By Debra Pivko
Sugar, sweet sugar—a delightful minute on the tongue in exchange for what feels like a lifetime on the hips. But weight gain isn’t the only consequence of eating too much sugar. Ready for the not-so-sweet truth?
Overconsumption of processed sugar can contribute to a number of conditions, including tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, hormonal imbalances, overgrowth of candida yeast, chronic fatigue, more severe PMS symptoms, anxiety, and yep, even wrinkles. On the other hand, if you start to cut sugar out of your diet, you can shed excess weight, increase your energy, improve your concentration, improve your moods, and possibly steer clear of diabetes. Ready to kick-start your sugar detox? To help you out, I’ll let you in on some reasons why we get addicted, and how to read food labels for hidden sugars. I’ll also give you some tips on how to start your sugar detox so you’ll have a much better chance at living a vibrant, disease-free, longer life.
Why we crave sugar. According to AskDrSears.com, “Sweets trigger an increase in the hormone serotonin—a mood-elevating hormone. The body and brain get used to this higher level of serotonin and even depend on it for a sense of well-being. So when our serotonin level dips, (we dip) into the (sweets) to ‘correct’ the situation.” According to the Web site, sweets also “trigger the release of endorphins . . . the brain’s natural narcotics, helping you to relax when stressed.”
You’ve probably noticed that although sugar gives you an initial high (a rapid spike in your blood sugar), you crash several hours later, leaving you wanting more. It’s because sugar takes away more energy than it gives. Eventually, you find yourself exhausted, anxious, and moody. I know I’ve definitely experienced this crash too many times.
Is the sweet taste worth the unpleasant effects? Think gaining weight is the only negative effect of consuming too much sugar? Nancy Appleton, PhD, author of Lick the Sugar Habit, describes some surprising ways sugar intake can negatively affect your health:
- Suppresses the immune system and defense against bacterial infections
- Increases the risk of blood clots and strokes
- Contributes to hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating
- Can lead to hypoglycemia, kidney damage, an elevation in harmful cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay
- Helps speed the aging process, including wrinkles and gray hair
The list goes on . . .
Make the decision to detox from sugar. The first step in breaking a sugar addiction is making the decision to stop eating it completely for at least a few days to start to get it out of your system. While it’s usually best to make dietary changes gradually, sugar has the unique ability to inspire cravings that are refueled every time you give in to them. The only way to break the cycle is to stop feeding the fire. Then your cravings should subside substantially. Continue to resist large amounts of sugar and actively avoid situations that cue you to eat sweets. And whether you’re at work, at home, or at a party, just because a cookie is sitting out on a table in plain sight, that doesn’t mean you have to eat it.
Ask yourself why you’re eating sugar before you put it in your mouth. Are you eating out of habit? Because of circumstance? For a special occasion? Because everyone else is? Watch yourself like a lab rat. Begin to face your truth by keeping a food journal. I like to jot down what drives me to eat sugar, when I crave it, where I eat it, why I want it, and how I get it. For example, do you pop up out of your desk chair the second you hear people at the office singing “Happy Birthday” in search of sugar-filled cupcakes? Journaling can be helpful preparation for stomping out your sugar habit by making you aware of why you’re eating it.
Begin to eliminate sugar from your diet. For thousands of years, people ate whatever sugar occurred naturally in their diets, and it didn’t seem to be a problem, it was a treat. Registered dietician Becky Hand reports that the typical American now eats the equivalent of about 31 teaspoons (124 grams) of added sugar every day (about 25 percent of the average person’s daily caloric intake), and that sugar alone adds up to almost 500 extra calories each day! Our bodies simply weren’t designed to handle this massive load. The American Heart Association recommends that added sugar should be limited to no more than 6 to 7 percent of your total calories (not including naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and dairy products.) To put this in perspective, if you eat 1,200 calories a day, you should limit your intake to 21 grams of sugar per day. That’s the equivalent of about 6 ounces of low-fat fruit-flavored yogurt or one 8-ounce glass of orange juice.
