In my last blog post, I touched on some of the benefits of moving outside comfort zones with regard to a goal I had to slim up in a short period of time for a movie role. One of the ways I managed to lose 5 lbs in one week was cutting back on refined sugar. I pretty much eliminated it from my diet except for one “cheat” meal.
The Bitter Truth about Sugar
Refined sugar, not just white sugar, but also sucrose, fructose, corn syrups, etc, is probably the single biggest factor contributing to obesity in North America and other western countries with similar diets. According to Dr. Lustig from “The Skinny on Obesity,” the amount of sugars (particularly fructose, but not limited to) in processed foods and drinks has increased steadily over the years as a way of keeping food prices cheaper. And with the steady increase of sugar over the decades came the increase in obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems. Fructose is particularly bad because it metabolizes in a way that puts more fat on the body that eating straight fat, according to Lustig, though others in the scientific community are saying this focus on fructose is alarmist and somewhat inaccurate. This post isn’t intended to cover this argument in detail, but if you want the full public lecture explaining it and the studies supporting it, check out the video below. Either way, one easy way to make significant changes in your health is to cut back on all refined sugar (especially ones in drinkable form).
5 Simple (and not-so-simple) Tips for Reducing Refined Sugar in Your Diet
Reducing the amount of refined sugar in your diet isn’t easy. Most people have a sweet tooth built into their eating habits from having eaten higher levels of sugar previously. Plus, almost all convenience food has sugar added in some form. I did manage to pick up a few tricks to making the transition easier though which I’ll share here.
1. Stop drinking soft drinks and sugar-based drinks. If you follow the Zone as a guide for healthy eating, an average man gets more than his full carbohydrate intake (around 39 grams) for a single meal in a single 8-oz serving of coke, gingerale or any other soft drink. Juice “cocktails” are nearly as bad with around 33 grams of carbs. When you drink these, you are literally drinking sugar, giving you none of the health benefits you would when consuming fresh fruits, veggies, and other healthy carbs. It’s true that you don’t necessarily want to replace a tall glass of coke with a tall glass of pure fruit juice in place of coke as it is still high in sugar, though it is about half as much, as well as being natural sugar instead of sucrose/fructose which are much worse for you. One good trick for reducing your dependence on soft drinks or juice cocktails is to water than down with plain soda water. Start by replacing just a small amount then gradually increase the amount of soda. Nowadays, I drink soda water with just a splash of lime for flavour when I feel like a fizzy drink and that tastes great to me now that I’m used to it. And if I feel like an alcoholic drink, I’ll just add a shot of vodka as opposed to reaching for cider, rum & coke, and other sweet cocktails and high balls. For the record, tonic is not soda and has as much sugar as coke.
2. Reducing sweeteners in coffee or tea. I don’t drink a lot of coffee as a general rule, but most people do. When I did drink it, I used to add milk and sugar, or worse, a commercial sweetener on occasion. I would also sometimes indulge in those fancy dessert-like flavoured lattes at Starbucks on occasion. Any of these ways of taking coffee, especially the flavoured lattes which can have as much as 51g of carbohydrates (mostly sugar), add unproductive carbs to your diet. If you drink coffee every day or even multiple times a day, it’s even worse. For a while now, I’ve been weaning myself toward black coffee. I started simply by adding less sugar then reducing it further once my taste buds acclimatized. Eventually, I was only adding milk. But of course, milk has natural sugar in it too (11 grams per cup) so I decided to reduce the amount of milk too. I would suggest staying away from artificial sweeteners because they often use bad chemicals to generate sweet taste, plus they just encourage cravings for sweetness to continue. Now I take my coffee black and I don’t even notice the lack. Another good option is to drink more unsweetened herbal or fruit teas, which I typically drink throughout the day.
3. Replace desserts with fruit. Most people are used to having sugary snacks here and there throughout the day, whether it’s chocolate bars, granola bars, doughnuts, or muffins. Most of these options are either convenient to carry with you or convenient to buy. The trick is making sure you have better options both in your kitchen and on your person. While it may sound cliché, fruit is nature’s candy and is a much healthier substitute for snacks high in refined sugar. The trick is to buy it in a wide variety of forms and eat it in different ways. I currently have apples, grapes, cherries, grapefruit, pears, bananas and mangoes in my pantry as well as frozen grapes and blueberries in my freezer. These can all be eaten fresh as is, thrown into smoothies, eaten with cottage or ricotta cheese, paired with almonds or almond butter, etc. I like to sprinkle a little cinnamon on fresh cut apples to make it seem more like apple pie. I’ll eat my frozen berries as a cool treat in place of ice cream. There are lots of ways to sweeten the deal with variety when it comes to fruit, it’s just a matter of having the fruit on hand (and getting rid of temptation by not having refined sugar snacks around in the first place).
