Cut the Sweet Talk
When Sarah Wilson gave up sugar almost accidentally, she never dreamed she’d be starting a lifestyle revolution
With her gazelle-like legs and exuberant zest for life, Sarah Wilson is the living embodiment of her hugely successful I Quit Sugar Plan, which has been completed by more than 600,000 people to date. On the eve of her Auckland event she spoke to Viva about her journey to good health, and what motivates her to inform others.
Sarah quit sugar almost accidentally. It certainly wasn’t meant to be the start of a lifestyle revolution. The journalist, restaurant reviewer and former TV host (eagle-eyed viewers will remember her as the host on the first season of MasterChef Australia) was looking for ways to manage her own ill health when she conceived a column for the Sydney Morning Herald’s Sunday Life magazine.
“I moved up to Byron Bay, lived in an army shed in the forest, investigated ways to make my life better, and wrote this column,” she recalls. “It was titled ‘This week I…’ And so one week I… quit sugar. It started as literally one column and a blog post. And it exploded from there.”
Sarah admits she did things “back-to-front” and the naivety of her situation worked for her. “I wrote a blog post and it grew. So I developed a big following.” Her journalistic background was imperative. “People kept asking questions so I went and researched and interviewed people.”
She needed a more efficient way to present the information so she taught herself how to make an ebook. The demand for it caught the eye of publishers who approached her about turning it into a print book. “In many ways I’ve been able to dictate what I do as I’ve accumulated my own audience. But the print books have now overtaken the ebooks; they’re in 45 different countries.”
So let’s rewind to the beginning. Sarah was a veteran Australian journalist when she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease in her mid-30s. A thyroid based auto-immune disease, Hashimoto’s can leave sufferers severely fatigued, overweight and with a raft of hormonal issues including infertility. At her sickest, Sarah was unable to walk. Too sick to work she left a desirable job as the editor of Cosmopolitan Australia and started the thyroid medication necessary to manage her condition.
It helped her just get by: “I was very unwell doing MasterChef. Very unwell. And I was carrying about 10kg more than I do now.” Since quitting sugar Sarah has been able to manage her life and her medication and enjoy an active lifestyle. “It is management,” the fact-seeking journalist in her is quick to point out; there’s no miracle cure here. “I manage it through both my diet and conventional medication. I wouldn’t be able to do one without the other.”
Indeed, she keeps a very reasonable line in all of this; she recently posted an opinion piece to her blog about Australian “health” blogger Belle Gibson, who’d claimed to treat her brain cancer diagnosis through the diet available on her app but has since emerged as a fraud/fantasist. Sarah insisted in her post that “food is not medicine if you’re chronically sick”, that “mainstream medicine should not be sidelined”, that “food, however, can help prevent disease” and that “eating crappy processed food does lead to disease”.
And this is at the crux of the I Quit Sugar programme; it advocates a return to “real food”. Most educated people in this day and age know the perils of the addictive white substance, but many don’t realise how prevalent hidden sugars are in food, or that many natural substitutes are also high in fructose.
Though many disagree with a diet plan disdainful of bananas or honey (as indeed I Quit Sugar is), there’s no denying the negative impact sugar has on society. “There’s an obvious cost in terms of health,” Sarah points out. “There’s enough substantiated science that shows the connection between sugar and a range of metabolic diseases. Plus of course the cost to longevity.”
She cites a link between sugar and productivity, both within the workplace and with children; the amount of energy that’s lost to sugar highs and lows. So on to the actual act of quitting sugar. Anyone with a health bent would’ve seen the hashtag #iquitsugar or #iqs come through their Instagram feed; with a combined 200,000 posts there’s no escaping it.
@iquitsugar also has 123,000 followers on Instagram and a whopping 480,000 Facebook “likes”. This strong online presence gives Sarah and her team instant feedback that makes them confident of their results. They assert that within two weeks people’s taste buds have changed, and sugar no longer tastes good to them. The next big transformation, according to Sarah, is more appearance-based.
“Your skin!” she exclaims. “I was 35-36 and getting pimples and wrinkles; both kind of softened. Vanity is really good motivation.” Sarah prefers to not focus on the inevitable weight loss, but points to the fact that quitting sugar gives people a healthy constitution that will let their metabolism readjust itself. “My motivation is to focus on getting your body working again. The weight loss will come when your body’s, you know, doing its thing.”
As for haters, Sarah admits to encountering a few along the way. “Although I’m basically about eating real food instead of processed products — and it’s pretty hard to argue with that.” Lately she’s chosen to focus on partnering with dietitians rather than distancing herself from them, in order to bring about greater change.
She cites her current project, a campaign to get more “real food” into school canteens, as an example of this. “It’s a very slow process. I just want to make sure that people have the options to get healthy food. But also to make sure government guidelines are being adhered to.” Throughout her book Sarah references “Big Food”, the massive corporations who, as she sees it, “like us to eat sugar; it keeps their products cheap and highly addictive.
Our health is not their priority, funnily enough.” She wryly notes that “Big Food” has a big interest in having these products in schools, through school cafeterias and providing lollies and chocolates to fundraise. “The tobacco fight took decades. The sugar fight is going to take just as long.”
SARAH WILSON'S TOP LIFESTYLE TIPS:
• A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in hot water in the mornings is a great way to start the day. A lot of health complaints stem from the fact people’s digestive enzymes aren’t processing the foods as well as they could. ACV is a wonderful food to help this process.
• Exercise is a highly insufficient weight loss technique; intense workouts can be dangerous and demotivating. But it’s essential for wellness and longevity so find variety amongst gentler exercises and do something daily — I do a couple of yoga classes a week, I swim, I hike, I ride (I also go to the gym once a week so I get the weight-bearing thing going on as I head into my late 40s). Look at your Google Maps and see if in fact it’s really going to take longer to walk rather than catch a cab or drive. You’d be absolutely surprised how much you can do on foot and it’s so much better for you. I don’t own a car, I walk or bike absolutely everywhere.
• Do exercise in the morning. Then it’s done and you’re not procrastinating. Don’t make it fancy, just get up, go. No drink bottles, no fancy gym gear, just get out of the house without thinking about it.
• Choose full fat products; low fat products always have more sugar.
• One of my favourite tricks is eating a tablespoon of raw, organic coconut oil after lunch. It satiates your appetite and nips those sweet cravings in the bud.
• Sarah will be speaking about “how to live well” and on quitting sugar, on Monday April 20, 7pm-9.30pm, Dorothy Winstone Centre, Auckland Girls’ Grammar, Howe St, Freemans Bay. Tickets $65 from eventbrite.co.nz
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