It’s nearly the end of January, thank fuck, and so far this year I barely recognise myself. My housemates and I, in a collective fit of healthful good intentions, decided for January to a) take up Bikram yoga and b) give up all processed or refined sugar of any kind. We thought it would be good for us.
Bikram yoga, named after sweaty lunatic Bikram Choudhury who invented it in the ‘70s, involves sitting in a room and performing a number of poses while your pores host a mass exodus of every drop of moisture in your body. The room is heated up to 40C, and that’s not counting the heat radiating from your fellow yogi as they heave and sweat their way through ninety minutes of stretching, bending and trying not to make eye contact with anyone else. It’s gruesome. The only upside is that it’s full of men wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. Conversely, one of the worst things is that it’s full of men wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. Most of the women who subject themselves to such torture, infuriatingly, are the do-gooding vegetarian earth-mother types, the kind with washboard abs, thighs like a baby giraffe and (I can confirm from the changing room), a laissez-faire attitude to hair removal. In contrast, the men tend to be the kind of people you try to avoid sitting next to on the bus: sinewy skinheads with double nipple piercings and rings through their noses. In our first session a gangling man with a skinny, greying ponytail and the most itty bitty fluro orange Y-fronts ambled in to the room ten minutes late. He took his place on a mat two rows in front of me and you could see everything, even if you didn’t want to. The poor girl directly behind him had to time her pose shifts a second ahead of everyone else because if she found herself in Upward Facing Dog (lying face down while lifting the chest, like a seal) while he was pushing himself up into Downward Facing Dog (standing on all fours with your arse in the air, like a twat), she ran a very real risk of getting accidentally hit in the face with his pendulous, neon-clad ballsack. Despite this, it is very good for flexibility; I’m unsure of the science behind it, but the heat allows you to stretch more deeply without injuring yourself. If you have joints as unyielding as mine, I’d definitely recommend giving it a go (if nothing else for the novelty!)
Giving up sugar, though, proved to be by far the more difficult of our January resolutions. Initially, when we blithely drew up the rules amidst New Year’s Eve’s champagne haze, we thought it would just be a case of not being allowed to round off brunch with a cinnamon roll. Upon closer inspection, however, about 80% of our regular foods contained sugar in some guise, and the ones that didn’t were things like lentils. Seriously, that shit is in everything. Not only were the obvious things, like cakes and confectionery, off the menu, but also chorizo, most bread, most sausages, most bacon, all condiments, salad dressing, takeaways, cooking sauces, pickles, chutneys, all cereal bar Shredded Wheat (almost definitely the shittiest thing you can buy in a box) and all fizzy drinks (we deemed eating anything containing sweetener as cheating and not allowed). We had to make our own salad dressing out of vinegar and garlic paste. The T in a G&T was substituted for soda water and squeezed lime juice (the bitter taste of disappointment was only superseded by its actual taste: in short, like toilet). One day in the first week I spent a full fifteen minutes reading the ingredients of every single variety of Covent Garden soup in Waitrose mid-way through a run home. After discovering that every last carton was slyly secreting the white stuff amidst its healthy credentials, I had a minor meltdown, storming out of the shop and muttering ‘bollocks, bloody bollocks!’ under my breath. Except I had my ear buds in, so in fact I wasn’t muttering at all, I was talking to myself at top volume. I looked like a complete fruitcake: an escaped mentalist clad in high-vis lycra, cussing loudly while dumping a basket of sweet potatoes and balsamic vinegar in a rage before stomping out of the store.
Because we could eat bugger-all in the way of processed and pre-prepared foods, we started cooking more meals from scratch, with varying degrees of success. Sugar-free homemade pizzas and curries proved to be just as delicious as their store-bought counterparts, but we couldn’t find a proper, satisfying alternative for a big wedge of cake. We were allowed to eat fruit – natural sugar – on the basis that banning it would be counter-productive, but nothing could truly dampen the fiery pudding-lust that at some point reduced us all to gibbering, salivating wrecks. Sarah Wilson, an Australian blogger, strident health nut and primary inspiration for our sugar-free January, has a recipe on her site for sugar-free chocolate nut balls. I was beside myself with glee. Chocolate! Nuts! (Balls!?) Admittedly it was raw, unrefined chocolate, but we all liked that 70% Green & Black’s stuff so we figured it wouldn’t be much different. The recipe had a tonne of comments from delighted sugar-shunners, all claiming that the nut balls were “even better” than the real thing. Well, we made them – out of butter, hazelnut butter, shredded coconut, raw cacao and a tonne of mixed nuts – and they tasted like arse. The trouble was they looked and smelt positively delectable – like dark chocolate truffles – which just made the disappointment even more devastating when it came crashing in around our dismayed tastebuds.
Obviously, there were a few slip-ups. I accidentally fed a bit of chorizo to everyone with their eggs one Saturday morning (going out for breakfast was now out of the question; our usual weekend haunts were – quite literally – honey traps, and in any case it was too depressing to sit sipping an Americano while everyone around us gorged on chocolate croissants). My housemate Ellis came in one day and guiltily admitted to eating a prawn sandwich of questionable composition for lunch. I popped a couple of painkillers without even thinking about the sugar coating, and I ate a couple of Cup ‘O Soups before realising that maltodextrin was verboten. Bummer. Overall, though, I think we did pretty well.
Would you ever try giving up the sweet stuff? The path of a sugar teetotaller is a lonely one; the time you spend food-shopping will quadruple as you scrutinise every label, restaurants will become small, noisy circles of personal hell and your friends will ditch you for cocktail bars while you spend your Saturday afternoons in Organic Planet. For the first week, your dreams will be haunted by Cadbury’s Mini Eggs pinwheeling across splendid vistas of Candy Land. But there are compensations: you will almost certainly lose weight and your teeth will be whiter. You won’t get morning breath. You won’t crash at 3pm at your desk and you’ll sleep better. After a few days your cravings will curb. And, in the long run, you’ll reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Is it worth it? I’d love to say yes, and I suspect I will think more carefully about what goes into my food from now on, but the sad truth is that I’ve already bought five cake tins from Amazon in preparation for the weekend blowout. I’m making brownies at midnight and I’m going to have them at work for breakfast, with ice cream. I’m going to have a gin and tonic for lunch (I’ve already informed management) and I’m almost certainly going to have an Apple Lucozade on Saturday morning to help assuage the hangover when that one G&T inevitably turns into ten. Sugar-free? Bah, humbug.*
*GOD, I’d do unspeakable things for a humbug right now.