Whole 30, Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Weight Watchers – there are numerous different diets and eating plans available to us at the beginning of every year (personally I believe in an individualized approach to nutrition and this is how I get great results with my clients), but the one aspect they all have in common is to cut down on the sweet stuff!
The average American consumes 32 teaspoons of sugar a day, mostly in the form of soda and processed foods. This amount has risen sharply in the last 25 years, due to mass production and lower cost, modern eating habits and changes in taste (we have become so de-sensitized to sugar that we crave more and sweeter tastes).
Processed foods are the number one reason why our modern-day diets contain so much sugar – 99% of them contain sugar and sweeteners in some form. However, it is not just typically unhealthy processed foods such as candy and chips that contain sugar, so of our health food store favourites such as granola, protein bars and smoothies can often contain high amounts of sugar in the form of agave, honey and coconut nectar. These sweeteners have exactly the same effect on our blood sugar and endocrine system as plain white sugar.
Quitting sugar is not just a case of willpower – human beings are wired to want to eat sugar. We evolved to crave sweet tastes as this meant high-calorie foods (which when we were hunter-gatherers were essential to our survival), and consuming sugar causes an opiate-like response in the brain, releasing a surge of feel great chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
Our highly processed modern-day diets also mean we are on a blood sugar roller coaster throughout the day – consuming high carbohydrate foods for an energy boost at breakfast, then less than 2 hours later feeling a rapid drop, which we counter with more high sugar meals and snacks. These rapid blood sugar fluctuations cause us to release cortisol, our stress hormone. What happens when we are stressed? We reach for high sugar comfort foods, setting off the vicious cycle once again.
All carbohydrates break down into sugars in the body, but it is the simple sugars (such as glucose, fructose and lactose) which are the ones we need to eliminate from our diet. They spike our blood sugar levels and have no nutritional benefits – they are ‘empty calories’.
Insulin sensitivity (the opposite of which is insulin resistance) is the term used to describe how well someone utilizes food (carbohydrates and sugars) for fuel, as opposed to them storing them as fat. In a healthy person when foods containing carbohydrates are consumed the body releases the hormone insulin to help shuttle the fuel into the cell for use as energy. You can think of insulin as the key that unlocks the cell to let the fuel (glucose) in.
In someone who is insulin resistant either the insulin response is somewhat delayed, and/or the cell becomes desensitized to the insulin ‘knocking on the door’ to the cell wall (inflammation is also a huge factor in insulin resistance – a topic I will cover in a future post).
Insulin resistance does not just cause us to gain fat, it is also the precursor to most modern chronic disease including Metabolic Syndrome, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease (now referred to as Type 3 diabetes in the holistic health community). A
Sugar (especially fructose) also has a hugely negative effect on our gut health, promoting the unhealthy bacteria and yeast that cause microbiome imbalance and yeast overgrowth, resulting in compromised digestion and nutrition, bloating and skin issues
Sugar also affects the skin through a process called Advanced Glycation End Products – or the very apt acronym ‘AGE’! Excess glucose in the bloodstream (insulin resistance) can bind to the collagen and elastin in the skin, causing damage and accelerated ageing through a process called glycation. Glycation results in dehydrated and thinning skin that struggles to repair itself, showing up on the face and the body as age spots, dullness, wrinkles, fine lines and accelerated ageing.
So that’s the bad news! The good news is that it is possible to quit sugar and gain a whole host of health benefits (including improved body composition, more energy, less stress and glowing skin) whilst still enjoying a delicious, nutrient-dense diet. Here are my top ten tips for eliminating sugar in 2018:
1) Stop drinking soda, fruit juice and fruit juice drinks. Water, herbal teas and green veggies juices are always great options.
2) Eat less processed foods, including so-called ‘healthy options’. When eating food in packages always read the label, no matter where you purchased it from.
3) Educate yourself on different names for sugar. Anything ending in an ‘ose’ or an ‘ide’ is a technical name for sugar, and beware natural sweetness such as agave, honey and nectar as these still have a negative effect on health.
4) Do not replace sugars with calorie-free artificial sweeteners, these prevent you from eliminating your cravings, and make you even hungrier! When the body experiences a sweet taste, it expects a flood of calories to follow. When it doesn’t receive those calories, it will keep searching for them, making you crave even more sweet foods.
5) Up your intake of protein, fat and fibre – when cutting down on unhealthy foods it is important to replace them with healthier options, and in this case adding in more protein, fat and fibre will also stabilize blood sugar and hunger hormones.
6) Eat a protein-based breakfast for stable blood sugar and energy throughout the day – my go-to option for busy mornings is a Superfood Smoothie. My favourite recipe is:
• 1 scoop non-dairy vanilla protein powder (such as cricket, pea, rice or hemp)
• 1 scoop collagen powder
• 2 handfuls of leafy greens such as spinach or kale
• 1/4 avocado
• 1.5 cups almond milk
7) Keep sugar free snacks in your bag, desk drawer and car so you always have great options to hand. Good choices include low GI fruits such as apples and berries, nuts and nut butters and good quality jerky.
8) Utilize supplements to help with sugar detoxification: L-Glutamine, Chromium, B Vitamins and Magnesium are all wonderful for minimizing cravings and restoring blood sugar and hunger hormone balance.
9) Limit alcohol consumption – I am a big fan of ‘Dry January’ as I believe everyone’s system benefits from a break from alcohol, especially after the holidays! Alcohol spikes blood sugar almost immediately and provides almost no nutritional benefits (there are some antioxidants present in certain red wines, but the negative effect of alcohol always outweighs the positive). If you are drinking avoid the cocktails and sugary mixers, and choose low sugar options such as champagne, red wine or vodka and tonic.
10) Prioritize sleep. When we are low on sleep (and high in stress) our blood sugar levels and hunger hormones become imbalanced, causing us to crave high sugar and high-calorie foods – one sleep study showed that participants who got 4 or fewer hours of sleep at night ate over 300 extra kcals the next day!