To begin eliminating sugar from your regular diet, simply cut out foods with sugar, white flour, and high fructose corn syrup, including cakes, cookies, pastries, and most desserts. It’s okay to have a dessert or sugary snack on occasion, but make sure it’s not your main dish. Although sugar is generally found in desserts, added sugar can also be found in your main and side dishes, and even sauces. Look closely at the labels of processed foods, cereals, and sauces—like ketchup, barbecue sauce, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, and dressings. You can usually find nutritious alternatives with less sugar that taste just as good.
If you’re a Team Beachbody® Club member, you can get a personalized, balanced online meal plan to ensure that you’re getting the proper nutrition you need to meet your health goals. You can even use the food analyzer to search for the nutritional makeup of various foods, so you’ll know which ones are high in sugar and should be avoided.
Eliminate hidden sugar. As you begin to decode ingredient labels, it’s really important to know all the other words for sugar and sugar alcohols. Here’s a hint: Look for words that end in “-ose
- Agave nectar/syrup
- Cane juice crystalsCane sugar
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Carob syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
Trick your taste buds. Using fresh spices and herbs can trick your taste buds into thinking you’re eating something sinfully sweet. Try adding cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, or other sugar-free flavors and spices to your coffee, cereals, or other dishes and drinks that could use an extra kick.
Eat a healthy breakfast. What you eat for breakfast will actually influence your food choices for the next 12 to 15 hours, and influence your energy levels, moods, and your overall sense of well-being. Dr. Joe Klemczewski, PhD, explains that eating a healthy breakfast balanced between lean protein (like egg whites) and slower-digesting complex carbohydrates (like oatmeal) will help you have good energy throughout the day, stabilize your blood sugar, reduce cravings, and make wiser food choices. Typically, your blood sugar is at fasting levels when you wake up in the morning. If you start the day off with a muffin and a latte, you’re choosing to ride the roller coaster for the rest of the day. If, on the other hand, you begin your day with a veggie omelet and fruit or some oatmeal, you’re opting for a balance of foods that will be absorbed at a slower rate. Then you’ll have a steadier flow of blood sugar that’s far easier to keep balanced than if it were fueled by a muffin, a bagel, or a cup of coffee dosed with sugar and cream.
Eat throughout the day. The best way to avoid eating when you’re overly hungry is to eat several small meals, spaced throughout the day. This will keep your blood sugar more stable than eating the traditional two or three large meals spaced farther apart from one another. Schedule your meals around your body’s needs rather than around your to-do list if you can. You’ll find it much easier to stop eating once you’re full, to make smart food choices from a rational, calm place, and to maintain even moods and energy levels. Eating balanced meals is essential for getting real satisfaction from what you eat and leaving cravings behind. For most people, this means approximately 50 percent of your meal should be vegetables, and the rest should be split between protein (beans, meat, dairy, etc.), grains, and a bit of oil or other fat. However, everyone’s a little different, and you should experiment to find what works best for you.
High-fiber foods fill you up, yet they bring less fat to the table, says Barbara J. Rolls, PhD, the Guthrie Chair in Nutrition at Pennsylvania State and author of The Volumetrics Weight Control Plan. Plus eating high-fiber foods allows you to eat a higher volume of food while ingesting fewer calories. It’s a concept called “energy density”—the number of calories in a specified amount of food, Rolls explains. Some examples of energy-dense foods are fruits like apples with skin and bananas, avocados, flax meal, and kidney beans.
Find alternatives for when you have a craving. Make sure you find alternative foods and activities that you actually enjoy. If they aren’t satisfying, you’ll eventually abandon them for your old habits. When I’m craving something sweet yet healthy, I usually either go for low-fat Chocolatey Cats Cookies (for People) from Trader Joe’s® (only 9.9 grams of sugar per serving) or a chocolate Shakeology® (only 9 grams of sugar)—that’s not bad for a sweet treat. Yep, I’m a sucker for chocolate, but I can still enjoy the taste without overdosing on sugar!