“Sugar free in 5 weeks” shouts the cover of Davina McCall’s new book.
It’s been reviewed by many of newspapers and magazines and books are flying off the shelves. The recipes look delicious and well thought out but is it too good to be true?
A client asked me a question about this book the other day and it got me asking this very question and so I started thinking…..
For this particular client she has gone on a sugar free diet due to insulin resistance from PCOS, so she was looking for healthy ways to eat better. She’s spent a lot of time researching and educating herself about her condition and the things that could make it worse and the things that could make it better.
The title “Sugar Free in 5 weeks” seems to promise magic within it’s pages – something so many of us really want. And in the Amazon blurb makes it seem even more enticing:
"Hi, my name is Davina, and I'm a sugar addict ...' Davina McCall loves a challenge. And giving up sugar has been her toughest yet. In this beautiful cookbook, Davina shares her favourite super-healthy recipes that have helped her kick the sugar habit and cut out junk food for good. These recipes: *are easy to make but taste amazing *contain the foods that help you look and feel great *have no long lists of scary, hard-to-find ingredients. This is real food for real life! 5 WEEKS TO SUGAR-FREE also includes a 5 week meal planner that works towards curbing sweet cravings and cutting out all processed foods. Davina is no guru, she's one of us, so her plan also includes pudding recipes that help the most sweet-toothed chocoholic kick the added sugar habit. Simple, delicious and brimming with flavour, these recipes take the faff out of sugar-free!”
Looking through the book there are some really delicious recipes, including some little sweet treats – but I wanted to know what it is in the book that means that a sugarholic won’t crave sugar any more?
So it seems that what Davina has done is cut out all refined sugars and only uses natural sugars in her book, like honey, maple syrup and agave. The other savoury recipes in the book are naturally sugar free anyway, so there is no need to change sugar or add any in these dishes.
The question that comes up is surely sugar is sugar, whether it’s refined or natural? This is what flummoxed my client, as for her this is very true, one sugar is much like another in her condition.
What is sugar?
To break this down, I’ll delve back into my science degree.
Let’s look at what a sugar is – this is a basic carbohydrate, which is a form of energy for our body and we need these at some level in our diet. All carbohydrates are eventually broken down to the most basic constituents, which is usually glucose or fructose – the most simple forms of sugar. The body uses these for various ways to run the body and generate energy and heat (that’s what calories do). However, in excess amounts the body just simply stores the excesses in our liver and muscles as glycogen – stored in case of emergency if our body needs a sudden energy boost.
Sugar isn't actually poisonous for us if eaten correctly and in the right form (unless there’s an illness), but in the modern world there are sugars hidden everywhere in processed foods and juices and people just consume far more sugars in their daily diet than we actually need to survive. This is where it becomes dangerous/harmful/toxic to the body.
Refined sugar vs natural sugars
Refined means that the sugar has been processed many times so that it no longer contains any of the valuable vitamins and minerals of the sugar cane or sugar beet that it was derived from. This is your basic table sugar. Table sugar is also known as sucrose and is a mix of glucose and fructose.
Natural sugars are unadulterated and in their natural form. This can be as honey or maple syrup, but you can also get a lot of sugar in fruits in the form of fructose and even milk has natural sugars as lactose. Within natural sugars they are metabolised and used in the body in different ways due to their chemical structure.
Laura Thomas at Happy Sugar Habits states that glucose is metabolised by all of the organs in the body whereas fructose is not:
Fructose (also known as the ‘fruit sugar’) on the other hand, is metabolised VERY differently to glucose. It’s only done by the liver. This is the sweet tasting part of sugar you probably like the taste of.
Large quantities of fructose go straight to the liver for processing, since this is the only organ that can metabolise it. The excess fructose turns into fatty acids and these excess fatty acids are stored as fat. Not only that but you’re putting your liver under strain, in a similar way to when people drink too much alcohol.
Thomas goes on to say:
Fructose is what makes things taste really sweet. It is safe in small quantities because, back in the old age, it was rare.
Fast forward to today’s society and sugar is very different from being rare, even the natural sources. Think about honey, which is available in easy squeeze bottles (no bee’s nest battle involved). A smoothie can pack in 35 crushed berries, an apple, half a banana, half an orange, a few grapes and a strawberry. That would be an impressive feat for our cave dweller to muscle up in a day, yet we can grab one in the morning, on our way to work, just as a quick drink!
So are natural sugars as bad for us as refined sugars?
Well yes and no. It depends on why you want or need to give up sugar in the first place.
If you are diabetic then all sugars, natural or refined will need to be avoided as they are all processed by the body in the same way. In a diabetic the insulin required to process the sugars is not being produced and too many sugars can lead to numerous complications (like blindness, loss of fingers/toes, infections, skin problems) and could lead to death if it’s not controlled.
If you are trying to lose weight and are watching your calories then a recipe for a sweet dish made using honey instead of refined sugars is going to be the very same in terms of calorific quantity.
If you are neither losing weight nor are you diabetic, but you just want to eat a little more healthily then natural sugars may be a bit better for you than refined sugars as you gain a few other extra nutrients in the natural sugars, plus fibre if you have fruit/veg. Some of them also have nutrients that seem to help with the way that the sugar is digested, something that refined sugar lacks.
However, this approach is never going to lead to becoming totally sugar free – whether in 5 weeks or 5 months, as you are still stimulating the sweet sensors on your tongue and in the digestive tract so the body and brain will still crave the sweetness (there’s a whole chemical process behind sugar cravings, but I won’t go into it here).
So, as I said to my client, for anyone wishing to be totally sugar free I don’t think that this book is the right choice as it doesn't seem to offer any real advice about stopping sugars all together – the title is just very misleading. Stick to eating whole grains and vegetables (in their full form). For non-diabetics have a small amount of fruit in it’s whole form (not juiced – that’s another whole story!).
This book is good for anyone wanting to eat a bit more healthily in terms of complex carbohydrates (in the savoury dishes) and uses more natural sugars – but be warned you probably won’t lose masses of weight with this. I'm sure that the meals are all delicious, so as a cook book it’s great – but perhaps it needs a more honest and realistic title.
At the end of the day, it’s about how much sugar you consume, whether it’s natural or refined. Sugars are hidden in all sorts of foods and drinks you wouldn't think it would be, so educate yourself and you’ll have no problems.
There are a number of other excellent books out there for helping with reducing sugar intake including ones from Ella Woodward, Patrick Holford and a few others.
There is also a great support site from Laura Thomas called Happy Sugar Habits. In this site Laura has sensible and practical advice about what sugars are, what they do in your body and how to curb them. She also has an on line mentoring programme called "Mentor me off Sugar" to help you curb your sugar cravings sensibly, along with recipes and menu guides. Personally, I find that this is a much better way to help with your sugar free (or reduced sugar) journey than Davina McCall’s book is.
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