My sister and mother decided to FaceTime me a few nights ago about how Jennifer Lopez catalyzed this ten day sugar free and carb free challenge, somewhat inducing them to ask which foods were suitable for a little-to-no carbohydrate diet. You can probably infer that this situation inspired me to write this post, nearly all in spontaneity. Seriously, I’m typing this all at once as I watch a random Chinese movie on Amazon Prime (not going to disclose the movie name because I didn’t like it that much…three out of five stars).
Currently analyzing my diet, I realized that I made several conscious decisions to remove many sugary foods from my fridge and pantry. With some of my subconscious dependencies on experiencing the sweetness flavor, I figured that this continual craving was unhealthy. Dependency alone on anything is dangerous. Think about that. But on a lighter note, many of us understand that sugar is a soluble carbohydrate that comes in many food products. Many of us, including myself, tend to forget how much of it we eat every day and the consequences they entail. From fruits to condiments, grains to candy, and fruit juice to frappuccinos, countless foods contain them–sadly, sugar can be super sneaky.
Luckily, it is absolutely feasible to reduce sugar, not quite so when completely eliminating sugar. Spoiler alert: vegetables contain sugar, just in the form of complex carbohydrates that inarguably are a type of sugar, but are simply digested and metabolized differently than the sugar from a cookie or even an apple. Additionally, more research in nutrition and dietetics have showcased how sugar plays a critical role in one’s well-being depending on athleticism, physical build, mental functionality, and genetics. Someone can thrive off of heaps of sugar while someone might nearly die from it. The dose is also important.
Having said that, many of us can afford to reduce our sugar consumption. Unfortunately, similarly to plastic or gluten, sugar is found in nearly everything without our knowledge. On the bright side, there are many ways to eliminate sugar in some areas and minimize it in others, perhaps to save our sugar intake for a special occasion (aka, a serving of oatmeal vegan chocolate chip cookies instead of a bottle of orange juice). But be wary of going cold turkey or becoming obsessed with sugar, as it is indeed possible to steer in the other extreme where you exhaust yourself from avoiding every single food that contains even a gram of carbohydrates. Let alone, eating heaping spoonfuls, even cups, of aspartame has its own health risks.
Many of us recognize the fitness implications of reducing sugar, but as for health, there are much, much more. Below are just a handful of benefits as well as several detriments that result from decreasing the quantity of sugar in your diet. Note that these outcomes generally stress on sucrose, fructose, and glucose (all three are or can be found in liquid and granulated sweeteners, fruit, dairy, desserts, snack foods, condiments, spreads, etc.), but may perhaps arise from oligo- or polysaccharides (found in starchy vegetables, grains, legumes, etc.). This is not to say that sugar should be eliminated entirely or that you need to consume as little as possible. Please experiment with what works for you or consult a medical and/or dietetic professional if you have any doubts.
- Prevention of tooth decay. Notice how the first benefit is NOT weight-related? Excessive sugar intake encourages the buildup of plague around the teeth and gums as well as acid production since sugar serves as a favorable environment for micro-organisms that conduct fermentation. The more plague that builds up, the more difficult it is to remove the outer layers and the more acid that forms, which then erodes into the tooth and creating indentations that eventually become cavities. It’s pretty clear as to why cavities are undesirable: they don’t look great and can make way for diseases.
- Consistent energy. Yes, glucose is the body’s main source of fuel, thus it may seem apparent to consume primarily glucose-rich foods. It’s simply a matter of just not constantly elevating the body’s sugar consumption and not eating inconsistent types of sugar on a regular basis. The more sugar is consumed, the more energy elevations and sudden dips will occur, leading to a stronger dependency on sugar for energy. Balancing carbohydrates with fats and protein enable stabilization of these sugars with easier nutrient metabolism.
- Hormone balancing. Excessive consumption of sugar is extremely taxing on insulin, the primary hormone regulating carbohydrate metabolism. In fact, there is a causal relationship between overeating fructose and insulin resistance, which leads to obesity and weight gain. Dysfunctional insulin leads to imbalances and lack of functionality for testosterone, estrogen, sex hormone binding globulin, and progesterone, which all contribute to fertility, metabolism, aging, cognition, mental health, and fitness.
- Clear skin. Similarly to dental hygiene, sugar feeds on acid, leading to favorable environments for pathogenic bacteria almost everywhere, including your skin. This bacteria can result in the human body responding through inflammation to eradicate the bacteria, which in turn, counter the inflammation to impact the skin instead of themselves. Removing some sugar out of your diet leaves less room for acid-feeding bacteria, so lower chances of acne! Having said this, simply eliminating sugar does not equate eliminating acne. Imbalanced ratios of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, food intolerances, lack of vitamins and minerals, and poor hygiene are just a few contributors, so seek other factors that may be inducing flare-ups.
- Gut optimization. Face it, nobody loves bloating, gas, inconsistent movements, and stomach pain. These are outcomes from a microbiome that has more pathogenic bacteria and less disease-preventing bacteria. Again, pathogenic bacteria feed sugar for acid production, hosting potential diseases that can spread from the gut to the skin, teeth, bones, hair, and brain.
- Potential weight loss. Only if you have weight to lose. Some people shed a drastic amount of pounds by removing sugary sweets and/or beverages from their diet while others lose a modest quantity or even nothing at all. Having said that, weight loss is ultimately a matter of caloric intake and expenditure. Consuming more calories than you burn (provided that your metabolism is functioning properly) will still induce weight gain, as described in the detriments list.
