There's so much news about how bad sugar is for you. It's been linked to everything from obesity to some types of cancer.
Yet, we average 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day. That doesn't count the sugar found naturally in fruits or dairy items.
Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, says we are wired to desire fructose because in nature, anything containing fructose isn't poisonous. Other research has demonstrated with MRI scans how your brain releases dopamine when you eat something sweet. Your body rewards you for eating sugar by making you feel good.
I don't eat sweetened foods a lot, so I feel that effect dramatically. On the Fourth of July last year, I had several sweets throughout the day at a party and I felt slightly euphoric, as I hadn't had so much sugar in a long time. The problem is that you can't maintain that high. I was able to feel those happy hormones racing through my system because I hadn't had much in the way of added sweeteners for a while, but to maintain that response, I would have had to start eating more and more sugar.
In other words, sugar is addictive.
I prefer the glow of good health to the momentary high of sugar. But because it's addictive and it's in almost everything in the store, sugar — and corn syrup and the many 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
Dropping sugar is about so much more than losing weight. Check out this 15-year study that found eating large amounts of sugar can double your risk of heart disease. Other research has linked sugar to cancer, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and Alzheimer's disease.
"It's not about being obese, it has to do with metabolic health," Lustig, who was one of the first to draw attention to the health perils of sugar, tells The New York Times. "Sugar turns on the aging programs in your body. The more sugar you eat, the faster you age."
Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed several experts for a "60 Minutes" segment, linking sugar consumption to everything from the obvious (such as weight gain) to serious diseases like cancer and heart disease. Here's a video snippet of that interview:
Need more work and motivation to get sugar out of your life? I recommend reading 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.
2. Stop drinking all forms of soda 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'll 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 sweetened with stevia, as there's a chance those sweeteners can be unhealthy 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; you may find them too hard to resist.
Make your own snacks at home like homemade, stovetop popcorn, or eat fruit or vegetables for a snack. Eat hot cereal, homemade muffins, or eggs and toast for breakfast. You'll save money and be healthier!
4. Make wise choices when eating out
That salad you had at the restaurant? The dressing was likely full of sugar as well as unhealthy fats. Sugar is hidden in many dishes at restaurants, and their desserts can be tempting. If you're eating out, make sure you stick with dishes like grilled meats and roasted vegetables that aren't as likely to contain a lot of extra 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 your jar a shake, and you're set to go.
5. Eat a well-rounded diet with a focus on protein and vegetables
Load up on vegetables and you'll feel a lot better. (Photo: Michael Stern [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
It's amazing how much better I feel when I'm eating plenty of protein and vegetables. I don't crave sugar when I'm eating well. But it takes a conscious effort to make it happen. In her book, "The Mood Cure," Julia Ross recommends removing refined foods like white sugar and white flour from your diet, and replacing them with 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 help people ease many health issues.
Simply removing sugar can help improve your health, but you also need to fill up on good-for-you foods. Eating regular, hearty meals will ensure that you don't eat a doughnut 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 good healthy food blogs out there. Get inspired and start collecting doable but delicious healthy recipes.
6. Challenge yourself to go completely 'sugar-free' for 2 weeks
Sometimes when you simply try to "reduce" your sugar consumption, you end up eating only slightly less. Go completely sugar-free for two weeks and you'll start to reset your taste buds and gain self-control. I've found this really helpful, especially after a holiday.
7. Find a friend 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, who 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 drop. I find it helpful to eat or drink a fermented food such as homemade sauerkraut, coconut kefir or kombucha. The sourness of these foods counteract that sweet desire, plus it gives you healthy probiotics, which help reduce cravings.
9. Go have fun!
As long as you have food in your stomach, life isn't 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's 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 addictive 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 increase in blood sugar. 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 to it at an early age. If you have children, start them off on the right foot with a low-sugar diet. They'll thank you later.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in April 2012.