Donuts. Cupcakes. Cinnabons. Lucky charms. We all know that stuff has sugar. But what about “whole grain” “fruity” cereals? What about that “healthy” “low fat” yoghurt that “helps prevent” heart disease? Before I get into all that, let’s rewind for a second while I explain to you how I feel about sugar and why I’d like to get the word out.
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to freak you out. I’m not trying to convince you stop enjoying life by passing on every slice of birthday cake that comes your way. In fact, that’s the opposite of my life philosophy, which is all about balance and finding what works for you as an individual. I am writing this to share my story, raise awareness, and provide some tips so that you can make informed decisions that help you take control of your diet and health.
My sugar story
Sugar is a really important topic to me. I used to be pretty damn addicted to that stuff. In college (the peak of everyone’s dietary downfall), I used to eat Original Glazed donuts (from Krispy Kreme, obviously) and brownies coated in frosting for breakfast on the regular. Yes, on the regular. Pastries were my jam (lol, get it?) for a pretty long time. Over time, my habits got a little better, but I was still having more cookies than anyone I knew. While other people standing in line at a cafe were exclaiming, “Ooh, I think I’ll have a cookie today!” as if it was such a treat for them, I thought, Um, yeah, what’s the big deal? That’s a no-brainer. Doesn’t everyone have a cookie the size of their face every day?
While I ate fruits and vegetables, I still had a lot of junk food. I took my health for granted, thinking that just because I metabolized things quickly and didn’t put on weight, they weren’t affecting my body. I later realized that health is a lot more than just your weight (which is now so obvious to me), and I wanted to treat my body better. But that’s easier said than done.
We are not genetically designed to consume the amount of sugar that we are currently eating. For that reason, our brains get that ‘happy feeling’ from sugar and it can override the “I’ve had enough” mechanism. – Nerd Fitness
After much dawdling, I realized that trying to decrease my intake gradually just didn’t cut it for me. So I finally made the decision to completely cut out sugar for two weeks. Like, quitting cold turkey and seeing what would happen. Spoiler: it was practically torturous. In the morning, I would stand and watch people fill their bags with pastries at Whole Foods with longing in my eyes. They were just so casual about it, while I stood on the sidelines having this internal battle. While I can look back now in disbelief, it just shows you how addictive sugar can be. It’s hard for me to believe that sugar had that much control over me. But it did. That was over a year ago now.
Don’t get me wrong: I will always have a sweet tooth. I still treat myself to sweet treats on the regular, and I won’t say I have 0% sugar a day. But I kicked my crazed addiction to it, and I now understand that a treat is a treat, not a meal. I hope you will too. When you take steps to dramatically cut down on sugar, you’ll notice your cravings start to abide. After the initial period of withdrawal (yes, I’m using that word because that’s what it is), you will end up feeling a lot more empowered in what you choose to eat everyday. Instead of being controlled by an addiction to sugar, you’ll have more awareness and freedom to put good, real food into your body. Food that serves you well.
Sugar and our diets
Many people have said it before: sugar is the enemy. I know, super dramatic. I, for the most part, agree. Let me clarify what I mean by “for the most part”: a little bit of sugar is okay. As with every kind of nutrient we’re talking about, it depends on the kind of sugar. Naturally-occurring sugars found in fruits, whole grain products, and other whole foods (even vegetables) are a major source of energy for us, and it should be that way. These sugars are vital for our brains (literally) and our bodies. So please don’t be afraid of eating plenty of fruit and whole grain foods like brown rice and 100% wholegrain bread. When part of a balanced diet, the fiber, vitamins, and minerals you find in that stuff is what keeps our bodies healthy.
The real issues are 1. having an imbalanced diet made primarily of simple sugars and 2. the main culprit: added sugar, the refined sugar they add to most packaged foods. It’s apparently found in over 70 percent of packaged foods, which is huge. They add it to everything, including condiments (read that ketchup label) and “health foods” like yoghurt and snack bars. Because it’s so sneaky, most of us are consuming a lot more sugar than we think. Eating as much added sugar as a lot of us do spikes blood sugar levels and then leads to an energy slump that leaves you craving more. Overconsumption of sugar has also been linked to weight gain, chronic disease, some types of cancer, and aging. So if you think you’ve cut down on sugar, there may be a couple things left in your fridge or pantry you’ll want to take another look at.
Here are a couple examples from a site dedicated to sugar:
- “One leading brand of yogurt contains 7 teaspoons (29 grams) of sugar per serving.
- A breakfast bar made with “real fruit” and “whole grains” lists 15 grams of sugar.
- A single cup of bran cereal with raisins, in a box advertising “no high-fructose corn syrup,” contains 20 grams of sugar per serving.”
The general limit for men is up to 9 teaspoons of added sugars a day, while women can have up to 6. If we eat packaged foods without checking the label, it’s easy to surpass that limit. Ideally, we won’t even meet that limit on most days. But it’s good to know what the cap is. That way, when you want to treat yourself, you’ll know what moderation looks like. You’ll also appreciate indulgences more because you’ll have reduced your sugar consumption from sneaky sources that can really add up.
