So you’ve had one too many mince pies and glasses of champagne and the sugar cravings have tripled in the last couple of weeks. Oooh, I get it. I’ve been there.
The Christmas season can be tough when you are trying to stay off too much sugar. And as New Year’s Day comes and goes, so many of us come up with the same resolution: get healthy. Cut back on the sugar and processed foods. Eat more real food. More vegetables. Be healthier.
January can be a rough month, made harder by the fact that eating sugar and sweet things increases cravings. It becomes a vicious cycle: the more sugar we eat, the more sugar we want. It is part of the addictive properties of fructose.
So I thought I would put together some of my top tips to help you through the first (the hardest) month, with a few simple how tos:
1. How to Curb Cravings
This is the problem I get asked about most. It can be so hard to stay motivated when that piece of cake is genuinely staring at you. Yes, I have been there. It can be seriously difficult in the first couple of weeks of being sugar free to not give in to the “you can’t ignore me” cravings. The main thing to know, that I can promise you having experienced it firsthand, is that it does get easier. In fact, the longer you are able to stay off sugar or stick to a low sugar lifestyle, the easier it becomes. Your tastebuds change, your cravings change, and suddenly you find a sugary cake actually unpleasant to eat (I know that sounds impossible now, but it does eventually happen!), and a bowl of fresh strawberries sounds far more exciting and more pleasantly sweet. You still occasionally have sweet cravings, and you indulge them knowing they are rare, but more often than not you are disappointed and move back to a better, more satisfying diet. But while you are in the thick of bad cravings, I have a few things I would keep in a cupboard in your house as an “emergency cravings kit”:
- First, clear the house of sugar. Seriously. If it is there, you are far far more likely to give in to it. Read labels on packaging, chuck or donate or reuse anything that you won’t be able to eat in the detox period. It’s just not worth it. It’s setting yourself up to fail. If others in the house are not giving up sugar, find a cupboard, shelf or part of the house where you can put all of the sweet stuff where they can get to it but you can’t. Somewhere you know you can think of as off limits.
- Stock up on tea and herbal teas, especially liquorice. Liquorice tea is very very sweet without any of the sugar. I like to make a naturally sweet decaffeinated chai tea by mixing the leaves from a few Rooibos tea bags and one liquorice one with chai spices (ground ginger, ground cinnamon, ground cardamom, black pepper, star anise) and using 1 teaspoon of the mixture per person in a teapot, steep for 5-10 mins and pour through a strainer into a mug with a good glug of whole milk. Sweet, satisfying, and sugar free. On the I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program, I learned how the ritual and time it takes to make and steep tea often gives enough time for the craving to pass while keeping yourself distracted and giving you something sweet.
- Sarah Wilson swears by a spoonful of coconut oil after lunch to curb afternoon cravings. I must say, she is right. Coconut oil is sweet and filling, so tends to satisfy the craving without needing to give in to cake.
- Plan ahead. If you are eating out, look up the menu beforehand so you go in armed with the knowledge of what options are open to you. Don’t be afraid to be that person who asks for swaps in your meal or dressings on the side!
- Keep cinnamon and sugar free vanilla extract on hand. If you are used to sugar in your hot drinks, try to sweeten them with these and whole milk instead. They are great for sweetening things a little in the period where you may not want to reach for sweeteners or even fruit (if you are doing an 8-Week Program style detox to reset your tastebuds and cravings properly).
- Choose full fat products. They usually have less added sugar and are more filling, so you are less likely to get hungry or have slumps between meals.
- Have some good sugar free snacks readily available. At the weekend, prep some vegetables (roasted root veg is really sweet and particularly satisfying), stock up on or make some sugar free crackers, treat yourself to a really nice local cheese, get some full-fat yogurt and buy some sugar free nut butters or full fat cream cheese. Make it really really easy to reach for something healthy and as hard as possible to get hold of sugary, refined and processed foods.
- Exercise. It doesn’t have to be intense or long. Just get outside for a bit everyday. Go for a brisk walk, put on a 20-minute Pilates video on YouTube, dance with your kids in the kitchen, go for a swim, get off the bus a stop early and walk. It will help you to feel happier, distract you from cravings, and set you up for success.
- If you want to curb cravings long-term, I believe that quitting all sugar (including fruit & sweeteners) for a few weeks is the best solution. You can definitely just cut back, or switch temporarily to natural fructose-free sweeteners and then cut back, but the cravings are far stronger. As with any addiction, cold-turkey will be more likely to set you up for success long-term. And when you get your first taste of fruit or a little bit of natural sweetener after four weeks without, its sweetness will seriously surprise you (I still vividly remember the fresh strawberry I had in week 7 of the 8-Week Program – it tasted like pudding).
