Sugar… Food Enemy Number One?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a pile of Krispy Kremes for the past few months, you will be fully aware that sugar has pushed fat resolutely off the “public enemy number one” pedestal, and many experts are now saying that “sugar is the new tobacco”.

The World Health Organisation recently recommended that “free sugars” – those found in processed foods and honey – should make up no more than 10% of a person’s daily energy intake, and a recent BBC programme, The Truth About Sugar, revealed that these hidden sugars lurk where we least expect them. A low fat yoghurt can contain as much sugar as a large bar of chocolate.

Elsa Jones to the rescue…

And yet, reducing sugar intake doesn’t have to be a penance. Deciphering food labels can be tricky, but Elsa Jones, a Dublin-based nutritionist who has just released a new book, Goodbye Sugar, takes the mystery out of the science. “One of the most useful tools is to remember that one teaspoon of sugar weighs four grams,” says Jones, a slender brunette with glossy hair and radiant skin, who is the poster child for selling her own book. “So, for example, if you pick up a breakfast bar and you see that it contains 20 grams of sugar, you can use that little equation to know that it translates into five teaspoons of sugar. And if you still want to eat it, no problem. But at least you can make an informed choice. You can say five teaspoons feels like a lot to you and maybe decide to look at a different option. It’s just about making informed choices.”

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Questioned dieting advice

Jones, who will be familiar to viewers of the Afternoon Show on RTE, says that two thirds of her clients, whom she meets on a one-to-one basis, come to her with weight management issues and the idea for the book was born out of genuine need. “I was finding, over the years, that a lot of people would do well with the diet advice for a period of time and then, three months later, a lot of them had fallen off the wagon,” she says. “That began to frustrate me because I began to question the diet advice that I was giving. Was it actually practical enough, was it right for people?

Over time, Jones identified the obstacles to success for her clients, and found that not only are we driven by our palate, which has become increasingly used to the presence of sugar in processed foods, but our head also plays a major role, and emotional eating was a recurring theme. “We all, to a degree, eat in response to our emotions; it’s how we comfort ourselves, reward ourselves or celebrate, because food is all around us,” she says. “Most of the eating that we do is not to relieve hunger, so emotional eating was a big factor for most people, as are cravings, and dealing with feelings of depravation.

Why diets fail

“I was beginning to see patterns emerge, in the sense that sugar and sweet cravings seemed to be people’s biggest obstacle. People would say they have a sweet tooth and have no willpower when it comes to sweet things; that they are addicted to sweet things and they just can’t give up. Time and time again it was the same patterns repeating themselves with people’s sugar cravings,” she says.

To address the problem more deeply, Jones studied Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and developed a programme to help people understand the thoughts and feelings that were influencing how they ate. “CBT is relatively new, and I don’t see myself as a psychologist, I’m not one, but I just use elements of it where appropriate for weight management,” she says. “Obviously if someone needed it I would refer them to a psychotherapist.”

Psychological tools help

In Goodbye Sugar, which is part cookbook and part practical advice on a healthier lifestyle, she combines a sugar-free nutritional plan and the psychological tools to beat sugar addiction with simple recipes that make sticking to the maintenance plan easy. “The structure of the book is based on a two-step programme that I developed and have actually been practising with clients for quite a while on a one-to-one basis and also in group courses,” she says. “The idea is that it is a two-step approach to weight management, but the book is very specific to sugar because I felt it was a big enough issue. But really it’s about developing a really balanced moderate, controlled, relationship with all types of foods, but there is a very specific focus on sugar.

Kick-start plan

“In the first part of the program we address the physical side of things. We look at rebalancing low sugar levels through dietary changes. Essentially what that does is reduce your sweet cravings and need for sugar and refined carbohydrates like the bread, scones, white pasta and suchlike. That starts what I call a 10 day sugar challenge, which essentially is a kick-start plan. The idea of the 10 day sugar challenge is it sort of wipes the slate clean and gives your body and mind a fresh start. It kind of recalibrates your system. That’s the kick start plan,” says Jones.

