Don’t sugar coat it – why we love and how to reduce sugar

Russell posted this question on my Facebook page:

I’m addicted to sugar. I can binge on over 2000 calories a day. How should I give up this manna?

 I ate an Easter egg in one go this morning before breakfast.

I’ve been snacking on a macaroon and just finished half of a salted caramel cake. I’ve just had a pot noodle.

 Yesterday I had another chocolate and caramel egg and the other half of the cake. I do this pretty much every day.

 I’ll destroy a packet of supermarket cookies if I’ve been out to a class in an evening.

I don’t imagine Russell is alone in wondering how he can reduce his sugar intake. Do you struggle with craving and binging on sugary foods? If so read on to get more understanding into why you do this and how you might be able to give up or reduce ‘this manna”.

What to expect: 1400 words – reading time about 10 minutes – covering why we binge on sugar and 5 things to consider if you want to give up or reduce ‘this manna”. I also briefly share my story with sugar.

So firstly –what is sugar?

sugar 2

Sugar is a carbohydrate.

Table sugar is sucrose (50% sucrose and 50% fructose). Glucose is the form of sugar that floats in our blood stream which rises in response to our ingestion of food.

When we talk about cutting out sugar this can mean different things for different people. For most of us this would mean cutting out sweets, puddings and added sugars. Some people talk about replacing table sugar with honey, fructose (from fruit), agave syrup, maple syrup etc. For example Divina’s 5 Weeks To Sugar Free. Yet it’s important to understand THESE ARE STILL SUGAR -they’ve just been processed differently.

To your body the calories are the same and for some of us – self included – I could just as easily binge on a plate full of brownies made from 100% coco solids if they have a decent amount of honey/maple syrup/agave in them!

If you are trying to lose weight the first and most important factor is energy balance – if you are overeating calories your body won’t care if they come from a packet of M&Ms or from a batch of homemade Paleo flapjacks!

Yes, if you are using fruit as a sweetener you will get more fibre and micro nutrients so there are advantages – but anyway I’m going off on a tangent, let’s get back to why we over eat sugar.

Why do we over eat sugar?

Sugar is highly palatable.

Sugar scores very low on the satiety index so it’s easy to pack it away and still not feel satisfied. .

When we eat sugar our brains get that “happy feeling” from sugar and this can over ride the “I’ve had enough” mechanism.

Sweet foods trigger the same areas that are lit up in response to other addictive substances that make us feel good – drugs, sex, alcohol etc. We get an escape from whatever emotion we don’t want to feel – be this boredom, sadness, frustration etc.

If you have easy access to your favourite sweet food, then once you start it’s very hard to stop. Your brain starts to anticipate the sugar rush and the good feelings. Just like Pavlov’s dogs we become conditioned and salivate in response to the stimulus. We are quickly caught up in this feedback loop.

In Russell’s case that packet of super market cookies has no chance.

In my case, a plateful of my mum’s home made tablet, a tub of Ben and Jerry’s or a bag of over priced Vue Pick & Mix is easy pickings.



So what do I do?

Here are 5 things to consider when thinking about ‘You and Sugar’. I”ll then briefly  share my sugar story.

Consider 1) Cold Turkey

You could go ‘cold turkey’ – i.e. cut out all highly processed sweet foods in your diet.

One problem with going ‘cold turkey’ and completely eliminating it from your diet is that this ‘all or nothing’ approach can cause a mindset of deprivation which can lead to a major binge. This will be more likely to happen if you are on a very low calorie diet (see my binge story here)

Personally I’m a big fan of moderation rather than cutting out sugary foods entirely. But for some people ‘cold turkey’ seems to work.

Consider  2) Reducing your intake/ practicing moderation

Be aware of the treats you are eating by tracking your intake for a week.

Then decide which of these you really love and want to keep. Make a plan to cut the rest out of your diet.  You could start cutting 10 % per week until you are happy.

