I cut back on sugar, and this is the best advice I can give you if you want to do the same
- Sugar is one of the most over-consumed substances in the American diet.
- Going cold-turkey is not always the best method. Cutting back gradually and keeping your added sugar intake to a minimum sometimes works best.
- Eliminating sugar doesn't always lead to permanent weight loss. But gradually cutting back and maintaining a healthy lifestyle does.
My overly-active sweet tooth has been an issue since I was a kid. Sugar is what I turned to when things in my world just didn't seem right. It's the crutch I used when my anxiety took over. And it's the substance I devoured when during times of celebration.
At a routine check-up eight years ago, I discovered my cholesterol levels were off the charts (plus my weight was over 200 pounds). My doctor told me I had six months to get my numbers under control or she was going to prescribe medication. I immediately went home, got rid of all of the sugar and high-fat foods in my house, and declared to the world that I was cutting out all processed foods and added sugar.
That was the first of many failed attempts to eliminate all added sugar from my diet.
What happened when I cut out all added sugar
Most of my attempts to cut out added sugar ended the same way: me bingeing on more sugar after feeling deprived. I tried going cold-turkey on some of my favorites, including cereal, yogurt, chocolate, ice cream, and condiments like teriyaki and spaghetti sauce, but it never lasted. I understand that breaking the sugar habit takes time. But I also realized that having an "all-or-nothing" mentality did not work for me.
The longest I made it on a complete sugar elimination diet was about five days. I dealt with some withdrawal symptoms, like headaches and fatigue, but it was the mental side-effects that told me a "no-sugar" diet was not going to work. During the periods of complete sugar elimination, my anxiety would spike and things felt very out of control.
This didn't make sense to me, because I always thought eliminating sugar altogether would decrease my anxiety symptoms. But it didn't.
"When trying to cut back on sugar, sudden changes are not advised as they may precipitate feelings of anxiety as the body 'crashes' from a sugar high," explained Dr. Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
This is exactly what I experienced when I tried to go cold-turkey. Instead of reducing my anxiety symptoms, the sudden change from a high amount of sugar to no sugar exasperated my symptoms. It wasn't until I shifted back to a moderation mentality that I was able to benefit from the reduction in anxiety symptoms that does come from reducing sugar in your diet.
Sugar and weight loss
For many people, myself included, the initial elimination diet resulted in a lower number on the scale. However, when I realized that I couldn't sustain this approach, I started eating sugar again, and a lot of it. Of course, that initial weight that I lost came back.
But weight loss was not the main motivator for me in my quest to ditch sugar. There is a history of heart disease and high cholesterol in my family, and my dad died of a heart attack. Through my research, I found studies linking high sugar intake with an increase in cardiovascular disease and CVD mortality. That was enough for me to put the brakes on and cut back on my daily dose of sweets.
The sweet spot
If you're one of the many people who can cut added sugar completely out of your diet, I commend you. But if you're anything like me, eliminating all added sugar was a disaster.
It took several years of trial and error, but I think I've finally found the trick - at least one that works for me. And it seems my shift from "no sugar" to "cut back on sugar" is a method experts also recommend.
"My advice is to practice moderation and work your way towards cutting back on sugar," Priya Khorana, who holds a doctorate in nutrition education, told Business Insider. She recommends cutting sugar out of your diet gradually if you want this lifestyle change to be sustainable.
This approach differs from the cold-turkey method and takes more time to see and feel results. However, "it's those consistent small changes that you make in your daily diet that will work best," Naidoo told Business Insider.
The American Heart Association advises that women consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar daily, which comes out to about 100 calories. Men should aim for less than nine teaspoons, or about 150 calories from sugar. And the World Health Organization says people should get no more than 10% of their daily calories from sugar.
So when it comes to daily sugar intake, I aim to keep my added sugar budget under 25 grams (about 5 teaspoons) per day, which does not include naturally-occurring sugar from fruits or vegetables. (The American Heart Association advises that women consume no more than six teaspoons - about 100 calories - of sugar daily. Men should aim for less than nine teaspoons, or about 150 calories, from sugar.)
But there are days when my number is higher. Sometimes, it's much higher. Shocking, right?
I like to eat, and sometimes what I choose to put in my mouth is considered "off-limits" on many diets. There have been many times that my methods have been questioned and even criticized by people who believe you must eliminate carbs, processed food, or all sugar in order to live a healthy life.
I've tried that, and it didn't work for me. But I'm doing something right, because I've maintained a 75-pound weight loss over seven years, and I manage to keep my cholesterol levels in a healthy range.
Expert tips to help you cut back on sugar
If you're eating much more than what is recommended how can you start cutting back? Naidoo and Khorana shared the following sugar-reduction tips with Business Insider:
- Cut out sugar-sweetened beverages and energy or sports drinks. This is one of the most obvious ways to cut down on your sugar intake. Soft drinks are laden with sugar and have absolutely no nutritional value. Naidoo said if you're trying to stop high-sugar soda, consider cutting back on the amount from one can of soda to a half a can. Next, consider switching to a fresh squeezed juice mixed with sparkling water (e.g. fresh orange juice with unflavored sparkling water). This should help you move toward drinking mostly water as your beverage of choice.
- Avoid processed foods. These include cookies, cakes, and pastries. "Treating this sugar craving with real fruit-based snacks or unsalted raw nuts will not only slash the sugar intake tremendously but can add vitamins and minerals to your diet," explained Khorana.
- Say "no" to breakfast cereals. Sugary breakfast cereals can lead to an inevitable sugar rush and slump which will you craving sugar for the rest of the day. Khorana recommended oats since they are a fantastic and cheap way to feed you and your family and there's so much you can do with them - warm porridge, cold overnight oats, oat bars, and more.
- Make your own spaghetti sauce. Store-bought tomato sauce is high in added sugar. Opt for your own homemade version.
- Avoid flavored yogurt. Plain low-fat yogurt is the way to go. Adding cut whole fruit can add some flavor without the unhealthy sugars.
- Do not replace sugars with artificial sweeteners. Enough said!
- Ditch the candy. If you're cutting back on candy, start to lower the amount you're eating in a given day. For example, Naidoo recommends cutting back from a whole candy bar to half. As you cut back on the amount, start adding healthier sweet-tasting options, such as fresh fruit and dark chocolate. "You want your palate and senses to start growing used to other forms of sweetness besides candy," she said.
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