Americans are hopped up on too much sugar.
This likely comes as no surprise to you.
Perhaps you have even noodled with the idea of cutting back or have already made efforts to limit the sweet stuff in your nutrition plan. And kudos! Definitely not a bad idea. Sugar plays some pretty mean tricks on the body.
It has been linked to the following issues (note: this list is not exhaustive):
- Metabolic syndrome – This is a cluster of symptoms that, when occurring together, increase the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease.
- Unregulated blood sugar – Our blood sugar is influenced by, well, our sugar (more broadly categorized as carbohydrate) intake. Too much sugar, too often causes peaks and valleys in our blood sugar. These highs and lows stress out our pancreas and can, over time, lead to prediabetes and diabetes.
- Sugar belly – Like a beer belly (you know the belly that your uncle tells you is all muscle but sticks out so far that it’s past his toes). Just like this, only due to sugar. Both beer and sugar get metabolized similarly by the liver and then spit out as fat to snuggle up right next to our organs. Basically, the worst place for fat to get cozy. Perfect.
- Fatty liver disease – As mentioned above, excess sugar gets metabolized by the liver leading to fat depositing in our midsection. Over time and with the overtaxing of the liver, this fat gets deposited right on the liver itself. Poor guy can’t catch a break.
- Speeds up the aging process – Need I say more??
The 2015 FDA guidelines for the sweet stuff
Given the research and these risks, the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) recommended a cap for added sugars in November 2015. The new guidelines state that no more than 10% of your daily calories should be from added sugar. For a person consuming roughly 2,000 calories per day, that is roughly 50 grams of added sugar (which, in my professional opinion, is still a little too generous). For perspective, a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew has 77.5 grams of sugar. [Sugar trivia: How many grams of added sugar does 1/4 cup of dried, sweetened cranberries have? Answer: 29 grams! Uffda.]
So now that we know all the harm that excess sugar consumption can have on our bodies, we can just stop eating it. Right now. We’re done. We promise this is the last cookie…
… [1 Netflix episode goes by]…
…oh shit. Where did they all go?
But why can’t I stop?
Here’s the skinny…sugar has been shown to light up the same brain centers as cocaine. As in hard drugs. Moral of the story: sugar is highly addictive. Which is why stopping it is so damn hard. So that, plus the fact that sugar has infiltrated our modern American food environment in almost every possible way, makes it even harder to cut back.
In fact, 74% of packed foods have some added sugar. There are the places you would expect to find it such as baked goods, candies, soda, syrup, honey, sugary cereals, ice cream etc. But where is the rest of it hiding?? Everywhere. In your salad dressing, condiments (ketchup, BBQ sauce, etc.), fat-free dairy products, sweetened dairy products like yogurt, many high-fiber products, dried fruit, yogurt, sports drinks, the list goes on. And to add insult to injury…there are 61 ingredients that basically equal sugar that food manufacturers throw in as additional ingredients.
Take this ingredient list for “healthy” granola, for example:
There are 10 sources of sugar. Not one or two. 10!
Beyond the constant exposure and addictive properties of sugar, there are generally 4 causes of sugar cravings:
- Bacterial/fungal – There may be a dysbiosis (or imbalance) of bacteria in your digestive system. Or there may be an overgrowth of sugar-hungry fungi, such as candida. Work with a practitioner to get either of these into check.
- Nutritional – Sugar cravings can be the result of nutritional deficiencies, such as magnesium.
- Emotional – Read more about this here.
- Physical – You may be going too long between meals/snacks and your body is looking for quick energy, such as sugar.
9 tips to make your life easier when cutting back
At this point, I probably have you wanting to throw your hands up in the air and say, “well if something is going to kill me, it might as well be sugar!” And I don’t blame you. It can seem overwhelming and down right not fun to cut back on it.
But do not lose faith, my friend, here are nine things that you can do to make your life easier. And you don’t need to focus on all nine at one time. Small efforts made in any one area can have significant impacts on your sugar cravings. So BIG INHALE, SLOW EXHALE and let’s take a look at where to start.
- Make sure you are hydrated. When we are not meeting our hydration needs, this can often get mistaken for needing quick energy or sugar. The Institue of Medicine recommends 15 cups and 11 cups per day for men and women, respectively. Now, if this seems like a whole helluva lot of water, like you may never leave the bathroom…listen to your body. Assess your hydration using the clues it is giving you. Do you have a dry mouth, eyes, or skin? Are your bowel movements irregular and challenging? (Sorry, we have to talk about poo here.) Is the color of your urine constantly a dark yellow, not nearing clear by noon? (…and pee…) Are you craving sugar by midafternoon? These are all signals that you are likely not getting enough fluids, so drink up!
