If you’ve heard a lot about quitting sugar, but you’re not quite sure if the benefits outweigh the no-more-candy rule, maybe it’s time you got to know Sarah Wilson a little better.
After being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease – a condition in which your immune system attacks your hormone-producing thyroid gland – Wilson was forced to leave her high-flying job at Cosmopolitan Australia to seek help.
As part of a weekly newspaper column she wrote, Wilson gave up sugar for two weeks – and was blown away by how it alleviated her symptoms. She did some investigating and the I Quit Sugar phenomenon was born.
Now more than one million people around the world have joined the movement and she’s published five cookbooks and a dozen e-cookbooks on her I Quit Sugar website.
Wilson’s successes aren’t just professional; at 42 years old, she has reversed much of the toll Hashimoto’s took on her body – including restoring her fertility.
How did you find out you were sick?
I was editor of Cosmopolitan and the ant*i-Müllerian [a fertility test] had just arrived in Australia. We approached the University of Adelaide to do a story on it, and I was the only person in the office who had their [menstrual] cycle at the right time. They rang me pretty much immediately after the test and said, “You’re infertile, you’re going through premature menopause.” They’d found I was stripped of all the female hormones, but I was too busy to fix it. I left it six months, by which time my periods had stopped and I was so unwell I ended up having to quit my job. I found out I had Hashimoto’s disease, and a particularly gnarly version of it because I’d left it so long. I was 34 then and I’m still slowly healing the damage. I got my period back two years ago and I’ve just found out that I’m still fertile. So at the age of 42, I’ve found out I can have kids.
Do you think you want to have children?
It’s a funny one. I’ve been single for eight years, and I’ve recently started a relationship, and it’s all very new. When I say I’ve “just found out” I can have kids – it was a week-and-a-half ago. To a certain extent, I feel like I’m a bit old now and that I created I Quit Sugar almost as a way to contribute and nourish, to create. So I guess, in some ways, I’ve satisfied that side of things.
For people who have just discovered the I Quit Sugar movement, what’s your elevator pitch?
When you quit sugar, you quit processed food. And when you quit processed food, that leaves you with real food, which you have to learn how to cook. To cook successfully, you have to keep it really simple. You basically go back to the way your grandparents or great-grandparents ate, before so much sugar got thrust at it and before the onset of all these metabolic diseases [like diabetes] that are our current health crisis.
What was your diet and exercise like before you became sick?
I had a classic Western woman’s diet and exercise routine – it was the era of the boot camp, restriction and counting calories. I was always a very robust eater and I’d never been on a diet as such, but I was pushing myself really hard. I was running 10km to work and back, doing 24-hour bike races, and I was competitive sand racing. I burnt myself out, essentially. It’s what got me sick and, ironically, it’s what caused me to put on huge amounts of weight.
How do you get people out of the calorie-counting, low-fat mentality?
There are a couple of interesting titbits I tell people to get them thinking. For instance, when pig farmers want to fatten up their pigs, they feed them skim milk because it’s more fattening. We need to think back to what our grandparents did and what the Greeks, Italians and the French – who don’t get fat – still do. They eat appropriate amounts of fat. They never eat a salad or vegetables without some fat on it – some butter or oil – because they know that’s proper nutrition. They never take the skin off their chicken breast. They never order an egg white omelette, because they know that whole food is where it’s at. You don’t have to muck around with it.
Where does fruit fit into a healthy diet, in your opinion?
Whole fruit is absolutely fine – we should be eating whole fruit. All of my meal plans include seven to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day, which is super-nutritious. However, when it comes to fruit juice, the World Health Organisation and various other health bodies around the globe quantify it as added sugar, because that’s what it is. Once you squeeze out all the fibre and so on, you’re left with concentrated sugar. Ditto with dried fruit – when you take out all the water you’re left with a high amount of sugar.
Should we ever stop eating fruit entirely?