The point of this isn’t to scare you off food. Having treats in moderation is perfectly fine because life is short and, let’s face it, anything can kill you. Immortality is not a thing (at least as far as I know). That being said, living a long and healthy life is. And what you put in your body is a big part of that. Always remember that not all calories are created equal. Added sugar is just empty calories that don’t do your mind or body any favors. If you focus on having healthy and whole foods with no added sugar, you’ll feel the difference in how your body feels. It starts with making a change and seeing the results for yourself.
Things to know
1. When it comes to sugar, it’s not just the white-as-snow powdered variety that’s harmful. I’ll talk more about other sweeteners and forms of sugar to avoid in the tips below.
2. If you feel like you’re really addicted to sugar, try reducing your intake gradually by making a few switches here and there. Cutting it out all at once may be overwhelming and cause you to relapse quickly. But if you’d like to give it a shot, you could try going cold turkey – it worked for me. Behavior change is different for everyone, so find what works for you. Also, don’t be ashamed if you’re struggling – that stuff is like a drug to our brains. Don’t hesitate to see a health professional for help along the way.
3. Even with sugar, nutrition recommendations evolve over time. But these things always hold true: have everything in moderation, and eat a well-rounded/balanced diet consisting of a variety of whole foods (thereby limiting or eliminating processed food). Don’t get lost in the noise, make sure to check where you’re getting your info from, and take it all with a grain of salt.
Without further ado, let’s get into the tips!
Four ways to reduce your sugar intake
If you’re looking for ways to cut down on sugar, here are four of my top suggestions. Change happens one step at a time, so focus on what you can do today – and go do it! – and the rest will follow.
Read the label
Always, always, always read labels. Remember, all that stuff you see on the outside of the pack is marketing. Many food manufacturing companies want you to believe that their food is healthier than it really is. At this point, we’re all scared of sugar and fat, so we’ll jump at the first box that claims to be “Fat Free!” and “No sugar added!” When in fact, the label tells a different story. When grocery shopping, I avoid purchasing anything with added sugar. Ingredients are listed in descending order by quantity. The higher up on the list it is, the more there is of it. At the very least make sure that any form of sugar is not one of the first three ingredients.
Rice syrup, maltodextrin, cane sugar, glucose solids… Sugar isn’t always listed as “sugar” on nutrition labels. If only it were that easy. There are over 50 labeling terms used for sugar, often used as a way to bypass regulations / make you think the food product has less sugar than it really does. Check out the full list of different names for sugar, and read How to Identify Natural Sugar and Added Sugar on Nutrition Labels.
Examine your diet
Evaluate what you actually eat on a day to day basis. What are your go-to meals, snacks, and drinks? Do you prep food at home? What kind of ingredients do you use? And what about packaged food? Spend a few days watching what you eat a little more closely – you could even write everything down if you like. When you find a pattern (e.g. starting each day with a cereal and some milk), check out the nutrition information of your go-tos. People tend to pay most attention to calories and percent fat, but don’t forget to check out the ingredients list and see whether and where sugar is listed (as well as other harmful ingredients). If sugar is one of the top three ingredients, ditch that brand and swap it for another. Take a little time during your next grocery shop to find substitutions from other brands that use better ingredients. For example, instead of buying cereals that list over 25 ingredients and are high in sugar, opt for a sugar-free muesli made from ingredients you can pronounce. You can even start to make your own muesli, granola, or overnight oats at home.
Drop the spoon
In addition to paying attention to the food you buy, what about the food you make? Try experimenting with refined sugar-free baking. And don’t add sugar to your tea or coffee (or, drop the spoon!). If you’re used to having sweet drinks and treats, that will likely seem impossible. I remember the first time I tried tea without sugar. It was green tea, and I thought it was horrendous. That’s probably because growing up, I used to add at least three tablespoons of sugar to my mug. Now you see why I’m a little anti-sugar? If you need a little bit of sweetness – I still do – substitute table sugar with a little honey, maple syrup, or blackstrap molasses. These ingredients work so well in baking. They’ve been found to have some health benefits and are a great substitute for other sweeteners when used in moderation.
Beware of smoothies
You probably know that sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks are a no-go. Juices and smoothies are all the rage, especially because they’re seen as a much healthier alternative. But while they are a good way to get vitamins and minerals, both can contain a ton of sugar. Opt for juices that use a lot more greens than fruit (e.g. spinach, kale, celery, parsley, etc. + pineapple or apple), and steer clear of berry blast smoothies. Generally, smoothies have more fiber than juices, but it’s best not to have either as a meal on its own. While smoothies and juices help us get antioxidants, it’s best to have as many whole fruits as possible. The fiber they contain helps release sugars slowly, while juice strips that all away and causes spikes in our blood sugar levels.
If you’ve made it this far… I would like to congratulate you. Thanks for reading my story! I hope you found these tips useful. Here are some resources if you’re interested in learning more:
1. Website: Sugar Science
Do you like sugar a little bit too much? I’d love to hear your story and any tips you might want to share, so feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment down below.