- Prioritize sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies are going to turn to quick energy (aka. sugar) for a pick-me-up. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night but it is important to figure out how much you need to feel your best. It’s okay to be a kid on this one. Give yourself a bedtime! Set an alarm on your phone 30 minutes before bed to remind yourself when it’s time to start winding down.
- Get enough protein. Protein helps to stabilize our blood sugars preventing the highs and lows that can cause sugar cravings. Try to get a source of protein at every meal and snack. Some good options include lean meats, fish, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, soy and tofu (if tolerated), dairy products (if tolerated), and eggs.
- Eat enough healthy fats. Similar to protein, fat helps to also stabilize blood sugars and prevent sugar cravings. Work to incorporate a healthy fat in all meals and snacks. Oils (olive, avocado, walnut, coconut), nuts and seeds, fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel), avocado, full-fat pastured dairy products, and grass-fed or free range meats are all good sources of healthy fats.
- Consume enough fiber. Bit of a broken record here but consuming enough fiber also helps to keep blood sugars in check. It is recommended for adults to get 25-35 grams of fiber per days. Veggies and fruit are some of our best sources which is why produce should make up half of your meals and snacks. Beans and legumes provide a hefty dose of fiber as do some nuts and seeds. When having grains, choose whole varieties to get the most fiber bang for your buck. Remember to increase your fiber intake SLOWLY and drink plenty of water so it can do its job and pass things through smoothly and prevent…umm…unsavory side effects.
- Eat regular meals and snacks. When we go long periods of time between meals we get hungry. And if we don’t nourish ourselves this hunger can lead to dips in our blood sugar which lead to hanger (adjective. a state of anger caused by a lack of food or altered emotional state due to intense hunger). And when you are hangry and in the presence of sugar, you will eat all of it. Your physiology is telling you to! Your built-in survival mechanisms are telling you to find quick energy in order to prevent low blood sugar which would make it impossible to fight off a predator. (In our modern era, the only really threat we encounter is the dip not using his blinker on the ride home from work.) Try to have a meal or snack every 3 or so hours to prevent this series of events
- Change your scenery. A craving, especially one tied to an emotion (Hello boredom! Hello stress! Lookin’ at you anxiety!) only lasts for about 5 to 8 minutes so go for a stroll, change your surroundings, chat with a friend, unload the dishwasher…do anything to distract yourself for the next 300-480 seconds.
- Supplement if needed. L-glutamine, a daily probiotic, chromium, magnesium, and fish oil can all help keep sugar cravings in check. Reach out if this is something you would like to explore more!
- Go cold turkey. Okay, okay, I know I said these were 9 strategies for cutting back on sugar WITHOUT wanting to rage. But for some people, the best way to get in control of their sugar cravings is to just go cold turkey. It will suck for the first few days, maybe a week, but it will get easier. And many people find that after they do this, they have a much easier time saying “no” to and feeling more in control of when and how much they enjoy.
Sugar is going to happen
Now that you know some strategies for cutting back, let’s level set for a second because the reality is that…sugar is going to happen. And when it does, here a few tips to prevent an all out sugar binge and resulting crash.
- Be mindful of the amount. Pay attention to serving size and the number of servings per container. Keep in mind that you have to multiply the grams of sugar per serving by the number of actual servings you consume. Thank you, Captain Obvious, eh.
- Pair it up! Pair sugar with a serving of healthy fat, a high fiber food, and/or protein to help to slow its metabolism, preventing blood sugar spikes.
- Be choosy. Go for a quality dark chocolate or indulge in the dessert that truly tickles your fancy. Be exclusive when it comes to your sugar intake. Know what you truly enjoy and don’t be distracted by other “filler” foods.
- Follow the three bite rule. If you are choosing quality over quantity, chances are you might be satisfied with less. Try slowly enjoying three [note: generous] bites of your sugary treat. Ask yourself, “Am I satisfied?” Practicing mindfulness while enjoying a sugary food to help yourself truly enjoy might end up helping you to willfully stop after just a few bites.
Well, there you go… How are you going to hop off the sugar train?
Cheers to living deliciously & nutritiously!