Diet & Nutrition

‘I Quit Sugar’ author Sarah Wilson talks diet, anxiety and going back-to-basics

Aussie wellness expert Sarah was known for swearing off sugar. Now, she's advocating for a better understanding of anxiety and mental wellbeing.
Sarah Wilson

Aussie wellness expert Sarah Wilson has come a long way since swearing off the sweet stuff and is now best known as an advocate for better understanding of anxiety and mental wellbeing.

When she somewhat controversially closed her I Quit Sugar empire last year, there was talk of her disappearing off to a quiet life in rural Australia, but these days food is still very much on her mind.

Recently, Sarah released a cookbook based on tackling the appalling levels of food waste happening in households throughout the Western world, and she’s been involved with seminars about the way nutrition impacts mental health.

Life is busy to say the least, but since following her heart to a raft of new projects, the former journalist is brimming with energy.

“I kind of thrive on chaos!” she laughs, sitting down for a green tea with Good Health & Wellbeing.

“When I say that, I mean I can be in a noisy café or at the airport and end up doing some of my best writing work.

“I think if you’ve got anxiety or you’re an A-type, you tend to spend a lot of your time trying to control your environment.

“But if you’re in an environment that you can’t control, you give up, you’re rendered choice-less, and that’s freedom.

“It’s a philosophy I often work to.”

Today we’re at a bustling café in central Auckland and Sarah is talking intently, a mile a minute.

While some prefer to keep their personal battles out of the public realm, she’s spoken with stark honesty about her experiences of anxiety, bipolar disorder, and living life on her own terms.

In her 2017 book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, Sarah looked at learning to thrive with anxiety, rather than seeing it as a condition to be cured.

Building on her previous research, she’s now interested in the ways that food affects our mental wellbeing, and like with the no sugar experiment, she says that tuning in to her body was the starting point.

“I think when you have anxiety, you’re particularly sensitive in many ways,” she explains.

“I don’t have allergies, I can tolerate gluten and I’m definitely not a ‘girl in a bubble’. But I’ve been in pain for a lot of my life and I have had to listen to my body.

“With the sugar thing, it was an exponential result as it wasn’t just the sugar, it was also because I was rendered choice-less about eating a certain type of food.

“Quitting sugar meant I was also quitting processed foods, which was really important, and I also follow an Ayurvedic style of eating.”

How Sarah approaches diet and anxiety

Sarah’s latest cookbook, Simplicious Flow, brings together her most recent nutritional interests, favourite recipes, and trial and error tricks.

Alongside detailed advice on cutting your grocery bill, another theme throughout the book is getting back to basics, which she believes is the best approach if you’re looking to boost mental health through nutrition.

While the food-mood link is still a burgeoning area of research and the science around it is complex, Sarah says putting the principles into practice is relatively simple.

Reducing inflammation in the gut is the main aim, and she says cutting back on sugar and processed foods is the first step.

We already know Sarah’s stance on the sweet stuff and the obvious issues caused by sugar, but her latest research has dug even deeper.

A lesser known aspect of sugar is the way it raises uric acid levels, and she points to studies that have suggested a link between elevated levels of uric acid and being bipolar.

Increasing our prebiotic and probiotic intake, and ensuring you’re getting a good amount of omega-3, are also important pieces of the puzzle.

“Omega-3 is one of the main things that has a direct impact on inflammation and mental health,” says Sarah.

“Interestingly, there is evidence to show that grass-fed meat can reduce anxiety symptoms, while grain-fed meat can increase them.

“This is because the omega-3s are converted to omega-6 when the animals eat grain.

“So you can really see how our food system has just clusterf**ked the situation.”

How diet affects mental health

So if harking ‘back to basics’ is the formula for mental wellness, how did we venture so off-course?

Sarah believes the medicalising of mental health is a major factor.

“Throughout history, it was respected,” she explains.

“People knew that Abraham Lincoln had a mental health issue, and Winston Churchill.

“It’s really quite recently that these things have become disorders.

“I think the food connection has been overlooked as we have worked to a psychiatric model that says mental illness is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, therefore you just need a pill.

“In the last two to three years, that theory has been proven to be inaccurate.

“It can actually be destructive, as people take medication for a long time and might not seek out other ways of healing themselves.”

