The problem with the I Quit Sugar message

Dr Nick Fuller
Leading Obesity Expert at the University of Sydney and founder of Interval Weight Loss.

The news came as a huge shock to everyone, even people dialled into the food world. 

After an unsuccessful attempt to sell, Sarah Wilson announced last month that she is closing the doors to her health and wellness business ‘I Quit Sugar’ just 7 years after its conception. 

Wilsons says it all began with a "gentle experiment", which then turned into a multi-million dollar blockbuster. 

According to their company figures more than 1.5 million people have quit sugar. BUT what does this actually mean? One and a half million 8-week I Quit Sugar online programs have been sold? After all, it’s only an 8-week program and it would be very easy to succeed, go back to old habits and then buy into the program again.

Or is it as bold a statement that this number of people have thrown away the sweet stuff for good? An unconvincing argument for the latter considering many of the I Quit Sugar recipes themselves contain sugar – specifically expensive sugar alternatives like rice malt syrup. So what does I Quit Sugar really mean?

Wilson has been a pioneer in raising awareness of a significant societal issue. Beyond the messaging around reducing sugar, she's pushed reducing food waste, consuming less and a whole lot of other commendable messages.

And there is no doubt that there are a percentage, albeit small, of people that have been inspired by this relentless message crucifying sugar and that have managed to change their life for the better. But Wilsons's cute sell and neatly packaged eight weeks fail to address the real issue at hand.

An 8-week or 12-week sugar-free plan where you are told to cut out sugar and certain foods perpetuates a fear of food and a dieting mentality. People get short-term results but end up in a worse off position than before they started because such a restrictive diet can result in a fear of food. The sugar-free message is confusing and not based on scientific evidence - it's all anecdata.

Generally speaking advocates for sugar-free diets say to avoid table sugar, some natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey, sweets, condiments, soft drinks and a selection of fruits - an arbitrary list of foods to avoid which has no substance to its claim. There is no argument that excess sugar from processed foods is not good for our health but nor is an unhealthy and unbalanced diet that requires one to omit specific foods for no certain reason. This only causes followers of any form of restrictive diet to obsess about their eating habits in fear that they will eat something that’s not allowed. Inadvertently, what you end up with is a dieting mentality and a cultural obsession with weight loss and body image.

You certainly don’t need to quit sugar to lose weight and improve your wellbeing. Instead, you need to make room for a healthier relationship with food and body image. Some foods that are black listed on sugar-free diets contain naturally occurring sugars which are good for our health. Yes, we need to reduce our consumption of sugar but this needs to happen by reducing our intake of processed – otherwise known as discretionary - foods like sweets, bakery goods, soft drinks, cakes and chocolate. This doesn’t mean reducing your consumption of foods like fruit and dairy, or dairy alternatives that contain naturally occurring sugars. These foods are protective for our health and should be part of one’s daily eating plan.

The take home message

Quitting sugar needs to focus on reducing consumption of processed or discretionary foods, eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking more milk, and of course cooking more food at home. And most importantly - the key to any balanced and sensible eating plan - savour those treat foods you really love.

About Dr Nick Fuller

Dr Nick Fuller is the founder of Interval Weight Loss and is a leading obesity expert at the University of Sydney with a Ph.D. in Obesity Treatment. Dr Fuller is also the author of three best-selling books and his work been published in top ranked journals in the medical field, including JAMA, Lancet and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.