I’m excited to introduce this month’s topic:
There is natural sugar that is intrinsic in some foods, like fruit and milk. Then there is added sugar, which is added to foods. By all measures, sugar is the number one food additive in the U.S. Some names for added sugars include agave syrup, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, sugar molecules ending in “-ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, syrup.
Added sugar has been blamed for the obesity problem. It has recently been linked to heart disease. We know the role it plays with diabetes. Research shows low added sugar intake relates to decreased risk for some cancers. And lest I forget to mention its role with dental caries. The overwhelming message that’s out there is that sugar is bad!
To me, the real problem with added sugar is its prevalence combined with our inability to limit our intake.
Have you noticed? Sugar is ubiquitous. It’s in everything. EVERYTHING! From the more obvious sodas, fruit drinks, canned fruit, yogurt, cereals, granola bars, and protein bars to the more discreet sources including peanut butter, spaghetti and pizza sauce, bread, crackers, salad dressing, processed meats, mayonnaise, ketchup, BBQ sauce, baked beans, and even some canned soups.
The Dietary guidelines recommend no more than 10% of total calories consumed as added sugar. For a 2000 calorie diet, that is 50 grams of sugar or 12.5 teaspoons per day. To put that in perspective, there are ~40 grams of sugar or 10 teaspoons in one 12 ounce can of soda.
Not surprisingly, sugar intake increased by 39% between the 1950’s and year 2000. In 2000, the total amount of sugar consumed was 32 teaspoons per person per day. On average, we are consuming more than 2.5 times the recommended amount of added sugar, and probably more now, 16 years later.
Most of our added sugar consumption is coming from sodas at 33% (diet soda is sugar free and is excluded as a food containing added sugar). Next, baked goods come in at 14%. Fruit drinks represent 10%, while dairy desserts (i.e. ice cream) is 6%, candy is 5%, breakfast cereals is 4%, and tea is 3%. 25% of added sugar intake is from other sources.
Suffice it to say, we have a problem!
The fact is sugar wouldn’t be prevalent if there wasn’t something good about it! To deny the good qualities of sugar is a mistake. Staying truthful with ourselves will help us be successful achieving our goals for a healthy lifestyle. So, what are those good qualities? For starters, it tastes good! And that really does count for a lot! Expecting people to replace candy and cokes for whole grains and vegetables is not exactly realistic. If that worked, I think we wouldn’t have a problem to start with! Second, sugar can be used as a preservative. In addition, it has good physical properties like viscosity, texture, body, color, and browning capability.
Considering its prevalence and irresistible properties, how do you navigate this journey toward health, knowing sugar is bad but realizing that it’s practically unavoidable? Not to mention our own personal affinity for it. Let me tell you, there are really just two approaches I see as successful; the pragmatic approach and the dogmatic approach. The pragmatic approach is more like, “if I can’t have all the cookies, then just let me have one or two and I’ll be happy with that. That will be enough.” The dogmatic approach looks more like this, “If I can’t have all the cookies, then I can’t have any!” All-or-none. Eating one or two just doesn’t work - it’s not enough!
While I’m all about the pragmatic approach, I realize it is not for everyone! The reason I like it is because it allows all foods in moderation. Nothing is off-limits. The problem is it requires discipline. Unfortunately, when sugar is concerned, we tend to lose our ability to maintain any amount of self-control.
Here’s what the “practical” approach might look like (I will give an example out of my life because, as someone who can take or leave sweets, this is the approach I use):
First, you need to understand that I am not and never have been a big sweet eater. For reference, I was the kid that would pull down their Christmas stocking or Easter basket and discover it still had candy left from the previous year. Sure, I love sweets but they really aren’t that important to me (salty/crunchy is more my thing - and I could tell you some stories on myself with that!). I think this is an important fact to note because I think it takes this kind of person to have success with this approach.
As for my daily routine regarding sweets, many nights, I crave a little something sweet before bed. I try to plan for that at my weekly shopping trip. I used to buy dark chocolate mints to keep on hand because it really satisfied my craving and one was perfect. But at some point, I went from having one a few nights a week, to one every night. Before long, one wasn’t enough and I started eating two per night, and wasn’t even satisfied with that. So, it’s been about two years since I bought them. It was hard at first, but now I don’t even think about them! Then, I started to eat the kids’ rice krispies treats whenever I wanted something sweet before bed. I didn’t even notice that it had increased to one treat nearly each evening (instead of a few per week), until I became unsatisfied with one and wanted two, which still didn’t satisfy! So, I haven’t gotten those in a while, either. Now, for the kids’ sweets, I buy things I don’t like. I haven’t bought any sweets for myself in a few weeks, and for the most part, it’s not been a big deal. As I’m writing this, I just remembered I picked out Teddy Grahams last week at the store and forgot about them! Guess I didn’t really have a sweet tooth this week. Whenever I start to have a craving, if I don’t cave in, it usually goes away. The less I eat sweets, the less I crave them. When the craving doesn’t go away, I do like to have something on hand that will satisfy me. And I’d be lying if I said I never overdid it. I try not to sweat it, though. I just set my mind to move forward.
It is important for me to have a healthy relationship with food, especially as someone who spends their livelihood promoting healthy eating. As you can see from the above example, whenever I see that I’m crossing that line, first, I try to identify the problem. Once I’ve identified the problem, eventually, I try to fix it (notice I said, “Eventually”? Sometimes, I wait before I work on a solution because I’m just not ready yet). And the best fix I’ve found when I don’t have a good relationship with food is to cut it out. The measuring stick I use to determine the difference between a healthy relationship with food and an unhealthy one is control. Who has the control? Me? Or the food? Fortunately, I’ve found that once I’ve eliminated something for long enough (sorry, but I can’t tell you what that time frame is, but I can say that you’ll know), the relationship comes back into balance, and I can once again enjoy that food. So, while something may be off limits for a season, nothing is ever fully off limits forever. And that is something I can live with!