As experts continued to investigate mental illness, a new type of thinking emerged, one that said rather than being triggered by a chemical imbalance, an unsettled mental state may be linked more closely to dysbiosis, or inflammation, in the gut.

“As humans, we do get out of whack, and food certainly plays a role.

“I think this is a good thing as it places the power back in our own hands.

“The answer isn’t necessarily out there, for some psychiatrist to solve or a new pill to buy.

“It’s eating in a way that is uncomplicated, and some of the most convincing studies show that a diet rich in unprocessed food has one of the biggest impacts on mental health.”

Why Sarah doesn’t believe in balance

With a busy schedule that combines a heavy workload with regular travel, striking the right mix of routine and flexibility is another one of Sarah’s mainstays for wellbeing.

Having some essential pillars to structure her days gives her sensitive soul the comfort of a well-known ritual, while allowing her the freedom to lean in to whatever the next 24 hours throws at her.

“I call these my certainty anchors,” the author explains.

“One of them is my morning routine, and it involves getting up at 6.30 each day and drinking hot water with lemon.

“I exercise every single day and I like yoga, Pilates, running or ocean swimming in the summer. I always meditate for about 20 minutes.”

Breakfast is a no-go as she doesn’t like breakfast foods, and she’s emphatic about not giving a stuff what the health gurus may think of the importance of a morning meal.

Night time is for chamomile tea, magnesium citrate tablets, a hot shower and anything she can do to turn her excitable brain towards sleep.

“I turn off technology at 9pm,” she says, “and I think that’s a huge achievement.

“I’m trying to get it to 8 but I haven’t got there yet.”

While she bookends the day with careful routine, Sarah insists she’s not a stickler for rules, she never strives to live up to expectation, and she doesn’t believe in balance.

“I think the most balanced people are those who don’t seek balance.

“Instead they tilt – they tilt towards the things that matter, and they would never think ‘I’ve worked too much today and I haven’t done my yoga quotient’, that’s just a form of stress.

“If you’re working a lot and it’s been productive, tilt to it, and then tilt away when it’s no longer fruitful. It’s learning to move in your own way.”

This flexibility also extends to food, and interestingly, Sarah says she now eats chocolate every day and enjoys a glass of red wine most nights.

“I don’t believe in vices,” she says.

“Every now and again I blow out – if someone has made a cake, and it’s a special occasion, I’ll eat it.

“I know that I will want the whole thing and it’s a struggle. I hate this addictive thing that I’ve got going on, but I won’t punish myself.

“People often go, ‘Aren’t you the no sugar girl?’ but it’s about getting a grip on your sugar consumption, rather than being puritanical.”

Sarah’s favourite food hacks

Opt for resitant starch

“Eat day-old potatoes and rice and pasta – it is way better for you than freshly cooked. When you cook a starch like that, it cools and becomes a resistant starch. Whether you eat it cold or reheat it, this provides a particular type of fibre which will increase the bacteria in your stomach, and these prebiotics will ensure that it’s the ‘good’ gut bacteria that flourishes. If you’re doing probiotics without prebiotics, the fibre to feed the bacteria, you’re wasting your money.”

Don’t waste your celery

“I can’t believe that a lot of people cut off the top of the celery and only use the middle part – I live on celery leaves! I don’t buy parsley as the celery leaves taste just the same, if not better.”

Drink your nutrients

“I like to drink the water I boil my vegetables in. The Greeks do this, and I learnt that when I was over there. I’ll steam a whole lot of vegetables using the same water, let it sit on the stove and use it the next night, and the next. After about 2-3 days I’ll either drink it or freeze it, then use it for making risotto.”

Look at the bigger picture

“A lot of people ask if I only eat organic food. The answer is yes and no, I’m in the position where I can afford to vote with my dollar so that’s what I choose to do, and with things like chicken and eggs I would definitely buy organic. However I certainly won’t buy it if it’s from overseas – I see people buying organic things from places like Peru, and I think, honestly? To me the carbon miles issue is way more important.”

Top up your tryptophan

“When it comes to benefitting mental health through diet, amino acids that are neurotransmitter precursors are quite beneficial. The main one is tryptophan, which you get from foods like eggs, turkey and tahini.”

Tuck into yoghurt

“This is a great gut healing food. Even commercial yoghurts make a difference, but you can really up the ante with things like kefir and probiotic-rich varieties.”

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