Rachelle Napper spent a year without sugar. So what was it like to go hard-line sugar free? Has the change become permanent? Rachelle tells SBS about the reasons behind her diet choices, and how her love of yoga informs her attitude to food.
Sophie Knox

10 Jun 2016 - 2:32 PM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2016 - 5:43 PM

Rachelle Napper has just returned from a 15km walk. Five days a week, she sets off at 6am with a friend, marshalling her southern Queensland coastline before the day begins. The hours that follow comprise a balanced medley of work as an art director, yoga practice and renovation projects (she’s currently working on her sixth redevelopment), along with mindful time spent with family and friends.

Five years ago, 40-year-old Rachelle’s Sydney life was less composed. “I’d been running at full steam for years, working 60-80 hours a week as a creative director, plus a day of yoga, as well as socialising.” Tired yet?

In 2012, things came to a head. Rachelle's grandmother had passed away at the end of 2011 and her mother was dealing with that loss. The two decided to go to the Living Valley Springs health farm on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and spend time time together. "It was a re-focussing and a realignment to how I'd grown up. The information we were getting, it was stuff we knew but that break allowed me to focus, it gave me clarity. Being away from the hectic pace of my life, having that meaningful Mum time, and having that information allowed the wisdom about being sugar-free to rise to the surface. 

“We did a 10-day program. I’d been reading all the sugar literature  – Dr Libby Weaver, Sarah Wilson, Nicole Mowbray’s Sweet Nothing, William Dufty’s Sugar Blues and David Gillespie – and everything pointed towards sugar being nutrient devoid. So I had the cognitive knowledge, but I needed the space to really know it,” explains Rachelle. "I really respect Libby Weaver, she's highly qualified and I think she's at the forefront of research on this."  

Despite Rachelle’s motivation coming from an undeniably genuine place, she admits that “My feeling was if I’m going to be deprived, there’s no way I can give up sugar.”

“It took me a while to get my head around it not being about deprivation. It had to be about abundance, health and positivity.”

After five months, Rachelle met up with a group of “pseudo-medico” friends, as she does every New Year’s Eve. “One of my best friends is a genetic research doctor, another is an anaesthesiologist, one is a haematologist and another is the health editor at Vogue.” Rachelle and her health crew set their new year’s resolutions at an “empowerment happiness get-together” instead of going out and partying. “We go through our intentions, set goals for the year and encourage one another to live purposefully – we’ve been doing it for seven years.” Not surprising, given Rachelle was raised by extremely health-conscious parents.

“Mum and dad were hippies, and everything was made from scratch. We grew up in a very nutrient-dense household. From early on my awareness of sugar was that it’s white poison. But by our teenage years my brothers and I were eating what we wanted – once you’re associating with other kids, you make your own choices.”

So back at Rachelle’s NYE summit, her life came full circle. “My new year’s resolution for 2013 took shape – no sugar at all.” And we’re talking the full gamut of sweet nothings. She eliminated fruit, alcohol and packaged foods with a sugar content higher than 5g of sugar per 100g. She even cut out the protein balls she’s been having after teaching or doing yoga classes.

How did she feel? “The first week was a nightmare. I had headaches – I slept all day if I had the chance. I was going through a kind of detox. It was full on,” remembers Rachelle.

At the six-month mark, she had a moment of reflection. “The interesting observation was that I hadn’t dropped any weight. It didn’t matter because that wasn’t my intention but as a result of dropping sugar, I’d unwittingly upped my carbohydrate intake.” What does that mean? Carbs are converted to sugar (glucose) in the body. “So I’d stopped the sugar intake but overridden the intention with ‘Oh, I’ll just have a slice of toast’.

“So I upped protein and my energy levels completely stabilised. I felt strong 100 per cent of the time. I slept amazingly. I didn't have joint pain, my skin was amazing, those extra few kilos dropped away and everything just flowed.”

"This was the reason I did it – not to conquer sugar, but to get honest with my body and my energy levels..."

Rachelle’s epiphany reflected her true intentions: “This was the reason I did it – not to conquer sugar, but to get honest with my body and my energy levels. So when I got tired before, I’d grab something healthy that was sugar- laden, like dates or figs, but it would be an artificial charge. Now I just need to get more sleep. A quick fix is not the answer.”

So what took the place of all those energy-boosting foods? “Nuts, boiled eggs –they’re the best. So transportable, so nutritious. I was already having a green smoothie for breakfast but I switched out banana for avocado,” says Rachelle. The only sweetener she used was stevia, a plant-based sweetener extracted from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana.

“If someone has invited me to their house for a meal, it’s because they value me as a person, so I will eat whatever’s put in front of me with gratitude, as long as I’m not allergic. And I won’t even mention my diet.”

A big driver of Rachelle’s sugar-free path has been her yoga practice. “What I’ve taken from the yoga philosophy is to be flexible, let go and take the middle path. Also to be aware, responsible, educated, hygienic, conscious and compassionate. To find my truth.”

Rachelle enjoys a kaleidoscope of friendships, so surely she stumbles upon cynics in her journey? “I have gorgeous people around me who eat whatever they eat and I don't judge them or preach and they don’t judge me. Everybody has different nutritional requirements, and I was ready for that journey, ready to challenge myself.

