What is the Sugar Challenge?
The Sugar Challenge is a 30 day ‘sugar free journey’ set up by Richard Callender. Richard created the challenge in an attempt to educate people as to the level of sugar in their diets. He asked myself and three other fitness professionals, Caroline Dean, Laura Sherriff and Katie Bulmer-Cooke, to help answer questions, share ideas, encourage and support everyone who signs up.
What can and can’t I eat?
The rules of the Sugar Challenge are available here. We cannot answer specific queries regarding individual items of food or drink as there are too many foods to take into consideration, but as a general rule… eat fruit, vegetables, protein sources and starchy carbohydrates. Try to eat as naturally as possible and read lots of ingredients lists!
Why do the Sugar Challenge?
Most adults and children in the UK eat too much sugar, and as a result suffer from sugar addiction, weight loss issues, lack of energy, emotional turmoil and many conditions that could be attributed to a poor nutritional lifestyle. By joining the Sugar Challenge, not only will you feel the positive effects of cutting sugar out of your diet and learn about the places sugar hides in our every day food, you will also become part of a community. The amount of positive messages posted on the group page are overwhelming.
What are the benefits of giving up sugar?
Banish the white stuff from your diet from 30 days and you could see benefits including:
- Increased energy levels
- Improved focus and concentration
- Clearer skin
- Improved immune system
- Better quality sleep
Among others. Join the challenge and see if you can add to this list!
How can I sign up?
To sign up for the FREE Sugar Challenge all you need to do is join the Facebook group, here. You can join the challenge part way through so don’t worry if you’ve missed the first day!
Why is sugar bad?
No foods can really be classed as “good” or “bad”, but sugar does have some pretty damaging evidence against it. As well as being energy dense (meaning a high amount of energy or calories per gram) and therefore leading to weight gain and obesity, sugar is also lacking in nutrients. This means you’re not getting much nutritional bang for your buck. Food and drinks that contain sugar should only be consumed occasionally, but unfortunately they form a big part of our modern western diet.
Sugary foods can also cause tooth decay, especially when consumed as snacks between meals (the longer food is in contact with the teeth, the more damage it can cause).
Recent evidence also suggests that sugar is addictive, and that eating sugary foods make us more likely to crave another hit, and then another. This is in part due to the spikes and dips in blood sugar levels, making us hungry sooner, but also due to connections in the brain and associations with pleasure and elevated mood… but be warned, these feelings are only temporary and will soon have you looking for another piece of chocolate to get the same feeling again!
Sugar is also linked to the following diseases:
- Heart disease including heart attack and stroke
- Insulin resistance
- Sleep disorders
What side effects might I experience on the Sugar Challenge and how long will they last?
Kicking the sugar habit can come with side effects. Like any addiction, our body becomes reliant or dependent on the substance and it can create cravings, irritability and also physical symptoms like headaches. Some of the physical and emotional side effects previous challengers have reported are:
- Dry mouth
- Strange taste in mouth
Typically, these symptoms will only last 3-6 days or so, depending on how high your sugar intake was before the challenge, and whether or not you are still consuming a certain amount of sugar. Most times, drinking plenty of water and ensuring you still have enough complex carbohydrate in your diet (see below for an explanation of simple and complex carbohydrates) the side effects will go away of their own accord. If symptoms persist, it may be worth checking with your doctor to make sure nothing else is at play.
Why can’t I have juice or smoothies? I thought these were healthy and natural?
The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit. But when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently.
Fruit juice isn’t as nutritionally beneficial as whole fruit as the fibre is removed in the juicing process. Although smoothies still contain the fibre, they do still contribute to tooth decay. Shop bought smoothies are also often artificially sweetened. As part of the Sugar Challenge you can have home-made smoothies, but try to limit these to once a day or less, and drink a glass of water straight after to help wash away some of the sugars left around your teeth.
I don’t really eat sugary foods, would I still benefit from doing the challenge?
Yes! Even if you typically avoid sugary foods, sugar is still added to a plethora of foods that we eat on a daily basis. Everything from stock cubes to smoked salmon may contain a dose of sugar. Most shop bought breads, sliced meats and flavoured yoghurts also have the white stuff pumped in. Sugar can creep up on us no matter how hard we try to avoid it. This is part of the reason why there is no comprehensive list of “avoid” foods.
What names might sugar/sweeteners be given in the ingredients list?
Just some of the common names for sugar are:
- Agave nectar
- Agave syrup
- Cane juice
- Carob syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Corn sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Creamed honey
- Crystal dextrose
- Dark molasses
- Ethyl maltol
- Golden molasses
- Golden syrup
- Granulated fructose
- HFCS (high fructose corn syrup)
- Hydrogenated starch
- Honey powder
- Invert syrup
- Liquid fructose
- Liquid maltodextrin
- Malted corn syrup
- Malted barley
- Orgeat syrup
- Palm sugar
- Potato maltodextrine
- Pure cane syrup
- Rock sugar
- Sweetened condensed milk
- Unsulphured molasses
- White grape juice concentrate
- Wood sugar
As you can see, this list is enormous! But, it is by no means all of the the names for sugar that I can find. One list I looked at had over 250 different names for sugar. As a general rule, look for words ending in “ose”, avoid anything with the word syrup, even fruit syrups like grape syrup, beet syrup, palm syrup etc.
