Is giving up sugar all it's cracked up to be? With Sugar Free Farm, a documentary that follows six brave souls who quit sugar cold turkey showing 7.30pm Thursdays on SBS, we take a look at this controversial topic.
Sophie Knox

2 Jun 2016 - 11:47 AM  UPDATED 27 Jun 2016 - 12:10 PM

Opinion leaders are always eager to find scapegoats for society’s problems. Teenage depression? Electronic devices. Declining job market? Immigration. Unaffordable housing? Negative gearing. When it comes to the health issues faced by a bloating slice of the world’s population, sugar has become the demon. It’s much easier to solve problems with an enemy in line of sight, right?

As a result, people all over the world are eliminating the “enemy” from their diets, including six reluctant celebrity members of this anti-sugar brigade. The six moved to a farm in the countryside to undergo a dietary experiment – live sugar-free for two weeks while the cameras filmed their intermittent highs and frequent lows. The result, a three-part series called Sugar Free Farm, starts on SBS next week (find out more about the show here).  

The program follows musical theatre star Jane McDonald, comedian Rory McGrath, quiz mastermind Mark Labbett, actress Tupele Dorgu, actor James ‘Arg’ Argent and dancer Jennifer Ellison as they eliminate sugar from their diets and carry out their jobs on this working farm. In return for their labour, the celebs are given fresh produce for their meals. Nutritionist Angelique Panagos oversees their culinary adventures, teaching them new ways to create nutritious meals without the assistance of sugar.

So could you – indeed, should you – quit sugar cold turkey for two weeks?

How much is too much?

So were these famous faces consuming sugar before they signed up to Sugar Free Farm? Absolutely. The World Health Organisation’s guidelines recommend we reduce our 'free sugar' consumption to be no more than 10 per cent of our total kilojoule intake. “Free sugars” are those added to foods and drinks, as well as those found naturally in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It doesn't refer to the sugars found in fruits and vegetables, or those naturally present in milk.

For an adult Australian consuming a normal 8700kJ a day, staying under 10 per cent of total energy means consuming no more than 55 grams or 13 teaspoons of sugar per day. So how much energy does a 600ml bottle of Coca Cola contain? Sixteen teaspoons.

And here’s the catalogue of “free sugar” foods that starred in these celebs’ daily diets: soft drink, vitamin water, fruit juice, cordial, chocolate bars, muffins, breakfast cereal, lollies, biscuits, doughnuts and ice cream. What they also consumed were the savoury foods that aren’t ostensibly sugar laden but in fact conceal it by the bucket load: frozen pizza and chicken nuggets, tomato sauce, instant breakfast drinks, energy bars, and mayonnaise, among others.

“This is going to be difficult for me to keep up because life’s too short not to have a scone,” declares theatre star Jane McDonald. Indeed. Not only do the stars give up free sugars, they give up white bread, alcohol and, for the first week, fruit. Quiz mastermind Mark Labbett admits: “When I’ve got nothing to do I’m a grazer. When I was doing the American series of The Chase I was walking around with a cup full of M&Ms and drinking them. Chocolate is my sin.”

After the first few days, the six participants suffer all kinds of withdrawals. According to Dr Annie Marshall, principal GP and owner of Sydney practice Rozelle Total Health, “It’s normal to expect irritability, moods swings and headaches. Some people report anxiety. But it’s important to note these symptoms are temporary and not dangerous, and are offset by the resulting health benefits long term.”

Is cold turkey safe?

Dr Marshall believes there’s no single “right way” to approach this lifestyle change and ultimately any reduction is desirable. “A gradual reduction may be less traumatic, both physically and psychologically, and, statistically, gradual change translates more readily into a sustained changed.” 

“The flip side of this black and white mentality is when that person 'falls off the wagon' they are more likely to fall right off, where as a moderated approach will allow for slip ups.”

She continues, “Contemporary culture has primed us to expect instant rewards. A cold turkey approach presents as a short-term challenge with instant effect – the individual can feel a tangible response for their efforts. This can provide a form of intrinsic encouragement to continue.

“The flip side of this black and white mentality is when that person 'falls off the wagon' they are more likely to fall right off, where as a moderated approach will allow for slip ups.”

One of Australia’s most vocal champions of living a sugar-free life is Sarah Wilson of I Quit Sugar fame. Does she believe going cold turkey is the best approach? “My experience has found that a one-week lead-in period works best, in part for emotional reasons. After that, cold turkey is appropriate and entirely manageable if done in conjunction with a nutritionally sound program that supports the individual’s hormone fluctuations and blood sugar deregulation.”

