Feb 15

Sugar Free February (2 of 3)

In my last post, I talked about what Sugar Free February is about, and the benefits of taking part.  Today, I’m going to answer some of the questions I see most often on the Internet, and discuss some of the unwanted symptoms you may experience.  If you have a question of your own, please comment, and I’ll be happy to answer.

Did you miss my previous post?  Read it here.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can I eat Natural Sugar?

Table sugar

Sugar may be a natural product, but that doesn’t mean it’s beneficial!

OK, this one is guaranteed to make me angry.  Listen, all sugar is natural.  There is no such thing as “unnatural sugar”, unless you count artificial sweeteners which I categorically DON’T recommend (see below). The term “natural sugar” is a complete nonsense.  So no, I’m afraid you can’t eat sugary foods, even if you think of them as ‘natural’.  ‘Natural’ and ‘beneficial’ are not the same thing.

The thing to remember about sugar is not where it comes from, but how your body responds to it.  This is called the glycaemic response.  It’s measured on the glycaemic index, and the most reliable indicator of how it will affect your body is the glycaemic load (GL).

The take-home message is that sugar, honey, maple syrup, rice syrup and any other similar product you can think of all score highly on the glycaemic index.  Some score a bit higher than others, but all are high.  I love honey. It’s soothing if you have a cold, and its antibacterial properties may be useful for helping with illness or injury, but in terms of your glycaemic response, it’s no different from table sugar.

On a forum recently, I met someone who used agarve syrup because it’s ‘natural’.  Now, I made the same mistake when I was starting out, so it’s quite understandable, but there’s nothing natural about agarve at all. It’s a highly concentrated, highly processed form of fructose, a bit like the high fructose corn syrup that seems to be added to almost everything.  It may have started out as a plant, but it’s about as close to its origins as your or I are to a fish.  Agarve and similar products may not spike your blood sugar, but used long-term, they are likely to have a harmful effect on your liver.  You don’t want fatty liver disease if you can avoid it, and it’s on the rise, big-time.

So, let’s please stop talking about ‘natural sugar’, because it’s completely meaningless.

What about Fruit?


Berries are packed with nutrients, and provide a touch of sweetness without a big effect on your blood sugar.

I’m a fan of fruit, and generally I don’t think people should be giving it up for Sugar Free February.  Here’s why:

  • There are two main types of sugar in fruit; glucose and fructose. Most fruits are higher in fructose than glucose.  Fructose will not have the same effect as glucose on your blood sugar, as it’s processed in the liver rather than in the cells.  You may have read about the damaging effects of fructose, but eating 1 or 2 pieces of fruit daily shouldn’t be damaging; fructose is only a problem because it is given to us as an additive or syrup in higher concentrations than the body is equipped to tolerate long-term.  You can choose fruits that are lower in glucose, or total sugar, using the table on this page.

  • People make a huge mistake when they think of foods in terms of single nutrients. As well as sugars, fruit contains a whole range of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and a group of nutrients we don’t know much about yet, but which seem to be really important to good health, called phytochemicals.  Different fruits contain different nutrients, so feel free to enjoy a variety.

  • Plus, fruit contains fibre. Fibre isn’t exactly a nutrient, as our bodies can’t fully digest or absorb it, but it’s one of the components of food most frequently and consistently associated with long-term health.  This could be because one of its main functions is to allow food to pass through the digestive tract efficiently, but it’s also thought to nourish beneficial bacteria in our intestines, and help remove harmful by-products of digestion.  It’s crucial to get enough fibre, and most of us don’t.


    Use this handy table to find out which sugars are in your favourite fruit.

artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can cause unwanted effects in some people. They’ve never been shown to help with weight, and they won’t help retrain your tastebuds.

What about artificial sweeteners?

Plenty of people quit sugar in February only to substitute with artificial sweeteners.  Each to their own, of course, but here’s why I’m not a fan:

  • Artificial sweeteners won’t help you achieve your health goals. It’s been shown, for example, that people who swap sugary drinks for similar drinks with artificial sweeteners don’t lose weight.  You would think that getting rid of the calories in the fizzy drinks would be helpful, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.  The current thinking is that this is because the sweeteners disrupt the activity of the bacteria which live in the intestines, and which are our best allies in making the most of our nutrition. So, swapping sugar for sweetener is unlikely to help you if weight management is one of your goals.

