It’s time we talked sugar. White powdered gold. Legal crack. Sugar is one of the most readily available and addictive foods out there—and you don’t have to be a Pixy Stix guzzler to overdo it. I was pretty floored when I began to really understand the abundance of sugars in food—did you know it’s in everything from pancakes to potatoes?
The average American eats an estimated 130 lbs of sugar per year (source). You might think “There’s no way I eat that much sugar!” but this stuff is sneaky. It doesn’t just hang out in the junk food aisle, it’s also in healthy foods (don’t worry, I’m not saying that a sweet potato has as much sugar as a Snickers bar!). Hidden sugar piles up fast, so you may need to budget less sugar in your diet—especially if you’re dealing with a health challenge.
Sugar is inflammatory and consuming too much of it can increase your risk for health challenges like cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, an unhealthy gut and a number of cancers. Excess sugar can also cause tooth decay, contribute to obesity, accelerate the aging process and even impact brain function. Plus, when we consume too many of our calories from sugar, we miss out on essential nutrients from whole foods.
I know how overwhelming this sweet beast can be, but we’re about to change that. Grab your pencils, friends… let’s go to sugar school!
Why do I crave sugar?
Let me tell ya, I get this question all the time so let’s start here! Studies have shown that eating sugar has a powerful impact on the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by addictive drugs, which can lead to increased tolerance and dependence.
One study compared men who were given meals with rapidly digested refined sugars to men given meals with a lower blood sugar impact. The group eating the rapidly digested refined sugars experienced an increase in blood flow to the part of the brain that regulates cravings, rewards and addictive behaviors. When this reward center lights up, it can keep us wanting more (study)!
Sugar can even interfere with our appetite-regulating hormones, which can lead to even more overindulgence. But I have good news! When you eliminate or significantly reduce refined sugars in your diet, you’ll start to notice the cravings subside in as little as a week (though it’s different for everyone, so give your body time to adapt!).
What is sugar?
To understand sugars, you’ve gotta start with the basics. You’re probably familiar with carbohydrates and glucose, but do you really know what these guys are all about? Let’s learn more about them, then we’ll explore our day-to-day food choices.
There’s a lot of gabbing in the news about good carbs versus bad carbs—but what are they, exactly? First and foremost, carbohydrates are the starchy or sugary part of foods. When we think about sugar, naturally we imagine all things yummy and sweet. But in actuality, all carbs (including those that don’t taste sweet, like pasta, bread and potatoes) break down into glucose—the sugar your body uses for fuel. (More on glucose in a sec!) From your body’s point of view, there’s not much difference between a spoonful of sugar and a slice of white bread.
Carbohydrates come in two varieties, complex (“good” or “unrefined”) and simple (“bad” or “refined”). Complex carbs, also referred to as starches, are typically digested and absorbed more slowly than simple carbs. These foods are generally high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I’m talkin’ about whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat and quinoa, along with legumes and starchy vegetables. Just keep in mind that complex carbs can still cause a rise in blood sugar if they’re consumed in excess, so be mindful of both quality and quantity of your healthy carbohydrate choices!
With the exception of fresh fruit, simple carbs (also called “simple sugars”) are digested and absorbed more quickly than complex carbs. They don’t offer much nutritional value, and because of their minimal fiber content, can trigger unhealthy blood sugar spikes (and dips). White sugar, white flour, white bread, some whole wheat breads, cookies, sugary snack foods, candy, cake, muffins, crackers, chips, energy drinks, sodas and concentrated fruit juices are examples of simple carbs.
When glucose enters your bloodstream, your pancreas releases insulin, the master hormone of metabolism. Insulin has lots of jobs, but most importantly it regulates glucose levels by shuttling it to cells to use as fuel. But if a cell has all the fuel it needs for the moment, insulin carries off the extra glucose to be stored as fat. So far, so good—because everyone needs a little cushion for the pushin’. However, a diet high in simple sugar and refined carbs dumps a ton of glucose into your blood very quickly. As a result, your pancreas is forced to barf out additional insulin, which isn’t good for you or your pancreas.
This is one vicious cycle. Over time you may develop insulin resistance, which makes your body less effective at regulating blood sugar. Insulin resistance also affects your ability to use stored fat as energy. In other words, you can’t lose weight as easily when there’s a bunch of insulin coursing through your body. But it’s not just about weight. Too much glucose and insulin are major culprits in many diseases (for more on the relationship between sugar and cancer, read this).