- Zinc and magnesium are fantastic for curbing sugar cravings and many of us are deficient in these minerals. It is always best to get nutrients through your diet, so stock up on zinc and magnesium rich foods (seafood, wholegrains, pumpkin seeds, nuts – especially Brazil nuts and cashews – free range eggs, leafy greens, cacao, avocado and free range beef or lamb), before reaching for supplements, but it may be beneficial to have some on hand. Magnesium is also fantastic for acheyness and fatigue which can abound during the withdrawal symptoms period. I find Epsom salts in a hot bath to be the best way to absorb the magnesium for acheyness.
- Make sure you drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Sometimes dehydration is easy to mistake for hunger!
2. How to Stay Motivated
In the 8-Week Program, I found the first couple of weeks where I could still eat fruit and a little IQS approved sweetener easy enough. I was motivated, enthusiastic, and thinking that maybe, just maybe, this experiment might work. By the end of the first of the four middle weeks without fruit or sweeteners, I was ready to give up. The withdrawal symptoms, sugar hangovers, cravings and lack of energy had kicked in, and all I wanted was a piece of cake, or at least a banana! I stuck with it (just about), and by the end of week four (the second week – and halfway point – without fruit or sweeteners), I was past the worst of it and sailed through the rest of the Program. I felt absolutely amazing and haven’t looked back since.
But those two weeks… oh, those two weeks. I felt rubbish. I didn’t see how this could be helping at all. I just about scraped through. But I did scrape through. And I believe it is because of three things: accountability, vision and support. I was writing about my experience on my personal blog at the time, which made me accountable to my readers, as well as to my husband who was doing it with me. My 6-month-old daughter was the reason we were doing it, and she gave me my vision, my motivation: I would push through for her, because I didn’t want her to ever have to experience that addiction and withdrawal herself. I kept reading and watching and researching the whole time to remind myself why I should give up sugar, and how it could affect me and my little girl if I didn’t. And while not everyone, even some family and close friends, could understand why I was doing it, I was blessed to have support from others who had been there or were going through it, too.
The I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program is a (surprisingly satisfying) detox program, a lifestyle, a meal plan…yes. But it is first and foremost a community of others who are going through the same problems, cravings, withdrawal symptoms and process, as well as lots of people who have been through it successfully before and are there to encourage you to stick with it. There are even plenty of experts to help address any issues or questions and to help you stay motivated. And I created my Resources page precisely to help remind yourself why you are giving up sugar in the first place, so do take a look here! If you are not doing the 8-Week Program, I strongly, strongly recommend that you ask others to keep you accountable. Ideally, go sugar free with other people (family, friends…) who can commiserate with you and encourage you. It can make all the difference!
3. How to Get Back on Track After a Slip-Up
First, remember that we have all been there. A couple of weeks into the 8-Week Program, and just as I was supposed to be giving up fruit and sweeteners for four weeks, I caved and ate a slice of chocolate cake. And not even my homemade ever-so-slightly healthier version. Nope, shop-bought, sugar-laden, iced chocolate fudge cake. I’m not even going to tell you how many days’ worth of sugar was in that slice. But two strange things happened: my body really didn’t like it, and I didn’t feel guilty.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the taste (it would be a few more months until that kind of cake would taste far too sweet), but my stomach started cramping less than an hour after eating it, I had a sugar “hangover” the next morning, and my body just was not happy with me for giving in. It was a good reminder of why I was doing this detox in the first place. Which meant that I didn’t feel guilty for slipping up. I knew that I could just pick myself up, dust myself off and get right back on the sugar-quitting bandwagon. I went on the IQS website for some help and came across this lovely article from Grace that completely summed up my own experience. I loved how gentle she was with herself, and how eating one slice of cake didn’t become an “oh well, I messed up so I’d better just give up” moment but instead gave her the motivation to see through the rest of the Program.
So the important thing to remember is: it happens to everyone. Don’t worry about it. If you had one bad choice, one bad night, one bad day, that doesn’t make the whole experiment a failure. Just get right back on the bandwagon and try again. Sometimes the simple act of making a mistake but pushing on anyway can give you just the motivation you need to see it through!
