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Today on the blog I want to talk about a topic near and dear to my heart – SUGAR! It has been a long journey in figuring out what my relationship with sugar should look like and I finally feel like I am in a very balanced and sane spot with it. For those of you who don’t know, I have always had a bit of a sweet tooth. I just LOVE sweet foods. Not that I don’t also appreciate savory, but sweet just tastes so much sweeter.
The problem is though, that sugar can feel highly addictive and often once you’ve had some the cravings for more sugar can start to pop up and only feel “satisfied” once you’ve had WAY too much. It can often go like this: feeling sad/tired/anxious/lonely –> eat sugar —> feel better temporarily –> crash or come down from the sugar –> feel even more sad/tired/anxious/lonely –> repeat.
This might leave you feeling sick or guilty – sometimes both. Not exactly a cycle I want to find myself in, nor keep feeding. So, how can you get out of this cycle? I first of all want to clarify that NO FOODS ARE BAD FOODS. Food does not have morality and does not make us “good” or “bad.” For me, the problem with sugar is that it doesn’t make me feel awesome or healthy. I feel physically worse the more sugar I eat – my joints ache, my skin breaks out and my energy levels are particularly lousy.
I can’t speak for you but I really don’t want to spend every day feeling less than my best. Who knows how much time we all have and I certainly want to spend everyday that I can feeling AWESOME! Therefore I need to navigate my relationship with sugar with intention and be realistic in my approach and with expectations for myself.
What Happens to Our Bodies When We Consume Sugar?
When sugar is consumed our bodies secrete the hormone insulin to help tell your cells to let nutrients in. When carbohydrates are broken down by the body they are turned into glucose and are pushed into our cells by insulin. The body can only hold 4 grams of glucose in the bloodstream and anything over that needs to either be used or stored.
The liver regulates blood glucose levels and will always shuttle nutrients to the brain and red blood cells first. If the brain and red blood cells have enough glucose, it then moves out of the bloodstream into “storage” aka the liver and muscles. It is now called glycogen and the more carbohydrates that we consume, the more glycogen we produce.
The catch with glycogen is that our liver and muscles have limited storage space and once the amount consumed surpassed our storage capacity, our bodies will store the glycogen as fat. Our bodies can store an unlimited amount of fat and will either store it as triglycerides (fats that circulate in the blood) or as adipose (body fat).
Can you see now why consuming sugar in excess can be dangerous to our health?
Differentiating Different Types of Sugar
I want to lay out some options to help navigate and create a more positive relationship with sugar. But let’s first get clear in what the category “sugar” actually encompasses. There are, of course, different types of sugar that can be found in foods. Artificial sugars are things such as:
- acesulfame potassium
- aspartame (Equal)
- sucralose (Splenda)
- saccharin (Sweet’N Low)
- stevia (white/bleached versions like Truvia and Sun Crystals)
These artificial sugars are often far sweeter than table sugar and are also non-nutritive. Meaning they do the body little good and don’t contribute positively to health. Dr. Sarah Ballantyne states that “Today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar each year, a staggering amount of refined simple carbohydrates equivalent to 6 cups of white sugar every week” (source). WOWZA. Not good, while I have little issue eating natural sugars in things such as fruit, dried fruit or even vegetables, I do take issue with added sugars in foods.
Next we have naturally derived sweeteners that have been processed to concentrate a sweet taste. I don’t personally use any of the products in this category as they typically tend to have a high glycemic index and load and can spike blood sugar after consuming. These include:
- agave (and agave nectar)
- beet sugar
- brown rice syrup
- corn syrup
- demarara sugar
- high-fructose corn syrup
- ivert sugar
- light brown sugar
- sugar alcohols (erythritol, malitol, mannitol, xylitol etc.)
- and more
Next we have natural sweeteners that occur naturally in foods, think an apple that tastes sweet but not because it was made that way, because it simply grows sweet. In this category we have natural sweeteners such as:
- brown sugar
- cane sugar, juice and crystals
- coconut sugar, nectar and crystals
- date syrup and date sugar
- fruit juice
- luo han guo – monkfruit (I try not to use this often because it is so sweet and I don’t think there is enough research out on it to know if it is healthy or harmful)
- maple syrup
- palm and raw sugar
- stevia – green leaf or extract (but again, not a huge fan because there isn’t much research out)
As you can see there are so many different forms of sugar. It makes my head spin a little to be honest! Sugar consumption can quickly get complicated and downright disheartening if you don’t know what to look for. This brings me to my first tip!
#1 Always, Always, Always Read Your Labels
The first step towards changing a habit, or anything really, is conscious thought and effort. We must be aware of our actions and what we are choosing to interact with. One of the best ways to become conscious is to start reading labels and to start becoming aware of what you are consuming.
This sounds elementary but it is so important when trying to get a picture of how much and which sugars you are consuming in a day. Sugar can hide in the ingredients list under many different names, some of them innocent looking! In the beginning, if you don’t recognize an ingredient, do a quick internet search for it and then you can evaluate if it’s right for you or not.
