Easter might have come and gone, but many households across Ireland will still be harbouring the remnants of chocolate eggs, foil-wrapped bunnies and other sweet treats.
If you’re diligently trying to avoid sugar after bingeing on goodies during the four-day weekend then kudos to you, as kicking the habit of a lifetime is easier said than done.
We all know that giving up refined sugar can be borderline impossible, even though it’s well-documented that too much of it is bad for us.
Research shows that excess consumption of foods high in fats, salt, and sugar play a significant role in increasing our risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
According to the HSE, six in ten adults and one in five children are overweight or obese in Ireland so now is the perfect time to start scaling back.
However, it’s a good idea to be prepared with the right advice before you get started. After all, sometimes you need tips that go beyond purging your house of all temptations.
We asked experts to share some insider knowledge on how to beat those sugar cravings and cut back on the white stuff for good…
1. Know your enemy
"Who says we need to quit all sugar?" says nutritionist Lily Soutter, speaking on behalf of cold-pressed juice brand, Press. "Be savvy with what you give up instead."
"While we need to be mindful of reducing our ‘free sugar’ intake, we don’t need to ditch all sugar. There is a lot of confusion as to whether we need to hold back on fruit consumption due to the sugar content, for instance," she adds. "You may have heard rumours such as ‘bananas make you fat’, or that ‘fruit is high in sugar therefore unhealthy’. However, this is simply a myth.
"Fruit sugar is locked into a fibrous matrix, which can help to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream and keep us full. Fruit also comes with key vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which support health."
Soutter explains that it’s ‘free sugars’ – which are mainly added by manufacturers to enhance flavour and have no nutritional value – that we should be wary of. "The current recommendations are that we cut back on free sugars to 30g per day. To put this into context, one tablespoon of honey comes with as much as 17g of free sugar – so that drizzle of honey you add to your porridge could be hitting your maximum intake of free sugar before 9am."
"Be wary of ‘hidden sugars’ too," adds Dr. David Lewis, co-author of Fat Planet: The Obesity Trap And How We Can Escape It. "These are sugars that manufacturers introduce into a surprisingly wide range of foods under various guises. You might find them listed as sucrose, glucose, grape sugar, dextrose, maltose, ethyl maltol or fructose."
With this in mind, Lewis says it’s a good idea to get in the habit of reading food labels, so you can keep a record of how much you’re consuming.
2. Stay hydrated
According to Dr. Will Breakey, founder of natural condiments brand Dr. Wills, keeping a regular supply of water by your desk can help to ward off afternoon cravings for biscuits and sweets.
"Off-the-shelf bottles of fizzy drinks harbour lots of sugar and even the diet varieties contain potentially harmful sugar substitutes," warns Breakey. "Buy yourself a BPA-free water bottle with a wide lid, so you can throw in natural flavourings like lemon wedges, orange segments, chopped strawberries, and mint.
"Don’t forget to keep drinking in the evening, as studies have shown that staying well hydrated before bedtime can help to curb night-time sugar cravings."
3. Keep a supply of frozen berries
If you’re looking to satiate your sweet tooth without cracking open a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, Dr. Breakey says having a healthy supply of frozen berries in the freezer is a great combatant.
"Mixed with natural yoghurt, frozen raspberries and blueberries can give you a super quick ‘froyo’ dessert, which can stave off any post-dinner cravings for ice-cream.
"It’s a great food swap now that the warmer weather has arrived. If you let your berries thaw out a bit, you can also use them as a substitute for a shop bought jam too – just smash them on some wholegrain bread for a healthy breakfast hack."
4. Substitute with cinnamon
If you’re struggling to give up sugar at breakfast time, our experts suggest trying a spoonful of cinnamon instead of reaching for the honey pot.
"It might seem counter-intuitive – as cinnamon is usually associated with sweet treats – but adding a sprinkle of the spice to your porridge can help to ward off cravings for free sugars."
The benefits of swapping in cinnamon don’t stop there either. "Cinnamon helps reduce blood-sugar levels because it slows stomach emptying and makes you feel full faster," says Breakey. "You’ll only need a teaspoon daily – and you can sprinkle this into your coffee quite easily. The fresher the cinnamon the better, as its active ingredients begin to degrade over time."
5. Get a good night’s sleep
"If you’ve ever found yourself munching your way through sugary quick-fix foods after a sleepless night, then science can explain why," says Soutter. "Research has shown that sleep deprivation is associated with an increase in appetite, and a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that when sleep is restricted, our satiety hormone, leptin, decreases, and our hunger hormone, ghrelin, increases."
And lack of sleep may do more than just increase your appetite. "It’s also been shown to affect our food choices," says Soutter. "Research from King’s College London found that sleep-deprived people on average consume 385 calories more per day than those who slept longer."
Sleep deprivation can increase cravings for quick-fix foods such as sweets, salty snacks and high-calorie starchy foods, as the body looks for an instant boost of energy. So, if you’re often relying on a can of Coke to pull you through the afternoon, it might be signal to readdress your sleep schedule.
6. Be mindful of booze*
The sugar content in beer or your favourite pre-mixed cocktail is something many people are surprised about, and your weekend tipple can easily send you well over the recommended daily-intake guidelines.
"Sure, alcohol isn’t great for us in general and lots of us are trying to cut down, but many of us still like a drink, so it pays to know the sugar content of each tipple," says Dr. Breakey.
"For the no-sugar purist, opt for vodka, soda, and lime – this has no real sugar content and is only around 100 calories per glass," he advises. "If you’re a wine drinker, stick to prosecco, as it contains 1g of sugar per 250ml glass. It’s low-sugar choice compared with a large glass of pinot grigio (5g), zinfandel rosé (8g) or doux (sweet) champagne, which can contain a whopping 28g."
Unfortunately, there’s no real cure for hangovers, so if you want to save yourself the headache the morning after while still keeping your sugar levels in check, opt for a low-sugar, alcohol-free drink instead.
The good news is, slowly reducing your sugar consumption is likely to have lasting effects. "After a while, the taste buds adapt to unsweetened foods – so stick with your plan," promises specialist performance nutritionist Matt Lovell. "Soon enough, if you start adding sugar back into your tea or coffee, you’ll notice how sickly-sweet and undrinkable it is."