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Cutting out Sugar – Details on Low-Sugar, No-Sugar Trends
Sugar is public enemy number one in nutrition these days, and while we never want you to completely vilify one food or nutrient, there is something to this trend. We don’t actually need more sugar than what is naturally found in whole foods, so cutting back on all the extra sugar is not a bad idea.
Whether you decide to go all the way, taking out all added sugars, or just reduce your intake, you’ll get some benefits. You will also struggle a little, as sugar can truly mess with your brain and act like an addictive substance.
Find out more about what it means to cut out sugar, why to consider doing it, and ways you or your client can make this diet change healthfully and with minimal suffering.
Why is Cutting out Sugar Beneficial?
The evidence against sugar just keeps piling up, from obesity to chronic health conditions. There are many reasons to cut back on sugar, especially added sugar. Doing so can trigger weight loss, reduce the risk of getting sick, and generally help you feel better.
Less Sugar, Lose Weight
Cutting back on sugar can help with weight loss because you’re cutting out calories. Of course, if you replace the sugar with an equivalent amount of calories from other foods, you won’t lose any weight. But generally, if you reduce sugar in your foods, your overall calorie intake will decrease, and that means weight loss.
There are 16 calories in one teaspoon of sugar. So let’s say your typical breakfast is oatmeal with a few raisins, some pieces of apple, a small handful of walnuts, and a couple teaspoons of brown sugar. Take out that sugar and the calorie count of your breakfast goes down by 32. That adds up day by day, especially when you’re taking sugar out of other meals and snacks as well.
Reduced Risk of Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses
Research from scientists backs up the idea that eating too much sugar isn’t good for health. One obvious reason is that excessive sugar consumption can lead to weight gain, even obesity. And there are many chronic illnesses that carrying extra weight puts you at risk for, particularly type 2 diabetes.
But it’s not all about weight. Even people who are fit and at a healthy weight can be at increased risk for chronic illnesses from eating too much sugar over the long-term. Excessive sugar in the diet has been shown in studies to increase the risk for1:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
Extra sugar is also linked with a higher risk of certain types of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and accelerated aging. The evidence for these is not as strong but still compelling.
Cutting out Sugar Makes You Feel Better
If you take a cold-turkey approach to giving up added sugar you may not feel great immediately. In fact, you may even feel sluggish, irritable, and hungry. But, once you’re over the hump and your body has adjusted, eating less sugar can make you feel much better. People have reported a number of ways in which a low-sugar diet improved their quality of life:
- Increased energy and no more sugar crashes
- Better sleep
- Clearer skin
- Less weight around the middle
- Feeling better about health overall
- Fewer cravings for dessert, candy, cookies, etc.
Everyone’s experience will be different, but expect to have some good results after a week or two with less sugar in your diet.
Natural vs. Added Sugar
Sugar is not inherently bad, which is important to understand. But, our modern diets have become loaded with more sugar than we can ever hope to use. To understand what’s damaging and acceptable when it comes to sugar in food, we have to distinguish between two main types:
- Natural sugars. Whole, unprocessed foods that naturally contain sugar fall into this category. Fruits, dairy, and even vegetables have sugar in them. If you only ever get sugar from these natural sources, you’ll have plenty.
- Added sugars. Any sugar added to foods that have been processed is in this category and should be limited.
The American Heart Association2 recommends that men eat no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugars per day. The limit for women is six teaspoons (25 grams). This isn’t a lot. For men it amounts to just 150 calories and for women 100.
Check out this ISSA blog post on sugar to learn in more detail about counting sugar grams and managing intake.
To limit your added sugars, aim to eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods. Not all processed and packaged foods have added sugars, but many do. You’ll find it in surprising places, like bread and salad dressing. This is why you must read labels, and teach your clients to do it.
