Sarah Wilson stands out in a crowd. Not only does she tower above six foot but the 42-year-old has hair worthy of a shampoo commercial, incredible style and radiates health. Watching her talk confidently to a crowd of hundreds at her recent Auckland event, it’s hard to picture the journalist-turned-health-advocate suffering from a debilitating autoimmune disease. Five years ago Sarah quit sugar to save her health and she’s never looked back. With two recipe books and a successful lifestyle blog under her belt, the native Aussie girl’s health has improved in leaps and bounds and now she’s sharing her message with the masses.
Why did you stop eating sugar?
I was sick with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease, and was exhausted, unable to walk, gaining weight and losing my hair and nails. I also needed a topic for a weekly column I wrote as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and thought quitting sugar would be an interesting experiment.
What changes did you notice after quitting sugar?
I quickly noticed positive changes, both physical and mental. Quitting sugar essentially meant I stopped eating processed foods. I was no longer eating emulsifiers and preservatives. My diet was packed with all-natural ingredients. Sugar massively affects skin’s elasticity and collagen levels, so my wrinkles started to soften and my breakouts became less frequent. Within two weeks of quitting sugar my energy levels had stabilised and after three months my disease became manageable. Today I’m on 10 per cent of the medication I was taking five years ago. I’m living a functional life again.
What’s the first step to quitting sugar?
Get your ‘sweet’ fix from sweet potato, pumpkin, coconut and small amounts of fruit. I’m not sold on particular natural sweeteners. Stevia and rice malt syrup are okay because they don’t contain fructose, but honey contains 40 per cent fructose. A lot of people use honey because it’s ‘natural’ but I argue sugar cane is natural and that’s not the kind of sugar we want to be eating either.
Are there any ‘good’ sugars?
Glucose is in most foods and plays a vital part in fuelling our bodies. It’s fructose that’s the issue. Fifty years ago, we only consumed 1kg of fructose a year but today we eat around 60kg a year. Our cells can’t absorb fructose so, while glucose gets used as energy, fructose instantly gets stored by the liver as fat. The other downside to fructose is that our brain can’t register when it’s had enough.
How long do sugar cravings last?
Research suggests it takes eight weeks to ditch an addiction. I use this theory with my eight-week programme. Sugar addiction is both physical and mental. The best weapon when quitting sugar is to embrace foods that contain healthy fats and protein. Good fat and protein turn on appetite regulation mechanisms in the brain and help balance out your metabolism. But it’s equally important not to give yourself a hard time. Instead of dwelling on the food you can’t eat, think about the great food you can.
Avoiding sugar at work or during social situations is hard. What advice do you give?
Go about your own thing and people will normalise it. Morning and afternoon teas at work can be difficult, so be prepared and research foods you can eat, such as natural corn chips and homemade dip. And be proactive, if it’s your birthday suggest a cheese platter instead of a cake.
Should we monitor our fruit intake?
The World Health Organisation says the recommended daily intake of sugar is six teaspoons. Fruit is the best way to get a small dose of sugar but be careful – bananas, grapes, watermelon and apples contain a lot of fructose. Try to limit yourself to two pieces of fruit a day. The great thing about fruit is you also get a good hit of fibre. Smoothies are a great way to pack in some fruit, veges and good fats.
If you quit sugar, do you still have to watch portion size?
It’s only recently we’ve felt the need to quantify our food intake. When you’re on the sugar roller coaster, it’s hard to distinguish if you’re full. I don’t count calories or measure portions because once you’ve quit sugar it’s irrelevant. A diet that contains high levels of sugar puts your body into an artificial space, which is why people rely on diets for weight management. The best approach is to have three meals a day and once you quit sugar you don’t need to snack. The snacking culture was created as a way of handling the cravings we get from a high-sugar diet. We don’t need to eat five or six times a day, but if you’re after healthy snacks, go for nuts, a piece of fruit or coconut flakes.
What kind of exercise would you recommend alongside a low-sugar diet?
Intense exercise can be detrimental to the body. Regular and moderate exercise keeps you motivated and well. I try a little bit of everything: yoga, cycling, swimming, and I move as often as I can.
Will quitting sugar help us live longer?
A low-sugar diet should bring longevity but nutritional science is based on hypothesis, so there is no way we can say that for certain. What’s really interesting is that the regions where people live the longest, such as Italy, Japan and Greece, are areas where diets are naturally low in sugar.
From the editors of Good Health Choices