Tips to Eat (and Drink) less Sugar

A little disclaimer…

First off, let me just say that I am not the highest authority on how to cut sugar out of your life. My sweet tooth may be worse than some of yours. Last Saturday I had a milk shake for dinner. Today I had a berry crumble bar for lunch (with a latte for at least a little protein). But on a day-to-day basis I don’t eat much refined sugar. I might have some dark chocolate for week-night desserts, but I’m pretty good about saving the true sweet for a weekend treat.

But I have a friend who has been in an off and on commitment with soda for years. Free access to the Bistro Starbucks drinks at the hotel? White chocolate mocha all the way – for both of us. (Unless it’s pumpkin spice season. Then give me all the seasonal goodness.)

I managed to cut out soda years ago, thanks to inspiration from my brother Matt. But my friend hasn’t had the added motivation of a sibling going through the same process. And it finally got to the point that after a really painful cavity, her dentist told her she has to cut back on sugar for the sake of her teeth. So these were the suggestions that I gave her.

Ways to cut back on sugar

Fruit can be a better option since some of the sugar is bound up with the fiber and not as available until later during digestion.

Yogurt – though watch out for the super sugary ones. It’ll have some sugar naturally from the lactose, and that shouldn’t affect your health. What I like to do is find the plain flavor of a brand and see how much sugar it has (because that will only be naturally-occurring lactose) and then compare it to one of the flavored ones… however much more sugar is in the flavored yogurt would all be added sugar. But soon they’ll be changing nutrition labels to spell that out for you.

Coffee with cream, if you’re missing the energy jolt – just don’t add syrups or sugar. I like stevia pretty well. Or I’ll do flavored coffee grounds with cream and stevia.

Try flavored sparkling water if you miss the carbonation. Just don’t expect it to be sweet because you will be disappointed! Target has a tropical cherry flavored sparkling water that tastes like an unsweetened soda. It’s delightful. Or there’s always the brand Xevia if you get really desperate for a soda fix – it’s like soda but sweetened with stevia. Just don’t let it become too much of a crutch.

You can dilute juice with water for a little while as a step down…

And unfortunately really paying attention to your sugar intake means paying close attention to nutrition labels. Even peanut butter brands like to sneak some sugar in their products.

Perhaps most importantly: take it out of the house! I get a free loaf of bread for each shift I work at the bakery. Every once in a while Jordan will ask me to bring home a cinnamon bread, but otherwise the sweets don’t come home with me. They’re too tasty and too big of a temptation. I’m a lot less likely to overeat a whole grain sandwich bread than something sweet, although I’ve definitely gone to town on some honey whole wheat bread too.

Is sugar really that bad for you?

If you need any extra motivation: You don’t want to be the 35 year old with dentures. And not just because it wouldn’t be cool. But part of the nutrition assessments we did during my hospital rotation, we’d ask whether patients have any difficulty with chewing and whether they have all of their teeth. I’d never thought much about dentures before, but a lot of the older patients who have them find them more trouble than they’re worth. They actually choose to risk digestive difficulties or just eat soft foods instead of eating with their dentures in.

Sugar also doesn’t actually sate our hunger, so if we’re just eating candy or drinking soda as a snack, it won’t make us feel full and we end up eating more calories. If you have a candy bar as a snack, and then still have the string cheese and apple you brought as a snack because you’re still hungry after the candy, you might as well have just skipped the candy and eaten the healthier snack. This is how it helps contribute to weight gain and obesity.

Sugary foods and drinks also cause our pancreas to release a huge dose on insulin to try to absorb the sugar. So after the insulin whisks all of the sugar out of our blood and into storage in our cells, we suddenly feel tired because we don’t have any sugar in our blood to provide energy anymore. We crash and want more sugar.

On top of all of that, frequently repeating this cycle for a long time leads to insulin resistance (our cells don’t respond to insulin as well anymore, so our pancreas has to produce more of it to manage the same amount of sugar), which is associated with oxidative stress and inflammation. Researchers are also starting to explore an association between type 2 diabetes (basically advanced insulin resistance) and pancreatic cancer, which is difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat.

In addition to the obvious associations with poor dental health and weight gain, sugar may actually age us. There have been studies that find that high intake of sugar sweetened beverages (like soda and sugary coffee or energy drinks) is associated with shorter telomere length in leukocytes – white blood cells that protect against infectious disease and foreign invaders. Telomeres help protect our DNA and naturally shorten as we age, but high sugar intakes may accelerate that process. Shorter telomeres have been associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancer.

So is any sugar okay?

Yes, don’t feel like you can’t have any sugar, ever. Just try to make it special. We don’t need treats everyday. If they’re a regular feature in our lives they’re no longer a treat, they’re a habit.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to less than 10% of our total calorie intake. That doesn’t include the sugar that is naturally present in fruit or dairy, but sugar that’s added to foods to make them taste better, like peanut butter, pasta sauce, coffee creamers, and the obvious baked goods.

So 1 gram of sugar provides our bodies with 4 calories. That means that 12 of the 190 calories my Jif Natural Peanut Butter provides per 2 tablespoon serving is provided by the 3 grams of sugar it has per serving.

Image from In Sustainability and In Health

A better visualization might be that there are 16 calories per teaspoon of sugar.

Image from XSugar

A lot of health writers use a 2000 calorie/day diet as a reference for the average American because it’s a nice even number. If 2000 calories per day is right for you (it’s actually a little high for me, even if I workout), the Dietary Guidelines recommend eating no more than 200 calories per day from added sugar. That equals 12.5 teaspoons of sugar per day. The American Heart Association actually recommends even less added sugar – only 100 calories per day from added sugar for women and 150 calories from added sugar for men.

A can of regular Coke has 39 grams of sugar, or 9.75 teaspoons of sugar. All packed into one 12 oz can. Add a breakfast pastry and sweetened coffee drink, or a candy bar to fight the mid-afternoon slump, and your sugar goal is shot for the day.

That’s why the average American typically gets 13-17% of their daily calories from added sugar.

Your takeaway…

No, sugar is not good for us. But we don’t have to completely cut it out of our lives. My recommendation is to save it for special occasions and treats, and make sure it doesn’t become a habit. And when it does become a habit (because if you’re anything like me it will), just be aware of it and try to cut back. Don’t bring it home with you from the store. Try having a piece of fruit for dessert or a cup of peppermint tea (my favorite when I’m trying to break the sugar habit). Try flavored coffee grounds with a little bit of cream and stevia instead of your favorite sweetened coffee creamer. Make the effort to notice where your added sugar is coming from and try to cut those sources out of your diet.

But keep a little dark chocolate around for that weeknight or two when you just want a little indulgence.

Do you guys have any other tips for cutting back on sugar? Comment below, we can all use some extra ideas!!!

Extra reading

Soda and Cell Aging

2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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