- Lack of energy. If you eliminate sugar too drastically and too quickly, you will feel absolutely exhausted. It will take more time and effort for your body to search for alternative sources of energy once it cannot use its original amount of sugar and then turn to muscle or fat stores. Lower glycogen stores lead to less efficient mechanisms of finding energy, which causes fatigue.
- You may feel deprived. Admittedly, I love a glorious bar of dark chocolate, a bowl of dates, or a slice of vegan carrot cake. My family loves Vietnamese coffee and plantain chips–sadly, they contain fructose and added sugar as well. Truly, many of us have a sweet tooth (except for a couple of my male friends, who have their own vices, generally encompassing beer–good thing I’m a sober!) that tantalizes us to eat every single white carbohydrate in sight. It’s a matter of training your taste-buds to not crave an excessively sweet taste or to simply seek a non-nutritive sweetener that yields in the same satisfaction.
- Challenges in finding substitutes. Sugar is sugar, but substitutes for sugar take on many other forms, such as sucralose, dextrose, aspartame, Stevia, monkfruit, erythritol, saccharin, acesulfame-K, the list goes on and on. Not only will the flavors differ, but physiological reactions and competence in baking or blending into beverages will do so as well. Not everyone loves the bitterness of sucralose or Stevia. Sometimes, erythritol or even monkfruit just does not do the trick as cane sugar in a batch of muffins.
- Dependency on artificial sweeteners. Consuming artificial sweeteners on a regular basis can be counterproductive for certain aspects of health. Many of these synthetic sweeteners that are non-nutritive are indigestible in the human body, thus potentially leading to some unpleasant symptoms in the gut and metabolic disruptions that can induce the same issues caused by actual sugar. This isn’t to say that artificial sweeteners are toxic, but it is possible to be unhealthily obsessed with them.
- You may gain weight. Again, it’s a matter of caloric balance. If you try to eliminate sugar cold turkey, one of the following outcomes may occur:
- You will overeat on low sugar but calorically dense foods such as nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters (story of my life), peanut butter (also the story of my life), 100% dark chocolate, and oil, or if you are not vegan, then red meat, yogurt, butter, and cheese.
- Eventually, your cravings begin to drive you insane that you end up completely overeating (or even binging) the highly sugary foods you’ve deprived yourself of for so long. This leads to extreme guilt, which slopes to going on another slew of yo-yo diets or just giving up overall and eating sugar all the time.
- Lack of energy will limit your motivation to be physically active, thus not equalizing the amount of calories you expend.
WHAT FOODS ARE HIGH IN SUGAR?
It is a given that table sugar is the highest and purest form of sugar, but granulated has the highest content per gram. Still, it is best to abstain from powdered sugar, brown sugar, liquid sweeteners (even maple syrup, molasses, and agave, which is arguably worse than sugar), and concentrated forms of sugar as often as possible. Given its favorable reactivity and versatility in food chemistry and production, sugar is found in countless products such as yogurt, milk, kefir, kombucha, cereals, granola bars, nutrition bars, chips, candy, cookies, soda, juices, trail mix, chocolate, condiments, spreads, snack foods, protein bars, instant oatmeal, canned beans, canned fruits, canned vegetables, baked goods, breads, dressed-up nuts and seeds, and supplements. There is also naturally occurring sugar in fruit, starchy vegetables, grains, legumes, and non-starchy vegetables, which are more slowly metabolized due to the complexity of the carbohydrates and fiber content to stabilize absorption.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY SUGAR INTAKE?
Do not quit cold turkey unless you consume at least a borderline ketogenic diet. Even if the first day or even week seems fine, the physical withdrawal symptoms will kick into gear and wreak havoc. Trust me, I have personal experience–it’s the worst! Just look out for the sneaky names that sugar takes on and try to avoid those or find anything that contains the most limited amounts as possible. Make substitutions by using Stevia or monkfruit instead of sugar in coffee or hot chocolate, or swapping out conventional ketchup for salsa, a homemade pepper sauce, or even sugar free ketchup. Increase your fat intake and protein intake to up your satiety and intake of macronutrients that metabolize more slowly than carbohydrates (more almond butter, anyone?). If you want to consume some carbohydrates, choose foods that contain more fiber and oligo- or polysaccharides instead of mono- or disaccharides–instead of wheat bread, try whole grain bread or sweet potato toast, fruit preserves instead of sugar, cauliflower pizza crust instead of a flatbread, oatmeal instead of corn flakes, you get the deal. Experiment with these substitutions and switch different swaps from time to time, seeing what works best for you. Personally, I have been experiencing some wonderful benefits in mood, energy, skin, hair, stress control, and a newfound love for raw and crunchy almond butter by moderately reducing my sugar intake. I can’t complain!
However, just remember that it is okay to eat a little more sugar than usual on special occasions. Some people need higher quantities if they have an extremely active lifestyle! Additionally, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in labels and following a regimented routine of being the perfectly healthy person, which is truly not ideal to strive for. Everyone’s dietary needs are completely based on the individual, but we should all practice awareness of the sugar’s sources and quantity. After all, treating the mind, body, and soul with the same devotion all contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
How do you view your sugar intake? What are your favorite alternatives to conventional sucrose or fructose based sweeteners?