Right now, food labels do not have to include grams of added sugar, but that will change soon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made changes to nutrition label requirements that go into effect January 2020 for larger companies and 2021 for smaller companies.3
The new requirements include added sugars. Many manufacturers have already made the change, though, so look out for it on your food labels under total sugars. It will tell you the number of grams of added sugar included in that total.
Let us help you grocery shop smarter. Check out this ISSA blog post on healthy and easy food shopping.
How to Manage Sugar Cravings
Read any online confessional about cutting out sugar, and you’ll read a scary story about cravings so bad you want to bury your face in a cake. It is likely that you will have some serious sugar cravings when you start to cut back, but it’s important to realize that once you get through a week or two, those cravings really will lessen and almost completely disappear.
As you plan to go through a sugar cleanse, one of the smartest things you can do is simply get it out of the house. Not having sugar on hand goes a long way toward successfully avoiding giving into cravings. Of course this won’t always works, so you’ll need some other strategies too.
For instance, your plan should include some prepared alternatives to reaching for something sugary. Have fresh fruit ready to go; enlist a short mindfulness or breathing exercise you can use in the moment to get sugar out of your mind; take a brisk, five-minute walk when cravings strike; have your favorite herbal tea ready to go as an alternative. Just stopping for a few minutes, and distracting yourself with something else, is enough to prevent you from giving in to a craving.
Finally, you’re most likely to give in to those cravings when you’re hungry. So don’t let it happen. At least for the first two weeks of going sugar-free, plan to eat several small meals a day. Load up on protein, fiber, and healthy fats to keep you full between meals.
Once you start looking for it, you will realize that sugar is everywhere. As you start reading labels on foods and find out the truth, the idea of cutting back can become overwhelming. This is especially true for your clients who may have limited to no experience with really analyzing the foods they eat. Here are some simple hacks both you and your clients can use to make quick and easy changes for less sugar:
- Stop drinking soda. One can has all or more of the limit for added sugar in one day, depending on the type. Switch to sparkling water with fruit essence. Or, create your own essence water by adding mint, cucumber, or fruit to water and letting it sit overnight in the fridge.
- Eat fruit. Replace one dessert or sweet treat with a piece of fresh fruit. The natural sugar will hit that craving, and the fiber will help you digest it more slowly.
- Choose dark. Choose a high percentage dark chocolate over milk chocolate. For chocolate nuts, there’s no reason to give it up. Just choose better products with more cocoa and less sugar.
- Avoid low-fat. Indulge in full-fat, not low-fat foods. Low-fat products usually have a ton of added sugar to amp up the flavor and make up for the lack of fat. Eat full-fat peanut butter and yogurt instead of reaching for the no-fat options.
- Eat more protein. Think protein for breakfast. Many breakfast foods are high in sugar, from cereal to oatmeal and granola or breakfast bars. Try eating a high-protein breakfast instead, and eat eggs, cheese, yogurt, and maybe a little fresh fruit to hit that sweet note.
- Go whole. Whenever possible, choose whole foods. That means fresh or frozen, unadulterated fruits and vegetables, unprocessed whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, meet, fish, eggs, and dairy. Even replacing just one or two processed foods per day with something whole will cut out a significant amount of sugar.
What about Sugar Substitutes?
Sugar substitutes are non-nutritive sweeteners, like stevia and sugar alcohols. Some are natural, while others are synthetic. Should you use these in place of real sugar? That may be an individual choice, but it’s generally not recommended to go overboard with these. If you replace every gram of sugar with a substitute, are you really solving your sugar problem? Plus, it’s questionable as to whether or not these sweeteners truly satisfy a craving for sugar.
Have a client interested in cutting out sugar? Are you thinking about trying it? The rewards can be great, but it’s not easy. Know what you’re getting into and be ready to help your client with strategies, tips, and positive support on this reduced sugar journey.
Love helping people make positive food choices? Check out the ISSA’s course for becoming a Professional Nutrition Coach, and make it your career.
Click HERE to download this handout and share with your clients!