We all know we are supposed to eat less sugar, but HOW can we when it tastes so good and is seemingly everywhere? What exactly is the problem with sugar anyway? Can we truly have it just as the reward it is designed for – without the guilt, fat or indigestion?
Welcome to Sugar 101. The below information should help you have a healthy relationship WITH sugar, yes WITH.
Natural vs Added
The first thing to know is that there is a difference between natural and added sugar.
- Natural sugars are those that are found occurring within a food (fruit and milk sugars are examples). When eaten in their natural form, they release sugar slowly and in much less quantities than added sweeteners. They have vitamins, minerals and antioxidants present in them.
- Added sugars are those that are simply added into a food that isn’t naturally sweet to make it taste sweeter. These are processed or extracted foods to obtain maximum sweetness. There are now over 60 different types of added sugars. Added sugars are assimilated much quicker. Some contain vitamins and minerals and some do not.
What is Sugar and How Does it Work in Our Body?
There are three types of sugar: fructose, glucose and sucrose.
- Fructose occurs naturally in fruit and is in most processed sugars. Fructose is processed by the body straight to fat (skipping the gastrointestinal tract and going right to our liver). It doesn’t as greatly effect blood sugar as glucose, then, but you don’t get that “full” feeling and you continue to feel hungry so eat more. Whole fruits have less sugar content and fewer calories than processed sugars, contains water and vitamins, the fiber present prevents it from affecting your blood sugar, and the antioxidants keep it from becoming fat.
- Glucose, also known as dextrose, is basic blood sugar. It is the most common carbohydrate (starches, wheat and vegetables). It is converted through the intestinal tract by the body to blood sugar (which causes insulin to be produced) and excess is stored in the liver. Glucose is necessary for energy and can be properly utilized in regular amounts (natural versions). High levels of glucose (processed foods and added sugars) have negative impacts on digestion and blood sugar.
- Sucrose, found in table sugar and sugar beets for example, is a combination of both fructose and glucose and the body breaks it into individual molecules of each. Both are assimilated at once, so the fructose becomes fat and the glucose is used as energy.
Why is sugar bad for us anyway?
The general health concern over sugar, due to its conversion to fat and the toll on insulin, is its link to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There is also concern for liver health, as the liver cannot process vast amounts of sugar (particularly as it is dealing with all the other regular toxins in our daily lives). See the below boxes for other documented ways sugar impacts our well-being.
But I think it goes beyond these concerns. While long-term wellness and avoidance of disease are the touted reasons to eat healthily, I say live for today – a BETTER today, by noticing how eating healthier makes you feel better on a day-to-day basis!
I notice subtle different reactions to different kinds of sugar (and amounts) – particularly if I am over-stressed already. For example, table sugar and alcohol make me feel almost anxious and sick to my stomach, high-fructose corn syrup makes me emotional and gives me a headache, while honey (which has the same glucose-fructose ratio as table sugar) doesn’t give me any noticeable reactions other than craving more of it. Because of lower/higher processing, sources, and vitamin/mineral content your body most likely has different reactions to different sugars. I can definitely see these kind of varied reactions in my children!
The most powerful fact about sugar is its addictive nature. When sugar hits our system, it boosts serotonin (happy) levels in the brain, our brains are designed to look for glucose for survival, but the crash from the high levels of fructose generate a craving for even more. Particularly we are sensitive to this cycle when we are stressed – both physiologically and emotionally (needing the quick pick-me-up). The cravings of addiction prevent us from our ability to see how it negatively impacts us and our intuitive urges to stop consuming it. Breaking this addiction cycle is key to reclaiming your health.
Where is it?
Before we start consuming or eliminating sugar, we need to look at how much is in our diet and where the sugar is.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women. The AHA limits for children vary depending on their age and caloric needs, but range between 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams) per day. Take a look at your pantry… (go ahead) Honey Nut Cheerios has around 9g per serving, one Kashi granola bar has 5g (your kids have now had their fill), Wish Bone Thousand Island dressing has 4g, Nature’s Own Whole Wheat has 1g per slice, 4g of sugar are in that tiny teaspoon of sugar you added to your black coffee. That leaves 1g of sugar left without dinner or dessert. That Snickers Bar you ate at snack time? = 20g. Exceeding this recommended dose can be detrimental for our liver. Be careful reading grams of sugar in something, though, because it can be misleading. Nutritional content labels include ALL kinds of sugar – natural and added. AND reading numbers on nutritional content labels can make us obsessive compulsive.
What IS my point with the above gram counting? SUGAR IS IN EVERYTHING. Forget counting grams and calories, not only is that too much work, it is beyond that. When everything tastes sweet we are training our brains to a certain level of sweetness and we get addicted. Then the amount will just add up and up. Also, when sugar is in everything, every item we eat is interfering with our calcium/magnesium absorption, our digestion and our liver/kidney functions. We need to first rid ourselves of the addiction = enter the cleanse.
