I was recently hanging out with some old friends and mentioned that I’m living a nearly refined-sugar free life. (I say nearly because I believe in balance and, on occasion, sharing a chocolate croissant with my family is worth it.) They gasped. While I’ve always attempted a clean diet, it was shocking for them to imagine their former fro-yo lovin’ friend off of sugar. I chalk it up to one of the things that a breast cancer diagnosis did for me – scared me straight off the sugar crack.
You may have heard somewhere that sugar “feeds” cancer cells. According to reputable cancer centers like MD Anderson, that doesn’t appear to be altogether true. But, there are other reasons to reassess your refined sugar intake. For starters, eating excess sugar increases your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
Refined sugar is also nutritionally vapid – it’s a big zilcheroo. According to USDA people who consume the most sugar have lowest intake of essential nutrients, like vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, calcium, and magnesium.
Beyond that, sugar affects your physiology and has an addictive quality to it. When you eat sugar, it quickly converts into glucose in your bloodstream, leading to a blood sugar spike. You feel a rush of energy – woohoo! But quickly thereafter, your energy crashes leaving you tired and unconsciously jonesing for another sugar high. There you are in your cubicle at 3pm and, man oh man, does just one more candy from the candy bowl sound tempting right now.
In yoga, we talk a lot about training the mind to observe and stay neutral so that we’re not pulled by the vicissitudes of our thoughts and emotions. From a neutral place, we can make better decisions, be more productive, and have better relationships. When I applied the things I’ve honed in yoga – like self-observation and open-minded curiosity—to my diet, I learned that I was being pulled this way and that, several times per day, by the vicissitudes of my blood sugar. As nice as it was to have an occasional treat, it’s much more satisfying to feel grounded and stable. That’s what I think about when I’m tempted by something these days – I think, “Is this going to be worth it?” Usually the answer is no.
So, if you’re with me, and you want to start curbing your sugar habit, read on. For those of you thinking – but nooooo! I can’t do this now! Not with Thanksgiving, Chrismakwanzukah Festivus around the corner! I will counter that by saying that the holidays are a great time of year to reassess your diet and strategize to get the results you want– balanced, energy-filled days where you’re satiated instead of caught in the thrall of bad fruitcake.
Even if you don’t have the desire to cut out sugar altogether, it’s worth staying within the American Heart Association’s recommended daily range: For women that’s 25 grams daily—about 6 teaspoons. For men it’s 37 grams daily—about 9 teaspoons.
Here are a few of my strategies from having been in the trenches myself:
According to Karyn Duggan, a nutritionist at One Medical Group in San Francisco, the acronym “TBD” can help you remember the three most essential ways to set yourself up for nutritional success. To break it down, you need to:
Timing -- Eat at regular intervals. When you wait too long to eat, your blood sugar drops and you start to crave simple, sugar-loaded carbohydrates to give you an energy boost. As One Medical Group nutritionist Karyn Duggan says, “At that point, there’s no chance of making a healthy choice.” Duggan suggests eating within one hour of waking and not going longer than 4-5 hours between meals.
But, test it for yourself. When I first gave up sugar, I needed to eat small, protein-packed meals every 2-3 hours.
Balance - Eat balanced meals and snacks. A balanced meal, says Duggan, has a combination of protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates. This combo will keep your blood sugar steady, helping you to feel satiated. (To learn more about how to create this healthy balance, you can read my blog post, Best Tip for Healthy Snacking.)
Don’t get dehydrated. “People often confuse thirst with hunger,” says Duggan. Her recommended intake? About ½ ounce per pound of body weight. So, for a 150 person, that’s 75 ounces per day.
Once you’ve got your basic strategy in place, you can get tactical about your sugar intake. I’m of the belief that it’s better to wean yourself slowly. For example, you can cut down on one sugary habit per week, like putting sugar in your coffee or starting your day with a sugary yogurt. Like yoga, going slowly helps you get to know yourself better: You can really feel what a small change does to your energy and mood. You can start recognize your habits, your challenges, and from there you can keep strategizing.
When you pay attention to labels, you may be shocked by which foods have hidden sources of sugar – ketchup, breads, soups, tomato sauce, granola, and salad dressings are just a few offenders.
Any item that lists any form of sugar in the first few ingredients or has more than 4 grams of sugar is a no-go. (These are all ingredients to look for: high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, glucose, malt syrup, molasses, lactose, sucrose, dextrose.)
It’s easier to avoid added sugars if you stick with the basics: fruits, veggies, and complex carbs that are loaded with fiber and will keep you full; proteins that will help keep your blood sugar steady.
Bitter foods have compounds in them that make them healthy (flavonoids, carotenoids, or polyphenols). Americans tends to be stuck on the salty to sweet pendulum. But bitter foods can expand your palate and help you appreciate different foods. Anytime I have a sugar craving I take heed: I have olives, a Turmeric Toddy, or I make a dinner with some delicious bitter greens. I try to keep my food interesting and adventurous.
The last thing you want is for food to be a bummer and to feel deprived. Having some healthy treats on hand can be helpful as you’re weaning or if you know you’re going party hopping and you want to avoid mindless sweets.
This past year I have become very creative in the kitchen with some major fails but successes, too. I’ve learned to make killer almond flour muffins, beet brownies, sugar cookies without sugar, and I’m working on a chai pound cake. I use agave or maple syrup in moderation in these instances – these are rich with minerals and agave is lower on the glycemic index (which means less blood sugar spike if used in moderation). But there is some evidence that even sugar substitutes create more sugar cravings, so I try to be modest.
Is pumpkin pie your favorite dessert that you look forward to all year long? Then have some pumpkin pie! Did your kid’s ice cream cone nearly fall to the ground and you just had to give it a few licks? Look, you were just doing your job. What I’m trying to say is that it’s important not to lose your sense of humor about all of this. Do the best you can and don’t beat yourself up over the small – or even the large -- missteps. Food is fuel, but it’s also social. It’s a way for people to commune and share time together. If you want to indulge from time to time, my philosophy is that’s OK.
What’s important to me is that I make conscious choices about what I’m eating – that I’m not sucked into a daily abyss by my cravings. If you feel like you’ve gone over the edge for a day or a week, reel it back in and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” (Answer: To feel great!) “What do I have to do to find my perfect balance?” (Answer: Keep watching, keep breathing, keep tweaking along the way.)
Andrea Ferretti is the former executive editor of Yoga Journal. She spends her days writing and managing the blog for her yoga teacher husband, Jason Crandell, and hoping that her three-year-old will grow up to say “Please” and “Thank you.” You can find more of her writing here.