I Quit Quitting Sugar (and gluten, carbs, dairy…)

Last month, Mount Vesuvius erupted on my chin.

You might think I’m being dramatic, but I’m not. Honestly. It looked like a red Wine Gum had been superglued to my face. It was quite possibly the biggest spot anyone has ever seen.

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I thought that I had dodged the acne bullet as a teenager. Turns out that acne isn’t a bullet: it’s a boomerang. One that has smacked me in the chin, repeatedly, ever since I was twenty-five or so. I haven’t had clear skin in six years. SIX YEARS.

And in that time, I have valiantly fought The War Against Acne: going to the doctor, buying expensive skin products, trying different cleansing methods, going to another doctor, drinking gallons of water, praying to various gods, going to a different doctor, repeatedly Googling ‘a cure for acne’…

This leads us onto sugar. In my extensive research, it kept coming up as a potential Enemy of the Skin. Quitting sugar has now become something that people do: Davina McCall’s got a book about it. There’s been rubbish reality TV shows about celebrities doing it. Even Cancer Research UK has turned it into a fundraising challenge.

Sarah Wilson, an Australian TV presenter and writer, has made her name by teaching others how to quit through books and an £89 online programme. The alleged benefits of ditching the sweet stuff, as listed on her website and in her books, are compelling: weight loss, clearer skin, fewer wrinkles, more energy, improved mood (and more!). And to be honest, I was desperate enough to give pretty much anything a shot, because having acne sucks. It feels painful and embarrassing. And with Mount Vesuvius erupting on my chin, quitting Crunchie bars for eight weeks seemed like a small sacrifice to make.

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As I don’t have a spare £89 knocking around, I took the cheap option, getting I Quit Sugar & I Quit Sugar For Life from the library. They are pretty, colourful books full of photos of Wilson herself. She is a beacon of happiness and good health. In some pictures, she GLEAMS. She looks as if she might have superpowers. Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that?


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After two-weeks of adhering to the plan, I hadn’t developed any new spots. But none of the other benefits materialised. I was actually more tired, despite getting plenty of sleep. I felt stressed, had low energy levels, and was right on the edge of burnout. This probably had nothing to do with quitting sugar, and everything to do with the fact that I was trying to balance a full-time job with a part-time Masters degree, training for a marathon, writing posts such as this one, and reading labels on every single food item. (Spoiler: sugar gets. in. bloody. everything.)

 

On week three, new spots appeared on my cheek. I was still exhausted. Still stressed. And so I quit quitting sugar.

 


 

Wellness is a very healthy business to be in right now. Cookbooks full of superfoods are a recipe for commercial success. And we eat it up without asking questions. Eating healthily is good; so eating super-healthily must be better, right?

 

We turn to people like Sarah Wilson, Deliciously Ella and Hemsley + Hemsley because they look the part; ignoring the fact that it is IMPOSSIBLE that a healthy diet alone has created their model looks, glowing skin, good health and amazing-looking lives.

 

We believe them because we want to believe them. Let’s face it: the idea that we can change our diets to change our lives is irresistible. It’s something active that we can do to solve our problems. It gives us control over our destiny. And our acne-ridden chins.

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The wellness industry is booming because we want to have that control, and its main figureheads make alluring promises about the unique benefits their programmes will bring. And therefore we will fork out £147 to have our bodies ‘transformed’ after three months. Or £2 for a 40g snack as part of a diet that could help cure your postural tachycardia syndrome.

 

The unfortunate truth is that the problems we want to solve are complicated and have no guaranteed solutions. Take obesity: despite the popular myth that we can cure it individually by cutting down on cake and going for a jog, it’s actually far more bloody complicated than that. In fact, it’s THIS complicated:

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These are all the systems that contribute to obesity. As an issue, it’s economic, psychological, environmental, genetic and hormonal. We cannot solve obesity in ourselves by cutting out gluten or sugar, or by eating chia seeds and ‘green powder’ (whatever that is). If only it were that simple.

 

And, sadly, it’s not that simple when it comes to my skin situation either. I will still continue to fight The War Against Acne but I am coming to realise two things: firstly, that there is probably not one single weapon that I can deploy to stop my spots for good. Women like Wilson may look like they have superpowers, but they cannot rescue my face.

 

Secondly, and sadly, clear skin might just be an impossible dream. I might just have to, you know, LIVE with my spotty chin and learn how not to let it piss me off.

And whilst it’s sad not to have an simple solution, it means that I can quit quitting things and go back to enjoying Crunchie bars and other sugary treats. As part of a balanced diet, of course.

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How the Whole30 changed my life

IMG_2561No alcohol. No sugar. No grains. No dairy. No legumes. No artificial sweeteners or additives. No weighing yourself. For the month of September, this was my diet- and my life. Why would I willingly give up cheese and beer? Because I was road-testing the Whole30: a diet that promises that if you eat only healthy food for a month, you will be rewarded with a huge list of health benefits. Weight loss, more energy, improvement from medical conditions, and more.

