Disclaimer: I’m not a medical expert, this is my opinion based on my own experience and research. Over the past three and half years I have lost 16kg by following the below eating plan with a combination of exercise and a bit of trial and error. This is a long post, so get yourself a cup of tea and let’s get right into this sweet sticky mess…
Unhealthy habits are hard to replace if you’ve spent years and years doing the same thing without much thought. When it comes to sugar our society is guilty of overindulging in sweet pleasures senselessly. Sugar consumption is so ingrained into our culture that we barely think about how much of it we eat.
We have both a physical and emotional attachment to eating sugar, as our reward system is dependent on sweet indulges. We reach for it when we’re sad or stressed, we share it when we’re happy, we crave it when we’re tired or bored, and we consume incredible amounts of it when we celebrate.
So, what is sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate and is devoid of any nutrients. Sugar is used by the body in two ways, either for energy or it is stored as fat to be used later. Sugar, unlike fat, does not have the ability to satiate your appetite and often leaves you craving more sugar an hour later.
Besides desserts, candies and other obviously sweet treats, sugar is hidden in pretty much everything that is processed. There are around 61 different names for sugar or sugar derivatives, from fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, fruit puree, ethyl maltol, rice syrup, maltose, sucrose, fruit juice and the list goes on.
According to SugarScience there are 74% added sugars hidden in packaged food. These are hidden sugars in ‘healthy’ foods like low-fat or fruit yogurt, cereals, granola bars, fruit juice, muesli, bread, protein bars and salad dressing, to name a few. These are often labeled as ‘healthy’, ‘no added sugar’, or ‘gluten free’.
Eating foods that contain large amounts of sugar can spike your blood sugar levels so drastically out of the normal healthy range that your body’s insulin goes through dramatic ups and downs. This makes you crave more sugar as you hit a low, which is linked to feeling ravenous and having mood swings (hangry much??!). This is known as the “high-glycemic rollercoaster”, and leads your body to store excess fat, and even worse, lead to other metabolic issues like diabetes.
The excessive production of insulin by your body tells your body to store glucose as fat, as it has an abundance of energy. This leads to insulin resistance as your body fails to produce an adequate insulin response as the cells responsible for this response begin to fail. This ultimately dampens the ability of insulin to reduce your blood sugar through delivering glucose to all the cells of your body. Insulin acts as the ‘key’ to opening cells to enable the delivery of glucose & amino acids. When this process becomes dysfunctional as a result of being ‘over-worked’ in response to excessive sugar consumption, we move from insulin resistance to prediabetes.
As we have evolved we have become more sedentary and our lifestyles have catered for our ever-growing sweet tooth. According to the WHO, “Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight”. It is simple: too much body fat can be detrimental to our health by increasing the risk of chronic diseases.
Sugars can be split into two groups, there are simple sugars (monosaccharides) like glucose, fructose, and galactose. Then there are also more complex forms (disaccharides) like sucrose, maltose, and lactose. For example, table sugar (sucrose) is made up of 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose.
Fructose, I’m afraid, is the main culprit here, but let me explain the four main naturally occurring sugars first.
Naturally occurring sugars:
Glucose: This is a is a byproduct of photosynthesis and occurs naturally in plants and fruits. Glucose normally gets broken down and used up as energy, leaving only around 20% for your liver to break down. This bring us to…
Fructose: This is fruit sugar, which is in… surprise, surprise, fruit! It can also be found in cane sugar and honey, and is incredibly sweet. Fructose was designed by nature (for the most part) to be consumed with lots of fibre, which prevents excessive consumption & facilitates slow absorbtion. More on fructose later.
So that fizzy drink or apple juice is basically just a can o’ bodyfat.
Sucrose: This is commonly known as table sugar, and is found in the stems of sugar cane and the roots of sugar beet. It can also be found naturally alongside glucose in certain fruits and other plants.
Lactose: This is basically milk sugar. Simple.
Why is sugar bad?
Sugar has been proven to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and aggravate signs of aging. Not to mention, it also makes you fat. For a more in depth read about the science behind sugar related diseases, have a look here.
Everything we eat has a corresponding appetite hormone called leptin and ghrelin. Leptin, which is made up of fat cells, essentially tells our brain we can stop eating and we’ve had enough. While ghrelin, increases your appetite and also plays a role in your body weight.
Below is the body’s response to glucose and fructose in relation to leptin and ghrelin.
Glucose: Increases insulin and decreases ghrelin, which will increase satiety and decrease your desire to binge. This is OK in moderation.
Fructose: Hardly causes an increase in insulin and doesn’t decrease grhelin. In other words, it doesn’t make you feel full and will only leave you craving more sugar, which should be avoided.
When we eat fructose the satiated response doesn’t happen. Fructose basically dumps all the metabolising work on your liver. This means it isn’t used as energy immediately and instead gets stored as fat. All the cells in our body are designed to consume glucose, but not fructose. This is because we never evolved that ‘enough’ response while we were cave dwellers, as berries and fruit (fructose) were so extremely rare. We would find a berry bush once in a while and eat as much as physically possible with very little satiety response and this would be stored as fat (or energy) for later. This is back in the day when hanging onto fat was a necessity for survival. Our sugar consumption has skyrocketed as we have developed as a species and our activity levels have simultaneously lowered, resulting in our increasing problem with obesity today.
