Sarah Wilson (pictured) is the health guru who inspired millions across the globe to ‘quit sugar’
Sarah Wilson is the health guru who inspired millions across the globe to ‘quit sugar’. She did it herself, and – well, look at her.
Slim, beautiful, and glowing with health. Who wouldn’t want to do whatever she’s doing?
Her bestselling I Quit Sugar... book series rode a wave of public concern about sugar after a sensational 2015 report from the World Health Organisation highlighted fears about the damage too much of the sweet stuff does to our health. Sugar, it was implied, was responsible for our obesity ‘epidemic’.
In the wake of this, the Government revised diet guidance, advising us to stick to seven teaspoons daily (or between four and six for children, depending on age) – while headlines branded sugar as ‘the new tobacco’.
Membership of Wilson’s online diet club, which gave would-be sugar-quitters a plan to help them go cold turkey for eight weeks, swelled to an astonishing 1.5 million. She told them: ‘I lost weight and my skin cleared. When I quit the white stuff [sugar] I started to heal... I found the kind of energy and sparkle I had as a kid.’
The business was turning over an astonishing £1.5million annually, and her web pages boasted more than two million monthly hits. But at the beginning of last year, Wilson shut up shop.
The I Quit Sugar social media pages still exist – and are followed by more than 100,000 fans. On Facebook, you’ll still see Wilson dressed in a jumper bearing the slogan ‘Sugar Sucks’. But she is no longer actively involved.
She explains: ‘The information is out there for people to use, anyone can take it and run with it. Now I have other passions to pursue.’
These days, she wants to talk about a new health concern: anxiety. Her latest book, First We Make The Beast Beautiful, recently released in paperback edition, tells of the 45-year-old’s lifelong battles with mental illness and offers advice to fellow sufferers.
Membership of Wilson’s online diet club, which gave would-be sugar-quitters a plan to help them go cold turkey for eight weeks, swelled to an astonishing 1.5m. The business was turning over £1.5m annually, and her web pages boasted more than 2m monthly hits. But at the beginning of last year, Wilson shut up shop
From a visceral account of her suicide attempt to inspirational meetings with the Dalai Lama, the book seems uncharacteristic for a woman who made her fortune from sugar-free banana bread recipes.
And when we meet, I discover she is a mass of contradictions.
My initial plan was to arrive at the interview armed with a pint of full-sugar Coke – I regularly write about the pseudo-science of popular diet fads.
And, despite much hysteria, there is little evidence that sugar – over any other single ingredient – is particularly toxic to our bodies. But I decided to can the Coke idea, in case it set us off on the wrong foot.
But I needn’t have worried – because Wilson has indeed quit quitting sugar, for the time being at least.
‘I love freaking people out by eating cake,’ she says, smirking.
‘I eat chocolate every day and I love red wine too. They’re my favourite things on the planet. I can’t live without that stuff.’
Yet she still won’t touch orange juice – because the sugar in fruit is ‘worse’ for the body.
She ‘eats whatever she wants’ but then admits ‘I beat myself up’ for succumbing to a croissant.
As if this wasn’t startling enough, she now insists she has ‘never told anyone not to eat sugar’.
Yet, it’s there in black and white, in the opening pages of her first book. She writes: ‘When you first quit sugar, you must quit ALL of it... so you can break the addiction.’ At the end of the eight-week plan she says ‘some fruit and safe table sugar alternatives can be reintroduced’.
Today, though, she brushes all that aside, saying: ‘It’s in my past now.
‘I never restricted the amount of food I ate. Now I say, I quit I quit sugar, I can do what I want. I gave myself a chance to recalibrate. I know how much I can handle.’
Her bestselling I Quit Sugar... book series rode a wave of public concern about sugar after a sensational 2015 report from the World Health Organisation highlighted fears about the damage too much of the sweet stuff does to our health. Sugar, it was implied, was responsible for our obesity ‘epidemic’. However, Wilson now insists she has ‘never told anyone not to eat sugar’
Whispers of secret eating problems
As someone who blogs and talks on social media about food and health, I am acutely aware of the links between restrictive eating and serious mental illness. Within the online ‘wellness community’ itself there are endless whispers about this or that popular food or fitness influencer who is harbouring a secret eating problem. But no one ever talks about it publicly.
All the while, their hundreds of thousands of loyal followers duplicate their disordered diets.
In 2016, eating disorder psychiatrist Dr Mark Berelowitz said a shocking 80 to 90 per cent of the patients attending his North London clinic were avid followers of bloggers and social media stars who advised avoiding entire food groups – including sugar.
I eat chocolate every day and I love red wine too. They’re my favourite things on the planet. I can’t live without that stuff.
There is no suggestion that Wilson was among them. But it’s not a surprise when she tells me that she suffered with bulimia – an eating disorder characterised by bingeing and purging – for most of her late teens.
She says: ‘I’d never heard of it before, until I saw a magazine article about Princess Diana’s eating disorder and thought, “Oh God, that’s what I do.” I felt a lot of my anxiety in my stomach so I thought if I piled food on top of it, it would numb it.
‘The purging was the solution to the problem because I could bring it all back up. Bulimia is like saying, “Don’t come near me.” It’s a shameful thing to talk about. It’s ugly, dirty, embarrassing. We’re all fascinated by anorexia – it’s seen as the ultimate female fragility. No one wants to be a bulimic.’
Wilson tells me her eating disorder was resolved by her late 20s. A former boyfriend, a chef, took her on food tours around the globe which helped her to become ‘super comfortable around eating’.
‘Now I am obsessed by food but in a really healthy way,’ she says.
She never had any specialist help with her eating disorder.
‘My parents didn’t know what it was. There was no way to discuss it, they had other things going on,’ she says.
Tips circulated by anorexic girls
At 17, Wilson began psychiatric treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder. Four years later, while on a university exchange programme in California, her anxiety reached its peak and sparked a nervous breakdown.
She returned home to the Australian capital Canberra where her doctor made the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Thought to affect around 600,000 Britons, the condition causes extreme swings in mood – from manic highs to crippling lows.
By 34, she’d suffered a second, devastating breakdown, which led to an attempt on her own life.
‘Lots of things happened at the same time – a toxic relationship, the magazine industry was faltering [before becoming a food guru, Wilson was a successful Australian journalist] and I felt like I had no way out.’ The stress, she claims, triggered the sudden onset of an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s, which causes exhaustion, dry skin and, sometimes, weight gain.
At her lowest ebb, she turned to food for the answer.
‘I was fascinated by research linking autoimmune disease to sugar intake, so I thought I’d try it [cutting sugar out].’
Her dietary experiment was the beginning of her I Quit Sugar books. When I ask if her restricted diet was a symptom of her eating disorder, she rejects my theory.
‘It helped the chemicals in my body sort themselves out. I wasn’t fixated on it,’ she says.
For the record, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that dietary factors have an impact on recovery from conditions that affect the immune system.
And the concept of sugar addiction is highly debated – most studies show that the effect of sugar on the brain is no different to that of any food.
Even so, Wilson remains convinced. ‘It’s chemical and hormonal. We’re programmed to be obsessed with sugar.
‘But some people are cool with it. I have a girlfriend who can eat one biscuit, or one scoop of ice cream. They do exist.
Research suggests as long as you cut calories, you’ll lose weight – regardless of whether or not you eat sugar
Clearly, a diet heavy in sugary doughnuts and fizzy drinks won’t do wonders for our