5-Step Plan for Shutting Down Sugar
There are lots of things we can do to improve our health and wellness, but if you want to focus on just one thing—it costs nothing and no sweat involved—cut sugar out of your diet.
Sugar intake is linked to a variety of serious health risks the most obvious being weight gain which in turn leads to overweight/obesity, diabetes, cancer, high blood glucose and lipid levels that promote high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, and has an impact on brain function leading to a greater risk of depression as well as cognitive risks.
So what’s the big deal? If it is so bad, why are we still eating foods loaded with sugar? And why is it hard to cut it out even after identifying sneaky food sources that are high in sugar?
Sugar sets off a variety of chemical reactions that set the stage for the body to want it, crave it, and crave it loudly. Not only do we become addicted to the sugar high through the spike in our blood sugar (a hormonal (insulin) craving), but sugar also stimulates our brain’s neurotransmitters that light up the pleasure center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens (the same area that lights up when drugs like cocaine and heroin are used). The complicated chemistry ends up seemingly quite simple: “I really want that cookie (soda, wine, chocolate, etc.) NOW.”
SIDEBAR: A word on Diabetes: Does eating sugar cause diabetes? Sugar by itself does not “cause” diabetes, but the habit of eating sugar, including sugar splurges or binges set the stage for insulin resistance, which increases blood glucose levels. The corresponding increase in body weight is another factor, but even if you manage to keep your weight at a “healthy level” you can wreak havoc on your system creating the perfect storm for the onset of diabetes.
The physiological adaptation of eating foods with sugar is not much different than other drug addictions. Depending on the drug and the person’s individual chemistry, some detox programs start with smaller doses of the substance while others cut it completely out of the system. There will be withdrawal symptoms with either choice. If you are the type of person who is likely to binge given small doses of sugar, it may be best to go cold turkey. Cold turkey has more intense withdrawals, but they abate in a shorter amount of time. Gradual tapering has the advantage of giving the body time to adapt to less sugar, but for some people, the cravings are severe enough that even a moderate amount of sugar is likely to lead to a binge: the body wants a set amount of sugar…eat less and the body will rebel until it gets the amount it is used to. See sidebars on addiction below.
SIDEBAR: How much sugar is recommended?
Women: 0-6 teaspoons per day (about 100 calories).
Men: 0-9 teaspoons per day (about 150 calories).
Teaspoons are not Tablespoons (there are 3 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon). The recommended teaspoons are for ALL sugars (hidden and added). For more on hidden and added sugar, CLICK HERE. For the many names of sugar, see the sidebar on Sugar Aliases at the end of this article.
ELIMINATE SUGAR CRAVINGS: Here’s the plan!
STEP ONE: Plan Your Strategy for Cutting Out Sugar. Basic Choices: Cold Turkey or Gradual Tapering.
If you can get through it, cold turkey is the quickest way to reset the pleasure center of the brain, your hormone levels, and your taste buds. With either method of cutting the cravings, there will be withdrawal symptoms that range from headaches, lethargy, emotional distress, anger and/or general crankiness, and nausea.
- Read food labels and identify obvious and hidden sugar (see sidebar Sugar Aliases).
- Substitute simple carbs with complex carbs (carbs and starches that are whole and have all their original fiber intact).
- Focus on vegetables, whole grains in moderation, and moderate amounts of low-fat protein sources.
- Skip dried fruits for now. Although fruit and dried fruit are healthy options, when you are trying to reset your sugar sensitivity, dried fruit will derail your efforts.
It takes about 21 days for most people to reset sugar sensitivity. In that time frame cravings should be largely or completely gone. The cold turkey approach tends to work better for those who have trouble moderating sugar levels…a small amount sends off wild cravings for more, often resulting in binging.
If the cold-turkey approach is too stressful and sets off your inner rebel (and it makes you want it even more), it might work better for you to gradually taper off your sugar intake by making and working a plan. For example, the first week you may start by eliminating mid-day sweets or the sweets after dinner. Week 2 might be to cut out your breakfast bagel covered in jam by replacing it with an egg and whole wheat toast, or by cutting out the diet soda at 3 p.m. It is highly recommended that you study your eating habits by journaling your diet and moods when you eat. Identify the areas that would be easiest to tackle first to give you some dietary success. Establish that habit then move on to the next area of weakness. Success breeds more success. If you have a pick-me-up sugar treat in the afternoon, replacing that with a 20 minute walk accomplishes 2 things: the elimination of one habit for another; a powerful behavioral change technique.