Our brain sees sugar as a reward, as we release dopamine when we consume it. As controversial as it may be, it has been shows that sugar, refined carbohydrates, salt, fat and caffeine can be addictive. The more you eat, the more dopamine gets released and the more dopamine gets released the closer we come to addiction. Our body releases dopamine prior to eating sugar, on an expectation, based on the fact that our brain is trying to reinforce behaviour that is sees as overwhelmingly rewarding. This reinforces our behaviour and our reward system becomes hooked on sugar.
Live a sugarless life
Just burn all the sugar in your house and make caramel. I kid.
Start by setting yourself some goals. There is no point saying you’ll give up everything from day one and basically setting yourself up for failure. Be gentle with yourself and experiment with what works for you. It’s a matter of phasing out sugar until you are consuming a very small amount. It all starts with being food-conscious. Read labels and look at how much sugar is in something before you buy it.
I highly recommend Sarah Wilson’s ‘I Quit Sugar‘ book. I used this as my handbook when I first set out to rid my diet of all sugar. It helped reinforce a lot of what I was already practicing, as I was already on a low-carb high-fat (lchf) or paleo diet for several months before. I found that the book gave me lots of helpful tips and tricks.
Paleo or lchf involves eating mainly fat, vegetables, nuts, meat, certain fruits, and no sugar or grains. This is a similar eating style to our hunter-gather ancestors. This eating style and exercise has led me to lose 16kg over the past three and half years.
Here are 4 simple steps to get you started:
- Start by cutting out refined carbohydrates. Try eat less foods that are high in fructose, and foods like bread, potatoes and floury things. Start replacing refined foods with real foods. For example, have eggs instead of toast and jam, have vegetables instead of pasta or potatoes, try herbal tea instead of fizzy drinks, have berries instead of apples or bananas. If you have sugar in your tea or coffee halve the amount you have for a while. Around one to two weeks is a good amount of time to adjust.
- Once you feel like you have come to grips with what you are consuming and feel confident you know where sugar is hidden, cut all sugar for good. That means no dried fruit, fruit juice, fruits high in fructose, jams, condiments like tomato sauce or balsamic vinegar, flavoured yogurts, honey, milk, chocolate or fizzy drinks. Try eat foods that contain less that 3-6g of sugar per 100g. If the label says there is 40g of sugar that means almost half of it is made up of sugar! If the first or second ingredient is sugar, avoid it.
- Eat more fat. Fat has a bad reputation, no doubt, but fat is actually essential to our existence, it is was has helped us survive for such long periods without food like when we were hunter gathers or to withstand famines. Once you have removed sugar from your diet the best thing to do is add more healthy fats (olive, coconut, walnut oil and butter) and a bit of protein (eggs, cheese, nuts, meat and seafood) to your diet. Fat will help you feel fuller and eliminate those pesky cravings, while helping you lose weight and synthesise certain nutrients. As mentioned before, I follow a paleo or lchf diet. To find out more about this check out this page and this one for some basics.
- Cut out alcohol. Wine and spirits like whiskey or vodka contain only a bit of fructose, but be wary of what you mix it with. Alcohol has a whole host of health issues and is like drinking liquid carbs. Booze has its own fat metabolism and it takes the body much longer to break down. It is far better to have little to none.
Small/ incremental changes will eventually lead up to a lot of change and whole lot of habits that are healthy. These small changes will cause equally incremental changes in adiposity (fat storage) building up. Tracking calories through something like MyFitnessPal helps to check what you are consuming and helps rewire the brain to choose healthy habits over old ones.
What to eat?
- Eggs – these are basically little nutrient bombs. High in fat, protein and nutrients like vitamin A, B5, B12, B2, Selenium and others, you can’t go wrong. Eggs are great for cholesterol and are essentially brain food, as they contain choline.
- Avocado – full of fats and abundant in nutrients like vitamin K, C, B6, E, B5, folate and potassium just to name a view.
- Coconut flakes/oil/cream/flesh (pretty much anything related to coconuts except the sugar) – The oil is high in saturated fat and contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which increase how many calories you burn compared to the same amount of other fats.
- Cereal grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Refined carbohydrates
- Overly salty foods
- Refined vegetable oils
- Candy/junk/processed food
- Water – around 2-3 litres a day if you aren’t having any tea
- Herbal tea – go wild
- Black coffee – in moderation
- Fruit juice
- Fizzy drinks
As mentioned above, it’s important to try and keep a sane mind throughout this all. Test out and try experimenting to find out what works for you best.
By no means to I follow all of this 100% all the time. When I first set out, I tried to be extremely strict for the first three months in order to set my healthy habits up, but now that I’ve found my groove I’m much more flexible.
Once in a blue moon I will have sugary treat like ice-cream or cake. Every once in a while I’ll have some dark chocolate and on the rare occasion I’ll even have a glass of alcohol (whiskey is my preference).
That being said, I try to maintain a sugar-free lifestyle most of the time, as I’ve found this, along with eating lchf, has given me the greatest benefits. These range from weight loss, happy skin, loads of energy, stable moods, no more food cravings and joint pain almost completely gone.
Half of the battle is understanding the science behind how our body handles all of this. Once you have that mastered, you have the tools to make informed decisions and your ability to justify and reinforce healthy habits becomes much stronger. Read related topics over and over until your understanding strengthens, and eventually making these healthy decisions will become easy, as the path appears more logical than ever. Knowledge is key!
The proof is in the proverbial pudding. Try it.