4. Avoid commercial wheat-based products. Bread is one of the products that has received steady, unnecessary increases of sugar into its composition over the years. This includes other wheat-based baked goods like muffins, bagels, waffles, biscuits, etc. You might think you’re avoiding it by eating whole wheat bread and other seemingly more healthy choices, but nearly all breads that are carried in the grocery store contain sugar. And from what I’ve read, it’s not just the sugar content that makes it bad, it’s also the fact that it contains amylopectin A, which is more efficiently converted to blood sugar than just about any other carbohydrate, therefore causing your blood sugar to spike a couple of hours after you eat, making you feel hungrier than you should. This causes a cycle of highs and lows just keeps going throughout the day, so you’re constantly feeling hungry and constantly eating. If you’re going to eat wheat-based products, I would suggest baking them yourself so you can control the amount of sugar in them, even replacing it with healthier forms like honey or fruit. An even better option is to find better healthier choices, like fruit, trail mix, dark chocolate (70% cocoa or higher), etc.
5. Avoid commercial processed/frozen foods and condiments. This one’s a big one. As a society, we’re expected to do more in less time so the pace of life keeps getting faster and faster, hence the need for quick and easy foods. The problem is that many commercially processed and frozen foods have sugar added for no good reason. The sugar adds flavour cheaply so they don’t have to load up on healthier, more expensive types of ingredients. This is why sugar is the #3 ingredient in canned pasta sauce, the #2 ingredient in instant teriyaki rice, the #2 ingredient in frozen perogy filling is sugar, and the #3 ingredient in tomato soup is glucose-fructose. This list goes on. Condiments are just as bad; the #2 ingredient in relish is sugar, in French salad dressing it’s #3, the #2 ingredient in BBQ sauce is glucose-fructose, in ketchup it’s #3. The best way to avoid all the added sugar is to reduce your reliance on commercially made foods like these. It can be hard, but there are ways. I put aside time to cook a big batch of chicken cubes that I keep in the fridge or freezer so it can be easily added to salads, stir fries, stews, etc. I always make sure I have lots of fresh veggies. I also keep commercially prepared frozen veggies as long as there are no additives. At least once a week, I batch cook something big in the slow cooker or oven so I can freeze it into individual servings or eat it throughout the upcoming week. For condiments, try relying more on ones without added sugar. Standard yellow mustard and hot sauces like Tabasco have none. For salad dressing, try mixing a little olive oil with vinegar (Balsamic is my favourite). I also like making my own BBQ sauces, which make it easier to control the sugar content. Or instead of using a sauce, try a seasoning blend like Cajun seasoning or steak spice.
The Social Challenge of Healthy Eating
To be completely frank, reducing the amount of sugar in your diet can be a hard thing to do. Social events often revolve around some form of eating or drinking and you don’t necessarily get to control the menus. And even if you’re good enough to say no to various foods and drinks, there can be a social stigma about it. Sometimes people will be offended if you don’t partake in their desserts or have a drink when offered. As it currently stands, our society revolves around eating patterns that are high in sugar, so until that changes, you can only do what you can and hope your friends will understand when you pass on that stuff.
Reshaping Your Sense of Taste
The good news is that if you can cut out refined sugar from your diet for an extended period of time, you’ll find that you don’t crave it as much. You may even find that you are so much more sensitive to it that you don’t like high-sugar foods as much as you used to. That’s what happened to me. I tried a cupcake after I hadn’t eaten refined sugar for a week, and found it nearly inedible. It even made my stomach feel a little queasy. I got rid of it after a couple of bites. So if you want to give it a shot, try giving up refined sugar cold turkey for one week and see how it affects you.
In my next blog post, we’ll take a look at how to cut back on starchy carbs in your diet.
Do you have any tricks to share for reducing refined sugar in a person’s diet? Please feel free to share them in the comments. Oh and be sure to let me know if you try the 1-week experiment.