No, I did not change my name just so I could write with a level of authority on this subject! I guess you could say that going to a nutritionist named Sugar is like going to a dentist named Payne. Funny how life works. But this isn't about me.
America has a sweet tooth. Well, some would argue it's more like an addiction. Sugar is everywhere. You'll find refined and concentrated sweeteners in obvious places like soft drinks, candy, cake, cookies, ice cream, bottled teas, coffee drinks and more. And also in places you might least expect, like salad dressing, soup, bread, pizza, pasta sauce, salsa and even bottled water. Whether in the form of white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice or honey, too much sugar is too much sugar. It's been linked to everything from diabetes to behavior problems, mood swings to dental cavities.
So, what really happens when you consume sugar such as a candy bar or a soda? The short answer is your blood sugar spikes and your body responds by secreting insulin, a hormone made in your pancreas. Insulin then lowers your blood sugar causing you to "crash" and this can lead to tiredness, irritability, mood swings and cravings for more sugar.
Most of us have heard the term "empty calories." These are calories we consume that have little or no nutritional benefit. Think: soft drinks, candy, cookies and assorted treats. Empty calories can lead to obesity as well as nutritional deficiencies. The more empty calories you consume, the less appetite you have for healthier, nutrient dense foods.
To support good health, become aware of your daily intake of added sugar, cut back accordingly, and learn to recognize hidden sugars on labels. Any ingredient with a name that ends with the letters "ose" are kinds of sugars - dextrose, sucrose, maltose, lactose, glucose and fructose. Other concentrated sweeteners include corn syrup, sorghum syrup, cane juice, invert sugar, high fructose corn syrup, malt sugar, brown rice syrup, molasses, brown sugar, agave, honey, beet sugar and evaporated cane juice.
Of course, the sugar picture gets a bit murkier because there are naturally occurring sugars in fruits and dairy products. The good news is that when sugar occurs in nature, it is typically accompanied by fiber, fat and/or protein. This is a perfect design by nature as these elements slow the rate at which the sugar is absorbed in our bodies. This prevents havoc on our blood sugar levels. So, it's perfect to feed that sweet tooth with a piece of fresh fruit.
On the downside, some people hear "avoid sugar" and they rush to diet sodas and other products with artificial sweeteners. As you may know, Whole Foods Market's quality standards don't allow any products with artificial sweeteners. Some of these start off as pure sugar but undergo a chemical process that converts it into a molecule that does not occur in nature.
Instead of heading down that road, here are some natural solutions for reducing your sugar consumption:
- Start gradually - you'll be more likely to stick to it! If you sweeten your tea or coffee, use half the amount of sugar. Soon, it will taste sweet enough, and you can reduce even further. If you drink sodas (and even diet sodas), reduce your consumption by half. When you want a fizzy drink, mix sparkling water with 100% fruit juice. Try this for a week or two and when ready, cut your intake again by half.
- Buy plain yogurt, plain kefir, unsweetened breakfast cereals, unsweetened iced teas, unsweetened bottled water and unsweetened frozen fruits-you may need to read labels to ensure that they are unsweetened. If needed, sweeten them just a bit at home. This way you control the amount of sugar you consume.
- When you do sweeten at home, use unrefined sugars that have nutrients intact. Examples are pure maple syrup, honey, evaporated cane juice and agave nectar (a sweetener from the agave plant). Remember, even though natural and unrefined, these are still sugars, and should be consumed in moderation. Here's more on natural sweeteners.
- Avoid fat-free versions of foods, like fat-free salad dressings and sauces. These often contain greater amounts of sugar to compensate for less fat.
- In recipes, experiment with reducing the amount of sugar called for by about one-fourth.
- Limit sweet desserts to special times such as weekends, parties and birthdays. When eating out, share your dessert with others.
- Choose whole or cut fruits, grapes and berries for a non-sugary dessert. Sprinkle with cinnamon for an added treat. Baked fruit provides its own natural sweetness too.
- Reduce your intake of processed foods in packages and cans. These often contain added sugars.
- Eat a well-balanced diet containing proteins, healthy fats, and unrefined carbohydrates from starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes and whole fruits. Balance on your dinner plate helps create balance in your body!
- Before you indulge an acute sugar craving, grab a handful of nuts. The healthy fat and protein in nuts can satisfy a sweet tooth and help balance your blood sugar.
- Instead of eating a whole candy bar, choose just a small piece of good quality dark chocolate. Melt this slowly in your mouth for the most satisfying effect. (This is my favorite way to enjoy chocolate!)
Do you have some tricks for dealing with a sugar craving or cutting back on sugar? Share!