Sugar-free eating: why it may pay to quit the sweet stuff

It is regularly called ‘white poison’, toxic, deadly, addictive, a killer, and the driver behind obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer – just about the worst PR anyone could ever imagine. But does sugar really deserve such a bad rep? Yes and no, depending on who you speak to. Some nutrition specialists say you should avoid it like the proverbial plague; others say that’s a dangerous thing to do, because you need sugar;  it’s  your body’s preferred energy source. Whichever side of the debate experts sit on, most agree on one thing: most of us eat far too much of the sweet stuff, and like all good things in life, too much can be bad. Feature writer Kim McClure looks at the life and times of Australian journalist and author Sarah Wilson who has made a brilliant career out of punting the benefits of sugar-free eating. MS

 By Kim McLure

Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson, author of I Quit Sugar cookbooks

With sugar paranoia taking centre stage, fat fear has been jostled into the wings, and the trend for sugar-free foods is rising. For Australian Sarah Wilson, an auto-immune deficiency led her to start eating sugar-free foods long before the trend became mainstream. Along the way, Wilson, a journalist, TV  presenter, blogger and wellness coach, has established herself as the glamorous guru of sugar-free eating,  and author of the  hugely popular I Quit Sugar cookbooks and blogs.

What makes her so popular is her charm, honesty and frankly, her ability to stick to her brand. She has become a kind of pied piper of sugar-free Hamlyn, with almost 180 000 followers on all forms of social media, and five recipe books in print.

Her journey began in 2011, when she began experimenting with a sugar-free lifestyle. Living with Hashimoto’s disease, a complex  autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid,  Wilson was desperate to regain control of her life and weight, and began slowly removing all forms of sugar from her diet. Three years later, she claims to manage her disease better and have all-round better moods and health.

Today, her website has become a digital Mecca for health nuts, packed with beautifully photographed images of delicious-looking, sugar-free foods, even boasting indulgences such as “sugar-free Ferrero Rocher”.

Sugar, according to Wilson, comes in many forms, and refined carbohydrates (found in breads, pasta and starch vegetables), sugary fruits and honey are equally as dangerous as pure white sugar. So what does she include in her recipes, if not devilishly delicious refined sugar and carbohydrates? Mostly rice malt syrup,  a liquid, made from cultured brown rice and enzymes.

The substance is similar in texture to honey and syrup, although much thinner and lighter in colour. Although fructose-free, rice malt syrup does contain glucose and is fairly high-energy. Wilson claims that because almost every cell in the body can metabolise glucose, it is digested quickly, while fructose is only digested in the liver, converting it into fat.

References to scientific studies on Wilson’s website shed light on the negative effects sugar: increased risk of heart disease; ageing and wrinkles; higher cancer risk; addiction akin to that of cocaine; and weight gain. She Wilson also advocates a high-fat diet, showcasing studies linking higher fat diets to a decreased risk of cancer.

In short, if you’re looking for reasons to “quit sugar”, you’ll find what you’re looking for on her website. You’ll also find a Coconut-Dreamboat Smoothie, Sugar-Free Lamingtons and Paleo Macadamia Chocolate Cookies, amongst others.

Becoming a figurehead for a sugar-free lifestyle hasn’t been without its challenges. At the end of 2013, fellow Australian nutritionist Cassie Platt spoke out against Wilson’s quit-sugar  movement, with the release of her own aptly named book, Don’t Quit Sugar. Platt claims she tried to quit sugar, and suffered the consequences, citing a weakened immune system and nervous condition.

Platt advocates a return to the slightly retro approach to low-sugar eating: finding high-energy glucose and fructose in unrefined carbohydrates and natural sources, such as honey, fruit and root vegetables. Platt and other dietitians have spoken out against quitting sugar, claiming it to be an extreme approach that can’t be followed by dieters who want to live a normal life,  and occasionally eat a piece of chocolate, sugary birthday cake or other sweet treat.

Wilson’s website is full of positive testimonials, and images of her that show a shiny-haired, white-toothed poster child for the sugar-free revolution. It appears that the quick-fix,fad diets of the past have made way for the Wilsons of the (digital) world: young, energetic representatives of a healthy lifestyle that, instead of promising quick results and kilogram-dropping, present a more balanced and desirable approach. Young healthies like her live their beliefs thoroughly, encompassing their choices into every corner of their lives, becoming one with their brand, which makes for a very successful business model at the same time.

As technology becomes more efficient and our lives are lived a split-second at a time, we are looking to people like Wilson to offer relief from the rat race – as well as a pretty, rustic-chic website with calming pastel colours  and chalkboard text to give hope that there is still the possibility of being in control of one’s health – and of course, to be able to eat sugar-free Nutella by the spoonful while doing it.


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