“Sugar….ah, honey, honey!” It’s safe to say that sugar is a big part of our society. It has been romanticized. When we think of good times or rewards, we often think of treats made with lots of sugar. Correlating fun and achievements with sweets is a dangerous habit that, I believe, should be changed. In order to be the healthiest version of yourself and help your family live healthy lives, step #6 in my Healthy Living Baby Steps is to reduce your sugar intake. Why is it important to reduce your sugar? What health problems is sugar responsible for? How do you even go about reducing your sugar intake? What about all those sugar cravings? Read on for those answers and more!
Healthy Baby #6: Reduce Your Sugar Intake
Why Sugar Is Bad for You
Sugar, sugar, sugar! I’m sure you’re already well aware that it’s not a good thing to consume tons of sugar. Do you know how much sugar is too much? According to the American Heart Association, women and kids age 2-18 should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar a day and men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons a day (36 grams). In my opinion, that’s still a lot!
But why is it bad to eat more sugar than that a day? I’m sure you know that sugar affects your health and can cause a lot of problems. But what exactly does it do to your health?
Here are SOME effects sugar has on your health:
- Diabetes: A high consumption of sugar has been linked to Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is when our body becomes resistant to insulin, a hormone that helps to regulate our blood sugar levels. When we eat food, our blood sugar (glucose) rises. Different foods, like foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, cause it to rise more. The rise in glucose signals the pancreas (where insulin is made) to release insulin. Insulin helps convert the sugar into energy or store it. When our body is resistant to insulin, it is not released and the sugar stays in our blood. When your blood sugar is high for a long period of time without insulin to bring it back down, it can cause a host of other problems, like eye problems, fatigue, heart disease, and stroke.
- Heart Disease: Consuming too much added sugar can lead to heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in America. According to Dr. Axe, people who get 17-21% of their diet from sugar have a 38% higher chance of developing heart disease.
- Cancer: High sugar intake has been linked to several different types of cancer. There’s lots of research on cancer that needs to be done still, but studies have been done that show excess sugar can lead to weight gain, which is a big risk factor for developing cancer.
- Fatty Liver: Eating high amounts of sugar or drinking sugary beverages can lead to fatty liver, or a buildup of fat in the liver.
- Depression: Eating lots of sugar can also lead to depression.
- Cognitive Function: Sugar has an effect on our brain. Studies have shown that people who consume more sugar have a higher risk of developing dementia.
- Energy Levels: You might think eating sugary foods will give you a boost of energy. And you’re right! It does boost your energy – for a short amount of time. Then comes the crash! When we consume a lot of sugar, the insulin comes rushing in to bring our glucose level back down. And then we experience low energy and fatigue. Instead of binging on sugar and experiencing the highs and lows, eat fruits with natural sugar AND fiber to help maintain a balanced blood sugar level.
- Skin Problems: Sugar affects the skin in a few ways. It damages collagen, which keeps our skin elastic, and, therefore, speeds up the aging process of our skin. Too much sugar can also lead to acne. When your blood sugar spikes and insulin is released, other hormones, called androgen hormones, become more active. That leads to more sebum, or skin oil, production. And that leads to clogged pores, or acne. I’ve experienced this one! If I consume lots of sugar, I’ll wake up the next day with an acne breakout.
- Cavities: I’m sure we all know this one! We’ve been told by our dentists to avoid eating too much sugar so we don’t get cavities. That’s because sugar feeds bad bacteria in our mouth, which then builds up plaque on our teeth, and, if we don’t take care of it, that plaque causes cavities to form.
How Sugar Affects Your Weight
And we all know that too much sugar can lead to weight gain. But why?
When we eat foods high in sugar – like cookies, candy, cake, and soda – we’re usually eating foods high in calories. And those calories are usually empty calories, meaning they don’t have any nutritional value. We don’t need to eat them for the vitamins and minerals, because, well, they don’t have many, if any! So we might fill our stomach up with food, but it has no nutrition to fuel the different functions of the body. Sugar and carbs don’t keep us feeling full for long though. We need fiber, protein, and fat to feel fuller longer. When we’re consuming lots of sugar, we get hungry an hour or two later, and we end up eating more calories than we normally would.
Another reason sugar can lead to weight gain is because of insulin. So like I went over earlier, when we eat sugar (or other types of carbohydrates), our blood sugar spikes. Our pancreas releases insulin to bring our blood sugar level back down. But it brings it down so low, and then we end up craving more sugar to bring it back up. It’s a vicious cycle! So, of course, if you don’t have super strong willpower and say “no” to the next round of sugar, you’re likely to give in to the cravings. We’ll get to the willpower thing in a bit!
Sugar is addictive! Literally! Just like with cocaine, when we consume sugar, our brain releases dopamine, which makes us feel happy and get that “high” feeling. The more we eat it, the more our body gets used to it and the less dopamine our brain releases. So we have to eat more and more to get that good feeling. Literally the definition of addiction! So not only is it not good for our mental health, but it also leads to weight gain as we eat more and more sugar to feel that “pleasure” feeling.
What Are Added Sugars?
Added sugars are any food that has sugar added to it. Real great definition, I know! But that’s all it is. Food that does not naturally have sugar in it. So apples, bananas, berries, milk, dates, and even carrots are naturally sweet foods that don’t have added sugar (most of the time – unless you buy them packaged with sugar as an ingredient). When you’re trying to find foods without added sugars, choose foods from the outside edges of the grocery store. Choose whole foods that look like they were when they were picked from the garden.