But was it worth it? I’ve written extensively about what it felt like to do, so let’s cut to the top 5 end results:

  1. As if by magic, I became a morning person. This was the most surprising benefit. For the first hour after waking up, I used to be the sort of person who could only scowl and drink coffee. During Whole30, I was happily up and feeling clear-headed at 6am. It was WEIRD.
  2. I went through a brilliant phase of feeling invincible, like I’d been eating these: mario-star Sadly it didn’t last for the entire 30 days but I did feel good throughout.
  3. I saved money. Mostly because I didn’t really go out, I was so energetic I cycled/walked everywhere, and I didn’t spend any money on lunches.
  4. My skin became noticeably better – brighter and clearer.
  5. Oh, and I lost a lot of weight. 6 kilos, to be precise. One stone, if you are the imperial type. If you don’t know me in real life, I’ll say this for context: I’m a short person of average build. I wore a (UK) size ten before and I wear an eight now. I’m not doing before and after pictures. You can go to the Daily Mail website for that kind of thing.

On the flip side: this wasn’t without its sacrifices:

  1. My social life. Given that I’ve been really busy with other things, it was just simpler to focus on those rather than have awkwardness about the fact that restaurants and pubs are a minefield of things you can’t eat or drink.
  2. My ability to eat ‘normal’ food with abandon. I’ve been off Whole30 for three days and I completely ignored the instruction to reintroduce things slowly. I’ve had a few things like chocolate, a cheese toastie and beer because I am only human and I missed those things. As a result, I’ve felt noticeably worse (sleeping badly, less energetic, stomach aches) and I think I’ll need to do a bit of experimenting to see whether one or all of these things are the culprits.

The final verdict: The Whole30 makes huge promises to change your life. In many circumstances, people’s promises to change your life are complete rubbish. But I think W30 can justify the claim. If you’d like to learn about the impact the food you eat has on your body and your mind, this is a 30 day experiment you need to do. I’m not sure I’m going to think about food in the same way again.

Would you try a Whole30? I’d love to hear what you think. 

Now the Whole30 is over, I have been road-testing some new ‘life-changing’ programmes and tricks.  Subscribe to keep up with what’s coming next! 

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The Whole30, Week 2

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been road-testing the Whole30, a diet which promises to change your life. To catch up, find out what the Whole30 is and how I’ve done so far

Day 8: I felt amazing. I. FELT. AMAZING.

I went for a run and didn’t have to drag myself out of the door. I didn’t have to force myself through it. I even stretched and used the foam roller afterwards.

I blogged! I tried to change the DNS settings on my other website! I hoovered! I GOT SHIZ DONE!

If you are familiar with the Whole30 at all, you will have heard of their concept ‘tiger blood’ (stolen from Charlie Sheen). This is shorthand for feeling awesome, like the world is yours and everything is yours for the taking (because of your healthy diet; not because of illegal substances like Charlie Sheen). According to the Timeline this usually comes in around 16-17 days but for some reason I had started to feel it prematurely.

HOORAY FOR WHOLE30!

Day 9: I was still feeling good. So much so that I cycle to work. I’m normally too lazy to do this. Not the cycling part- that’s the easy bit- but I  often can’t be bothered because of all the packing and preparation you have to do beforehand so you can shower and make yourself presentable at work. I usually forget something essential. Like underwear.

Of course, I forgot something that day: a comb. But because of the Tiger Blood, I was entirely unfazed. Even when I found out that there was filming in the office and my awful hair would be immortalised on camera. Who cares when you feel this good?

That evening, I had put chicken cacciatore on the meal plan for tonight. I was still cooking at 9pm. This is the downside to Whole30: your late nights are not because you are having fun. They are because you are cooking, eating and washing up til the small hours. (the Chicken Cacciatore was DELICIOUS though).

Day 10. Still feeling good. I go for a run, get excited about the possibilities of life, and then spend some time plotting world domination. My first step: making my own mayonnaise from scratch. It worked. Next step: maybe world peace.

Highlight of my day: I made my own mayonnaise and IT WORKED!!! #whole30

A photo posted by Kate Brennan (@katebrennan) on

Day 11: Not much to report. Surely any day following Mayonnaise Day was bound to be dull by comparison.

Day 12: Cooking and eating everything from scratch has become the new normal. My fridge and freezer are full of Whole30-friendly meals. I’m spending less time in Morrisons. I also feel entirely normal. No weird hunger or cravings. I almost wish more weird stuff was going on so I had more to blog about.

Day 13: So far, my Whole30 had coincided with a pretty quiet time in my life – I’d been focusing on Sorting My Life Out which meant that having fun and seeing people had taken a back seat. This had been fairly convenient as I didn’t want  to worry about finding Whole30-friendly food in public. Also: I didn’t want to make other people go out of their way to accommodate my restrictive diet. I was happy cooking food that has no grains, gluten, dairy, soy or artificial flavourings but I thought it was too big an ask to make other people do it, just because I was taking a personal challenge.

