Writer, Elle Young, from thesugarfreekitchen.com, talks us through how she retrained her brain to go sugar-free

When it comes up, as it invariably does, in conversation that I don’t eat refined sugar, people’s usual reaction is: “I couldn’t do that, I eat chocolate everyday.” I normally just laugh it off and steer the conversation away from the subject as I haven’t got time, or the person doesn’t want to listen anyway, to explain that they could give up sugar if they take the time, and effort, to retrain their brain.

As a person who likes to think, analyse and evaluate absolutely everything, it was natural for me to analyse my cravings when I was giving up sugar. When in the tumultuous throes of a sugar craving, I took the time to think what it was I wanted, whether something else would satisfy it and why I wanted it.

Nine times out of 10, I was either bored or simply had to have the cake/biscuits/sweets. I was never actually hungry. I asked myself why I had to have it and I didn’t really have an answer. It’s just what I did. In the afternoon, I had a cup of tea and a piece of cake or some chocolate digestive biscuits. When I went out for dinner, I had dessert, because that’s what you do in a restaurant. When I went to visit my Grandma, of course I had some biscuits with my tea. I could go on…

I’m not advocating skipping the Granny visits, or offending her with a sharp retort of “get those discs of death away from me”, I’m simply highlighting the many associations that we have made in our brains which involve sugar. I have a dream image in my mind, I call it my ‘bubble’, which is what I’m heading towards. It involves a long table in a hot country, covered in delicious healthy food, surrounded by friends and family. It’s my ideal life…I’m sure most women have a bubble of some form. For me, the key part of my bubble is sharing nutritious food with good company. Food is a big part of life, culture and society and should be celebrated. It’s natural to associate certain types of food with events, but just because associations have been made between an event and sugary food, it doesn’t mean as a person choosing to live sugar-free you can’t join in. You just need to be aware of these associations and be willing to change them.

There is a lot of research surrounding mental associations. The most prominent study that springs to mind is Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments with dogs. He rang a bell when he fed them and, sure enough, they associated hearing the bell with being fed. By the end of the experiment, if a bell was rung, the dogs would start to salivate as they knew a meal was imminent. Although we wouldn’t like to think of ourselves as being trained like dogs, there is a lot to be said for mental associations and the ability to make, and break, them. Health psychologist Phillippa Lally, from the University College London (UCL), found that subjects, who were trying to learn new habits, took an average of 66 days for the behaviour to become increasingly automatic. This explains why it took me a good few months to be 100% refined sugar free and shows that you need to give something a really good go if you’re determined to change it. Be it exercising more, eating more healthily or being more positive, see it as an 8-9 week commitment. Write out a week-by-week plan of how you’re going to retrain your brain, get the highlighters out and colour-code everything in sight (satisfaction guaranteed!) but most importantly, stick with it!

Since I started the process of removing refined sugar from my diet, I have  managed to retrain my brain’s associations so I know it’s possible. Whereas I used to associate my afternoon tea with cake, I now associate it with protein in some form; it’s usually peanut butter, let’s not beat around the bush. My Granny visit association is the same, I’ve just tweaked it slightly so it involves just a cup of tea, and I kindly decline the repeated offering of biscuits. It is possible, and after a few months, your brain will be retrained and you’ll have forgotten that you ate a chocolate bar at 4pm every day for 10 years.