One of the most dangerous addictions for people living in Westernized cultures is their dependence on sugar. While sugars (carbohydrates) are naturally occurring in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and dairy, refined sugars have become common place. Due to the exponential increase in sugar and refined carb intake (soda, chips, pasta, breads, pastries, etc.) in the diet of many adults and children, the rate of diabetes is now over 9.4 %, that is more than 30 million people in the US (1).
This data does not include the millions of people that are pre-diabetic or are suffering from diabetes unknowingly. Below I have outlined 8 practical steps to kick your sugar habit. But first, let’s talk about why this is so important.
It is vital to understand the role of carbs in the human body and to use carbohydrates to our advantage instead of our demise. The primary role of a carbohydrate is to provide an easy source of fuel for the body. A carbohydrate is broken down within the mouth and intestines from a larger molecule to a monosaccharide and then transported into the blood where it is distributed to cells that metabolize the molecule to generate energy.
There are two important aspects of the process that go awry in someone who consumes too much sugar.
- For sugar to enter the cell and be used for energy, the sugar molecule must be accompanied by its good friend, insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas in response to sugar intake. When too much sugar is consumed, the pancreas cannot keep up with the demand which means that all the sugar is not taken up by cells and is instead left in the bloodstream. When too much sugar remains in the bloodstream, it can attach to red blood cells and cause damage to tissues creating constant inflammation. When excessive sugar intake goes on for too long, cells become insensitive to insulin so even when insulin docks on the cell surface indicating to the cell that sugar needs to enter, the cell does not respond
***An important note: When refined sugars or simple carbs like soda, white bread, white potatoes, white rice and sweets are consumed, sugar enters that blood very quickly because those foods are easily digested. This forces the body to respond with tons of insulin really fast, making it more difficult for the body to handle the load. Complex carbs such as whole grains, legumes, fruit and veggies contain fiber and other molecules such as protein and fat that slow the digestion process which makes it easier for the body to respond to the carbohydrates without overloading the system.
- The other issue that most Americans face is that they are taking in too much sugar (energy) above and beyond the amount of energy they are expending. This is like filling the gas tank, not driving the car anywhere and then adding more gas in the tank, repeatedly. The gas tank overflows. This is exactly what is happening in the body. When sugar is not used for energy, it has two fates: it is packaged into fat, an energy reservoir, creating hormonal imbalance and inflammation or it stays in the bloodstream causing damage to tissues.
To understand how sugar damages tissues, imagine that everyone in your town kept their snow tires on all year instead of trading them out for their smooth off-season tires. If this were the case, the roads would be torn up and in great need of repair. Excess sugar in the blood will damage tissues, especially those within transport systems such as vascular and cardiac tissue, in the same way. This is one of the primary reasons that people with high blood sugar have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Another common complication of eating too much sugar is kidney disease because kidneys are the filtration system for the blood and therefore must interface with the excess sugar constantly. Consistent damage leaves the tissue in constant need of repair, much like the snow-tire damaged roads, which keeps the inflammatory system on year-round. Pain and discomfort follow.
There are two effective ways to prevent or reverse high blood sugar; stop filling the tank, or start driving the car. For most people, the option of using up all of the energy that thry are putting in is not possible (i.e. running a marathon every day) so the answer is to stop filling the tank, in other words STOP EATING SUGAR.
Not only can it be hard to fit exercise in, but our activities of daily living take much less energy today than in the past. When once we walked to the grocery store or farmed our land burning thousands of calories (energy), now we sit in cars and at desks. While we still need energy, we need less and we need sources that do not raise blood sugar unnecessarily. For this reason, low-carb diets have become popular for people trying to reverse conditions associated with high blood sugar, food that does not increase blood sugar much but provides a slow drip of energy throughout the day improves health and decreases disease risk. These are foods packed with healthy fat, small amounts of complex carbs, fiber and protein.
