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Most of my childhood memories revolve around my mum’s homemade cakes. She was a home economics teacher, so there always seemed to be hot scones coming out of the oven, a fresh crumble on the dinner table and a slice of fruitcake tucked in my lunch box.
Mum taught me the value of good, homemade food versus shop-bought. She even inspired my career, as a registered dietician and nutritionist.
But I don’t think she expected me to totally shun the sugar she so lovingly uses in all her baking. It wasn’t until I became pregnant at 33 that my sugar cravings really took hold. I found myself constantly yearning for ice-cream: I stocked our freezer at home in London with mint chop chip and devoured bowls at a time. The baby would kick up a frenzy in my stomach after I’d eaten – sugar even gets a reaction in the womb.
After my son Daniel arrived in 2008 I was, understandably, exhausted as I adjusted to breastfeeding a newborn; it’s hard to find a moment to comb your hair, let alone eat properly.
Despite all my knowledge of food and nutrition, I would regularly grab a quick sugar fix or some carbs to keep me going, but the subsequent crashes interfered with my sleep, leaving me even more tired.
At a playdate when Daniel was around five months old, he reached for a slice of French bread and happily started gumming it. It wasn’t necessarily the food I’d have chosen for his first few mouthfuls, but it showed me he was ready for weaning and I made the decision, then and there, that I didn’t want to feed him refined carbs or processed sugars, and our journey began.
Last month, public health minister Nicola Blackwood confirmed that British children are some of biggest consumers of sugar in Europe. The white stuff is cited as the biggest contributing factor in our national obesity crisis and was blamed, last week, by the Faculty of Dental Surgery for the massive rise in milk tooth extractions in children under four – up 24 per cent over a decade.
When I started my sugar-free quest, nearly 10 years ago, most people were focusing on low-fat or low-GI diets, and sugar wasn’t really under the microscope. But I knew that something so addictive couldn’t be great for our bodies – a hunch that has certainly proved to be true.
So, as some of my mum friends experimented with pouches and jars, I began to pur??e a rainbow of vegetables and fruit for Daniel’s mealtimes. There were definitely times when I was tempted by shop-bought food, but I was committed, and seeing my son develop a strong, adventurous approach to food was so rewarding.
But while he was thriving, I still felt tired and sluggish, and my mood was all over the place. I needed to start taking care of my own nutrition, so I began to incorporate food I was preparing for Daniel into my own meals. If I made him mashed carrot, for instance, I would use the leftovers to make myself spicy carrot soup. And I went cold turkey on the sugary foods I’d been relying on.
I immediately felt a difference. I was more alert, energetic and looked trimmer. But eating is such a family treat and I wanted my husband Ronnie, 46, a barrister, to be on board, too. To say he was reluctant is an understatement. He’s a chocolate fiend – and with decades of bad eating habits behind him, it was much harder to wean him off sugar. When I sent him to get groceries, he’d invariably come back with bars of Toblerone hiding at the bottom of the shopping bags.
Over time, my recipes won him round, and I know he now feels the health benefits, too… although he does still fall off the wagon occasionally! Last month we went skiing in Austria – I’ve never seen anyone eat so much Sachertorte.
My second son Jacob came along 18 months after Daniel and we refined our non-refined approach. I developed more and more recipes and got on first-name terms with my local grocer.
As the boys got older, things obviously became trickier. I can’t police what they eat at school, and I’ve had to learn to be more relaxed when they go to parties or restaurants. I didn’t want to be that parent, who denied them a slice of birthday cake with their friends.
Nowadays, I’d say their sugar intake is around 80/20 – none at home, and occasionally when they’re out and about.
I draw the line at fizzy drinks; a glass of sparkling water is a treat, so lemonade is completely out of the question. I don’t care how many eyebrows that raises.
Of course they love the occasional treat, but it isn’t the battleground that some of my friends and family assume it might be.
When Jacob gets upset that his friends are having a bag of Haribo sweets and he isn’t, I let him use the Change For Life app on my phone.
He looks up how much sugar there is in something and then usually opts out himself. And because they don’t eat sugar, they don’t really crave it – it’s not a cycle they’ve ever experienced.
The boys do eat fruit and of course I make them cake on their birthdays – it just happens to not include refined sugar.
I use fruit pur??e or mash up dates for my sweet dishes – you get the lovely, sugary hit, but packed with the fibre, vitamins and minerals that balance its effects on the body.
Nutritionally, at least, I think I’ve set my family on the right path. My boys will hopefully be mindful eaters for life, even if they do succumb to fizzy drinks eventually.
And in the meantime, my mother will still turn up every Friday with her homemade fruitcake to tempt us all.
The Telegraph, London
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