  • Some artificial sweeteners can give you nasty side effects, such as bloating and diarrhoea. You may be feeling virtuous, but you’re not likely to be as much fun to be around!

  • If you substitute one sweet taste for another, you will never retrain your tastebuds. When you’re free of very sweet things for a while, you’ll understand just how over-sweet they are, and be satisfied with far less sweetness.  This is really the key to being free of sugars for good.

  • Most artificial sweeteners leave a horrible aftertaste.

I’m getting withdrawal symptoms. What’s going on?

For some people, being free of sugar is straightforward. For others it’s not so easy and unwanted symptoms can occur.  If that happens to you, be assured that they shouldn’t last more than a week or two, but if they do persist, have a word with your doctor.

 Are you experiencing any of these common symptoms?


Headaches are common when freeing yourself from sugar, but consult your doctor if they persist.

Headaches are common when freeing yourself from sugar, but consult your doctor if they persist.

If you’re experiencing symptoms like these, you’ll probably have heard that this is because ‘toxins’ are being removed from your body, or because you have a fungal problem.  There is no real evidence for either of these assertions, and I’m inclined to disregard them unless anyone can provide compelling evidence to the contrary.  For various reasons, which I’m happy to explain if asked, my knowledge of how things work would suggest that the body doesn’t operate this way.  However, the symptoms can be very real and unpleasant.  I think that it’s more likely that the symptoms exist either because you are lacking your most readily available energy source, and it takes time to adjust, or because the balance of fluid in your body is undergoing adjustment.

The good news is that the symptoms will pass in a couple of days or weeks, but to help you feel better, make sure you’re eating nutritious meals and keeping well hydrated with water and herbal teas.  You may also find gentle to moderate exercise helpful.


Head made of sugar cubes

Is sugar addictive? It can certainly feel that way.

Is sugar addictive?  This is a hotly debated topic.  Advocates point out experiments on mice in which cocaine-addicted mice prefer sugar to cocaine when offered both choices, and remind us that, in the human brain, sugar activates dopamine signalling pathways, which provide a sense of reward.  Those against the idea suggest that lots of activities activate dopamine pathways without being addictive, such as driving a fast car, or having enjoyable intercourse.  They also point out that experiments relating to sugar addiction have never been done on humans, and we’re not mice!

Personally, I’m on the fence on this issue, but I’m certain that becoming free of sugar can make people very moody.  Regardless of whether sugar is addictive, it certainly does activate dopamine receptors, giving you a sense of reward and pleasure.  When that doesn’t happen it can make you feel low, particularly if the rest of your life isn’t going well, or you’re under stress.

There isn’t an easy way round this one, and it’s nothing to do with willpower.  I think the best technique is to anticipate it, and make a list of things that give you pleasure.  When you find yourself getting moody, make time for one of these things.  Again, staying hydrated and doing some physical activity, particularly if you can spend time outside, may help.  I personally find singing helpful; it needn’t take long, you can do it anywhere, and it’s free.


Be careful of this one; if it persists it could be a sign that you’re not getting enough carbohydrate for your body’s needs, or possibly that you’re dehydrated.  However, you don’t need sugar to compensate.  Instead, try introducing some whole grains, beans or pulses into your diet, and make sure you’re drinking enough fluid.  Some people love very low carbohydrate diets, but they may not suit you.  Listen to your body and be sensible; dizziness isn’t a nice symptom.  If it still persists, pop along to your GP and get your blood pressure checked, as it may be on the low side.

Of course, I haven’t yet addressed the most frequently asked question of all, which goes something like this:

“I’m doing really well, but there are times when I really want something sweet to eat.  Any ideas?”

The answer to this question depends on what you’re aiming to get out  of Sugar Free February, but I have plenty of ideas that don’t involve refined sugar, or even excessive levels of sugar from fruit.  In my next post, I’ll be telling you all about those, and sharing some recipes, so stay tuned for that.  Watch this space!

Did you miss the first post in this series?  Catch up here.


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