As a Registered Dietitian, people often ask, “what is the one change you encourage your clients to make to see the biggest results?” Although my clients are often in different places on their health journey when they come to see me, my honest answer always starts with sugar. Cut down or completely eliminate refined sugar, particularly in the liquid forms, and you will see results that extend well beyond the waistline for a lifetime.
Sugar, especially excess sugar in the diet, can be very influential within the body both physiologically and emotionally which makes it even more challenging to wean off of. Let’s think about this by following the path of a donut for breakfast to break down the science of insulin and how it relates to your health. A healthy individual will eat a donut and absorb the sugar into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. An increase in blood glucose levels then triggers the pancreas to release insulin to retrieve the glucose from the bloodstream and shuttle it to the liver, muscles, or fat storage. Over time, a resistance can develop where more and more insulin is needed to respond to the same job. When insulin levels are high, symptoms such as fatigue, belly fat, wrinkles, and sugar cravings appear - not nearly as sweet as it was on the way down!
Foods high in sugar are also problematic for those that struggle with overeating and food addiction, and women are twice as likely to experience this than men. The reason for this is not a lack of will power by any means, it has to do with biology and the impact that sugar has on the neurotransmitters within the brain. Foods that contain sugar trigger reward receptors in the brain. If sugar is continuously consumed, some individuals develop issues with dopamine communication, meaning more is needed to get the same “normal” feeling and may even feel withdrawal symptoms when sugar is reduced or removed.
An excess of sugar in the diet can also trigger chronic, low grade inflammation and stress. Our bodies are capable of managing a little stress here and there, but low grade, chronic stress will can negatively impact your body in a number of ways, with weight loss resistance being one. When you have a high level of stress in the body, it stimulates the hormone cortisol. Belly fat has 4x the number of cortisol receptors as fat elsewhere which is why high cortisol can stimulate belly fat. The combination of high cortisol and insulin resistance makes it very challenging to lose weight. Are you ready to kick sugar to the curb yet?
The good news is, insulin resistance can start to change in as little as 72 hours with the right diet and lifestyle changes. You will can start to feel a difference in blood glucose levels after just one meal. Here are some of my favorite ways to help you wean off of sugar without the nasty side effects:
Check food labels for sugar and artificial sweeteners so you know where the sugar in your diet is coming from - it’s sneaky! These sources are the primary culprits resulting in blood sugar spikes that impact your health; for example, a mere 2 tablespoons of BBQ sauce contain 10 grams of sugar and as much as 22 grams of carbohydrates! Be smart and check labels for all of the code names for sugar and artificial sweeteners, even the “healthy” ones: sugar, cane juice, agave, honey, maple syrup, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, and maltose or rice syrup to name a few.
Eat close to 3-4 cups of fresh and cooked vegetables daily. Dark greens and above ground vegetables will minimally impact blood sugar levels due to their high fiber and water content, while root vegetables should be moderated as slow burning sources of healthy carbohydrates packed with B vitamins to help metabolize carbohydrates in the diet.
Make sure to include high quality protein sources at every meal, preferably 4-6 ounces of fish, poultry, grass fed meat and/or legumes. Protein is the most satiating of all the macronutrients which is incredibly helpful for those struggling with cravings and food addiction. Studies have shown that high protein (and in turn low carb) diets constantly result in the greatest reduction of calories. When you’re satisfied, you’re far less likely to overeat or even fight the desire to want more food.
Eat a variety of probiotic rich fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso to offset cravings for sugary foods. A couple tablespoons at meal times will promote a healthy and diverse bacterial population in the gut that can impact cravings and metabolism. The acidic taste of fermented foods can stimulate your taste buds in a similar way that sugar can, for instant gratification against sugar cravings.
Understand why you are reaching for sugar in the first place. Are you feeling stressed, bored or tired? By identifying patterns you can create new habits. Next time you get the urge for sugar, try one of these strategies: go for walk, take a ten-minute stretch break, phone a friend, try a deep breathing exercise or relax with some herbal tea. You’ll reduce your stress levels and avoid the sugar.