When you’re first quitting sugar, and you’re committing to getting it out of your body – for example, on my eight-week programme – we actually cut out all fruit for the first six weeks. The reason for this is that we’re trying to get your appetite mechanism back to a stable place, where we can reorder your appetite hormones and work out how much sugar your body needs. I’ve found I can handle a couple of pieces of whole fruit a day, and a couple of bits of dark chocolate. That’s six to nine teaspoons of added sugar a day and, what do you know, that’s what the World Health Organisation recommends, and what I’ve been recommending for five years. A piece of fruit is between one-and-a-half and two teaspoons of sugar, and I don’t count that as my added sugar, but if you’re eating high quantities of it, it can start to become a problem.
When did you learn how to cook?
I’m not so much a cook, I’m an eater. My recipes are assemblages, they are not particularly complicated. I’m from a large family – I’m the eldest of six – and we were all engaged in the food-preparation process. I also grew up in the country, where we had goat’s milk and meat, and everything was made from scratch out of necessity – mum and dad had no money. I’d eaten out at a restaurant probably three or four times in my entire life before I became an adult. It was just my love of food that saw me experiment from a very young age with flavours and ways of assembling food.
How has your relationship with your body changed over the years?
A lot of people used to say “respect your body, love your curves”, but that meant nothing to me. My way of appreciating my body and learning to love it – and even saying that makes me go “eugh!” – is to realise my body is my best mate. It tells me when I’ve gone off the track, when I need to pull myself in and go to bed early at night. If I look after it, it will look after me. I can’t do rainbows and unicorns and “love my curves”, I’ve had to develop a pragmatic love for it. I eat according to how my appetite is. My body is in the best shape ever and it’s because I’ve done less exercise. My mantra is exercise every single day, but it doesn’t have to be strenuous, it can just be a walk for half an hour. I swim, I do yoga and pilates, I walk, I ride, I just move. I move for the love of it, and how good it makes my body feel. I don’t pay attention to calories, or whether my heart rate has gone up enough, because it doesn’t work for me.
Other than weight loss, what difference can quitting sugar make to someone’s appearance?
Quitting sugar helps immensely with both wrinkles and pimples. Within two weeks of quitting sugar, people generally notice their skin changes. I also think the amount of saturated fat I eat – a lot of olive oil and coconut oil – makes a big difference. I don’t use any chemical products on my skin either. I wash my face with rosehip oil and moisturise with it as well. I don’t wear makeup, and if I do, it’s natural. That, and meditation. They’ve all made a difference. I’m 42 and my skin is in better condition than it was 10 years ago.
Sarah’s morning routine
I wake up between 6am and 6.30am and drink water and lemon juice or water and apple cider vinegar. While I do that I sit in a squat and watch a bit of morning TV for around 20 minutes, which helps with my constipation issues. After I’ve been to the toilet, I leave the house to exercise – a yoga class or an ocean swim. I like to run barefoot from my house in Sydney in my bikini, goggles and swim cap, along the beach, through the park, then up to an ocean pool. After a swim, I run back, meditate in the sun for 20 minutes on the beach or in the park, shower and get ready. I eat breakfast at about 9.30am or 10am because I’m not hungry before that, then I start my day.
Sarah’s evening routine
I often go for a walk to wind down, then meditate again. Sometimes I eat out, that’s my way of socialising, otherwise I cook a big casserole or soup, and have that in the freezer ready to go. I always eat a proper meal. I don’t just grab a salad – I eat like I mean it. Most nights I have one glass of organic red wine. If I’m out, I try to get home by 9.30pm and have a shower to wind
I Quit Sugar… for kids
Sarah’s tips for reducing the amount of sugar in children’s diets
Lead by example and don’t stigmatise sugar: In fact, if you can go about shifting your family’s eating habits without ever mentioning the word sugar, it’s a good idea. That’s what humans are like – if you tell kids they can’t touch the wet paint, they’re going to touch the wet paint.
Let them eat sugary foods occasionally: For example, if they go to a party, that’s an appropriate time to have some sugar. If they’re not eating much sugar at home, children will naturally veer away from the super-sugary stuff, like soft drinks. When I was a kid, that’s what I was like. My mum didn’t make a fuss of healthy eating, it was just what we did, and my taste buds determined things.
Don’t reward children with food: One of the biggest parts of sugar addiction is the emotional association with affection and reward. So, one of the biggest things you can do as a parent is reward your kids with things other than food and cut that emotional tie.