However, giving up sugar is a challenge because the body and brain become addicted and dependent on sugar. Sugar is hidden in many unexpected, as well as blatantly obvious foods. While I have clients that prefer a quick 5-day cleanse to kick the habit cold turkey, most of my clients do better with a 4-week replacement plan that aims to identify their sugar sources and replace them by creating new habits. This gives the body a slow transition to using complex (slow burning) carbs as fuel while relying more heavily on fat (which does not raise blood sugar).
Follow these 8 practical steps to kick your sugar habit for four weeks and you will be feeling fabulous by February!
- Do some accounting. You must know where your sugar is coming from so for the first 5 days, accurately log your food intake. This can be done with apps like my fitness pal, but my favorite is chronometer. After setting up a profile, log every beverage, meal, snack, etc. You can also add in your exercise/activity if you would like to see an overall picture of energy in and energy out. I am not a proponent of long-term calorie counting, but getting a good visual of how much energy you are consuming and the percentage coming from sugar is helpful.
- Identify your top 5 carbohydrate sources. After logging your intake, note if your high-carb foods are from refined and processed foods (sweets, pasta, bread, soda or sweetened beverages, chips or snack food) or whole foods (legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits). Tag the refined foods for replacement.
- Identify your top 3 sources of refined sugar. What are the biggest landmines for you and what time of day you eat the most sugar/carbs (The 2 PM afternoon lull, after-dinner cravings, etc.). Refined sugar is sugar or sweetener that is not naturally occurring such as the sugars in fruits, honey, real maple syrup, and similar. Look at your snacks, beverages and breakfast items and read labels.
- Prioritize replacement foods. Starting with the highest sources of sugar (Frappuccino anyone???) choose the foods you need to replace.
- Create a replacement list. Come up with a list of similar but healthier foods that have more nutritional value (vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, fiber) and less sugar. See below are some ideas!
- Stock your house, car, and office. Make replacement items easily available and get rid of every item on the priority list.
- Double check your routine for triggers. If you are used to going to Starbucks every morning, replace that routine by stopping at the local track or park for a 10-minute walk and avoid temptation. Throw your favorite songs or podcast on while you build a new and improved routine.
- Test your plan. Once you have created a plan, track your food/beverage intake for 5 days and compare. You will likely see a deficit in your sugar intake and your waist circumference.
|Protein shake blended with greens|
Coffee with sugar syrup
Coffee with milk and a pinch of stevia
Pastry or sweet breakfast item
No sugar added banana bread muffin (below)
Soda and sweetened beverages
|Water with lemon and a pinch of stevia|
|Candy bar or processed sugar snack||
Sliced fruit with nut butter
|Dessert or after dinner sugar binge||
Protein shake or Paleo baked good
|White bread, pasta, potato, etc.||
Whole grain (not whole wheat) high protein bread, sweet potato, quinoa pasta, etc.
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Banana bread muffins
*Grain free, no sugar added and Vegan if you choose!
Yield – 18 muffins
1 ½ teaspoon of baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon of kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 ½ cup of almond flour
6 tablespoons coconut flour
4 tablespoons melted coconut oil or grass-fed butter
4 large eggs or 4 flax eggs
6 very ripe medium to large bananas, mashed
2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees and prepare 18 muffins tins with liners or grease.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg
and flours. In a separate bowl, mix together melted coconut oil, eggs, mashed bananas,
almond milk and vanilla until very well combined.
3. Add wet ingredients to the dry and gently mix together until combined and smooth.
4. Pour batter into tins (about ¼ c each). Bake for 22-25 minutes until slightly browned on
* This is a great fast breakfast for you or your kids. I often make a double batch and
* You can sub out the oil for applesauce to reduce fat but coconut oil is great for your
body and helps to increase HDL without increases LDL so I vote to leave it in.
* The longer your let your bananas ripen, the better! For a special treat, add 1/4 cup dark chocolate chips!