Ever make a lofty New Year’s resolution, only to find yourself on the couch at the start of February with an unopened box of kicks, an empty family size bag of M&Ms, and a nagging feeling of disappointment? Same. Which is why this year, we’ve chosen to ditch the resolutions and set goals to build healthy habits that will last longer than that Friends marathon you swore to stop bingeing two episodes ago. We’ve tapped some of our favourite experts to bring you Wellness Goals, our newest series on living well for the long run.
Today, we’re talking about cutting sugar intake with holistic nutritionist and #RealAssFood advocate Rachel Molenda.
First things first: how realistic is it to totally remove sugar from your diet?
Rachel Molenda: Removing refined sugar, or “added sugar” is somewhat realistic because you can opt for natural sugars instead, such as raw honey, maple syrup or natural sugars found in things like bananas and apples. However, removing natural sugars completely on top of that isn’t the most realistic in my mind (at least not for a long time), typically because that kind of restriction leads to feelings of deprivation which can then result in intense cravings and binging (on sugar).
I would instead recommend, if your goal is cutting sugar intake, to opt for natural sweeteners and to go into that intention with flexibility (i.e. if you do happen to have a food containing refined sugar, accept it, enjoy it, and then move on from that moment as opposed to inducing guilt and shame about it).
Let’s say we focus our resolution on added sugars (allowing for things like fruit), what are some foods that sugar is sneaking into that we should be aware of and avoid?
RM: Ketchup, relish, bottled sauces, marinades, dressings (condiments in general, actually), boxed cereals, dried fruit, juice/pop, granola or energy bars.
We’ve heard lots of things over the years about sugar: it’s the “devil,” it’s “as addictive as cocaine,” etc. How much of that is true and if it is true, can you tell us why? How does sugar affect us so negatively?
RM: There’s no way to sugarcoat it (pun totally intended), sugar isn’t the most health-promoting food. It can cause havoc on everything from our brain function, liver function (resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), and diabetes, and trigger a cascade of inflammation in the body which is at the root of many health conditions. I don’t like to victimize foods as it can lead to an obsession around specific foods and lead to those intense cravings or food obsession, but being mindful of how much sugar you’re consuming will serve you and your health tenfold.
What actually happens in our bodies when we ingest sugar? Both in the immediate aftermath and the hours following?
RM: The immediate response when we consume sugar is that our blood glucose (sugar) levels will sky rocket. This isn’t ideal from a hormonal balancing perspective as well as a weight maintenance perspective and will certainly result in an energy crash in the hour to follow (leading you to crave more sugar to bring your energy back up).
Once there’s sugar (glucose) in our bloodstream, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin to carry that glucose to the cells to be stored so it can be used later for energy. It also does this to keep blood sugar levels balanced. Insulin acts as the “key” to unlock the door to the cell so it can shuttle glucose into it. However, if we’re constantly grazing throughout the day and constantly requiring insulin to bring that glucose to the cell, eventually the cells are going to become resistant to insulin and will be unable to use it effectively. This will result in high blood sugar.
On another note, consuming sugar releases a surge of feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, just like certain drugs such as cocaine do. Overtime, your body becomes addicted and craves that high over and over (again, just like drugs).
More long-term effects of sugar is that as little as 1 tsp downgrades the efficacy of the immune system for five hours, making you more susceptible to getting sick. As I mentioned previously, sugar consumption often leads to an energy crash hours later, which makes you crave more sugar in order to bring your energy levels back up. And so the cycle continues …
Is there truth to the idea that if you can ditch sugar for a period of time, your body will stop craving it over time? If that’s true, how long do we really have to keep cutting sugar intake completely to stop jonesing for a 3pm bag of M&Ms?
RM: I do believe that the more we move away from refined sugar and start embracing the natural sweetness that fruits and vegetables have to offer, the more we will no longer crave the 3pm M&Ms. A lot of this also has to do with how balanced your meals are throughout the day too though. If you’re starting your day with a high-carbohydrate breakfast like a sugary cereal, your energy is going to spike and then crash later on, which is when the M&Ms come in to pick you back up.
