The Story with Sugar:
Many of the people who come to me for help claim that they are addicted to sugar. Can it be so? The reality is complex. When it comes to foods we crave, patterns can be both emotional, and physiological. Although sugar is not comparable to what we consider drugs, people can experience drug-like addiction to it, cycling through avoidance and binging. However, it does not take much sugar to dramatically affect the body and brain, and it is hidden in many unsuspecting places such as salad dressing, BBQ sauce, pasta sauce, yogurt, whole wheat bread, and even toothpaste!
This is precisely why I like to educate my clients about reading labels, and discerning what products they deem fit to put into their bodies.
To begin understanding how sugar affects us, we have to look at the basics. There are two kinds of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Both get broken down into glucose, which creates an insulin response in the blood, allowing the energy in food to travel to our cells to be used as fuel. Simple carbohydrates such as candy, soda, and refined grains offer a quick spike in blood sugar (insulin rise). Simple carbs can also found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy, but the fiber and protein slow the uptake. Complex carbohydrates, including whole grains, beans, and many veggies take longer to digest, and assist the body in breaking down the glucose in a more stable manner, avoiding sugar spikes and abrupt crashes.
Of course, all the vitamins and minerals they host are an added benefit.
If our cells have enough fuel (stored glucose) when we eat more carbohydrates, the insulin carries the excess away to be stored as fat. This is not something to be terribly worried about, for those of us who eat refined sugar occasionally. If you do have a diet high in simple carbohydrates (refined sugars) and this is a frequent occurrence, you will have large amounts of glucose being dumped into your blood very quickly, prompting your pancreas to make more and more insulin.
Too much of this, and you will develop insulin resistance, which can lead to Type II Diabetes and other diseases.
You may be saying to yourself, “but I don’t eat a lot sugary foods, why do I still experience sugar crashes and have a tough time losing weight?” Complex carbohydrates such as pizza, chips, French fries, and bagels are very starchy and the body breaks them down on its own, into simple sugars. If they are eaten solo, without healthier foods to help slow the insulin response, blood sugar levels can rise and drop just as dramatically as if you ate a candy bar on an empty stomach. Refined, white foods such as white rice, pretzels, crackers, white bread, pasta, and potatoes can also do this.
If you find yourself commonly eating more than you intend to, or feel icky when you don’t eat it (nervous, shaky, cold sweat), you may want to give your diet a little makeover. Going cold turkey, as with any addiction, can create a major shock to your system. Some dieticians may suggest cutting out all fruit, dairy, and refined grains to purge your system, but this can create a crash and burn situation. Not ideal!
It’s always interesting to me when I share food or drink with someone who follows a high sugar diet. Just the other day, I was sharing some freshly squeezed grapefruit juice with a friend. I beamed with how yummy and sweet it was and my friend winced at the tartness. I remember hating it myself, when I was a child, making a sour face whenever I tried a sip (usually side by side with pancakes from a box mix or a sugary breakfast cereal).
Our taste buds are amazing in the sense that they adapt to what we eat on the regular. As you begin to cut high sugar foods out of your diet, you will begin to notice the sweet undertones in many different foods. When I eat fresh broccoli or leeks, I can actually taste the sugar! Try cutting out one serving of sweet food from your diet, each week, or one less tablespoon of sugar into your coffee, each morning. You might be surprised how, over time, you will lose your need for sweeteners.
There is a lot of hype about low glycemic sweeteners such as agave or coconut sugar. I still opt for sweeteners in their whole state. For instance, I will stir frozen berries into my simmering oatmeal, or add a dollop of nut butter. For me, the natural sugars in these guys, is just enough to make my bowl taste sweet! At first, you may need to wean from the amount of sugar you add to your staple foods/drinks. That is ok. I promise, over time, you will need less and less of it to savor your flavors.
Take baby steps. Make small changes. Drink more water, experiment with new fruits and sweet vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and dates. Starting your day with something sweet (and unprocessed) can help you feel less deprived, and curb cravings throughout the day. By cutting out processed foods that are often pumped full of sugar, you will reduce your total intake monumentally.
When you are famished and there is no healthy snack or meal within grasp, your body can feel like it is screaming out for a cookie or something sweet, opt for some protein instead, it will help you curb the cravings and keep you fuller longer than a quick sugar fix would.
Healthier choices include whole-fat organic yogurt, a handful of nuts, or some carrots and hummus. Although they do not act as a substitute for a balanced meal, they will not facilitate a rise in blood sugar that will create a dramatic crash.
Get that body moving! Exercise won’t rid you of your cravings, but it can distract you and change the way you eat in general. People who are active feel better overall and tend to make healthier choices from a more empowered place. Try taking a 15-minute walk after lunch or dinner three times a week, to begin.
A Final Word:
You may think you are doing yourself a favor by using sugar substitutes, but these alternatives are actually sweeter than sugar and can make it harder, not easier to control your weight. As I mentioned earlier, learning to read food labels is a big step toward curbing your sugar intake. Knowing what you are putting in your body can prompt you to make healthier decisions. Most Americans eat 19 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
Do you know how much you ingest?
Some fancy words for sugar, commonly found on nutrition fact labels:
- Agave nectar
- Brown rice syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Malt syrup
The order in which an ingredient is listed on the label, tells us how much, in relation to the rest of the ingredients, is inside the product. For instance, if sugar is listed before whey protein, we can deduce that the amount of sugar inside the package is higher than the amount of whey protein.
Remember, when you first cut out sugar, you may feel worse before you feel better. You may experience irritation, jitteriness, or lethargy. Keep yourself inspired. Ditching a sugar habit can feel overwhelming. Ask a friend for support or find a health coach you feel comfortable with.