As for sweetener, just some of the common ones are:
- Acesulfame K
- Hydrogenated Starch Hydroslsates (HSH)
What about Stevia?
I’ve single Stevia out on it’s own as it has cropped up a few times and I know it’s growing in popularity in the fitness industry as a “natural” sweetener and therefore healthy way of sweetening food. Stevia is still a relatively new sweetener to the western market, coming from the leaves of herb plants. As such, long term studies on it’s effects on the human body have not been carried out.
In 2012, the FDA stated that it has not permitted the use of whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extract citing possible concerns on blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.
Just because something’s “natural” does not mean it’s healthy… after all, sugar is a “natural” product itself.
Why are sweeteners also on the avoid list?
Sweeteners mimic the effects of sugar, so by replacing sugar with sweetener nothing has changed in your habits or cravings. There are suggestions that some sweeteners are actually up to 10 times sweeter than sugar, so by replacing like for like you’re actually getting a sweeter end taste and increasing your desire for sweet foods.
There are also links to some sweeteners and other health problems and diseases, such as cancer, birth defects, heart palpitations and more.
For the purpose of the challenge ALL sweeteners are to be avoided, this includes aspartame, sucralose, stevia, etc.
Why can’t I have dried fruit?
Dried fruit has a super concentrated sweetness. In addition to this, some dried fruit also has sugar added.
Like with fruit juice, part of the goodness of fruit is removed when processing the fruit – with juice the fibre is removed, and with dried fruit the water is removed, making it not only less hydrating, but also less satiating.
We recommend eating fresh or frozen fruit only on this challenge.
Why is honey, agave nectar, etc. on the avoid list?
Honey (all types), agave nectar, maple syrup, etc. are all avoided on this challenge because they are ultra sweet. We want you to allow your taste buds to adapt to the taste of unsweetened foods, so that when you do eventually have something sweet after the challenge you can appreciate it for what it is and savour it. For too long now sweet food has become the norm and our taste buds don’t even register sugar or sweetness as much any more.
By re-shaping your taste buds to the natural taste of foods, those sweet treats will feel like more of a treat when you do have them!
Can I eat bread?
Most packaged bread has sugar added. This includes granary and wholemeal bread as well as white, and can also include pitta, naan, flatbread, etc.
However, there are some shop bought breads that don’t have any sugar added. Be sure to read the labels (looking out for sugar in it’s many names!) and if you find a brand that doesn’t have any sugar, then feel free to tuck in.
Can I have milk, yoghurt, etc.?
Plain, unflavoured milk and yoghurts tend not to have any sugar or sweetener in. Some brands of soy, rice, or other dairy milk alternatives have sweetener in the form of sugar, apple juice or artificial sweetener. These should be avoided and unsweetened varieties are available if you look around.
Flavoured milk and yoghurts will almost certainly be sweetened so steer well clear of these for the Sugar Challenge!
The label says it has X grams of sugar in, does this mean I can’t have it?
I’ll start by explaining the food groups. There are three main food groups that we consume as humans – protein, fat and carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is converted into sugar in the body, which is then used for energy, stored in the muscles, or stored as fat – depending on things like your activity levels, your available stores of energy, and your ability to use different energy sources.
There are two different types of carbohydrate; simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, are made of just one or two molecules of sugar and provide rapid energy. Complex carbohydrates are made up of strings or coils of sugar molecules and take longer to digest, providing energy more slowly. These are also referred to as starchy carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrate sources include things like pasta, rice, potatoes, bread, vegetables, fruit, and legumes. And simple carbs are things like sweets, sugar, syrup, fruit drinks, honey etc. Milk also contains carbohydrate, but this is more of a complex carbohydrate source than simple carbs, and also contains fat which helps slow down the release of the sugars in the body.
- Fruit sugars are called fructose.
- Milk sugars are called lactose.
- Sugar sugar is called sucrose.
- And the overall generic term for “sugar” is glucose.
Compare these three labels:
The milk label on the left has only “pasteurised homogenised semi skimmed milk” listed as the ingredient, but has 5g of carbohydrates, all of which are sugars. These grams of sugar are from the lactose that makes milk milk.
Compare this to the macaroni, this is made from “durum wheat semolina”. This isn’t from a simple sugar, yet the label shows 73.1g of carbohydrates per 100g, 3.5g of which are sugars – again these are the sugars that make this product a carbohydrate.
The final label is from a jar of marshmallow fluff. You can clearly see the ingredients include “corn syrup” and “sugar”, both of which are simple sugars. This product has 81g of carbohydrate per 100g, 49g of which are sugar.
When looking at food labels for sugar, always look to the ingredients list, and not the nutrition section of the label as this doesn’t clearly show where sugar is added, or a natural part of the food.