When you remove refined sugar, you also start to appreciate the natural sweetness of whole foods. I remember back in my diet days when I did the Whole 30 (which I would say is one of the lesser evil diets), I had to eliminate all refined and natural sugar. I can still remember sinking my teeth into a red pepper after two or three weeks and thinking it was TOO sweet because my taste buds had completely changed.
It really depends on where the person is at with their relationship to sugar as to when they will stop craving sugar altogether. I would suggest not putting a time frame on it and start by making baby steps. Start switching to natural sweeteners (raw honey, maple syrup, molasses), then try using whole foods like bananas, apples and sweet potato to sweeten your food and by that point, you will likely find that your sugar cravings have decreased.
So I’m going to try to find some sugar alternatives. Does that mean using maple syrup, dates, and natural sweeteners?
RM: Yes, I would recommend that as phase one of coming off of refined sugar and cutting sugar intake. So swap your refined sugar for the natural sweeteners you mentioned above. However, keep in mind sugar is sugar is sugar. One tablespoon of refined sugar is going to have the same effects as one tablespoon of raw honey on your blood glucose levels, except that it comes with more nutritional properties (anti-bacterial, anti-viral, rich in B-vitamins).
But I believe in taking baby steps and choosing the lesser evil, so I would still recommend this as a starting point, then introduce whole foods as natural sweeteners like I mentioned above (bananas, sweet potato, apple) and then if you want to move even further, experiment with things like almond butter or coconut butter which offer a natural sweetness without the sugar.
Can you suggest some good ways to ease into a resolution of cutting sugar intake? Maybe some more reasonable resolutions like only having sugar once a week, or taking a walk when a craving hits?
RM: Of course! First, set an intention, not a resolution. The reason for this is because intentions are goals that offer flexibility, so if we happen to have sugar, we don’t just throw in the towel and call it quits, but simply accept and move on from that moment. Whereas a resolution is a dedicated commitment to quitting or starting something. So if we were to set a resolution and consume a bit of sugar, we would have “failed” and likely given up altogether. That’s my first tip, both from a professional and personal experience!
I would recommend creating micro-goals as I’ve laid out a few times, by swapping refined sugar for natural sweeteners, then move on to swap natural sweeteners for naturally sweet foods. That way, it’s a gradual progression that eventually becomes a sustainable part of your lifestyle as opposed to a diet that ends after 30 days.
If a craving for sugar (let’s say ice cream) hits, the emotional and disordered eating coach in me would recommend to simply have the ice cream. Yes, just get it out of your system – but actually ENJOY IT – so you don’t end up obsessing over it later or eating a bunch of other foods to make up for it. Whereas, the holistic nutritionist in me would recommend to have the lesser evil, like a banana nice-cream made with frozen banana, cacao powder, a touch of raw honey and maybe some shredded coconut. There’s tons of recipes online for this!
Any other advice you can suggest for cutting sugar intake?
RM: Typically sugar cravings are a result of a nutritional deficiency or not balancing fat, protein and carbohydrates properly in your meals. I see this a lot with clients who are cutting back on carbohydrates. Our body needs carbohydrates so if you’re depriving it, it’s going to crave the quickest absorbable form of carbohydrates from sugar, as opposed to a complex carbohydrate like a sweet potato. On that note, make sure you are having an adequate amount of fat, protein, carbohydrates (and fibre) at each meal.
And my honest advice that some nutritionists may disagree with me on, is to not focus on cutting it out completely forever. Start by looking for healthier swaps for refined sugar, which is completely void of nutrients compared to something like raw honey, and continue to build upon that. Eventually you’ll find you don’t really care for sugar at all!
But complete deliberate avoidance of a specific food almost always results in deprivation and binging. I would rather a client of mine give themselves permission to enjoy all foods and enjoy a sugar-containing food like ice cream once in a while, than cutting sugar intake altogether and ending up obsessing over it and binging on it for months on end.
And finally, dark chocolate can be a quick-fix for a sugar craving too!