SIDEBAR: You can absolutely retrain the pleasure centers of your brain and your insulin levels.
Bliss-point is a term coined referring to the need for something sweet even after a satisfying meal. Either of these strategies (Cold Turkey or Gradual Tapering) will help you lower your bliss-point so that you are satisfied with less sugar….so that after a meal, you feel “done” without the need for something sweet.
Most people do better with the gradual approach of retraining their taste buds/pleasure centers of the brain/insulin levels, by going the easy-does-it approach of slowly cutting sugar out of the diet with small steps.
Other elimination/replacement habits to employ:
- Become a food-label sleuth. Find hidden sugar sources and replace with whole options. For example, if there is added sugar to your pasta sauce, find a brand with no added sugars. See sidebar Sugar Aliases below for other names of sugar, and for more on hidden sugar, CLICK HERE.
- Swap out sweetened yogurt with plain yogurt with added fresh fruit such as berries.
- Choose whole wheat bread (no added sugar) or authentic sourdough bread (check the label: true sourdough is made from flour, water, and salt and nothing more).
- Replace high sugar drinks and drinks with artificial sweeteners with water. Need a little taste? Add a small splash of juice or squirt of lemon juice (even better) to wean you off of drinks that have a strong sweet taste.
SIDEBAR: Can artificial sweeteners help alleviate sugar cravings? The newest research says NO. They actually increase cravings for sugar by setting the stage for taste buds, neurotransmitters, hormones and pleasure centers to want more sugar. Researchers postulate that these continued and even exaggerated cravings are because the brain senses the sweetness and without the accompanying calories, the body is sent into a cycle of wanting even more sugar and carbs to offset the confusion. Additionally, taste buds become dull so that even foods like fruit will not quell sugar cravings; it has to be chocolate, it has to be cookies, etc. Artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar and are a sure weapon of dietary sabotage. Statistically those who use artificial sweeteners have higher body mass indexes than those who do not and are at risk for more overweight and obesity than those who eat the actual real thing, sugar. Don’t get trapped by marketing attempts to make you believe that diet soft drinks, etc. are your savior from sugar. Nothing could be further from the truth.
- Shrink dessert portions, or better yet, use desserts for their original intention: birthdays, weddings, and other special occasions.
- Eat a protein rich breakfast.
- Protein is an ally. Although we do not need to eat high protein diets, having a protein substance in a meal helps you feel full faster and longer and does not spike blood sugar like glucose based substances (sugar and refined carbs).
- Another great ally: fiber. Foods that have all the original fiber intact slow the release of insulin, allowing your blood sugar levels to rise slowly, increasing your energy (as opposed to spiking blood sugar levels which must have a corresponding drastic drop in blood sugar setting you up for the rollercoaster ride of cravings). High fiber foods include complex carbs that are whole (the packaging must have the word “whole” next to the grain to show that the fiber has not been stripped. WHOLE WHEAT means all the fiber is intact. WHEAT means that the product was made from wheat, but the fiber has been stripped away).
- Your greatest ally: EXERCISE. If there ever was a magic pill, it is exercise. Exercise helps wipe out sugar cravings, moderates blood insulin levels, crates endorphins that can help alleviate the cravings that stem from the pleasure centers of the brain, moderates blood glucose and lipid levels that will help reduce risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even cancer. Additionally, exercise improves mood, alleviates depression, which is even more pronounced when exercising outdoors.
- A good place to start is to get outside on a walk 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Crazy cravings? Explore switching out foods with added sugar with fruit. Fruit can be the secret sauce while also boosting your vitamin, mineral and fiber content. Fresh is best, but frozen and canned work great as long as there are no added sweeteners.
SIDEBAR: Beware “health” foods! Many foods that might be considered “healthy” may be loaded with sugar. This is particularly true of processed foods. Breakfast cereals and energy bars can create just as much of an insulin-high as a candy bar. Simple carbs that have the fiber removed (like wheat bread—not WHOLE wheat bread), pasta, white rice, etc. can have a similar effect on insulin levels. Your “sugar” addiction could be a result of those simple carbs that are converted to glucose quickly upon digestion. Many of these foods are not traditionally labeled “junk food” but they act on the system like junk food. Learn to identify sources of sugar by checking food labels.