4. How to Make Some Simple Swaps
When you first start out trying to quit sugar, it can be a bit overwhelming when you start reading labels and discovering that sugar is in, well, pretty much everything! Even some things labelled “sugar free” or “no added sugar”! So I’ve put together a few simple swaps for you, just to start you off:
- Swap fruit juice and soft drinks for sparkling water with slices of lemon and lime and a sprig of mint or rosemary. Surprisingly enjoyable, and great for when you get bored of plain old water. Herbal teas are also really lovely (try the fresh lemon slice and rosemary steeped in hot water for at least 10 mins for a cold-weather alternative to flavoured cold water).
- Swap sugary sauces, dips and condiments for homemade mayonnaise (I adore this 1-minute butter mayo from Erica Lea that taste like the creamiest, most filling mayonnaise ever), mustard, pesto or tamari (healthier soy sauce). Tzatziki is another favourite in our house that takes virtually no time to make, as does homemade hummus!
- Swap sugary fruit, flavoured or low-fat yogurts for plain, full-fat yogurt. Stir through some nuts and/or seeds, cinnamon or cacao (powder or nibs) to change up the flavour a bit.
- Swap sugary take aways for homemade peanut butter chicken, 20-minute homemade pizza, or a simple, quick store-cupboard curry.
- Swap high sugar cereals for Shredded Wheat or porridge with cream, nuts & seeds, cinnamon or cacao. Or scramble some eggs, make a batch of freezer-friendly breakfast burritos you can grab on-the-go throughout the week, or mash an avocado and sprinkle a few chilli flakes on sugar free sourdough bread for an almost-instant breakfast.
- Swap sugary cereals bars, dried fruit and sweetened snacks for savoury options like cheese & crackers, any vegetables, homemade or sugar free dips, boiled (or any way) eggs, and cooked meats.
- Swap refined white carbs for wholegrain alternatives: wholewheat pasta, wholemeal flour, quinoa, millet, wholemeal couscous, polenta, sugar free wholemeal bread (check labels or make your own in 90 minutes)… while white refined carbs do not contain fructose, they can spike blood sugar levels and cause energy slumps that leave you with sugar cravings, making it harder to give up the sweet stuff!
- Swap ready-made or restaurant dressings for oil and apple cider or wine vinegar (mix with a little mustard and shake in a jar for a classic French vinaigrette) – avoid balsamic vinegar which is high in sugar.
- Swap puddings for more mains, starters or (if you are still not full) yogurt or cheese.
- I love that on the 8-Week Program you can still drink low fructose alcohol like red wine, beer and some spirits (in moderation – a glass of wine a few times a week with dinner), but make sure you swap cocktails or high sugar alcohol for red wine (or very dry whites), beer, or sugar free spirits like gin, whisky, some rums, or vodka. Please do be aware that when you give up sugar, your tolerance for alcohol can be lowered! Also, avoid mixers (especially fizzy drinks, juice and tonic water which is high in sugar) except soda water.
5. How to Find and Plan Sugar Free Recipes
Struggling to find recipes that are genuinely sugar free (including fruit, syrups, honey, dried fruit, sweeteners and dates)? The 8-Week Program gives you an eight week meal plan so you don’t even need to think about that stuff for the duration of the detox, but your best bet outside of the program is to go to the I Quit Sugar recipe section, check out our recipes (bearing in mind that most of the desserts contain sweeteners or fruit) or sticking to savoury recipes for a few weeks. Some savoury recipes still contain sugar, so just make sure you read through the ingredients carefully.
Another easier way to have it done for you is to check out the Healthy Meal Planning Bundle (TODAY – JAN 4TH – IS THE LAST DAY SO ACT QUICK!!), and get hold of the whole bundle, or just the mini Keto (sugar free/low carb) bundle for $47/£35 (or $27/£20 for the mini bundle). You get thousands of recipes, fantastic meal planning tips, and more worth $1,155.22/£852. It’s amazing and will make your healthy January far far easier!
I also put together a recipe resource page for the Sugar Free for £1 a Day series I did this time last year, which you can find here.
…know you can do it. Trust me, if I did, then you definitely can! I was totally hooked on sugar and thought I would never be able to give it up, and sometimes it still takes me by surprise that three years have passed since that 8-Week Program that changed my life and I am still sticking to a low sugar lifestyle that has got easier and easier with time. Those four weeks without sugar, fruit & sweeteners felt like a long time in the moment, but they were such a tiny tiny amount of time in the grand scheme of things. And 100% worth it.
And if you need a laugh and a bit of encouragement, have a read of this. So much truth!