Of course, by then, you probably will no longer have any interest in that food. I’m reminded of a line from the movie Swingers when Mike is asking Rob about getting his ex-girlfriend back. Rob says, “I mean at first you’re going to pretend to forget about her, you’ll not call her, I don’t know, whatever… but then eventually, you really will forget about her.” At that point, the reality is that Mike won’t want her back. Of course, that will be when she finally wants him back, “…and there’s the rub.” It’s not much different breaking up with a certain food!
As far as special occasions go, I’m very picky about what I indulge in. I do love a good dessert, and I don’t feel guilty when I indulge on that special occasion! I don’t like the feeling of being stuffed, so I will eat slowly in order to enjoy my food and be able to sense when I’m getting full before I feel stuffed.
If you just read that and thought to yourself, “only one chocolate mint a couple times a week satisfies her?” Or, “she quit buying rice krispie treats because two is too many??” If you're the person in your family that everyone has to hide sweets from because you will eat them all, then you might be more like my husband or my sister. In which case, the moderation approach is not for you.
I will share some relatable stories about one of my sisters, Katie. When we were little, Katie was always stealing my candy. So, if I ever pulled my Christmas stocking or Easter basket from the previous year, and it was empty, you could bet, Katie got it! In fact, I’m certain she still owes me a package of Twizzlers from when we were like 8 and 10. Just saying. You know how Jimmy Kimmel did that bit “I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy”? Well, Katie actually did eat all her kids Halloween candy. True story. And you know what makes that story even better? She has FIVE kids! When she was pregnant with the twins, kids number 4 & 5, she had been craving Oreos like crazy. So, she finally went to the store and bought some. When she got home, she set them on the counter and her husband opened the package, grabbed two, and went into the other room. Since she had been having such a strong craving, Katie gave herself permission to eat as many as she wanted until she felt satisfied. Two hours later, Adam came down and asked where the package of the Oreos was. It was gone. She had eaten the entire package!! The entire package! He kept saying, “no, the package you just bought, where is that?” And she kept saying, “I ate it!” He couldn’t believe it! And Katie confessed to me that had she bought another package, she could have eaten that as well. She still didn’t feel satisfied. The craving wasn’t quenched.
If you relate to Katie, then this approach may be for you:
In spite of those true stories about Katie, she has managed a healthy weight and a healthy lifestyle through the years! So, she is a great example of how to manage sugar cravings and be healthy. In order to prevent binges, she makes homemade sweets frequently (processed sweets are off limits). Then she eats what she considers a reasonable portion and makes sure her five kids get their reasonable portion, then she gets them out of the house as soon as possible - sending them with her kids to school or walking them over to her neighbors.
However, as I was just talking to her about this blog, she says she is still struggling with the moderation thing. As she learned with the Oreos story, there is no amount of sweets that is enough! So, she has concluded that she really just has to banish them completely on a daily basis, which is something she’s had success with in the past. She says this seems to be the most effective approach for her. She says the first 3 days are always killer, but after that she’s good. She just finds that the only way for her to not crave sweets is to not eat them. Period. She says trying to get a small portion daily was making her crazy, and she was finding that she craved sweets all the time! Now, she did admit that she started drinking hot herbal tea with a little honey added to it each morning. So far, that amount of sweet is something she really looks forward to, and it hasn’t led to a sweets-binge. She says she plans to still have sweets on special occasions. As long as it’s a SPECIAL occasion, realizing that when we’re not careful we can call a lot of things “special” but if there coming up weekly, then it’s not that special! As for her five kids, she says when she buys processed snacks for them, she puts them on a shelf that stays out of her line of site. As long as she doesn’t see them, she’s okay. And she doesn’t have those strong cravings that might cause her to go find them when she’s completely off them.
My husband has done the “all-or-none” approach to sweets for years now. While his weight fluctuates 10 pounds, according to what season he is in (all or none), it has been an effective approach to help him keep his weight in check.
I have to say, when it comes to sugar, there may be something to completely going without. Consider someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Do we teach moderation with that? No! Moderation works if you’re not addicted. The problem with food is that we can’t go without it. However, we CAN go without added sugar. So, if you have a problem (use control as your measuring stick to know if you have a problem - who has control, you or the food?), then complete abstinence may be the best solution for you!
The one thing I feel compelled to address if you choose this abstinence approach to sugar intake is your mindset while you are abstaining from sugar. If you are just white-knuckling it the entire time, you are not making good use of your time. In that case, you are probably setting yourself up for a binge. The danger of a binge is that it cannot just undo all the good you did, but it will go beyond making up for all that you cut out. Expect to white-knuckle it for a few days to maybe even a week. After that, spend your time working on changing your attitude around food, realizing that it is just food. Start noticing changes you may be experiencing; like your mood, your sleep, your energy, etc. There are a lot of benefits aside from the scale to cutting out sugar. Pay attention to those things!! Set your mind to learn about yourself through this process. That knowledge can be invaluable to your future success in your pursuit of health.
If you find that moderation is more your style, consider asking yourself this question for checks and balances. This is something a client said that really stuck with me when he was trying to make changes. He said he began to ask himself before getting more of anything, “what will this next [fill in the blank] give me that the first [fill in the amount consumed] hasn’t?” In other words, “what will this next cookie give me that the first two didn’t?” And then remember, most cravings will go away if you don’t cave!