“If someone has invited me to their house for a meal, it’s because they value me as a person, so I will eat whatever’s put in front of me with gratitude, as long as I’m not allergic. And I won’t even mention my diet.”

So is living sugar free a permanent modification? “At the start of 2014 I thought I’d chill out on the ‘no sugar’ thing and see if I felt deprived. So I ate a bit more sugar, considering whether I was being too extremist. Then in 2015, when I moved to Queensland, I realised I wanted to make that commitment of no sugar but I was more focused on no refined sugar and a little bit of maple syrup and coconut sugar.

“And that’s how I’ve continued – I’m sugar free but I eat fruit, except for dried because it’s so concentrated and you get more fibre with fresh fruit. I’m focused on packing the day with more nutrients.”

Once a week Rachelle enjoys a full-fat dairy coffee with a friend, and “enjoys the heck out of it!” When she heads out for dinner she sometimes orders wine and if she wants to stay dry at dinner parties she takes a bottle of kombucha.

And her mother's doing well too.  “In 2013 Mum and Dad joined my sugar-free journey and they both had amazing results – they’re winning at life. They're 67 going on 30.”

Rachelle views her life choices in a big picture context. “Universally, there are more people going without food, without choice, than choosing to quit sugar. So my main attitude is one of humility and gratitude, to have so many choices and options to honour my body, mind and spirit in the ways that serve me best.” But right now, it’s time for buckwheat porridge. The body has spoken.

Warm up your winter mornings with this sugar-free quinoa and chia porridge


Rachelle’s typical day of eating sugar free

I eat with the seasons and at the moment, with the chillier weather, I’m going in for all the warming foods and spices. Because I spend a lot of time outdoors first thing in the morning, when I get back home I want to warm up!

6am Warm water with 1/2 lemon squeezed, then a green tea before meeting a friend to walk the coastline for 15km. Usually we get an earl grey tea at the surf club. In summer I have a sparkling water.

10am Green juice of lemon, spinach, cos lettuce, green apple, ginger and turmeric. In warmer weather I have a green smoothie and omit the porridge for a couple of soft-boiled eggs.

10.30ish Lately I’ve been having buckwheat or quinoa porridge with almond or coconut milk and stewed apple with some coyo and nuts and seeds. I found a granola that’s under 2g sugar per 100g and super tasty so I’ll chuck a spoonful of that on top. 

2.30ish Lunch is baked purple sweet potato with “chopped things” thrown on top! Chicken, spanish onion, coriander, goats cheese, smashed avo, always fresh herbs, pepper and a drizzle of mustard or pickles or if I want some heat, some spicy Byron Bay Chilli Sauce. 

7pmish Soup. More like a stew because I like it chunky. This week is a lamb harira recipe. I make my own organic bone broth and use that as a base for heaps of dinner soups or stews. I generally cook up a big batch once a week and load up the freezer and share my cooking with family and friends. I’m like a soup dealer...

Snacks Today I baked gluten-free banana bread and enjoyed a slice with family who dropped in. I don’t always need snacks as my meals are all pretty regular and not too far apart. I always have boiled eggs in the fridge so if I’m going to be out around meal times I’ll pack a few eggs or some vegie sticks with hummus. My cannot-resist snack is bhuja mix. It’s a gluten-free curry-flavoured snack food in a packet and it hits all my flavour g-spots and takes me to happy places. I love to cook healthy treats for occasions too and have a wealth of sugar-free cookbooks, chefs, food editors and bloggers I stalk.

Drinks Usually I stick to water but I’ll have coconut water (or home made coconut water icy poles in summer) if I feel like “something else” and have a chai now and then too. I have lots of herbal teas on rotation. Once a week I have a coffee with a friend, usually early on a weekend morning. I occasionally order wine and often I’ll take a bottle of pink hibiscus kombucha to dinner parties.

9ish Turmeric latte on almond mylk or coco quench. It’s a little ritual I have now and I love to warm it up with lots of spices and pepper and add a bit of probiotic powder. I started making it for my mum about eight months ago when I stayed with her for a while after she had a nasty bout of food poisoning. We’re all hooked on it now!

Weekends are a bit different. I’m usually busy running around and find I drop my routine and food consumption a bit, more grazing and gathering and preparing goods for the week ahead. I never go hungry!


Yoga peace portrait images by Mikey K Pozarik.

lower on sugar
Sweet potato granola

Nothing gets you up and moving in the morning like this crunchy and delicious bowl of granola! This super healthy grain-free, sugar-free and dairy-free recipe is packed with the natural goodness and protein of nuts and seeds and the blood sugar balancing properties of cinnamon – guaranteed to keep you going until lunch time.

Mint choc chip smoothie

Move over mint slice, this smoothie tastes just like mint choc chip ice-cream, only it’s much healthier. In fact, the traditional biscuit-y version has got nothing on this blended variety, which is full of sweet minty creaminess, minus the bloat.

Grain-free banana bread muffins

Delicious, healthy and simple to make, these gluten-free muffins use banana, eggs and coconut flour for the batter base.