Old habits die easy

“If I was to bet, you’ll feel so good after the 10 days, you won’t really want to go back to your old eating habits because you’ll realise your jeans are looser, you feel much clearer in your head, much more energetic and your skin looks better. When you start to see and feel the benefits, you’ll love it. Then that will inspire you to keep it up, and that’s where the balanced eating plan helps you. It bridges you onto the next phase,” she says.

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Not a detox

This may sound a bit virtuous, but before you reach for that second Krispy Kreme, Jones is keen to emphasise that her plan is not a sugar detox programme. For a book that offers so much practical advice, it is extremely readable, and it may just be the perfect read for people with good intentions who just need a gentle push. It is timely too. As the warmer weather creeps in, people automatically adapt to a lighter diet, and the prospect of a lighter weight for the summer is an incentive, or should we say, the perfect “carrot”.

No counting points

After the initial kick start plan, the maintenance plan is designed to be a balanced eating plan for life. “There is no counting points, it’s not about eliminating lots of food groups from your diet like carbs or dairy or anything like that,” she says. “It’s really a sustainable, enjoyable, eating fat plan full of everyday foods. It was really important for me to do that, because I love my food and I think we just have to bring healthy eating back to basics. There’s a kind of extreme thing happening now, we’re either really bad or really good. But this book really is about having a balanced diet. I think we have lost sight of what a balanced diet really is.”

Jones says that her recipes are there to provide a bit of inspiration and guidance. “I’ve kept it relatively simple and accessible. I’m no chef, I’m an ordinary home cook and a working mother,” she says. “So I know what’s it’s like to be time starved and tired and having to cook from scratch in the evening time. I get put off by recipes that have a long list of ingredients; that I have to go to three different markets and stores to look for. These are ordinary ingredients that you’ll find pretty much in most of the markets.”

Simple recipes

The recipes include a selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas with a touch of a Mediterranean influence as Jones’ mother is Spanish. “I didn’t really grow up with traditional Irish cooking, but more a Mediterranean style cooking. So a bit of that may come through in the book,” she says. “I’m not much into veg.  You don’t have to be a vegetarian to follow this programme at all, but I do generally encourage people to increase the amount of plant-based foods in their diet. I think beans and lentils are such nutritious foods but really underused, particularly in Ireland. In Spain they use them a lot, they are so economical and nutritious. I think Irish people don’t know what to do with them. So you’ll see quite a few recipes in there for example lentil curry, lentil soup; I just wanted to inspire people a little bit on how to cook with beans and lentils because they are an amazing source of plant protein. But again, most people just don’t know what to do with them.”

No-sugar lifestyle hard to achieve

Jones approach in the book is very much that of an ally. She accepts that real life influences how we live and it is not possible to live in a virtuous eating bubble. “In my opinion, though people may disagree with me, a no-sugar lifestyle is very hard to achieve but a low-sugar lifestyle is more attainable for most people and that’s what I would advise,” she says. “You can have the treat now and again, but it’s about making conscious choices. The idea is that you don’t have that physical need to have something sweet after every meal. It’s trying to kick out that everyday sugar habit, that need to have that bit of chocolate every day. It’s just getting in control over it as opposed to it in control over you.”

You gotta plan

Essential to success is putting a good plan in place and making it easy to stick to it. “I could honestly say that for the majority of people who don’t achieve their health goals, it comes down to a lack of planning and organisation,” she says. “We all live very busy lives and I get it, I’m a working mother and it’s hard. But if you really want to achieve your goals it’s about prioritising it. So I kind of give a step by step guide: get organised, prepare your environment and plan.

“I’m a huge believer in the phrase that ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. If you really want to achieve something that’s difficult, you’ve got to get not only your mindset right, but your environment planned and organised. Half the time, if you’ve got the healthy good foods around you, you’ll eat them. And if you don’t, you won’t. So it’s just simple practical tips like that. When you come home tired after a hard day’s work and you don’t have the right foods in the fridge, that’s when you make the diet choices you have decided to avoid.”

Goodbye Sugar, by Elsa Jones, published by Gill & Macmillan, €16.99

millan, €16.99

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