I make a cheese omelette – I’m not sure what I can eat, but assume it is a low-carb diet, so this will be OK.
I arrange to meet personal trainer Nyambe Ikasaya for advice. He has – and I’m getting technical here – a lard testing machine, and I’m too lardy. Also dehydrated. I explain about the vodka. He points out this is not the result of just one night’s drinking. He gives me what he calls “a nutritional protocol” and what I call “a diet”.
Things I can’t have: bread, booze, carrots – really? – and all fruit. I don’t care about the fruit. He asks me what I want to achieve, and I enjoy whinging on to him.
At home, I begin reading books about detoxing and giving up sugar. You know how they go: three or four days in, most people feel terrible and then suddenly brilliant. This is the detox narrative. Mostly, they seem to be written by 20- or 30-something women who apparently believe they are what they eat and who don’t seem to have to feed anyone but themselves. Maybe my terrible attitude is toxic, but few of these books speak to me at all.
Apparently I should have cleaned out my cupboards of all the bad food and freshly stocked them. But I haven’t done this because: life. I buy lots of vegetables and order my teenager a takeaway while I spiralise a courgette. Someone says on the news that it’s Blue Monday. It certainly is
Day 2: ‘Giving up sugar means giving up my social life’
I’m very confused about everything. Am I trying to lose weight or merely go cold turkey (apparently permissible as it is lean protein) on my sugar “addiction”? Or is this, in fact, the same thing? All advice on giving up sugar ends with a similar testimony: “Incidentally, I lost two stone, got glowy skin and my entire life was better”. Sugar ages us as well as making us obese, they say. Willpower is no match for the food industry and we are sold more and more detoxes. Also, I am very confused about breakfast. I never normally want it but have been told it’s better to have it than not. But not coffee. Have mushrooms got sugar in them? Apparently I can have a few.
It seems to me I am doing a modified Atkins diet. Not so high in fat and dairyish, which is good as that made me feel dreadful. I have to go to a meeting so I take some smoked salmon and avocado with me to avoid an illegal sandwich. It goes to mush in my bag and tastes only of foil.
This diet requires me to plan all my meals. Do I seriously have to read all food labels? A bit of mustard with my steak is surely not the end of the world? I cook separate dinners for myself and my family. Well why not, as I have cancelled going out. Giving up sugar means giving up my social life as I am not one of those people who can stand around with a glass of sparkling water pretending this is just what they have been looking forward to ALL DAY.
There are now competing voices in my head: “This is the most self-indulgent thing you have ever done.” “Why can you not look after yourself properly and see that cutting down sugar makes sense health-wise?
Is sugar an actual drug? Does resisting it make you morally superior? I just don’t know.
Day 3: ‘I don’t want to sit there with freak food’
Been sticking with it but tonight, I have to cook dinner for family and friends. I need to be able to eat the same stuff as everyone else as I don’t want to sit there with freak food. I get around this by not having rice, but inevitably I go on about it. My eldest, who is fit and health-conscious says: “Mum, I have a friend doing this. It is just really boring.” Explaining to other people what I can and cannot eat and how sugar is in everything is, I realise, not a dazzling topic of conversation.
Day 4: ‘My mind is full of information about the curing of smoked salmon’
Terrible night’s sleep. I feel anxious and have to go to the loo, a lot – I have never drunk so much water. Eat leftover salmon for breakfast. Do some light exercise: stretches, step (horror) and weights. Nyambe teaches me some stretches for my lower back pain while I spaff on about seeds.
These stretches are a revelation and I’m happy to learn them. Really helps. But my mind is full of information about food, about sugar, and the curing of smoked salmon. My mental space is crammed, because essentially all diets make you preoccupied with food. I want a break.
Day 5: ‘It’s all so dull that I go to a shop and try on clothes’
Slept 10 hours. Think about how much money I have already spent. Organic salmon. Steak. Sea bass. Parmesan. This is a very expensive “protocol”. Go to a Turkish cafe and the woman offers me hummus and all sorts, but I order an egg salad. She brings it over and says: “Darling, I made it nice for you. I put pomegranate in. You know?” I do know, and this is where I differ from some of the low sugar gurus. I don’t decline it or scream: “Get behind me, you Sugar Satan.” I just think “a bit of pomegranate won’t kill me.” Likewise, the rogue lentils that have also found their way into the salad.
In any case, it’s all so dull that I go to a shop and try on clothes. Another unrewarding thing.
Day 6: ‘Meet friends in a pub and drink water. My life is basically over’
What I crave is not sweetness per se, but texture: doughiness, crumbliness, softness. Meet friends in a pub and drink water. My life is basically over.