What foods have the least/most sugar?
The World Health Organization recommends that we get no more than 10 percent of our calories from added sugars (5 percent is even better!). The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 tsp (24 grams) of sugar daily for women and 9 tsp (36 grams) for men. These are general guidelines, so work with your doc to find a daily amount that fits your unique needs.
Also, remember that not all sugars are created equal! But I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that you don’t have time to memorize all of these sugar stats. Luckily, you don’t have to…
My Sugars Ranking Chart
I’ve done a little of the heavy lifting for you by creating a ranking system for sugars. If you haven’t yet, grab your free printable sugar guide and keep reading to find out how the ranking system works.
Group A: These foods are your best bets. These foods are the total package because they give you fuel, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Beans, whole fruits, whole grains and lentils are great Group A examples that will keep you satiated and your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. Fruit contains fructose, but nowhere near the concentration as processed candies and sweets. Plus, fruit has vital nutrients, cancer-fighting antioxidants and fiber, all of which promote a healthy you. The key is to enjoy fruit that’s naturally high in fiber, low in sugar and has a low glycemic index (GI—more on that in a sec). Reach for raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, pears, citrus fruits, apples and plums. Limit the higher GI fruits like bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, raisins, pineapple and mangoes (as well as fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates).
Group B: These sweeteners have a little something to offer beyond just the glucose energy. Dried fruits have a higher GI than whole fruits since they’re highly concentrated, but are a good source of micronutrients. Think of them as an occasional treat! Just make sure to check the labels and avoid added sugars or preservatives. Some other grade Bs include sweeteners such as maple syrup, coconut palm sugar, yacon syrup and lucuma. These sweeties are better options than the C group because they have a lower GI or offer some vitamins and minerals.
Group C: These are your worst options. They are high GI and don’t bring anything but sugar to the party. One trick ponies! While jelly beans, soda, candy, pastries and brownies may give us a boost of energy, they offer no nutritional benefit. Plus, consuming such a high level of simple sugars can cause fat to be produced and accumulate in the liver. Someone who binges on donuts can end up with a liver just as fatty as that of an alcoholic (often called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease).
How can you learn to make better choices when eating carbs and sugar? Enter the dazzling glycemic index (GI), a measure of how quickly and how high a particular carbohydrate raises your blood sugar level. GI is a numerical ranking system that compares a given food to a pure sugar, such as white sugar. Because white sugar is all carbohydrate, it’s designated 100 on a scale of 0 to 100. The GI is a measure of carbs only; fats and proteins have no effect on the score.
Foods with a high GI value are almost always refined, simple carbs. Conversely, foods with low GI values tend to be unrefined, complex carbs. The difference between high- and low-GI foods lies mostly in how much fiber they contain. Fiber slows the digestion of sugars and keeps you even and peaceful. That’s why a plant-based, low-GI diet is one of the central tenets of a healthy lifestyle.
As a rule of thumb, any food that has a GI rank below 60 is a good choice, especially if you need to watch your blood sugar. In fact, people who stick to a low-GI diet are less likely to develop diabetes and other medical life lemons. Speaking of lemons, they fall solidly into the low-GI camp, as do berries, apples, pears, citrus fruits and plums.
And guess what? Not only can low GI diets prevent nasty diseases, they can also help to reverse them (source and source). Amen, glitter explosion! If you want to learn more, The GI Handbook by Barbara Ravage and The New Glucose Revolution by Jennie Brand-Miller and Kaye Foster-Powell are both great books for self-study.
Find out how your favorite sweets stack up–get instant access to the handy dandy (and free!) sugar guide I made for you.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
If kicking sugary treats to the curb is on your to-do list, here are a few ways to get the job done without going bonkers:
- Cold turkey—sometimes, tough love does the job! But, please keep one of my favorite mantras in mind: Progress, not perfection. No need to be hard on yourself if you slip up. And if this approach doesn’t work for you, try the other tips in this list!
- Brush your teeth, floss, close up shop.
- Incorporate sweet veggies, like yams.
- Have a snack that’s high in protein and some fat, such as nuts, seeds and avocado.
- Find some natural, healthy sugar substitutes you can count on (we’ll cover some of my go-to options in the next section!).
- Juice up a green drink or smoothie with some good fat in it, like coconut or avocado.
- Enjoy sliced apples with almond butter, cucumbers with hummus, or a baked sweet potato.