Most packaged/processed foods have added sugar. Always check the ingredient list on the back of the package. If you see high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, agave nectar, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, maple syrup, molasses, honey, cane sugar, coconut sugar, rice syrup, brown rice syrup, or malt sugar added to the food – there ya go! That’s added sugar.
How to Reduce Your Sugar Intake
So, we probably all know that we should not eat lots of sugar. Got that! But how do you reduce your sugar intake?
- Go Cold Turkey: Normally going cold turkey is not something I love to do, because when you gradually make healthier switches over time, it is more sustainable and you create a healthy lifestyle that you can maintain. However, because of the addictive nature of sugar and how our brain is wired, it’s best to reduce your sugar intake and cut out added sugars all at once. When you eat sugar, you crave more sugar. So to help cut those cravings and not have to rely on will-power, cut out added sugars completely. Relying on willpower to reduce your sugar intake is bogus! It’s all about rid of the cravings. Then it’s all about creating good habits! The best way I’ve found to do that is by doing a sugar detox. I’ve followed Diane Sanfilippo’s 21 Day Sugar Detox several times. I like to do it after Christmas or after summer vacation, times when I eat more sugar than I normally do, to help kick the cravings and get back to eating less sugar in my diet. Diane gives so much more info on the effects of sugar and how to be free of sugar cravings. She also has several yummy, totally sugar-free recipes in her book.
- Switch to Water: Instead of drinking sugary drinks like soda and sweet tea (I’m in the South, ya’ll. That’s what we love here!), drink water! Read my post all about that for some tips to help you switch to drinking water.
- Watch Your Salad Dressings: We’ve heard that eating salad is so great and healthy, but watch out! They may have great things like vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats, but the salad dressing may not be doing you any favors. Look at the ingredients and the sugar content on the back of the bottle. If it has added sugar, skip it! You don’t need to add sugar to your salad. Unless it’s natural sugar with the fiber with it – like in blueberries or strawberries!
- Skip the Processed Foods: I’m going to be getting to this one more coming up in my Healthy Living Baby Steps. But, like I said, many processed foods, like cereal, granola bars, crackers, pasta sauce, and ketchup, have sugar added to them. So switch to eating more whole foods that you cook or make things out of yourself, instead of eating packaged food that has unhealthy ingredients in it. I have several recipes you can check out with real, whole, unprocessed foods (and more on the way!).
- Get Your Protein & Healthy Fats In: For years fat was deemed an enemy. But it’s not! Sugar does way more damage than fat! Sugar is not a macronutrient. Fat is. We need to have fat to survive. Fat and protein both help us feel fuller longer and they both help to balance our blood sugar levels.
- Avoid Sugary Desserts: If you plan on doing the sugar detox, cut out sugar completely for 21 days (by the way, that includes fruit too – not just added sugar.). But then, you’ll probably want some sugar and desserts again in your life. You want healthy eating to be sustainable. So when you do have a dessert limit it to maybe once a week, and don’t make it a super sugary one. Choose desserts with natural sugar – like unsweetened, plain yogurt with berries and a drizzle of honey added to it or a piece of dark chocolate. The chocolate has fat too, not just sugar. So that helps balance your blood sugar better.
What Sweeteners Are Best
So we know we shouldn’t eat tons of sugar and should cut out added sugar. But we’re human, and I’m sure you want some sweeteners sometime. We do want to enjoy life! So, go for it! After you’ve gotten your cravings under control, add a little sweetness into your life, sparingly!
So, if you’re going to be making a dessert or adding a little bit of sweetener to your coffee – which one is best?
Always go with as natural as possible. Choose real sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, or stevia (REAL stevia, not Truvia). I use honey the most to sweeten my homemade muffins, granola, or my tea. We have bees and just harvested our first round of honey this spring. Raw, unfiltered, local honey is the best you can get! I love how, not only is it natural, but it also has added benefits. It contains antioxidants and helps boost the immune system.
Definitely avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame, Equal, Sweet N’ Low, Splenda, and Truvia. These sweeteners may not contain sugar, but they still bring about the same response from our brain, they still lead to weight gain, and they can cause an imbalance of bacteria in our gut, also known as dysbiosis.
What About Fruit?
There’s controversy in the health and wellness world about this one. Since sugar can have negative health consequences, doesn’t that mean we should avoid fruit to? My answer is no! I’m not a doctor, but a realistic mom who likes to research.
Fruit is a natural food made by God. He created it for us to enjoy. It wasn’t made in a factory (as long as it’s not packaged fruit cups drowned in sugar water). God is smart. He knew what He was doing when He created things, including fruit. Fruit is made of fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, along with the natural sugar. Eating whole fruits (not just fruit juice) is important. The fiber is needed with the sugar to help keep a balanced blood sugar level and avoid that spike and drop.
We need the nutrients from fruit to help our body perform at it’s best. However, have some balance. Don’t eat fruit and only fruit all day long. We also need protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. But most fruit is pretty filling. It’d be pretty hard to eat so much fruit that you experience negative health effects.
So eat the fruit!
I hope this post was helpful to you and your health journey! Let me know in the comments what things you’ve done to reduce your sugar intake or what you plan on trying.