With the South African government’s decision to implement a sugar tax, the adverse health effects of consuming too much sugar are currently in the spotlight.
According to the SA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average South African now consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar and similar sweeteners a day – on par with global consumption, which has increased by 46% over the past 30 years.
But just how difficult is it to completely give up sugar – especially if you are a self-confessed sugar-holic?
We introduce Stefni Herbert, a Health24 content producer who consumes more sugar per day than almost the entire team combined!
"I can't live without chocolates and sweets, and some days I will eat a slab of chocolate, drink about eight cups of coffee with three teaspoons of sugar in each and maybe add an ice-cream," says Stef. "I know it's not good for my health, but my vices make me feel less stressed."
So we decided to challenge her to give up sugar for two weeks and take note of all the changes she experienced. Dietitian Ria Catsicas was right beside her during the journey, giving advice on what she should and shouldn't eat.
After examining Herbert's food diary for two weeks, Catsicas had some advice: "Her sugar intake is too high, but she should see changes after abstaining for two weeks. She needs to cut out chocolates, sweets, and eat way less carbohydrates."
We checked in with Herbert's progress at various stages of the sugar challenge. She did experience some improvements. "I knew miracles weren't going to happen, but I expected to have more energy and lose a bit of weight."
Watch Herbert struggle through her first day of the challenge:
Initially things didn't go too well and on the third day of the challenge she she caved in front of a slice of delicious vanilla cake:
And here she is just before the end of the challenge:
Herbert was required to keep a food diary for the two weeks before the challenge and for the two weeks the challenge lasted. See her diary here and how things changed. She was not allowed any sugar or honey and had to be careful to not consume sugar that doesn't naturally occur in food.
"She can have fresh fruit as the amount of fructose/glucose in fruit is not high. It's also bound in a food matrix, and with the fibre it contains it doesn't get absorbed like white granulated sugar," Catsicas said. "It does not cause high blood sugar and a corresponding insulin response. The portion size is important, though: only 100 to 150g fruit at a time and, as mentioned, only 1–2 portions per day."
Herbert's mood was assessed on 10 different days. She was required to score her own mood on a scale of 1–10; the Health24 team also gave her a score; and at home family members had to rate her as well. The three scores were added to obtain an average per day. Her overall average before the challenge was 7.1 and during the challenge it was 5.9.
Catsicas predicted that Herbert's mood would improve as the two week period progressed, but it seems she experienced the opposite. "It's very difficult to give up something that you are so used to," says Herbert. "It's not a small change and there were days where I was grumpy and frustrated. Chocolate and sweet coffee were my vices and suddenly I had no crutch to lean on during stressful times.
"I'm a terrible sleeper and I can function on little sleep," says Herbert. Before the challenge she slept an average of seven hours per night and during the experiment her average dropped to 6.1 hours. "I don't think the challenge itself made a difference to my sleeping pattern, but it did take more time to prepare healthy, sugarless food. That's probably why I slept less during the challenge."
Before the challenge Herbert had regular bowel movements 86% of the time, and experienced no bowel movements for 14% of the time. However, during the two weeks of the challenge there weren't any days she didn't release stool. "I definitely felt lighter, and my stool was softer," says Herbert.
Herbert had softer stool for all the days of the challenge, and on seven out of the 14 days she went to the bathroom more than once. "This is not normal for me, but everything was 'smoother'. I started using Xylitol [a sweetener] towards the end, but it upset my stomach. This was a side-effect that made it more difficult to sustain the challenge."
Although Herbert was hoping to lose some weight, Catsicas quickly shattered that dream, "We cannot measure fat loss daily as 60% of our bodies consists of water, and a daily scale reading will reflect only water changes," she said. "Unfortunately fat cells do not disappear overnight."
"I am very dedicated to exercise. I usually do about 20 minutes of cardio, followed by 60 minutes of strength training," says Herbert. "I did not necessarily have more energy during the challenge, but I did have more willpower. Because I couldn't have any sugar, I kept myself busier than usual to take my mind off things."
Herbert's blood sugar was measured on seven different days before and during the challenge. Her average before was 6.0 and while consuming zero sugar it was 5.4. Catsicas says, "It seems cutting sugar out of the diet significantly improves average blood glucose levels. Maintaining lower blood glucose levels is beneficial as it places less stress on the beta cells in the pancreas to produce insulin.
"Research has also found that maintaining lower blood glucose levels has a beneficial effect on our nervous system; it keeps our arteries healthier and also decreases our risk for developing inflammation."
According to Harvard University, a systolic pressure under 120 (the first number) and a diastolic pressure under 80 (the second number) is considered normal. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is indicated by a systolic pressure of 140 or higher and/or a diastolic pressure of 90 or higher. Before and during the challenge Herbert had normal numbers and there was no reason for concern.
"I cannot believe how quickly these 14 days have flown by... Actually I’m joking – these two weeks felt like the longest two weeks of my life.
"It has been quite a roller-coaster ride and it presented many, many challenges.
"If you decide to cut down on sugar or go off of it completely, you'll have to face the task of preparing every last thing you eat. You'll need to develop a minimalist mentality rather quickly. You'll also need to start forcing yourself to read food labels.
"Something else I cannot get away from is the fact that I do love chocolate. Milk chocolate. Dark chocolate. White chocolate. And seeing that sugar-free chocolate is not an option – because of the sugar alcohols (xylitol) – I’m not giving up 'normal' chocolate."
Changes she wants to make
"A few things that I will change, though, is that I won’t be drinking as much sugar in my coffee as usual. I also plan to incorporate a lot more water into my eating plan, because I know I don’t drink as much water as I should.
"I am also looking into other beverages. One thing I do have going for me is that I don’t drink any soft drinks or juices – I’ve never really been a soft drink person and I do actually consider fruit juices too sweet for my liking.
"As for my carbs, I have gradually been cutting down for some time now. I try not to eat potatoes and rather go for sweet potatoes. I hardly eat bread, but pasta has been my weakness for the longest time. I don’t think I will cut out pasta completely.
"You need balance and you need to do things in moderation, like most things in life, and although there are many things I won't give up, I won’t consume as much. You can’t expect your body to function optimally when you keep putting in the wrong fuel. I guess everyone needs to figure out what works for them, create a plan and stick to it – and on the odd occasion, spoil yourself and indulge a little."
Challenge yourself! Do the 14 day no-sugar challenge by yourself and share your experience. Email Joshua at Joshua.Carstens@24.com