Is sugar the root of all evil? Maybe, maybe not, but it is closely associated with diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer's.1 For those who are addicted to it, sugar is certainly at the root of many poor food choices.
Let's be clear: I enjoy sugar. I've had a sweet tooth my whole life. I have also had a parent die from diabetes, so I know that sugar, despite its allure, can be deadly. What does sugar do to your body? Sugar promotes an insulin response. Your body pumps out insulin to handle the blood sugar. Over time, your body requires more and more insulin to reduce the same amount of sugar. This is known as insulin resistance. As your body becomes insulin resistance, your blood sugar levels keep rising; you are pre-diabetic. At a certain point, your body can no longer produce sufficient insulin, and you become diabetic. Heart disease, among other illnesses, soon follow.
Part of the difficulty with reducing our consumption of sugar is that it is highly addictive. Studies have shown that cocaine-addicted mice will choose sugar water over cocaine to get their pleasure "fix."2 And if you have trouble with sugar, you know how hard it is to fight off the cravings when they hit. Most of us end up feeling bad, as if we don't have sufficient willpower. Yet we all know that those who are dealing with substance addictions can't simply will themselves free from the drug. The same is true for sugar!
Little wonder, then, that sugar comes in so many forms. Did you know that there over 60 names for sugar that the FDA regulates?3 60?! That's a lot of sugar that many people are consuming without realizing it. And, of course, if you've ever looked at a label, you know that, unlike for protein or carbohydrates, there is no guidance given as to how much sugar you should consume. If you're eating processed food, you're eating added sugar that you probably don't know or even realize. This is why manufacturers include sugar in virtually any packaged, processed food. Michael Moss has written about the "bliss point" -- the point at which the balance of sugar, salt, and fat makes the food tantalizing yet ultimately not satiating.4 You eat and eat because you're addicted but never satisfied.
But sugar also appears even in so-called "healthy" foods. If you eat "whole grain" bread (an oxymoron, to be sure), thinking you're eating a healthy food, you are still consuming sugar. Many people think yogurt is healthy, but unless you're eating plain, whole milk Greek-style yogurt, you're consuming a lot of sugar. Fruit juice, a breakfast staple for many people, is just sugar; once all the fiber is stripped out, you're still just feeding your addiction with that morning glass of orange juice. You might as well have soda: an 8 oz. serving of orange juice has approximately 24 grams of sugar, whereas an 8 oz. serving of Coca-Cola has 27 grams.
What can you do to break the cycle of sugar consumption? I've learned two main ways of reducing my own sugar intake. The first is to "crowd out" the sugary foods by making sure I eat lots of green vegetables, green smoothies, and with some occasional fruit. Fruit, while it contains sugar and should be eaten in limited amounts, has fiber and a number of phytonutrients that you just don't get with processed foods. By eating more of the good stuff, I find that my body just wants less sugar over time. This is a sort of gradual process, and it's not always easy because you're still grappling with addiction. It's like you're tapering off a drug.
The second process I've tried is to go cold-turkey on a sugar-free diet, like the one espoused by Dr. Mark Hyman.5 He offers a 10-day sugar detox diet plan that I can say from personal experience is highly beneficial. It's a strict diet, but after a day or two, the cravings for sugar disappear entirely. The key here is to break the cycle of addiction and craving altogether. Depending on how strong your addiction to sugar is, the first few days can be rough. But the benefits after day 3 are enormous. I found I had no interest in sugar, and tons of energy. I could go for hours and hours without feeling hungry whereas my body would previous wanted food every few hours. In my experience, you can reduce or eliminate sugar from your diet, but it requires knowledge, vigilance, and effort.
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