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One of the first facts about sugar you need to know: it is everywhere and in everything. As a weight management specialist, I would say that is the biggest culprit to the obesity crisis in the US, not to mention the world. It is never one’s intention to eat a bunch of sugar but if you are not aware of how much sugar is in your normal everyday food supply, then very likely, you are eating sugar. There are over 50 different names for sugar, so if you are not familiar with these terminologies, you are likely going to eat them in your processed foods. The food industry has mastered the production of this stuff in all forms and variations. It is cheap, easy to get, and enhances the taste of food. Frankly, I have yet to meet anyone who hates sugar.
What is concerning is that we are eating more and more of it, combined with being more sedentary in our lifestyles. This equates to unwanted weight gain and the medical complications that contributes to the huge US healthcare spending. Here’s everything you need to know about quitting, or reducing sugar.
Myth #1: Fruit = Sugar
Now, not all sugars are created equal and one very well-known myth is the potential sugar in our fruits. Yes, there are natural sugars in fruits, but also remember that there is also fiber and nutrients that helps the body metabolize the sugar. So, don’t turn away from fruits; see it as nature’s candy that is good for you.
Fact #1: Sugar is in Savory Foods, Too
Sugar is in everything and oftentimes, I get a lot of push back when I remind my patients how much sugar they are unknowingly eating. I often get “No, I don’t eat candies or cookies” but sadly, it’s not just the candies and cookies where we find sugar. It is in the creamer that we use, the syrup we use on our pancakes, the ketchup in our burgers, the dressing in salads, the bread for our sandwiches, the fruit drinks made from concentrate. It’s in many peanut butters and even in spaghetti sauce. If you want the shock value, go into your pantry and pick up any food item and simply read a label. Sugar is in everything.
Fact #2: Sugar is a Drug
Some people think that sugar is a drug because it can be addictive and that is absolutely right. Sugar acts on receptors on the cells that cause our bodies to either metabolize or store. We do need sugar (in the form of glucose) to survive but what is interesting is that the body knows how to make glucose from our food source such as proteins and fats, so we actually don’t have actively seek out and eat sugar. Let your body do the work to use the normal foods you eat to make the glucose you need to function. Once glucose is made, it can then be stored into muscles and fat tissues for later use.
A lot of my clients complain about their addictions to sugar, and they feel as though they need more and more of it as they continue to eat it. This is a real thing considering, sugar can be viewed as a drug and a person can build “tolerance” to it, which means, one would require more and more to get the same euphoric high or get that “feel good” emotion. So is it addictive, yes!
Fact #3: The Keto Diet is a Great Way to Burn Fat Instead of Sugar for Energy
One of the dietary regimens that is popular for weight management is the ketogenic diet; when one eliminates or minimizes the intake of sugar in the food source to as low as 10-50 net grams of carbs daily, which triggers the body to oxidize fatty acid (or what we know as ketosis). In a ketogenic state, the body creates ketones as a byproduct of fatty acid oxidation, which acts like glucose to serve the vital organ such as the brain. It is a regimen that I personally follow and have promoted my clients to try because shrinking down fat tissue is the best thing one can do to avoid conditions such as further weight gain, which contribute to the risk of developing diabetes.
Fact #4: You Can Quit Sugar
The difficult question is, can one truly kick the habit of sugar? Definitely! But as a drug, one could develop withdraws when it is stopped cold turkey. My experience with clients who stop their sugar consumption usually spend the first few days feeling the withdraw symptoms, which can be feelings of fatigue, lethargy, and even mood changes. These feelings last only a few days and the good news is, it stops and the body rebounds from those feelings.
Myth #2: If I Really Like Sugar, There’s No Reason to Stop
Some of you die-hard sweet tooths out there might be asking yourself, “What if I don’t want to quit eating sugar…ever? What is the worse thing that could happen?” Well, when one over-consumes sugar, the body will store it in forms of cholesterol and not only does it accumulate into adipose (fat) tissue in the belly, but it can also be stored into organs such as our liver (hence, fatty liver). Also, because the pancreas is one of the main organs to help metabolize sugar by the secretion of insulin, overconsumption of sugars can overwork this organ. As a result, the pancreas decreases the amount of insulin production as time goes on and the body cannot catch up to the sugars consumed; hence, elevated fasting sugar and development of type II Diabetes.
Type II Diabetes is related to one’s diet and is acquired in those who have a problem metabolizing sugars from the food source. The prevalence in the US has been a climbing trend in recent years and related to the condition of obesity as well.
Once a person develops diabetes, a lower carb diet and oral medications would be prescribed to control the glucose in the blood stream and if that fails, insulin injections would follow. The physiological impact of elevated glucose in the blood stream puts the person at risk for both microvascular and macrovascular compromise. Risk of heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, blindness, difficulty in wounds healing and limb amputation are some conditions that one may experience, if the glucose is not controlled.
Diabetes, fatty liver, and weight gain are very stressful for the overall health of the body. Stress on the body is known as inflammation and we now have a great wealth of knowledge from clinical trials on this health status.
A person with inflammation can more likely develop disease state compared to another person who is not inflamed. Unfortunately, inflammation can be “silent” and painless, so oftentimes, a person may not be aware of this until it is measured by blood work at your doctor’s office.
Fact #5: Small Changes Have Big Impact
So how can we optimize health overall without completely turning your world upside down? It can be as simple as cutting out or minimizing the daily intake of refined carb and sugars from processed foods. Reducing or quitting sugar is very doable, if done correctly. Focus mainly on fresh fruits and vegetables, along with lean proteins and good fats. If you’re looking to clean up some of your favorite baked goods, try a better-for-you sweetener that is closer to the source over processed sugar. And if all this sounds overwhelming to you, simply look for a physician in your area that has undergone an extended training in Obesity Medicine.
Physicians, like myself have taken the effort to learn ways to help patients lose weight along with the use of medications to ultimately cure these common conditions.
To get started, here are some helpful resources that take the guesswork out of reducing sugar intake:
- Kick your sugar habit in 7 days
- Give up sugar for 1 week with this Quit Sugar Meal Plan
- Tips and tricks for curbing a sweet tooth
- How one editor kicked the sugar habit
Dr. Amy Lee is triple board certified in internal medicine, medical nutrition and obesity medicine. Her life’s work and passion have been to help people improve their health through weight loss and wellness solutions. She completed her internal medicine residency at USC followed by a clinical nutrition fellowship at UCLA.