Our family are a pretty healthy bunch - I think. We're all fit - some obscenely so (you know who you are …) - and we eat what I think is a healthy balanced diet with enough treats to keep us all smiling. But when I'm being bombarded with a consistent message from the media - a message which questions at its very heart whether I am feeding my family in the right way - I do wobble a little and need to react ….
Over the summer, everything I read and everything I saw on UK television was about the evils of sugar. There was much discussion about its addictive qualities, how it is a completely unnecessary part of our diet and how it is the major cause of obesity. I didn't think we ate that much sugar and none of us is overweight, but I'm a great believer in creating good habits and I wondered if this was an aspect of our family diet that needed a tweak or two.
So, I researched and I learned that 8 weeks of abstinence was all that was needed to re-calibrate, to quit the addiction, to set a new baseline and to begin a new chapter of life with a balanced attitude to sugar. I called it a no-sugar challenge.
I love a challenge - except for the type that might require me to jump from an aeroplane; swim through shark-infested waters; spend an hour in a room full of cats (or even just one cat); ski down a black run in a blizzard (or even ski down a black run on a beautiful, sunny day) … On reflection, perhaps I only love a less adrenalin-fuelled challenge. So the idea of a challenge involving food that we could do as a family ticked all the boxes for me. We'll call it an extreme food challenge. There - I feel a bit more daredevil now.
None of us eats much processed food and Hella is the only one of us who enjoys a sugary, fizzy drink. The children have always had a fruit juice in their packed lunch every day (although I now realise that this contains as much sugar as a can of something fizzy) and their lunches were always fruit-heavy rather than vegetable-heavy. I enjoy baking and so there are treats at home fairly often. In addition, snacks in between meals were more often sweet than savoury.
What was I hoping we would gain by giving up sugar?
My research suggested that once we had got through the first few weeks of desperately missing sugar, we would -
- Feel energised
- Most probably lose a few pounds
- Have radiant and glowing skin
- No longer experience highs and lows of energy
- No longer feel that we NEEDED sugar to get us through the day
What were the ground rules of our no-sugar challenge?
It took a small amount of 'positioning' with the rest of the family to persuade them that this challenge was both positive and workable. We agreed that this was very much an experiment and that we would all take part for a period of 8 weeks (finishing when we flew to Thailand for a week's holiday). During the challenge, we would limit ourselves to 2 pieces of fruit a day and would quit everything else that contained sugars - both natural and refined. At the end of the 8 weeks, it would be up to each of us to decide if and how we wanted to continue without sugar. The children pointed out that they may encounter situations where it would be tricky to say no to sugar - most of these involved birthday parties, special friends cooking sweet things and stuff at school … We agreed that in these situations they could make the call - they would know what was the right thing to do.
What were the difficult parts of our no-sugar challenge?
Breakfast proved to be the toughest meal. Although our weekday cereal has always been fairly healthy stuff, I didn't realise that every supermarket cereal except for Shredded Wheat contained sugar. The children did a sterling job of tolerating a bowl of Shredded Wheat every morning and Finn used his 2 portions of fruit (strawberries and raspberries) to ensure that he completely drowned out the taste (or lack of it) of the cereal. I had my normal 'homemade-no-added-sugar-muesli' but without the dried fruits. A topping of blueberries and raspberries was essential here too.
Packed lunches for the children needed a little creativity - no fruit juice, much less fruit, no white carbs but more veggies and more protein. Once I had got my head around the change, it was easy.
Snacks in between meals for the children were a bit tough too. At the beginning of each week, I filled a box in the fridge with shredded cooked chicken and I hardboiled a pan of eggs to keep chilled for a few days. With these ingredients always to hand, Hella became a complete pro at creating a tasty snack when she got home from school. Sometimes she would add a few cubes of cheese and she would ring the changes with either tomatoes, cucumber, baby carrots or red peppers. Joe and Finn rediscovered rice cakes in a big way.
If snacks at home were tricky, snacks, when we were out and about, were downright impossible. Coffee shops and cafés really don't go for anything other than sweet treats. The only way to avoid being caught short was to eat well at home and to carry a little supply of nuts at all times.
