Sugar and cancer – my journey

The mainstream recommendations for helping to prevent a recurrence of cancer (or indeed, a diagnosis of cancer in the first instance) includes limiting sugar in your diet. In fact, cancer or not, the negative impact of sugar on our bodies is in focus right now for everyone. But. We’ve all been enjoying it for so long. How do we change now?

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Drastically cutting down my sugar intake became part of my personal anti-cancer plan once I was through my treatment. And boy, was it a tough one on the list for me.

Admittedly, I gave up a whole bunch of things as well as sugar all at once (gluten, dairy and pork to name a few) and at first I felt terribly miserable. I felt like I had completely sucked all the joy out of my life (ok, that’s a little dramatic, but I really felt somewhere there). I have always loved my food and suddenly everything tasty seemed to be off limits. Before we even get started, my advice would be – if you’re going to make big dietary changes like going vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free or dairy-free – don’t do them all at once! Rather, tackle one at a time and once you become comfortable with your new normal, move on to the next thing.

So back to the sugar.

I started my sugar journey by making a list of my ‘big offenders’ – the biggest sources of sugar in my diet – and then spent some time with a pen and some paper working out how to drastically reduce or eliminate them from my diet. This was changing a lifetime of habits – it wasn’t going to be easy – yet I jumped in feet first with an all-out sugar ban and no regard for just what a challenge lay ahead.

Before cancer, I drank four, maybe five cups of tea a day, each with two generous teaspoons of sugar. I loved pure orange juice and all-fruit smoothies. A regular treat with my husband was a Mint Magnum ice cream (sometimes we’d go through a family pack in a week) or an Eddie Rocket’s milkshake. I often beat the ‘3pm slump’ at work with something sweet like a couple of biscuits or a few squares of chocolate. Looking back, I actually thought I was ‘good’ because I didn’t drink coke and I’d never eat a whole chocolate bar in one sitting! Oh and wine? Well, I’d have a glass, maybe two, on a Thursday night. And a Friday, Saturday, and sometimes even a Sunday night, too. Out with the girls – cocktails! At a gig? An extra glass of wine. A bad day? More wine and chocolate. You get the idea.

Well it’s safe to say those days are gone now, and, looking back from this viewpoint, I truly am glad.

Now my daily sugar intake is hugely reduced.

I have one, maybe two cups of tea a day now, with no sugar and oat milk instead of cow’s milk (I gave up milk, cheese and yogurt too as part of my anti-cancer plan, but I’ll cover that another day). The oat milk is naturally just sweet enough to make a great cup of tea. So this substitution has worked out well. It took awhile for me to find the right milk, but when I did – tea, glorious tea, was back in my life. 

Orange juice got the boot too – while yes, it is good for you, that instant sugar hit from the fructose was too much of a blood sugar spike for my liking. All-fruit smoothies? Yes – they’re gone too. Now if I’m having a smoothie, it’s got to be green and full of spinach, kale and cucumber, with maybe a half a banana or apple to sweeten it a little. I also cut down on the amount of fruit I eat in a day, now I might have half an apple on my porridge in the morning or a half a banana on a slice of spelt toast but it would be rare that I’d eat a whole mandarin in one sitting. I try get my five-a-day from veg now and not fruit. If I’m really hungry, I might eat a whole piece of fruit to avoid reaching for something like a biscuit or cake, but I wouldn’t be eating four and five pieces of fruit over the day like the old me.

Regular treats are now definitely a thing of the past – if they’re regular, they’re not really treats then, are they? A real treat for me now might be one McVities Raisin Shortbread biscuit, or, half of a Nobo dairy-free chocolate (they’re big enough). A Really Big Treat might be some Nobo ice cream (heavenly) or a slender slice of chocolate cake, but that’s strictly for Very Special Occasions (I’m talking my husband and son’s joint birthday, my birthday, Christmas Day, that sort of thing). Mint Magnums and Eddie Rocket’s milkshakes are definitely not on the menu anymore, both due to their high sugar content but also their dairy content.

Coke – well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that every now and then I have a gulp of coke from my husband’s glass if we’re out somewhere and he’s having some. And gosh, coke with ice is good. But it’s so full of sugar it simply cannot be a regular thing for me anymore. If I’m on holiday (we were last week) – maybe a few gulps. But that’s it. As for Diet Coke – don’t even get me started – there may be no sugar in it, but there is aspartame – and that stuff is definitely not good for you, no matter how you look at it.

As for chocolate bars – they’re also gone. My substitute, if I simply MUST have some chocolate, is half of a Nobo dairy-free chocolate as I mentioned earlier – they really are so good, they’re not a ‘substitute’ for the real thing at all. Best of all they contain no refined sugar and no dairy – but they do contain coconut sugar, and at the end of the day, there is no escaping that that is sugar too.

As for the wine side of things. I limit myself now to two glasses of wine on the weekend. It can be both in one night, or one glass over two nights. And if we’re on holiday, a few extra glasses are allowed over the holiday. But that’s it. There’s no wild nights out, drinking to excess or crazy hangovers. I’d love to say that I gave up drinking wine entirely, but I do enjoy a glass and, life is for living. And that’s that – I don’t beat myself up about it anymore.

I’ve found it really helpful to make my own healthy snacks and have a tupperware of them at the ready for whenever hunger strikes. I make these raisin and oat clusters but modify the recipe to contain a half teaspoon of organic maple syrup instead of two tablespoons. The natural sweetness of the banana and raisins makes this just sweet enough to make it enjoyable and the slow-release energy of the oats helps fill the hunger gap between meals if necessary – and this stops me reaching for something else which may be full of sugar. I also pack one or two of these in my handbag if I’m out of the house for the day – so I’m not looking longingly at the sweets and chocolates in the shops or wherever I might be.

If we’re eating out, I opt for a starter and a main course now and leave dessert. I find it easier to not even look at the dessert menu – it’s just too tempting and most desserts contain milk anyway. If we’re at the cinema – it’s popcorn instead of Ben & Jerry’s. Out with the girls – that’s my two glasses of wine. No cocktails here.

I guess it comes down to self-discipline. It means being able to say ‘no thank you’ when ice cream is offered at my parent’s house after a lovely dinner. Or ‘no thank you’ when the waitress asks if you’d like to see the dessert menu. And sometimes I feel like I’m very hard on myself. I wonder if I should ‘let my hair down’ a little more and relax about all of the things on my anti-cancer plan. Sometimes (often) I curse cancer. But then I remember all that I went through, that cancer is a very serious illness, and that I’m worth it. I’m worth the self-discipline. I’m worth every bit of it and more. And it all comes back to self-love – how much do I want to look after my body, thank it for what it does for me? I love it enough to be as healthy as I can, to change the bad habits of a lifetime to good ones, for me, for my family, for the future.

So this is what I’ve been doing to tackle the issue of sugar in my diet. I’m not perfect, and I know this is not an all-out sugar ban – there is still sugar here. But, everything we eat is turned into glucose by our bodies – it’s how we work – now I try to avoid giving my body sugar spikes. I know some of you will think I’m very hard on myself, and some of you will think I’m too easy on myself, given that I’ve been through cancer. But at the moment, this is what’s right for me, so it’s what I’m doing. Over time, it will probably change a little, but hopefully with more positive changes and not negative ones. To stay on track, I like to write down where I’m at right now, what’s great about it, and what more I could do to improve things even more in the right direction.

I’d love to hear where you are at with sugar. Have you made changes to your diet since having cancer? Are you considering changing anything? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments.

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