Days 7-8: ‘I google the carb value of capers. FFS’
Two days have blurred into one. I bump into people and talk about tomatoes. What have I become?
My personal trainer Nyambe is constantly supportive and realistic, which is great. The books are strict and hard to relate to. He is the opposite. I am eating a lot of eggs but have given up proper cooking altogether. Spend a fortune in the health food shop. One day I have stomach cramps. Is it because of the protocol.
My middle daughter says she is going to move back home as her flatshare situation is precarious. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I can cook for you all the time.” I haven’t the heart to tell her this is well-nigh impossible.
One evening I google the carb value of capers. FFS. Still unsure about demonising of a whole food group. Sins, points, values, forbidden foods. Still, I have stopped snacking and opening wine when making dinner.
Day 9: ‘Gin is the way forward’
Fall off the wagon in a Spanish restaurant that does the most amazing gin and tonics. Decide that gin is the way forward as I genuinely don’t care about food. Just order a courgette flower and more gin. This strikes me as a brilliant way to eat. Not the epiphany of a Gywneth, and God knows it costs a fortune, but at least it’s not quark.
Day 10: ‘I have lost a couple of kilos of fat’
Spectacularly hungover and I have to get weighed. I have lost a couple of kilos of fat. So, if weight loss is the measure of all things, then something’s working …
Days 11-12: ‘Eat celeriac’
Go to Copenhagen for the weekend. Drink wine and eat celeriac, which they seem to put in everything. But I don’t go mad.
Day 13: ‘I reach for the prosecco’
Do go mad. We are burgled and fined on the same day in Denmark. (That’s another story). We lose our laptops and all our valuables. Fly home stressed and, once there, I reach for the prosecco. Find some horrible chocolates that no one ate at Christmas. Have an out-of-body experience as I watch myself shovelling them all in.
Day 14: ‘I have lost more fat and increased muscle’
Explain all this to Nyambe as I have another check in. The weekend has not ruined everything, though, as I have lost more fat and increased muscle. This is heartening; there is no way I can live sugar-free full-time.
Day 15: ‘Life is too short to stuff a lentil’
Reflecting back. Yes it is possible to give up sugar but, for me, it required too much planning and it is very expensive. Carbs are cheap and everywhere. Clever cooks may be able to do this on a budget, but life is too short to stuff a lentil. Such an attitude may well shorten my life. Right now I don’t want to be cooking separate meals from my family. It feels antisocial, and I don’t want to stop my teenager eating an entire food group. I don’t think I have ever spent so much on food just for myself.
Looking back, perhaps I entered ketosis (where the body burns fat) after a few days. This state is described with almost religious reverence by the low-sugar/carb crew. Certainly, I had no ecstatic experience, except a flattening out of appetite. But while you might stop caring about food, being on a diet still takes up a lot of mental activity.Do I feel better? Yes, actually, and here is the bit where I’m meant to say it’s all down to stopping the sugar poison. But what I feel has made the difference are the stretches and bits of exercises Nyambe has taught me.
For all of my tussling, this experience has acted as a brake on my bad habits. How long will it last? Certainly, I realise we all need to eat less sugar and that even natural sugars (such as honey, agave syrup and fruit) are still, in the end, just sugar.
But, no, I can’t imagine my life becoming sugar-free – it’s too difficult and dull. Instead I will try to cut down, without boring on. Cutting carbs/sugar is helpful at my age, when going through hormonal changes, as it levels your blood sugar spikes. Likewise losing fat and building muscle. Otherwise a lot of this is surely about calorie restriction. The weight loss bit is the sweetener of a no-sugar regime.
For this to be more achievable we need a fundamental rejigging of food pricing, or a different understanding of what percentage of our income we spend on food. Processed food is full of sugar, and it’s cheap. Carbs bulk out everything, even ourselves, in the end. Food is everyday and special, fuel and celebration. Our skewed relationship with all of this is unhealthy. Mine is, for sure. But it’s not just me, is it? This is not just about my sad struggle with a courgette flower … A workable, affordable diet that is not downright antisocial is now the thing I crave most of all.
Foods forbidden by the diet:
Sugar; alcohol; ready-made meals; bread; pasta; juice; sugary drinks such as Coca-Cola; Fanta; lemonade; Pepsi; fruit, cakes, prepared meats such as ham, salami, sausages, pÃ¢tÃ©s; honey, canned foods – eg chopped tomatoes; prepared salad dressings; prepared sauces; prepared soups; jam; carrots; potatoes; sweet potatoes; peas; pastries; cereals; dried fruits; instant gravy; sauces; pies; puddings; biscuits; smoothies, flavoured yoghurts.