There's so much news about how bad sugar is for you. Dr. Sanjay Gupta was recently interviewed by "60 Minutes" along with several other experts, linking sugar consumption to everything from the obvious (such as weight gain) to serious diseases like cancer and heart disease.
I don't know of anyone who thinks sugar is actually good for you, yet we average 130 pounds of sugar per person in the United States. The question is, why do we eat sugary foods and drinks when we know it's bad for us? One researcher said the desire for fructose is wired into us because in nature, anything with fructose in it isn't poisonous. Another researcher demonstrated with MRI scans how your brain releases dopamine when you eat something sweet. Your body rewards you when you eat sugar by making you feel good.
I don't eat sweetened foods a lot, so I can feel that effect dramatically. On the Fourth of July last year, I had several sweets throughout the day at a party and I did feel slightly euphoric, as I hadn't had so much sugar in a long time. (I felt great until I became sick the next day, probably a combination of the immune-lowering effects of sugar and not enough sleep!) The problem is that you can't maintain that high. I was able to feel those happy hormones racing in my system because I hadn't had much in the way of added sweeteners for a while, but I would have had to start eating more and more sugar to get that same response. In other words, sugar is addictive.
I prefer the glow of good health to the momentary response you get from sugar. But because it's addictive and it's in almost everything in the store, sugar — and corn syrup and other forms of sugar — can be hard to leave behind.
But it's more than possible. Here are some tips for kicking the refined sugar habit if you'd like to explore that possibility.
1. Get properly motivated
Because it takes work and motivation to get sugar out of your life, I recommend that you watch the "60 Minutes" interview (linked at top), read Dr. Joseph Mercola's thoughts on this topic (Mercola is an osteopathic physician), or read a book such as "Suicide by Sugar" by Dr. Nancy Appleton. Repeat as necessary.
2. Stop drinking any form of soda pop and other sweetened drinks
The amount of sweetener in any type of soft drink is very high. A 12-ounce can contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. If you can drop the soft drinks, you will instantly reduce your sugar habit significantly. Another obvious food item to eliminate is candy. (And don’t go for the “sugar-free” options, unless it is stevia sweetened, as these sweeteners are toxic in other ways.)
3. Don’t eat or buy packaged foods
Even organic packaged foods often contain significant amounts of sugar. While many of them are preferable to their non-organic counterparts, the sugar content is something to be aware of. Don’t keep these foods at home, otherwise you may find them to hard to resist.
Make your own snacks at home like homemade popcorn (not microwave, but stovetop popcorn), or eat fruit or vegetables for a snack. Eat hot cereal, homemade muffins, or eggs and toast for breakfast. You will save money and be healthier!
4. Make wise choices when eating out
That salad you had at the restaurant? The dressing was full of sugar as well as unhealthy fats. Sugar is hidden in many dishes at restaurants, and their desserts can be tempting. If you are eating out, make sure you stick with dishes like grilled meats and roasted vegetables that aren’t as likely to be full of sugar.
I often sneak in my own homemade dressing to restaurants and enjoy a salad, sugar-free. A quick recipe for salad dressing: 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 2-4 teaspoons brown mustard, 1-2 finely minced garlic cloves, 3/4 teaspoon unrefined salt. Give it a shake in a jar and you are set to go.
Load up on vegetables and you'll feel a lot better. (Photo: Michael Stern/flickr)
5. Eat a well-rounded diet, especially concentrating on protein and vegetables
It’s amazing how much better I feel when I am eating plenty of protein and vegetables. I also don’t crave sugar when I am eating well. But it takes conscious effort to make it happen. In her book, "The Mood Cure," Julie Ross recommends not only removing refined foods (like white sugar and white flour) from your diet, but also adding good foods. She recommends 20-30 grams of protein at each meal and 4-5 cups of a wide variety of vegetables every day. That’s a lot of protein and vegetables, but she has seen that diet overcome many health issues (including depression). And don’t just take her word for it. Dr. Terry Wahls says she reversed her own multiple sclerosis eating a similar diet.