Anyway, day 13 saw me going out for the first time for a family event to celebrate my partner’s dad’s birthday. By the way, my partner’s dad and his wife are great at food. I always come away from their house excellently well-fed. Thankfully, Whole30 did not get in the way of this  – we had a buffet and there was loads of salad, so my life was made really easy. However, I could only look longingly at these delicious things:

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Ahh, carbs, sugar and dairy.

One of the things that has surprised me about Whole30 is that I was expecting it to be an epic battle: Kate VS Carbs. I mean, I had tried it before and caved in after a week or two.  This time, it felt easier. Much easier. For the first time, I could see myself actually getting to the end and achieving what I wanted from Whole30. And that felt good.

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Can the Whole30 diet change your life?

When I came back from my holiday, I felt DISGUSTING. That’ll be what happens when you spend a week and a half eating whatever you want (chocolate), drinking whatever you want (beer) and doing whatever you want (eating chocolate and drinking beer, whilst sitting down).

My skin had broken out. I was grumpy and exhausted. I felt like I’d been run over by an Ocado van. I longed for a reset button that could restore me back to a healthier self.

Enter the Whole30.

The Whole30 is a programme that talks a big game about how it can change your life. In fact, the words ‘change your life’ are used approximately 192 times in its material, and its founders, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, are pretty confident about the value of it. So are its fans. You can’t get too far into looking into it before you see enthusiastic testimonials from people who are surprisingly happy given they have given up nearly everything that’s fun to eat.

You see, the plan is notoriously tough. For 30 days, you can eat only meat, seafood, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and natural fats. You are not allowed anything else. No sugar. No legumes. No grains. No dairy. No alcohol. No sweeteners.

Why in God’s earth would you willingly give up Diet Coke, chocolate and pale ale for a whole month? Because the list of purported benefits is practically as long as the dictionary. To name a few: weight loss, higher energy levels, better sleep, a better relationship with food, improvement in medical conditions, improved mood, better skin. I wanted all of these things. Wouldn’t you?

I had tried to do it before, and never made it beyond two weeks. I had always succumbed to the lure of ‘YOLO’, or there was a special occasion, or my willpower just ran out. Now was as good a time as any: I had only one special occasion in September to navigate, I felt motivated to do it, and this blog would help keep me accountable.

You don’t need to buy a book or buy special products to do a Whole30, as all the info you need is freely available online.  But to make life easier, I have the Whole30 book and will be using this as my focus, as going through the information online can lead you down a terrifying rabbit hole (more on this later).

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What I liked about the book is that it focuses strongly on preparation and things you can do to set you up to succeed, focusing on your brain and habits as well as your fridge. As I learned before, following a plan that doesn’t take human nature into account is not going to work. The steps to prepare for a Whole30 are as follows:

1. Choose a start date

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Look: I wrote it in my diary and everything!

 

2. Build your support team.

I asked my partner the following

“Do you support me doing this diet?”

“Yes”

“Great, thanks!”

3. Get your house ready.

I’m ahead of the game on this one – I got rid of everything in the flat I can’t eat on Whole30 already. By.. erm.. eating it all on Day 0. *whistles*

4. Plan for success.

There are two parts to this: meal planning, and planning for what you will do if you overcome obstacles in your daily life.

I approached the meal planning part like this: I needed 90 meals in the next 30 days. I needed to have enough variety so that I don’t get bored of eating the same thing over and over again, but also be efficient enough so that I don’t spend all of my money and time on food. The Whole30 plan is fairly carnivorous and I live with a vegetarian, so I also needed to plan some meals that are veggie or can be adapted so that we could both eat together (i.e. I have meat, he has something vegetarian, and we both eat the side dish). I also wanted to do some batch-cooking and freezing so that I had something to eat on lazy days. This is what my plan looked like:

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The other form of planning is to overcome potential obstacles. This comes in the form of if/then statements. For example: IF I get stressed and want to dive head first into a packet of chocolate Hobbobs, THEN I go for a walk, read a trashy novel, talk to a friend etc etc.  I liked this kind of planning as it has been proven effective by psychologists – you are three times more likely to succeed in changing your habits if you do this. Therefore I was happy to write a long list of scenarios including what I’ll do if I forget my packed lunch, if someone offers me home-baked goods, and so on.

5. Get Rid of Your Scales.

Not weighing yourself is crucial to the psychological side of the plan. The Hartwigs maintain that letting your weight dictate your mood isn’t very healthy. While I could see their point, I didn’t want to take their suggestion of applying a sledgehammer to my scales, so I put them in a cupboard, out of view.

With that, I was ready to go. Day 1: bring it on.

If you’d like updates on how the Whole30 does – or doesn’t – change my life, you can subscribe on the right-hand side of the blog. 

Have you ever done a Whole30? Did it change your life? Please feel free to share your thoughts – and any advice! – in the comments.

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