#2 Cut Out All Artificial Sugars
By eliminating artificial sugars we can ensure the elimination of items such as soft drinks, candy and most processed foods. Using the list above, you can work to either slowly cut out or take the all-at-once approach and watch your body thank you!
The biggest issue with artificial sugars is that when we consume them, they can cause negative reactions in our bodies. Artificial sugars have been linked with migraines, diarrhea, fatigue, changes in mood, changes in heart rate, joint pain, memory loss, sleep problems, trouble losing weight and much more.
For me, that is enough to easily help me eliminate all artificial sugar and focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods that can help support my body and create more resiliency.
#3 Eliminate All Sugar for a Period of Time
I don’t think I ever would have created the relationship that I have with food now if I hadn’t done a Whole30. Elimination-style diets like the Whole30, 21 Day Sugar Detox and even elimination diets themselves are EXCELLENT tools for creating a more positive relationship towards sugar (and other foods).
After completing the Whole30 I felt AWESOME. I didn’t want that feeling to end! However, reintroducing foods that had been cut out is part of the program and I did so. I learned SO MUCH about my body and about which foods make me feel great and which make me feel sluggish, moody or cause skin or gut issues. When I reintroduced sugar in the form of cane sugar, brown sugar and coconut sugar, I found it hard to stop eating the foods that contained these. It always left me wanting just a little bit more. Well, for me, more isn’t just another bite, it’s like the entire rest of the pan of brownies or 6 more muffins. Not exactly how I want to live my life.
Other forms of sugar such as maple syrup, honey and date syrup tend to make me feel much better than more processed sugars. I can eat a moderate amount of these and not feel like I am going off the rails. They are just sweet enough and over time I think my taste buds have shifted to enjoy these foods even more since I am not inundated with artificial or naturally derived sugars.
While I do not adhere to a strict diet template 100% of the time, I do focus on whole foods that are incredibly nourishing to the body. I am able to do this because I have put in the work to find out which foods work best for my body. One of the best ways to tell if a food agrees with your body and promotes health is to eliminate it for a period of time and then bring it back to see what happens.
#4 Keep a Food and Symptom Journal
This can be done in accordance with #3 and is a wonderful way to track any symptoms like mood, joint pain, inflammation, acne, fatigue and much, much more. This is especially helpful because you can really start to pinpoint which foods might trigger which reactions in your body.
Symptoms from food can pop up anywhere from immediately after consumption to 3 days after. While this is a pretty wide range, our bodies process different foods at different rates and malabsorption of food can delay this process even further.
Even anything as simple as a notebook can be handy to keep track of how you feel. Having a written record is so helpful in beginning to see how food can affect us and our bodies. I really do think keeping a record is a powerful tool to help us get to know our bodies better.
When I track for food symptoms I only track the food I ate – no weights, measurements or quantities because I am not concerned with numbers. I am not using the food symptom journal to bring shame or guilt and I personally believe that counting calories is a waste of precious time. I want to know how I feel.
I also add a second column to my food journal for how the food made me feel immediately after, 1 hour after, later that day and then the next day. It can really take some listening to your body to figure out what foods and sugars cause which effects but it is SO WORTH IT.
#5 Remember Your WHY
Remembering WHY you want to have a more positive relationship with sugar is extremely important because it can really help you remember your goals and how you want to feel on a daily basis.
I know that remembering my why helps me to make the better choices daily. Do I want to feel sluggish and bloated? Nah, man. I want to feel good in my skin and see my hard work eating well and exercising pay off.
Your why could be completely different – maybe you want the energy to play with your kids, take your dog on more walks, decrease your risk for diabetes, help heal your gut or any number of other reasons. Find one that speaks to YOU and watch the magic happen.
#6 Find NEW Recipes
This has got to be one of my favorite activities to do. There is just something so satisfying about making a recipe that you know is going to nourish your body and provide pleasure at the same time! When I create recipes or look for new recipes to make, I always look at the ingredient list first to see what types of ingredients are used. I want to prioritize nutrient-dense ingredients to fuel my body and fight off disease and illness.
While I don’t think treats are an everyday, all the time indulgence, I do like to have something sweet every now and then to keep my lifestyle sustainable and avoid feeling deprived. Deprivation always leads to either rebelling against the “rules” or a binge at some point. Make sure what you are doing is sustainable and will make you feel good in the future. We are playing the long game here!
Some of my all-time favorite blogs/books to get recipes from are:
- The 21-Day Sugar Detox Daily Guide – awesome program that walks you through detoxing from sugar. I love this book for it’s super easy recipes AND the not-so-sweet desserts. YUUUM. The 21 DSD Banana Bread is to die for.
- The Whole30 Fast and Easy – again, the Whole30 has been instrumental for transforming my relationship with food and all their recipes are sugar-free and squeaky clean.
- Christina Rice’s eBook and blog – Christina makes AMAZING sugar-free desserts. And by sugar free I mean, not sweetened by ANYTHING. No maple syrup, dried fruit or stevia. Just real, whole food ingredients that taste great.
Now, I want to hear your thoughts! Do you struggle with your relationship with sugar? Or do you have a favorite place you get new recipes from? I want to know in the comments!
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