- Dried fruit generally speaking is not a good choice since the high content of fructose can spike insulin levels and dopamine levels just like simple sugars and will delay the process of resetting your chemical reaction to sugar.
- Try to keep meals about 4.5 to 5 hours apart. Getting too hungry in between meals can set off intense cravings. If you need a snack, try something like raw almonds. Almonds will not trigger sugar cravings and will give you plenty of satiety before the next meal.
- Substitute snack eating with a small amount of exercise like a short walk. Cravings can be intense; exercise changes blood sugar levels, is a distraction, and is healthy. Win/win/win!
- If cravings hit, and a walk is not an option, try mindfulness. Focus on the hunger that you are feeling. Try riding the wave by fully feeling the hunger. The craving will abate; feel it happen. You can then tell yourself you have done this before and you can do it again.
SIDEBAR: How much sugar does the average American consume daily? Currently some of us eat a minimum of about 19 teaspoons of sugar per day, with most of us eating 30-60 teaspoons per day, which is largely hidden sugar. That is almost 300, 480, or 960 empty calories respectively. Some fun math: cut that out and every 11, 7, or 4 days you will lose about 1 pound of fat!
STEP 2: Plan to Eat
Sure-fire plan for failure: do not eat enough during the day. This will lead you famished and exhausted which sets the stage for overeating, and most likely binging on foods high in sugar.
Plan your meals to have similar energy content (caloric content) throughout the day. Spreading the calories out evenly during the day accomplishes a few really positive outcomes for you: your energy will be better setting the stage for even better/higher caloric expenditure during the day, your cravings will subside, and your body will be much less likely to need to store food since you are burning energy consistently. If you eat very little during the day, have a big night time meal just in time to go to bed, your body has no choice but to store those calories, and the only option is to convert them to fat…the blood stream can only tolerate so much glucose at once. Eating very little during the day with a big meal at night teaches your body to store calories, not burn them. You are what you practice. If you want to be a good calorie burner, you need fuel. If you want to lose weight, practice being a good calorie burner, and limit the time when your body would store extra calories…at night.
OPTION: 4-Meal Day
If you need to lose weight and have identified (for example) that 1600 calories a day is about what you should be eating to lose 1 pound a week, break up your meals into 4 meals containing 400 calories each about 4 hours apart. For example: meal 1 is at 7:30 am, meal 2 is at 11:30, meal 3 is at 3:30 and meal 4 is at 7:30 p.m.
OPTION: 3-Meal Day
If 4 meals does not work into your work day, go with the traditional 3 meals, each being about 500 calories about 5 hours apart: Meal 1 at 7:30 a.m., Meal 2 at 12:30 p.m. and Meal 3 at 5:30 p.m. Be aware that once about 6 hours has passed between a meal, that the tendency to overeat goes up dramatically. Keeping meals in about a 4.5 to 5 hour spread tends to help moderate cravings.
STEP 3: Plan Your Plate
Plate Size and Plate Color
Your Plate can make or break your success. A study conducted by Cornell University and Georgia Institute of Technology found a shift in calories of an average of 22% less when people decreased plate size from a 12-inch plate to a 10-inch plate. Over the course of a year, with nothing else changing, that would result in weight loss of over 10 pounds.
Not only that but plate color made a difference. The researchers found that when the food color matched the food plate, subjects at almost 30% more than if they had a contrasting plate color. For example, if pasta with a red tomato sauce was served on a dark red plate, participants ate more than if the plate was white. Similarly, when participants were asked to serve themselves pasta with Alfredo sauce, they ate more if the plate was white, and less if the plate was dark red.
Mentally divide your plate into quarters. Fill half with veggies. A quarter of your plate has a tennis ball-sized portion of a complex/full fiber starch/carb such as whole grain rice or a slice of whole wheat bread. The other quarter of your plate has a deck-of-cards-sized portion of a lean protein source such as chicken breast, beef, pork, or fish. Easy peasy.
STEP 4: Plan Your Environment
When cutting back on sugar, there will be occasions when foods high in sugar will be plentiful. That could even mean every single day at work if you have awesome co-workers who love to bring donuts to share.