For example – if you have a daily intake of :

  • A hot chocolate
  • A can of Coke
  • A packet of Haribo
  • Four pieces of Diary Milk chocolate

In the first week you could remove the Haribo but keep the rest.

In the second week switch the Coke for a Diet Coke

Until by week 4 all you have are 4 small bits of chocolate which you savour and love. You might eventually want to swap the Dairy Milk for a less sugary chocolate – you might not – in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.

Make life easier for yourself by:

  • making a promise to yourself that you won’t buy these things when you go shopping – and stick to it
  • not having the things you’ve decided you don’t want to eat in your house
  • if you have to have them in the house for your partner or kids, at least don’t have them insight. Put them in a cupboard out of your eye sight.



Consider 3) Deal with the feelings/ emotion that are driving you to eat

“Want a Coke?” Abra asked. “Sugar solves lots of problems, that’s what I think.”  (Stephen King, Doctor Sleep). 

Joy Victoria makes the point very well that “the problem” is not with the food per se – the problem is ‘you with the food’. She argues that this problem can change when your relationship with the food changes. [].

Being in tune with your feelings and emotions isn’t easy but you can start by keeping a food-mood diary.

In this diary note how you are feeling before and after you eat the sweet foods. What emotions are you eating rather than feeling?

If you’re not in tune with your emotions this will take some time and practice. You might want to talk to a trusted friend or a professional. (If people are interested in this topic please write in the comments and I’ll do a separate post on this).

Consider 4) Improving the quality of the rest of your diet

“Eat real food mostly vegetables, not too much.” (Michael Pollen)

A close friend of mine eats a very high sugar diet. She’s very slim so doesn’t worry about her weight but she knows she’s not getting enough quality in the rest of her diet as the few calories she eats in a day come from highly palatable foods that are low in nutrition. Sugar intake isn’t just a problem for folks who are overweight. Her intake of sugar and lack of veggies and protein affect her skin and her mood yet it’s really hard for her to break this cycle.

If you find eating sugar leads you to eating more sugar then make a decision to avoid sweet processed foods (see points 1 and 2). Rather fill up on foods that contain protein and non refined carbs first. Get full on these foods.

I love the idea of “crowding out” a less healthy diet. Rather than focusing on what you ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have focus on eating satiating, nutrient dense foods in sufficient amounts. It’s very hard to over eat veggies, lean meats etc. You will likely feel better in yourself when you make these changes.

Consider 5) Can your cravings be met by other more nutrition dense carb sources?

For a long time in the world of weight loss, low carb was thought to be the way to go. For a long time I was scared that “carbs would make me fat”. I now know that it’s a lot more complicated than this.

If I am eating adequate protein and fat then I can eat the remained of my calories from carbs. So I eat a decent amount of carbs and I’m not getting fat. I’m also less irritable and have less ‘sugar’ cravings than I did during my low carb days.

If you are eating so called ‘low carb’ and binging on sugar – the fact is your not eating low carb!

Swapping some of your refined/ highly procesed sugar intake for other carb sources – like vegetables, rice, potatoes, fruits, beans, grains, etc. will leave you feeling more satiated and better nourished.  Eating sufficient carbs for your needs and preferences may ease cravings that might trigger binge and guilt cycles.

Consider 6) Sleep

Research shows that lack of sleep can cause us to crave junk food.  Our hedonic drive for certain foods gets stronger and our ability to resist them may be impaired.

Tiredness tends to deplete our will power.

If you feel you aren’t getting enough sleep making this a priority could help your cravings significantly.


My Story with Sugar

In my family we joke about there being a “Macpherson Sweet Tooth Gene”. We all love sweets, deserts, chocolate. No meal is complete without a pudding. We aren’t a family that orders starters – why risk not having room for you pudding?

And the icing on the cake – excuse the pun – Mum is an amazing baker who bakes with gusto!

After years with struggling with my weight, self esteem and body image (which you can read about here) I don’t tend to buy biscuits, sweets, chocolate etc. I find it easier just not have the temptation in my house.

