How do I break my sugar habit? I’ve been getting this question a lot lately. I’m thrilled that my message of “SUGAR IS BAD! BAD! BAD!” is getting through to those around me. If asked one thing to cut from our diet: Sugar. Big bad: refined sugar, wheat (any refined grains), high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, etc. Honey is a border line one. In moderation it’s ok, as it at least offers some trace nutrients.
Sugar, the Big Bad, has many disguises that have thickly woven into the standard American diet over the past 50-60 years especially. The biggest disguise, I think, is wheat. Yes, even whole wheat. It has a higher glycemic index than a candy bar. Here are some more common places the Big Bad likes to slip into our systems: sauces, salad dressings, protein/performance bars, applesauce, cereals, Starbucks drinks, smoothies, protein powder, peanut butter, soup, medications, processed/frozen foods, milk, cheese, fruit juices, pretty much just about anything in a package. Don’t think artificial sweeteners are the answer either; they are equally bad, if not worse. They affect our brain chemistry, taste sensors, and appetite control centers.
Why, do you ask, is it the Big Bad? Isn’t it a natural, all-American product? Yes it is an all-American product. Natural, definitely not. It’s been so overly processed that sugar has been compared to cocaine, and not just in texture, but how it affects the body (and I’m just talkin’ about the white refined sugar; corn, rice, etc. syrups are even more refined/processed). Check out the movie Hungry for a Change.
Sugar is deficient in nutrients. Processed sweet foods contain calories with no other nutrients, aka empty calories. Other than the ones your parents and dentist warned you about, dental caries (bacteria in the mouth ferment sugar and produce an acid that dissolves tooth enamel), dental plaque (gummy mass of bacteria that grows on teeth; builds up depends on chemistry of saliva and genetics), tooth decay (starches and sugars begin breaking down to sugars in the mount), there are physiological effects it has on every system in our bodies: immune, cardiovascular, reproductive, neurological, etc.
Sugar and its effects. Don’t feel too bad about yourself at this point. Sugar creates cravings that are psychological. There is a chemical reason behind these cravings. Sugar causes big spikes and big dips in serotonin. Serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter essential to brain function, levels are responsible for our moods, i.e., mellow, peaceful, relaxed. It also, if in balance, increases impulse control, allowing you to ‘just say no’ (to that piece of cake). Low levels of serotonin are shown in depression cases, craving simple carbohydrates, the later which helps tryptophan move thru the blood brain barrier to make serotonin. By eating too much sugar, substituting nutrient dense foods with sugar, we are creating a vicious cycle (among other potentially very hazardous conditions) that messes with our brain chemistry, leaving us depressed, waiting for that next fix of goodness. Then dropping down to bottom again. Repeat. Great book on this topic, if you want more information is Potatoes Not Prozac, simple solutions to sugar sensitivities, by Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, Addictive Nutrition.
What’s going on elsewhere? Here are some bullets on what sugar does to us.
- Suppresses the immune system
- Upsets the body’s mineral balance, chromium and copper deficiency
- Causes kidney damage
- Reduces HDLs (good cholesterol)
- Causes inflammation in the body and increases blood pH, which is the source of many of the big illnesses we face today (vs back in the late 1800s, we were a lot less sick then than now): cancer of the breast, ovaries, intestines, prostate, and rectum.
- Can cause/exacerbate (inflammation again) arthritis, asthma, candida, gallstones, hermorrhoids, varicose veins, increase cholesterol, cause food allergies, contribute to eczema in children
- Interferes with absorption of calcium and magnesium.
- Weakens eyesight
- Produces an over-acid stomach
- Raises adrenaline levels in children
- Causes tooth decay and periodontal disease
- Contributes to aging (inflammation, again)
- Leads to anxiety, difficulty concentrating (kids and adults)
- Leads to insulin resistance, leptin resistance, diabetes
Now, how to kick the habit? You can go cold turkey. I did that once, on a dare, gave up sugar for a year. And it was right between Halloween and Thanksgiving. NOT EASY! Kind of close to hell, actually. But I’m stubborn, so couldn’t lose the bet. I had a serious sugar addiction, and as addictions go, I still do. But I keep it under control. And the best way I’ve found to that is education and action. When I have a craving, I think about what I’ve eaten. Cravings, of any sort, are a sign of some nutrient deficiency. Here are some tips and guides for gradually kicking the habit or going cold turkey.
- Be aware of what you’re eating. Read labels, pick products that have less or no added sugar.
- Drink more water, get more fiber. No brainer? Maybe. But we need to flush out the bad stuff and these two lovelies are the studs that can get the job done.
- Try crowding the sugars out: fill your bowls and plates with nutrient dense foods. Aim for a minimum of 8 servings of vegetables a day (shocking how hard that might actually be). Green smoothies are a very quick way to do this. See my post on green smoothies: http://mariahehlert.com/2012/03/11/green-smoothie-101/
- Pay attention to how you FEEL. A good friend said, after all the diets, numerous nutritionists, that only one of them ever asked how she FELT after eating crap food vs good food. You will notice a difference. Eventually you’ll become so sensitive that you’ll feel the sugar spike in your system from a few crackers (gluten free even).
- Add bitter. Add bitter foods, our taste buds adjust to what we eat. Add in foods that taste bitter. Gradually! I started having lemon juice in my water when I learned how beautifully it helps the liver out and to help balance blood pH (=healthy. Good.). However, it was so bitter, I couldn’t stick to it. Next I tried a little lemon juice in warm water. That did the trick. After a couple weeks, I was able to add crazy amounts to my cold water. Added benefit to this: your tastes buds come alive! You’re able to taste flavors that you weren’t able to previously (masked by the sweetness).
- Chew longer. Chewing combines digestive enzymes in your mouth with your food, and guess what? The food turns sweeter with this action. Chemistry is cool. So eventually that bitter veggie will start to not only have flavor, but taste kind of sa-weeeeeeet.
- Craving replacements: Fruits are initially a good grab when a craving hits. Sugars from complex carbs such as vegetables, legumes, fruits come in a natural nutrient-dense package of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. All things our bodies need.
- Exercise. Aside from the plethora of benefits of exercise, this will also help brain chemistry, which will help keep cravings at bay, and help flush out toxins from sugar (detox).
Nutrient dense foods. In the end, we need to fill our bodies with what they need most: nutrients. Not empty calories that harm us. A diet made up of nutrient dense foods exclusively (think veggies, fruits, well-raised animal protein, seeds, nuts) is not only therapeutic, but promotes longevity, energy, and that all-over good feeling. When we are getting what we need, the cravings will go away, as will excess weight.
Good luck, fight the good fight! Let me know if you have any other tips!