Simply removing sugar can help improve your health, but for good health you need to fill up on good-for-you foods. Eating regular, hearty meals will ensure that you don't eat a donut or cookie while you're out, or reach into a co-worker's candy jar out of hunger.
Buy a new cookbook that focuses on healthy, delicious recipes, or start following the many healthy food blogs out there. Get inspired and start collecting doable but delicious healthy recipes.
6. Challenge yourself to go completely "sugar-free” for two weeks
Sometimes when you simply try to “reduce” your sugar consumption, you end up eating only slightly less than where you started. Go completely sugar-free for two weeks and you will have started resetting your taste buds and gaining a lot of self-control. I have found it really helpful to do (especially after a holiday).
7. Get a friend who is interested in reducing or eliminating sugar to join forces with you
It could be a spouse, a walking partner or a co-worker. If you have someone who has the same goal as you, shares healthy recipes and exchanges food/meals, it can make it much more enjoyable and doable. If you can’t find someone in “real life,” then find an online friend.
8. Deal with cravings
After a couple of days have gone by without eating any sugary foods, your craving for sugar should be reduced. I find it helpful to eat or drink a fermented food such as homemade sauerkraut, coconut kefir or kombucha. The sourness of these food items counteract that sweet desire, plus it gives you healthy probiotics, which help reduce cravings.
Ross also recommends in "The Mood Cure" the following supplements to help keep blood sugar levels stable. From her book: “The mineral chromium helps keep blood sugar level stable, but it gets used up by a high-carb diet. Putting more back into your body as a supplement restores blood sugar stability (even more for diabetics). It also eases the cravings for carbs that erupt during blood sugar drops….. Glutamine is an amino acid that your brain can use as an emergency substitute fuel when you haven’t eaten recently or have been eating too many carbs and your blood sugar level is too low. This glucose stand-in stops the impulse to run to the candy machine when it’s low blood sugar time. This, of course, saves your adrenals from overworking. L-glutamine can stop carb cravings and get you feeling steady and even within 10 minutes (less if you open a capsule and place the contents under your tongue."
Just make sure you take proper amounts of the above supplements and ask your health care provider about supplements before taking them.
9. Go have fun!
As long as you have food in your stomach, life is not all about what you can and cannot eat. Take a walk and enjoy nature, go to the park with your kids, read a good book. In other words, enjoy life. Really, you can enjoy it without sugar. I promise.
10. Enjoy beautiful food without sugar
Along the same lines, there is no need to mourn the loss of sweets when there is such beautiful food to eat. Make hearty stews and soups, roast a chicken, make a beautiful main dish salad, roast squash, toast nuts and enjoy a good unsweetened yogurt. There are so many amazing foods to enjoy — so enjoy them. Don’t feel deprived, simply enjoy different foods.
11. Use the 2 teaspoons of sugar rule
If you find it too hard to go completely sweet-free, start using unrefined sweeteners at home, such as pure maple syrup, raw honey or coconut sugar. These sugars have minerals and vitamins intact, making them less stressful on the body. They also are less addicting and some, like coconut sugar, don’t raise blood sugar very much. Stevia is an excellent choice for those wanting something sweet without calories or any rise in blood sugar. Appleton, the previously mentioned author of "Suicide by Sugar," found that two teaspoons of added sweetener at a time is the threshold for healthy individuals, no more than two to three times a day. So, if you find it unappealing to live a completely sweetener-free life, enjoy a bit of raw honey and butter on toast, or a bit of honey in a cup of tea. Drizzle pure maple syrup into unsweetened yogurt and top with berries, or lightly sweeten a muffin recipe without guilt.
12. Pass it on to the next generation
Part of the reason adults find it hard to let go of sugar is because they got addicted and used to it at an early age. If you have children, start them on the right food with a low-sugar diet. They will thank you later.