- Go for a small piece (about 1-in square) of good-quality dark chocolate (70 percent or higher cacao).
- Change your environment until the crisis passes. Go for a walk, call a friend, take a bubble bath, do some sun salutations, cuddle your pet, have hot sex!
Keep in mind that as your body gets used to less sugar, you may experience detox symptoms such as headaches, skin breakouts, insomnia, low energy, etc. Staying hydrated, resting, eating nourishing foods, gentle exercise and making yourself a priority can all help manage these symptoms as you transition to a healthier lifestyle.
Healthy Sugar Substitutes
Add some natural sweetness to your life with these healthy sugar substitutes! Here’s some more info about the options so you can determine which one is the best choice for you:
- Dates are relatively high in calories but they make a great natural sweetener. They have a low glycemic index and are great blended into smoothies and used in baking. Here’s a recipe for date purée, which you can use in place of sugar in many recipes!
- Maple syrup is rich in antioxidants, unlike sugar which contains little to no antioxidants. And while maple syrup is high in natural sugars, it still has a lower GI than sugar. It also contains minerals such as manganese and zinc. To get the most beneficial antioxidants from your maple syrup, be sure to choose the darker Grade B type.
- Stevia extract comes from the stevia plant and is 250–300 times sweeter than sugar. Because it’s so sweet, a little bit goes a long way (making it a nearly calorie-free natural sweetener). Too much stevia can cause indigestion and because it is a vasodilator, it’s not recommended for people with low blood pressure. To ensure you’re using the most natural and minimally processed product possible, look for 100 percent pure organic stevia that doesn’t contain other ingredients.
- Erythritol is a sugar alcohol made by fermenting the sugar found in corn. It looks and tastes like sugar but contains 0 calories. Erythritol contains some antioxidants to fight free radicals. Plus, it’s about 60 percent as sweet as sugar and does not impact blood sugar. Erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine, whereas other sugar alcohols aren’t absorbed well by the intestines. This makes it less likely to cause digestive stress than other sugar alcohols—however, overdoing it can cause diarrhea, gas, bloating or nausea. It is important to be sure you are purchasing GMO-free erythritol since it is made from corn, a commonly genetically modified crop. Look for erythritol that is USDA organic and has the non-GMO certified label on the packaging. Keep in mind, it can be pricey.
- Lakanto is a non-GMO calorie-free sweetener made and used in Japan for more than 15 years. It’s a combination of erythritol and the sweetener from monk fruit. It can be substituted one-to-one for sugar and many people say that it works well in baking. Because lakanto is made of erythritol and monk fruit, too much can cause GI upset and it may have an aftertaste.
- Yacon syrup, made from the yacon root, has about 20 calories per tablespoon (sugar has 48 calories per tablespoon). It’s rich in fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which act as prebiotics in the body. Yacon syrup may encourage weight loss as it tends to increase satiety and insulin sensitivity (research study). However, consuming more than a tablespoon a day may cause diarrhea, bloating, gas and/or nausea.
- Monk fruit sweetener is about 150–200 times sweeter than sugar and is made from extracts of the monk fruit. It contains mogrosides, which are antioxidants that don’t raise your blood sugar when metabolized, making monk fruit sweeteners calorie-free. Some people do complain that these sweeteners have an aftertaste.
A note on agave: Agave was a popular sugar substitute for a while because it’s low on the GI scale, but we now know that it’s highly processed, contains a concentrated amount of fructose and lacks any beneficial nutrients. If you choose to use it at all, I encourage you to do so sparingly and consider trying some of the other alternatives we discussed above instead. You may spot agave in some of my old recipes, but it doesn’t make the cut for my list of healthy sugar substitutes today. This is a good reminder to stay on top of the latest research and consult with the experts (like my incredible nutrition team!)—I’m always learning and love sharing with you!
Natural, calorie-free sweeteners can be super helpful as you transition away from processed sweets. But keep in mind that a little goes a long way because they often taste sweeter. Plus, the less you use sugar and sugar substitutes, the more you’ll start to notice the incredible natural sweetness available in plant foods. Eventually, you may find that you don’t need added “sugar” at all—good for you (and your body!).
Treat your perfectly sweet body with respect for the work it does to power you through the day. Shocking your system by dumping a ton of glucose into your bloodstream doesn’t a good self-care strategy make. Powering your cells with glucose, vitamins, minerals and fiber, however, is solid sunshine gold.