Sarah Wilson

Catherine Saxelby, accredited nutritionist and commentator from, believes a measured approach is the key to long-term success. “Cutting sugar out gradually is the key. I would keep one treat a day, like four small squares of dark chocolate, because when people return to eating in the real world, they need to maintain their everyday lives without cracking under the pressure of no sugar.”

An ambulance is called to Sugar Free Farm when Jennifer and Jane suffer muscle pain and faint after working in the vegetable garden. Jennifer, who used to drink six to eight cans of Coke a day, says, “Every time I bent down it felt like someone was standing on my eyeballs. I felt physically sick. If you’ve ever detoxed, take that feeling and times it by 10. We were detoxing from processed food, sugar, alcohol, everything.”

Sounds like sugar isn’t the only issue? “They don’t have a problem with sugar, they have a problem with junk food,” pronounces nutritionist Catherine Saxelby. “What I don’t understand is why sugar is code for getting rid of junk food. And what about snacks? Chips have no sugar but they’re high in fat – they’re just potato, oil and salt. It’s not only sugar they need to eliminate. It’s the company sugar keeps.”

Sugar is often a marker for highly processed foods that contain refined starches, such as pastries, cakes, doughnuts, pies and biscuits. So perhaps the wiser path is to remove these nutritionally barren foods from your diet and avoid artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and other processed ingredients. Catherine Saxelby says, “Food technologists are very clever at formulating ‘bliss foods’ that are so irresistible you have to eat them. Think about Tim Tams – sit down with a packet and a cuppa and five minutes later six of them have gone.”

Is two weeks enough?

So if you did decide you cold benefit from reducing or eliminating is sugar from your diet, is two weeks enough to guarantee a lasting dietary change? Sarah Wilson says it’s a start. “In two weeks, two things happen: your tastebuds change and everything suddenly tastes sweeter, and pimples and wrinkles fade. However, the other [health] benefits take longer. Plus, the most recent addiction theory advises we need approximately 60 days to overcome a habit, both emotional and physiological.”

Catherine Saxelby asserts two weeks is not enough to embed long-term changes: “When you talk to dieticians who see clients regularly, they transition people off any kind of food group slowly – six to 12 weeks.”

And do we need to remove every skerrick of sugar? Caroline Griffiths is a Melbourne-based food writer, cook and nutritionist, and author of Incredible Bakes (see our review and some of her recipes here), which features recipes free of refined sugar. She recommends giving up “the easy ones [sugary drinks and snacks] first, then commit to cooking meals from scratch and try baking your own reduced-sugar and refined sugar-free goodies.”

Sugar proxies

So what food replacements do the Sugar Free Farm participants substitute for these high-sugar foods? Jennifer loved baked chicken nuggets and sweet potato chips with homemade tomato sauce. Jane and James baked a carrot cake and instead of using refined sugars they used grated apple and dates, as well as cinnamon and vanilla extract as sweeteners.

Caroline Griffiths says the secret to knocking out a light and airy cake without using refined sugars is: “A great recipe! Without relying on sugar, the unique flavours of pure vanilla, nuts, spices, and even vegetables and legumes get their chance to shine. I also use dextrose and rice malt syrup in moderation and a few drops of the liquid natural sweetener stevia.”

Sugar alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. Catherine Saxelby says, “I reviewed them all – stevia, coconut sugar, maple syrup, rice malt syrup, panela – and I found honey is the best. I can’t use maple syrup in baking. And rice malt syrup has a very high GI – it’s so sticky and expensive. Is this really the best option for the everyday Australian?”

So after two weeks on Sugar Free Farm, how do the participants view sugar? Jane believes “they’ve been introducing all this poison into our systems for so many flipping years, there’s no wonder there are so many ill people in this country.” Extreme views aside, what transpires is that the Sugar Free Farm team gains a deeper knowledge of food and its nutritional composition so they head back to their lives with the capacity to build upon healthier habits in the kitchen.

Dr Annie Marshall says that’s a crucial point. “Whole foods and cooking from scratch reconnects people with the food they eat. It translates into mindful eating and encourages people to make deliberate food choices. Teach these skills to the general population and the health benefits will flow.” There’s today’s lesson for us all. 

Sugar cube image by Jill Shih via Flickr


Watch Sugar Free Farm On Demand nowFind out more about this three-part series here.

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