What does it mean to be sugar free

Often when I tell people that I am on a sugar free diet, they ask me what this means exactly. In other worse, what exactly counts as sugar and what is my diet like? Doesn’t fruit contain sugar as well? While it can sometimes be a little annoying to get the same question over and over again, I must admit that the question what it really means to not eat any sugar is a good question. So in order to switch to a sugar free diet, first we must find out what sugar free really means.

Quick and slow sugars and carbohydrates

Sugar, in its refined form, is in fact a type of carbohydrate. However, not every carbohydrate is absorbed by the body in the same way and with the same speed. The UK website on Diabetes for example provides an overview of quick or simple and slow or complex carbohydrates. Examples of simple carbs include table sugar, fructose and glucose. This in other words is sugar in its purest form. Complex carbohydrates are for example found in beans, peas, whole grains and many vegetables.

Fiber and the glycemic index

Generally, the amount of fiber in product that contain carbohydrates decides how fast the sugar in the carbohydrate is absorbed into the bloodstream. The speed with which sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream is called the glycemic index. Most products that contain a lot of fiber also have a low glycemic index, providing you with little amounts of energy throughout a longer period of the day. Since the fiber cannot be absorbed by the intestine, it provides a natural barrier for the absorption of glucose from food into the bloodstream.

Foods with a high glycemic index and low fiber give you a so-called sugar boost, providing you with a lot of energy at once. However, this sugar boost is usually followed by a sugar dip, since the pancreas will start producing loads of insulin to break down the overdose of glucose in your bloodstream. Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta and rice are stripped of their fiber and therefore have a lower glycemic index than their whole grain counterparts.

A bowl of sugar with a glucose monitor for diabetics
A bowl of sugar with a glucose monitor for diabetics

Look for fiber, avoid high glycemic foods

Generally, the goal of a sugar free diet is to avoid sugar spikes in the blood, because these sugar spikes have all kinds of negative effects, like sugar dips, the creation of white body fat, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Ultimately, you might be on a no sugar diet because you have diabetes or prediabetes, to lose weight or just because it is part of a healthy lifestyle.

Usually being on a sugar free diet means you will want to concentrate on eating foods that have a high fiber content and a low glycemic index. There has been a lot of discussion concerning the validity of the glycemic index for diet purposes. It is true that the exact glycemic index of foods depends on a lot of internal and external factors, and a low glycemic index is not a guarantee for health, while a high GI does not mean a certain food is unhealthy. The glycemic load, the amount of sugar contained by a product, is also important. You might be fine eating something with a high glycemic index but a low glycemic load, or combining a high GI food with something else that contains lots of fiber.

Sugar free diet: a personal consideration

I’ve been through many different diets before coming to my current sugar free diet. This has been a reflection of many different stages in my life and various circumstances and convictions. I don’t see diet as a rigid or static thing and do think it is important to be flexible.

I think your diet very much depends on your personal circumstances, your body and mind and the state of your health at the moment. For example, if you are diabetic or prediabetic, you might get great benefits out of avoiding carbohydrates altogether. I have heard from people who were able to reverse or stabilize their diabetes by going on a low carb or even no carb diet.

I originally started my sugar free diet to lose weight and for health reasons. In the beginning, I did not eat any grains and fruit with a higher glycemic index like pineapple, mango or dates. As I quickly lost the weight I wanted to lose, I decided to include whole grains and high GI fruits back into my diet. I also know people who avoid grains and even beans altogether and feel grains, but personally I feel I need them, also cause I practise a lot of sport.

Fruits with smoothies
Fruits with smoothies

Diet is a question of balance

I tend to stick to a diet that makes me feel good. Now you might think that means eating rubbish all day, but for me that means the opposite. If you do a sugar detox and include all pure sugars and quick carbs out of your diet, you will quickly feel more in touch with what makes you feel good. And I mean really makes you feel good, like in what creates balance in your body and mind. At the moment you might think that a chocolate bar or a coffee with two bags of sugar makes you feel good, but as you get off sugar you will quickly realize how sweet and disgusting many things that you were enjoying before were. As soon as you stop your addiction to sugar, you will feel more balanced and naturally enjoy eating healthy things like vegetables, whole grains and beans.

The natural approach

When it comes to no sugar, I tend to prefer a natural approach. Some fruits or dried fruits might have a higher GI, but they are still products which naturally appear in nature and have other health benefits, like lots of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial micronutrients. I don’t think it will hurt too much to eat those foods, as long as you use common sense and don’t over indulge.

For me, my sugar free diet has a couple of rules: I don’t buy products that have pure sugar or refined carbohydrates as one of their ingredients. Here it’s important to be careful, because manufacturers hide sugar on packaging behind as many as 50 different names. I also don’t use any sugar or refined carbohydrates at home. For the rest, I tend to be careful with foods that have a high glycemic index or contain a lot of carbs.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

I do think it’s important to not be to hard on yourself if you are on a sugar-free diet. In the end, pleasure is also healthy for both mind and body. If you completely starve yourself and deny yourself any pleasure, this will put stress and strain on mind and body and this is probably even unhealthier than eating sugar every now and again.

However, the fun part of a diet without sugar is that you will quickly learn that it is actually extremely easy to make sugar free desserts and cakes that are just as tasty or even tastier than traditional cakes with sugar. Also, once you cut your addiction to sugar, you will find that you will naturally need less sweetness in your sweets and will not even enjoy the taste of sugar any more.

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