I had a couple of dinner parties during our time without sugar, and I have to admit that replacing dessert with a cheese board completely didn't work for me. I'm not big into dessert at all, but I do look forward to something small and sweet at the end of a meal. Cheese is NOT what I want to be eating.
The timing of our challenge also coincided exactly with the screening of a new series of The Great British Bake Off. It has to be said that although we have always enjoyed our family ritual of watching this together, it did at times become akin to torture this time around.
What sugary treats did we miss the most?
Joe missed his beloved Just Right cereal - of which he eats huge quantities. Finn enjoys having free access to the fruit bowl so this aspect of the challenge was tough for him - as well as needing to turn down dessert when we were out for dinner. Hella was longing for a chocolate milkshake made with ice cream and whizzed up in a high-speed blender. I craved my little square of chocolate with a delicious coffee when dinner was done and the children were in bed. In short, it wasn't a disaster …
What was most surprising about our no-sugar challenge?
I was surprised by how much of our daily life seemed unchanged. It was only at the points of indulgence that we missed out and as these have always tended not to be overly frequent we didn't really suffer too much. We have brought up our children to have a love for food and to make informed choices. I was surprised how I really didn't like taking that decision making power away from them.
What triggered us to quit the no-sugar challenge?
We were hosting a dinner party one Friday night at the end of the sixth week of our challenge when we came to a collective family decision that we would bring our experiment to an end. I was feeling niggly about another finale of cheese and biscuits and before I knew it we were all questioning whether it would be a good time to stop. We had done what we had set out to do - we had proved that we could lead our lives without sugar but could raise our hands and acknowledge that we didn't feel physically any different and that we all actually preferred a little sweetness in our lives. Decision made.
So, I quickly baked Carrot Cakes for dessert for that night's dinner party and, to celebrate that we had made it through an entire series of The Great British Bake Off while being sugar-free, I made a tray of our very favourite Chocolate Tiffin as a TV snack to accompany the series final the following night. No more tragic drooling for us…
And what has happened since our no-sugar challenge?
To be honest, I am finding some things sickeningly sweet. I have stopped adding dried fruits to my morning muesli; Hella has continued her new habit of having a glass of milk after school rather than a chocolate milkshake; Joe is now mixing his beloved Just Right with a few handfuls of our homemade sugar-free muesli and Finn's drink of choice has become water rather than fruit squash (STOP PRESS - Finn has just told me that we have run out of fruit squash at home … so that's why he's choosing water!). So really, this is not a life shift - more of a life tweak.
And moving forward - will anything change for good after our no-sugar challenge?
I would question whether 'sugar-free' for children is either right or realistic. Our three did a great job at embracing our no-sugar challenge for 6 weeks but it was on the basis of an experiment with an end date in sight and that makes it more do-able for sure. We are now all certainly much more aware of the sugar in the foods around us and certainly, I am making more conscious decisions about which sweet things we eat and drink. If we are going to eat something sugary it needs to have earned its place on our plate rather than being part of our daily routine - I'll probably say no to a Krispy Kreme but may well indulge in a beautiful homemade delight.
Shredded Wheat has got the big 'heave ho' from our weekday breakfast table but has been replaced by Weetabix - not too sugary at all. Packed lunches are still without a fruit juice - water is working just fine - and vegetables and salads are also playing a bigger part in lunchboxes than they were before the experiment. I have stopped buying fruit yoghurts and sweet crunchy bars (except for big swim competition weekends) and I am trying to keep a supply of savoury snacks available when I can. For all of us, foods need to be easy and readily available if it's going to work on a regular basis and for a savoury bias, that requires a bit more effort.
In summary, I would say that we have probably always been healthy enough but we are definitely happier with a little sugar in our lives. Tweaking our daily habits can only be good and that is the lasting message that we will take away with us.
We can confirm -
- 'Quitting sugar' didn't leave us feeling more energized - only a balanced diet, plenty of sleep and some good exercise can sort that out
- We didn't lose even a few pounds on our no-sugar challenge - once you are over 40 only the most dramatic of action can achieve that
- Our skin is probably as radiant and glowing as it's going to get
- Highs and lows of energy seem to be more closely correlated with the time we are out of bed in the morning and asleep at night
- We never NEED sugar to get us through the day but sometimes it makes things a bit more fun - especially when it's our favourite Chocolate Tiffin.