SUGAR CLEANSING STEP BY STEP
STEP 1: Find and Replace
Look for no-sugar-added versions of all the processed foods in your house. Food companies know how addictive sugar is – that is why they put it in your food. Does canned soup really need sugar, for example? The key to beginning a healthy relationship with sugar is: GET ADDED SUGAR OUT FROM WHERE IT DOES NOT BELONG.
The best case I can give = YOGURT. Yogurt has a surprising amount of added sugar, to get people to eat it, but it interferes with the calcium we are eating it for! Eat only plain yogurt from whole or 2% milk. (That type of fat in that quantity is good for you by the way). Plain yogurt is the only yogurt without sugar. Add your own fruit. I have gotten many a kid accustomed to plain yogurt – it just takes time to get used to the change.
This rearranging of your daily diet, simply replacing foods you don’t need added sugar in with foods that don’t have added sugar, will change your life. And you haven’t even tackled removing treats, yet!
Now, after that?
STEP 2: Guiltless Rewards
Save sweets for reward time, as they were intended. If the only added sugar you are consuming is in baked goods (you can find bread and cereal without sugar) you can bet that it is probably okay to have one a day without any guilt whatsoever. (16g in a Betty Crocker brownie) Enjoy every morsel. Here are some no-sugar added snack ideas: https://baredfeet.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/top-no-sugar-added-quick-snacks/
But remember I said it goes beyond just how much sugar but what kind – because of how it makes you feel. So notice how those sweets make you feel – 15 minutes later, an hour later, the next day. Decide if it really is worth it.
Better yet, find other ways to reward yourself and cope with stress than reaching for food. Here is some help with this very important step: https://baredfeet.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/rewarding-yourself-well/
STEP 3: Cleanse
Once you’ve done the above two steps, try taking two weeks where you don’t eat any added sugar at all. Tell others when you are going to do this to gain support. You don’t ever want to go cold turkey, or your system will have withdrawl symptoms (and you’d be better off with the sugar!) Instead:
- Mentally think, positively, about removing sugar for a couple of days, think out the steps and do any planning you need. Affirm that you are doing this for self-care not self-loathing.
- Cut out the processed foods that contain sugar for a few of days first (where it isn’t necessary),
- Then cut out soda and sugary drinks for a few days,
- Finally cut out all forms of added sugar for two weeks!
Two weeks is key for resetting your brain’s relationship to sugar.
When you have withdrawl symptoms or cravings – drink water and exercise. This will flush out any toxins that have built up – your body will know it is cleansing when you stop putting sugar in it. Water also curbs your appetite. Otherwise if you are actually hungry, find a substitute snack or take a nap. It takes some staying power, but after those two weeks you will be amazed how you feel – sleeping better, mood better, thinking clearer, digestion and energy improved. And when you start returning to sugar, hopefully better educated, you will notice that your cravings are gone and probably will notice things tasting sweeter than you remember.
- To go even further, start baking yourself. Choose a healthier sweetener or experiment with using fruit as a sweetener! Pulverizing some dates in a food processor is satisfying J, and don’t forget that bananas are a great sweetener and work well in baked goods. Added sweeteners other than table sugar and corn syrup may be easier on your blood sugar or digestion, and have more naturally occurring nutrients. According to Deepak Chopra’s research, the healthiest sugar to consume is Date Sugar or Palm Sugar. It is derived from dates, so is more natural, it has vitamins and minerals, and is low on the glycemic index as well as low in fructose (which clogs the liver and makes us fat). So look for added sugars that have less fructose and vitamins/minerals. (http://www.chopra.com/articles/the-lowdown-on-sweeteners-12-types-of-sweet-explained )
- Set the example for your kids – monitor how much sugar they are getting and watch their reactions to it. Make sure they see you making efforts to eat less sugar. They will adapt to your baking – my kid doesn’t know the difference between my carob-honey brownies that she can eat more of and Betty Crocker’s fudge brownies, or between LaCroix sparkling water and Root Beer soda (which she spits out – too sweet). Other families we encounter are also building awareness from the example we set.
- Try eliminating breads and pasta for 2 weeks also. I don’t feel anything in our diets needs to ever be permanently avoided (I’ve done that repeatedly only to find nutritional and emotional detriment), but cutting them from time to time can re-boost our system and inform us of how certain foods make us feel.
I hope this has been educational, and that you try these things! I love my sweet treats, and feel I can safely indulge now. At BaredFeet I try to offer a group sugar cleanse three times a year – right before times of stress or after periods of eating unhealthily are ideal. Share with me your struggles and successes please! Let me know any questions you have also. We will continue to learn together.