Sugar is delicious, but don’t kid yourself, it’s incredibly addictive. We’re evolutionarily programmed to think so. Sugar isn’t intrinsically good or bad, but human beings’ genetically mandated love of the stuff combined with the fact that it is incredibly cheap and ubiquitous spells trouble.
On a personal note, I discovered some time last year via a dietary evaluation and elimination diet that I react very poorly to cane sugar (aka table sugar, made out of sugar cane). I actually get an earache within moments of eating something with cane sugar in it, and if I keep eating more, I catch a cold. It’s like clockwork. Following this discovery my subsequent adventures in removing cane sugar from my diet have been enlightening.
Here are some of the things that I have learned:
- Suffering is quite motivating. Knowing that if I cheat, I’ll feel terrible makes it much easier to stay away.
- My sweet tooth has become much more manageable since giving up cane sugar. I still enjoy occasional treats sweetened with maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar, agave, etc., but I don’t feel controlled by those sugar cravings the way I used to.
- For the most part I don’t really miss it (seriously).
- I do sometimes feel awkward saying no to sugary sweets when spending time with friends and family. Not because I want to eat the offered treat (My body actually doesn’t want it), but because it’s just hard on a social level to say no sometimes.
- There are many completely delicious desert options that don’t contain cane sugar.
- Without trying to count calories or lose weight (Though I certainly pay attention to eating a healthy, whole food diet), my weight naturally rests at about 5 lbs less than it did when I was eating cane sugar.
How does sugar affect your body?
Well I'm glad you asked!
For the purposes of this next section, when I say sugar, I mean added sweeteners of any kind, because any sweetener causes the same host of problems when eaten in excess. A few of the names you might find on labels include cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, honey, rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup etc. Sugar naturally found in whole fruit, vegetables or milk doesn’t count. Calorie free sweeteners also don't count, though I beg you to steer clear of NutraSweet (aspartame), Splenda (sucralose) and saccharine (Sweet N' Low). They are toxic. Stevia is generally fine in small amounts, and xylitol is well tolerated by some while others get some digestive upset from it as it is not absorbed. Be aware though, that even non-calorie sweeteners contribute to an addiction to excessively sweet foods.
I talk to all of my patients about limiting sugar. It may not be necessary for everyone to avoid cane sugar entirely like I do, but most people could benefit from eating less of it.
Table sugar is made up of half glucose and half fructose. All the other sweeteners I listed above contain some ratio of these two sugars. Glucose and fructose are processed very differently by the body. Glucose is mainly what the body needs to function (though you don’t have to eat sweet things to get enough of it because your body gets plenty from complex carbs found in whole grains, legumes and vegetables, and can even make its own out of fat and protein). Fructose, while fine in moderate amounts found in fruit is very taxing to the liver in high amounts. I encourage you to watch Sugar: The bitter truth for more on how your body processes glucose and fructose.
The body’s goal is to maintain the level of glucose in the blood at a very specific level because that is what the brain needs to be happy. When blood glucose drops too low, you feel terrible. Foggy thinking, irritability, nausea, and fatigue: these are all common feelings when your blood sugar drops too low and your brain is expressing its displeasure. On the other hand, the brain doesn’t protest when blood sugar is too high. If it did, we likely wouldn’t have such high rates of diabetes in this country because people would receive consistent negative feedback from their bodies when they overindulged.
The pancreas produces two hormones that are responsible for keeping your blood sugar in the perfect middle range:
- When blood sugar levels are too high, Insulin tells your cells to remove sugar from the blood and store it as glycogen in the liver, and as fat all over the body, but especially around the midsection.
- When blood sugar levels are too low, Glucagon tells your cells to add sugar to the blood.
But what if blood sugar levels are bumped up over and over again throughout the day because you regularly eat sugary meals or snacks, and this continues for days, months or years on end? Over time your cells stop listening when insulin tells them to remove sugar from the blood. Like a child who no longer listens to her mom nagging her to clean her room, cells all over the body quit listening to insulin telling them to clean up the sugar. When this happens, sugar levels remain high, eventually leading to type 2 diabetes. High sugar levels in the blood begin to gum up the blood vessels as well other cells in the body. This leads to heart disease and speeds up the aging process. If you’re interesting in slowing or reversing the aging process, listen up. The first and best way is to keep your blood sugar levels in the normal range. All of that excess sugar floating around directly causes wrinkles and sagging skin.
So what are some basic guidelines to aim for around eating sugar?
I generally have people focus on sticking to the American Heart Association’s recommendations, which say that:
Women should aim to consume no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar per day
Men should aim to consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar per day
Children up to age 8 should consume no more than 3-4 teaspoons (12-16 grams) per day
Children age 8 to 18 should consume no more than 5-6 teaspoons (20-24 grams) per day
An important conversion to keep in mind is that there are 4 grams of table sugar in 1 teaspoon. Most nutrition labels list sugar in grams, so this helps with label reading.
The US Food and Drug Administration recommends that people not exceed 10% of their daily calories from added sugar. That works out to about 50 grams of sugar per day or 12.5 teaspoons of table sugar. That’s over double the American Heart Association’s recommendations for women and much too high in my opinion.
My Favorite Granola
I recently made my own granola, modifying a recipe from Food 25 to reduce the sweetener and only use maple syrup. I ended up with a completely delicious crunchy, mildly sweet and ever so slightly salty granola that I absolutely love. I love that this recipe contains a ton of nuts and seeds lending it a relatively high protein content. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are some of my favorite super foods as they’re packed with minerals. This granola is also high in healthy fats from the coconut flakes, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. I enjoy it with some whole fat yogurt and fresh berries to increase the antioxidant punch. I’ve listed the nutrition facts below the recipe.
An important thing to note is that even though it has relatively low sugar, I still consider this granola a treat and don’t eat it every day. My goal is to make the majority of my diet veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains and occasional meat. In order to eat enough veggies each day, it takes eating vegetables with most meals, and having granola for a meal usually means I don’t eat vegetables. So I reserve it for special occasions or times when I’m in a bit of a hurry.