Your success is exponentially increased if your environment is healthy, sugar free and has exercise triggers visible. Find your secret weapon. Whether you carry a glass with sparkling water to meetings, have fruit available at work, or keep walking shoes near your door, identify the triggers and problems that can get you off track and create your back-up plan.
Planning is the key to success. A well thought out plan that is reasonable and takes small steps to change behavior will be the most successful strategy you can employ. Willpower is limited, so shifting your environment to be friendly to your goals increases your chances of success and makes it possible to shift to new habits. Habits require very little, if any, willpower. The key to success is consistency through sustainable habits. Notice what derails your intentions, and then evaluate how the environment could change to increase your success. For example, cookies in the cupboard are going to start screaming for you to eat them when the meal is over, when you are hungry, bored, whatever. Better for them to be screaming from a grocery store shelf. Get them out of the house. No excuses about the kids needing cookies for a snack. If fruit is a good snack for you, it’s good for them too.
Once you have conquered sugar cravings, guard your environment keeping it conducive to your continued success. Ask for support from your friends and family.
STEP 5: Enlist a Buddy
Life is more fun when shared with your friends. Friendships are strengthened when you do things together, and when you face challenges together. When you start your journey, enlist a friend who also wants to be free of the powerful effects of sugar; your mutual support will strengthen you both and someone who would have still been a slave to sugar cravings will be free as well!
SIDEBAR: Addiction defined: Addiction implies that there is psychological dependence and can include physiological dependence in substances such as sugar. It is characterized by compulsive, sometimes uncontrollable behaviors that occur at the expense of other activities and intensify with repeated access. It can include binging that is often an escalation of the behavior after voluntary abstinence or forced deprivation. There is always the cycle of reward and reinforcement with use. Sensitization is described as an increase in responsiveness to a repeated presented stimulus (I want more sugar now than I used to…one candy bar is not enough). Tolerance is a gradual decrease in responsiveness so that more of the substance is needed to produce the same effect. Addiction also has the benchmark of, if the substance is removed, withdrawal. Withdrawal can create anxiety, depression, anger, and overall crankiness. Cravings are another symptom of addiction. With cravings come increased motivation and intense desire to obtain the addicted substance.
SIDEBAR: Am I a sugar addict? Addiction is defined as a medical condition by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences. An addictive drug is defined as a drug that is both rewarding and reinforcing.
Sugar is both.
Signs of sugar addiction:
- You crave foods that are high in sugar.
- You lose control when you eat foods that are high in sugar.
- You eat more of the food that is high in sugar than you planned.
- Your brain sees sugar as a reward, making you want more of it. If you eat a lot of sugar, you are reinforcing that reward, which makes it very tough to break the habit.
- Sugar Highs: when you eat a candy bar for example, the sugar is quickly turned into glucose in your blood stream. Insulin levels in the blood spike to manage the flood of glucose; it is too much at once.
- Sugar Lows: since there is too much glucose in the blood stream, insulin (the hormone made by the pancreas) pulls it out dropping blood glucose levels dramatically. This rapid change can leave you tired, shaky, and searching for more sweets to regain the “high” setting you up for more rollercoaster insulin episodes.
- Starches in other types of foods such as bagels, French fries, potato (or other starch) chips, etc. can cause the same insulin spikes as junk foods such as candy, cakes, pie, etc.
SIDEBAR: Sugar Aliases and other notes on Sugar
Be careful of “healthy sugars” and hidden sugars. Many sugars are marketed to sound healthy, but don’t be fooled. From a chemical standpoint in your body, they are the same. For more on sugars, CLICK HERE.
Hidden sugar is sugar that is added to a food that would not normally be considered a “sugary” food like pasta sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, instant oatmeal, breakfast cereals, granola bars and “energy bars”, “energy drinks”, juices, most commercial teas, bread, yogurt, etc. just to name a few. Learn to read your food labels for hidden sugars.
Here are some other names for “sugar”:
- Agave Nectar
- Barley Malt Syrup
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Brown Sugar
- Cane Crystals (or, even better, “cane juice crystals”)
- Cane Sugar
- Coconut Sugar, or Coconut Palm Sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Evaporated Cane Juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm Sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado Sugar