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When seven celebrities give up all forms of sugar for 15 days on Sugar Free Farm, they're in for a rough time. So should you jump on the sugar-free bandwagon, or are there easier and gentler ways to improve your health?
Alyssa Braithwaite

7 Mar 2017 - 2:46 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2017 - 4:55 PM

There's no sugar-coating it: most of us eat too much sugar.

A 2016 study found a third of Australians eat too much junk food, and the Australian Health Survey revealed that adults consume 60g or 14 teaspoons of added sugar per day, while in teenagers that figure is as high as 22 teaspoons each day.

Little wonder that diets based around giving up sugar are the latest healthy eating trend.

Coming to SBS, season two of Sugar Free Farm (starts Thursday 9 March 8.35pm - find out more here) sees seven British celebrities with terrible diets quit sugar cold turkey for 15 days.

Former Doctor Who actor Peter Davison; comedian Joe Pasquale; showbiz reporter Alison Hammond; The Only Way is Essex star Gemma Collins; former UK Conservative Party MP Ann Widdecombe; and Britain's Got Talent finalists, father and son Demi and Michalakis 'Lagi' Demetriou, live off the land on a farm in the English countryside.

Made to give up the unhealthy eating habits of a lifetime overnight, the celebs are faced with a list of rules for their new diet that fills them with dread: no honey, no syrup, no sweets, no chocolate, no fruit, no refined carbohydrates, no biscuits, no cakes, no low fat products, no fizzy drinks, no caffeine, no cordial, no alcohol, no fruit juice.  

Within a day the contestants are suffering under their new healthy-eating regimen, with complaints including dizziness and fatigue.

The show's nutritionist, Hala El-Shafie, says the reaction is not surprising: "When you come off sugar, you can feel like you are experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms," El-Shafie says.

"It can actually make you feel like you're coming off a drug. Symptoms include nausea, headache, low mood and irritability. Your body is used to having so much sugar... So it's a complete shock to the system."

So is it wise to give up sugar cold turkey? Or are you better to ease yourself off sugar more gradually?

Nutrition Australia Queensland Division's senior nutritionist, Aloysa Hourigan, believes an easy does it approach can have more success.

"If people really want to cut out sugar, the better idea is to gradually cut down the amount you use," Hourigan tells SBS.

"If you were having two teaspoons of sugar in every cup of coffee or tea you had, and you gradually bring that back to maybe half a spoon per cup and then maybe none, then actually your taste buds adapt to it and you don't contuinue to want the same level of sweetness.

"When you go cold turkey it's like an all or nothing, and it takes a bit longer for your taste buds to adapt."

Accredited practicing dietitian Gabrielle Maston agrees, noting that most people will not be able to cut out sugar completely in the long term.

"If you're withdrawing an energy source from someone - because sugar is energy - of course we're going to feel like a bit more fatigued or tired than usual if they're used to eating so much sugar," Maston, who is a spokesperson for the Dieticians Association of Australia, tells SBS.

"So do it gradually over time and make sure that you do have the occasional sweet treat once a week, just to keep you going, because the biggest thing that I see is when people give up everything that they love, you can only stay on that diet for so long.

"Giving yourself permission to have a little bit of dessert with friends and family once a week will just help you go longer on the diet, rather than an eight-week stint where you might do fabulously but then revert back to old behaviours because you love having chocolate cake and you feel like you're missing out."

Just how addictive is sugar?

No-one ever said quitting sugar was easy, and there's a good reason why.

"Our taste buds are really sensitive to sugar - the more we have the more we want. However, the reverse is also true. So when we take it out of our diets we crave it less," El-Shafie says.

At the start of their stay on Sugar Free Farm, the contestants were shown just how much sugar, refined carbohydrates, cheap and processed meat and bad fats they eat in a year.

The contestant with the worst diet was Pasquale, who ate more than 60kg of sugar, nearly 20 kilos of hydrogenated fats, 70 kgs of refined carbs like white rice and pasta, and 40kg of cheap and processed meat.

"One of the reasons I'm doing this is to understand exactly why my body wants it and why I find it so difficult to give it up," Pasquale says.

He's not alone. Hourigan says many of us fill up on junk food. 

"For most Australians probably about 35 to 45 per cent of our total energy intake comes from what we call the discretionary foods, which are the foods that are high not just in sugar but also in saturated fat and salt and very low in nutrients," says Hourigan. "And that's adding to our obesity problem."

"We're eating a lot of sugary foods - we're probably equivalent to the United States," agrees Maston, but she adds: "Cravings are learnt - we can unlearn them".

low-sugar options
How to make your breakfast sugar free - and delicious
Sugar Free Farm dietitian Hala El-Shafie delivers a breakfast wake-up call - cutting down sugar in your morning meal can help you eat healthily all day long.

Top tips for cutting back on sugar

Cutting sugar out of your diet might seem like an overwhelming challenge, but there are little changes you can make straight away to help you get started.

"Things like replacing sugary drinks with water, or having less sugar in your tea or coffee. These are easy things," says Hourigan.

"Checking the list of ingredients on food labels as well as the actual amount of sugar that's in the food will give you an idea whether it's got a lot of added sugar - if you see honey and glucose and stuff in the ingredients list, you know there's probably a fair bit of added sugar in there."

Maston says avoiding processed and pre-packaged food is a good rule, as they can contain a lot of hidden sugars, and be careful of seemingly healthy foods.

"Products that are raw or vegan can sometimes have a lot of added sugar, but done with agave sugar and coconut sugar," Maston says.

"We've got to remember that just because it's coming from a fancy fruit or a different substance that we don't normally have, it doesn't mean that is any healthier. It's the same with honey. So most people think that honey is healthier than table sugar because it comes from bees, but it's just liquified sugar."

Just a little bit of sugar...

Quitting sugar altogether is not necessary, our experts agree, but for many of us, cutting back will be good for your health in two major ways. 

"The first one that the World Health Organisation states is about dental health. So with lower intakes of sugar they have shown that people have less dental carries, and it doesn't seem like a bit deal for most people, but it's a huge health-burden on the population," Maston says.

"And then the second one, of course, is body weight. If you have diabetes for example, metabolic conditions, it will help regulate your weight a lot better. Sugary foods tend to make people crave more sugary foods, they can make people hungrier so people over-eat, so if we tend to cut those down naturally people lose weight, and then as we lose weight, cholesterol improves, blood pressure improves, blood sugar improves - so it's just a win-win across the board."

Overall, she says, quitting sugar is a great idea, but just cutting back is a beneficial and sustainable change.

"We know that the majority of Australians eat sugar. If we ate less it would be better for body weight, better for health, that's a great message."

Sugar Free Farm Season 2 airs Thursdays at 8.35pm from March 9. Discover more about what happens in season 2 here. View our TV Guide to find out when episodes are on air or catch up on missed episodes at SBS On Demand.

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