Sugar: the addictive white powder that's killing you

It's official. I'm an addict. There is a white substance I've been relying on for a few years now that picks me up and gives me a kick a few times each day.

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The only problem is while it picks me up, it also crashes me down, hard. A few months ago I knew it was time to stop, I realised the white stuff was no longer my friend. It was time to have 'that' chat. It was time to break up with sugar.

You see, I should know all about the perils of sugar – I have a degree in Exercise Physiology and I also run a health and wellbeing company teaching people how to eat healthily.

But like everyone else I'm no angel – a few bad habits had crept into my schedule following a relationship break-up, a hectic work schedule, and a few too many late nights – and sugar became my go-to-crutch.

Just like a junkie waiting for their next fix, I was in constant search of my next sugar hit. And at the time, I didn't really understand just how addicted I was. My 'dealer' didn't drive a fancy car or meet me in dark alleys. My 'dealer' sold me sugary snacks (masquerading as 'health foods') that were doing all they could to drain my energy levels and keep me on the sugar rollercoaster.

Sweet nothings

In That Sugar Film, filmmaker Damon Gameau reports the average Australian is now consuming 40 teaspoons of the white stuff a day.

I calculated that I was consuming between 30 and 40 teaspoons of sugar in an average working day. It was the so-called 'healthy snacks' that were driving my insulin levels sky-high. These included:

  • Up and Go (4 teaspoons) before an early-morning cycle

  • Apple juice (7 teaspoons)

  • 200gm low-fat yoghurt (up to 6 teaspoons) for breaky or a mid-morning snack

  • Fruit muffin (7 teaspoons) I was having most afternoons with a coffee or a hot chocolate (6 teaspoons)

  • Small box of sultanas (4.5 teaspoons), to help me when I had that afternoon crash, or a Honey Nougat Log (6 teaspoons)

  • Low-fat ice cream for dessert (5 teaspoons in one scoop)


New guidelines published by the World Health Organisation recommend Australians reduce their intake of sugar to 10 per cent or less of their total energy intake, or to consume less than 12 teaspoons of sugar a day.

The report highlighted reducing total sugar intake to less than six teaspoons of sugar a day has additional health benefits including weight loss, less tooth decay, healthier heart, and fewer "crashes".

If you'd like to know how much sugar is in the foods you eat, check out the Sugar calculator.

Bittersweet break-up

After reading Sarah Wilson's book I Quit Sugar (thank you, Sarah) I realised it was time to change. Wilson talks about a practical approach to "heavily reducing sugar and going back to eating more energy dense foods, like our grandparents ate, with more essential fats".

"You don't have to cut out all sugar, I still eat a few pieces of chocolate and have small amounts of wine. But heavily reducing sugar had a major benefit on my health and wellbeing," says Wilson. "I had regular mood swings and sugar made me feel base-line crap. I was seductively addicted to sugar. It takes abstinence to get your body back but after a few weeks, your body does recalibrate."

The benefits of dumping sugar

Most people think they "need" sugar to boost energy levels, however this couldn't be further from the truth. Nutritionist Teresa Boyce sees hundreds of sugar addicts in her practice every year.

"Dietary sugar plays havoc with blood sugar levels and associated insulin response. Insulin takes sugar from the blood and stores it as glycogen in our muscles and liver, yet once those glycogen stores are full, insulin will store excess sugar as fat," she says. "Once our blood sugar levels drop the sugar craving starts all over again and the sugar rollercoaster continues."

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The link with weight gain and sugar comes down to increased insulin production, Boyce explains. "Consuming quality fats, protein and fibre will help prevent blood sugar surges; fat actually has no impact on blood sugar levels or insulin therefore will help you feel stable, satisfied and in control throughout the day."

The physiological benefits of a low-sugar diet include stable blood sugar and energy levels, optimal insulin response and weight maintenance. "Cutting out processed sugar also opens up the diet to include nourishing foods like nuts, seeds, wholefruits, vegetables and full fat dairy."

Five ways to quit sugar

I spoke with sugar-free Sarah Wilson about the easiest ways to eliminate unnecessary sugar.

  1. Avoid 'low-fat' products – choose full fat yoghurt, milk and cheese. Manufacturers add sugar to low-fat products to make them taste better

  2. Only eat fruit whole – avoid dried fruit and fruit juice, especially the manufactured types of juice

  3. Buy food with the least number of ingredients – read the labels and make sure you can easily identify what's in it. Ideally, get back to basic eating like our grandparents did with energy-dense foods without all of the added sugar and preservatives

  4. Avoid sauces – there is more sugar in tomato and BBQ sauce (33gm or 8 teaspoons of sugar in 100gm of BBQ sauce) than there is in chocolate topping

  5. Learn to cook – when you prepare your own food you have much more control over what goes into the meal.

This last tip is essential. Over the past month I have learned how to cook a stack of healthy and great-tasting meals that take less than 10 minutes to prepare. I have more energy, I don't experience the afternoon crash like I once did, and my brain feels much clearer.

Being a recovering addict feels good.

Have you curbed a sugar addiction? What happened after cutting back on the white stuff? Or are you still in the grip of addiction?

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