I’ve been clean for nine months (except for occasional bites). I’ve managed to walk past bowls of my past addiction without a second glance. The plates sitting on every table at church don’t even whisper my name anymore. And all the Sirens at the grocery store have silenced their enchanting songs to lure me into their islands. The shipwreck of sugar cravings finally got lost at sea, and I’m not headed back to find where it landed.
It’s not easy to own up to one’s destructive habits, especially if you have a career in health and wellness. Yet for that very reason, I knew it was imperative to find a solution so I could effectively coach others to find it themselves. And one week after Halloween, I’m happy to report that we have only one Tupperware of chocolates in the house (primarily for potty training purposes), and of those, I’ve eaten maybe 3. And not out of cravings, mostly boredom.
So I want to tell you that breaking sugar cravings is possible.
But before I talk about solutions, let’s review why added sugar is a killer for any healthy diet, and why life is better without them. Let’s talk a few numbers and examine the typical American diet. Although the USDA recommended sugar intake is no more than 6-10% of the daily caloric consumption, most Americans consume 16-20% of their daily calories from added sugar. What that means in real numbers is that while no more than 6-9 teaspoons, or less than 25g, should be consumed in a typical day (for a typical 2000 daily calorie diet) the typical American is consuming 32g of sugar EVERY day!
Along with that, added sugar consumption is linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease, increasing the risk 38% compared to those who follow low-sugar food plans. It can also negatively impair memory, artificially increase appetite, decrease energy levels, lead to diabetes, increase body weight and cause joint inflammation.
Why? How does such a sweet tasting additive bring so much suffering to our lives? The answer lies in its metabolism process, and the fact that the ingredients find their way into the majority of packaged foods. In the body, sugar is metabolized in the liver, but when the liver is overloaded, it turns it into fat. This is where it leads to a myriad of problems as fat cells inhibit regular cell function.
Where? If you think you are following a healthy diet, yet still raging against a constant sweet tooth, it may be time to take inventory of your food intake. Consider that a typical “healthy” flavored Greek yogurt yields 20g of sugar by itself, and you start to see where part of the problem comes from. Other common “healthy” food saboteurs include protein bars/shakes, cereal, sauces, applesauce, sweetened nut milks, beverages, breads, low-fat foods and condiments (ketchup, peanut butter, jams). The more obvious not-so-healthy products include creamers, pastries, sodas/sports drinks, candy, fruit snacks, ice cream and alcohol.
A great handout I use regularly for my clients gives an overview of typical sugar content in various foods. In it, you see that iced tea can have almost 10g per 16oz bottle, 20 oz soda almost the equivalent in g/oz at 19.25g, and some kids cereals coming in at 10g/serving! So imagine if you consumed one serving of each of these per day…you’d be already at almost 40g of sugar, and you haven’t even enjoyed your evening bowl of ice cream yet!
Help! By now you may be realizing that your diet is leading you too for a major shipwreck, as it was doing to me. Or you might be at that point already if you experience the myriad of maladies pointed out earlier. So it’s time to get to the solutions!
1-Nutrition Labels: If you haven’t picked up on in yet, the biggest habit you should start doing is READING LABELS!!! I can’t emphasize this enough, as this small rectangle on your package will literally tell you if what you hold in your hands will help or hinder your health. After looking at the calorie count per serving, scan to the sugar section. You might even notice an update from previous years, as many manufacturers are switching to the new mandate for 2018 to state the amount of added sugars in the product. This helps the consumer differentiate between natural occurring sugars (as in fruit) and all other sweeteners.
The next step is to check the Ingredients. If you see sugar as the first ingredient (unless of course, it IS sugar), PLEASE put it back on the shelf! This part of the label tells you everything you need to know about content, because sometimes certain ingredients (like trans fat) don’t have to be reported numerically if they fall under a certain percentage of the overall content. Knowing where sugar falls in the lineup will help you determine if the item is as “healthy” as it’s designed to be.
2-Drink More Water. I’m sure you’ve heard this mantra a million times in your life, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Not only does drinking water curb your overall appetite, it can also keep you from consuming other sugar laden beverages that derail your best sugar-fasting intentions.
3-Proper Diet…Keep it Simple: I doubt anyone really needed me to say this, but sometimes it’s hard to decipher what actually are healthy food choices on the store shelves, since manufacturers design products to make them seem nutritious. So follow a few guidelines: 1- buy A LOT of produce; 2-eat 100% whole grains (multi-grain, whole wheat, bran cereal), not refined grains (bleached flour); 3-Avoid Low-Fat foods (especially in the dairy section), as they typically hold more sugar to offset the lower fat content; 4-Avoid artificial sweeteners, although low in calories, they inhibit weight loss and the body does not metabolize them well, which leads to weight gain.
4-Exercise. Of course, I have to say that…it’s my job. But the reality is that in addition to curbing appetite, exercise can also increase your mitochondria metabolism, which means your body doesn’t have to work as hard to process sugar, especially when it becomes overloaded (hello Holiday season!). Also on a diabetic note, walking after eating has been shown to decrease glucose levels. And realistically speaking, hopefully going for a walk will distract you from satisfying the sweet tooth!
5-Eliminate Pastries. Last but not least, the inevitable target of sugar fails starts either in the oven or on our grocery list. It doesn’t matter if the label or recipe says honey, agave, maple syrup, organic cane sugar or regular ol’ molasses…it’s all added sugar and the body digests it the same way. So even as the holiday season begs us to celebrate with heaven’s buffet of pastries, I’m telling you it’s not in the best interest of your body, and your body does NOT take a holiday. In fact, I would argue you need your energy levels to be at its peak over these next two months for an enjoyable holiday season. So take a nibble if you must, or eat a small butter cookie, but leave the whipped cream desserts and banket for someone else.
And to weave a parenting note in all of this, your eating habits influence the little ones around you. It’s understandable that potty-training bribery plays a role in parenting, but the rest of the eating habits literally determine a child’s nutrient profile and can set them up for medical problems later if sugar intake isn’t controlled. And of course, as parents, we need all the energy we can get to keep up with those rascals, so don’t let sugar rob you of living the good life…including during the little years!
American Council on Exercise. “How Sugar Affects Your Body.” https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5128/how-sugar-affects-your-body. Oct. 28, 2014.
Asp, Karen. “Sugar Shock: Why Experts Say It’s Time to Get Serious About Taming That Sweet Tooth.” https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/april-2014/3767/sugar-shock-why-experts-say-it-s-time-to-get-serious-about-taming-that-sweet-tooth. April 2014.
Halvorson, Ryan. “Why Those With Type 2 Diabetes Should Walk After Dinner.” http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/why-those-with-type-2-diabetes-should-walk-after-dinner. Dec. 14, 2016.
Webster, Sandy Todd. “Nutrition Facts Panel Puts Spotlight on Added Sugars.” http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/nutrition-facts-panel-puts-spotlight-on-added-sugars-0. Aug. 19, 2016.
Webster, Sandy Todd. “When Sugar isn’t Sweet.” http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/when-sugar-isnt-sweet-0. April 16, 2014.
“Sugar Facts & Fiction.” http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/sugar-facts-fiction. Aug. 15, 2008.
Keller, Joy and Judy Meyer. “What Added Sugar Looks Like.” http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/what-added-sugar-looks-like. Oct. 23, 2015.