If I go out for a meal I’ll have a desert if I really fancy it. I politely decline my Mum’s baking or puddings unless I really want it.

I practice moderation – not through will power – but through setting up my social environment to make this easy.

My work place used to be full of cakes and biscuits. I was able to mostly resist them by:

  • being full up on other  foods (see point 4 above on “crowding out”) and
  • having a “I don’t want that as it doesn’t fit my goals” mindset
  • knowing that if I really wanted them I could have them – I have autonomy – there are no ‘rules’ I need to follow, no ‘bandwagon’ that I am either on or off

I don’t see treats as treats if I eat them all the time. They lose their specialness, their edge. I now work from home so this is less of an issue.

I used to be an emotional eater – big time! I still could be but it’s not easy when there isn’t much in the house that I’d want to emotionally eat! I’m constantly reading and learning how to deal with my emotions better so I tend to not eat my emotions anymore. A big part of this is that I am just happier being me than I used to be.

i eat carbs.png

I eat lots of veggies, lean meat and fish and my main carb sources tend to be potatoes, rice, porridge oats (I have a weird obsession with porridge!), veggies and fruit. Most evenings I meet my sweet tooth needs with chocolate mug cake or protein fluff . I also drink diet drinks and use artificially sweetened protein powders. I’m not saying for a moment that this is the ‘right’ way to eat. This is my way of eating – a way that I enjoy, that makes me feel well and not obsessed with sugar.

Conclusion –  Do you need to reduce sugar from our diet?

It all depends on your goals. If your energy intake is balanced (i.e. you are eating at maintenance calories and don’t want to lose weight) then a small amount of sugar is no problem.

If you feel that sugar is controlling you – rather than you are control it – then it’s definitely time for some action.

Consider the points above and decide the things you need to act on.

  • Do you want to try cold turkey or moderation?
  • Are you eating your emotions and are you courageous to explore this further in order to change?
  • Do you need to improve the quality of the rest of your diet?
  • Could you eat more non processed carbs instead of sugar to reduce your cravings?
  • Are you getting enough sleep?

Email me and let me know what you are planning to do. Seriously I’d love to hear from you. Being accountable can help you move from good intentions to taking action.

At the time of writing I’m fully booked as a Personal Trainer but I run regular online 8 Week Kick Starts for ladies who are tired of being on diets and want to lose weight through a habits based community. I will run a male only group if there is enough interest also. My next programme starts on the 25th April and you can find out more here.




















2 thoughts on “Don’t sugar coat it – why we love and how to reduce sugar

  1. Jo says:

    Shona, this is really helpful thank-you. I fortunately don’t have too much of a sweet tooth (I’m more likely to order a starter and main than a main and dessert!), but I do have a spoon of sugar in each cup of tea, and I drink about 6 teas a day. I’ve tried to cut it down but just don’t like tea without it!
    Do you think this is too much sugar per day? Also, is this too much caffeine per day? The last cup I have is a decaf, and I rarely drink coffee.
    Thanks, Jo

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Hi Jo, I would say it depends on your goals and the rest of your diet. If you are getting in plenty of veg and protein and some ‘good’ fats and still have calories to play with 6 sugars isn’t the end of the world. If you are trying to lose weight or are trying to improve dental health this could be somewhere you can start. A teaspoon of sugar is about 4grams. 1 gram of sugar is 4 calories so a teaspoon is about 16 calories. x 6 portions = 96 calories. I think a can of Coke is 44 calories if that gives you an idea of scale. Have you tried sweetners at all?

      With caffeine it depends on your caffeine tolerance. If you have no adverse effects and are sleeping well I don’t think there is a major issue. “The Food Standards Agency says there is no limit set for healthy individuals. They recommend a balance of drinks and a sensible, moderate approach to coffee-drinking”. (Okay this quote is for coffee but same will apply for tea!). If you are pregnant there are guidelines. xx

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