Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Healthy Habits Challenge February: Eat Less Sugar

Welcome to our second month of our Healthy Habits Challenges for 2014! I hope you found some inspiration in Deb's January posts about losing weight with good nutrition and fitness - I know I definitely did!

For February, I'm here to share about my New Year's goal to Eat Less Sugar. First off, let me tell you about my relationship with sugar… In a word, I'm addicted. I mean, not to make it feel like an AA meeting, but I seriously have realized that I am 100% addicted to sugar. By that I mean that I often feel like I have no control over my sugar consumption - I crave it all the time (especially when I'm tired or stressed), I typically eat way more than I intend to, I feel guilty when I overdo it, and then - much as I tell myself I won't - I start the cycle over again. I hate to over-dramatize it, and certainly not to minimize the seriousness of truly life-destroying addictive behavior, but recently I've seriously had to admit to myself that my sugar-eating habits truly do mimic an addiction. And. I. don't. like. that.

I don't like feeling like my cravings control me, rather than me controlling my cravings.

Okay, now that I've given you my true confession, let me tell you a little about my goal (and my challenge to you) to eat less sugar. Historically, we've been told that sugar is "empty calories," and that it rots our teeth. (I feel like it was always the dentist giving you the most dire warnings about sugar, not so much your doctor or nutritionist, right?) I don't know about you, but I've always taken that to mean that even though it's not great for you, as long as you're eating an otherwise healthy diet full of all the nutrients you need (and brushing and flossing regularly) sugar is pretty benign. Maybe this has been my justification for my propensity for a sweet tooth, but I've always viewed it as that stuff that burns off easily as long as I'm living a healthy lifestyle. Haha … WRONG!

There is a ton of new research about the true nature of sugar in our diets, and I'm here to tell you that it's not happy news. Here are some of what they are discovering about sugar: (The science is pretty complex, so I'm simplifying things a lot here but …)
  • Sugar is addictive.
    • More and more scientists are discovering that sugar is genuinely addictive (as in eating it triggers similar brain centers as addictive substances, and going without it leads to similar physiological responses as going without addictive substances). That means that trying to eat it "in moderation" can be really, really hard for some. (For more on this, check out this great, short video about "Why sugar makes us feel so good!")
  • Eating sugar contributes more to weight gain than eating fat.
    • For a long time we've been on the "low-fat/ reduced fat" train when it comes to getting in shape and losing weight. But, as we're seeing more and more of the low-carb dieting take hold and gain evidence, there is increasing evidence that eating excessive sugar and carbohydrates is a greater contributor to weight gain than eating fat (especially if you are mainly eating the "good" fats). 
  • Sugar contributes to a host of other health problems (including diabetes, heart and cardiovascular diseases, poor sleep, headaches and body pain, and emotional issues)
    • It's hard to know for sure how much sugar plays a role in these issues, but there is clear and mounting evidence that it's a bigger role than we'd like to admit.
  • Sugar is everywhere, and as a society, we are eating way too much of it.
    • This fact is pretty much undisputed by anyone in the health and nutrition field. Sugar is cheap and easily accessible. It is everywhere, and is added to practically everything these days (and not just to "sweet" things). It's in drinks, salad dressings, bread, sauces (like ketchup, BBQ sauce, and tomato sauce), peanut butter, snack foods, health foods … you name it, it probably has some added sugar. And it is largely all that added sugar that is getting us into the most trouble.
Enough for the bad news, I've also discovered that there is some good news in all of this:
  • People who decide to eliminate or significantly reduce sugar in their diets seem to consistently report that they have more energy, sleep better, feel better, lose weight, enjoy the taste of food more, eat less food overall, and are generally happy to have gotten rid of excessive sugar in their diets. When I look at that list, and when I think about how much I know sugar affects me, I decided it was time to cut out the excuses and really try to eliminate the sugar monsters from my life.
Now that I've told you a little about sugar and the reasons I've decided to try to eat less sugar, I'm going to spend the remainder of February sharing some of my experiences, ideas, and support for anyone else who wants to join my challenge to eat less sugar. So, if you've been feeling like your own sugar monster has been screaming "More! More! More!" every time you pop a jelly bean or bite into a brownie, or if you just realize that sugar is sneaking into your diet more than it probably should, I'd love to have you join me in my Eat Less Sugar Challenge! In addition to my own experience trying to cut out sugar, I'll be sharing about:
  • how much sugar we should be eating,
  • where to sniff out hidden sugar (sometimes in shocking amounts), 
  • what to expect if you decide to cut out sugar - including the pros and cons of the moderation approach vs. some of the detox or sugar elimination methods out there,
  • how to curb sugar cravings,
  • the pros and cons of artificial and alternative sweeteners,
  • recipes for meals and snacks that are low-sugar or sugar-free … including some treats! (though I'll mostly focus on how to curb the feeling of wanting/needing sweet treats)
Most of what I share will be from my own experiences and some of the research that I've uncovered. Everybody's different, and obviously I'm not an expert in health or nutrition, but I am someone who is very interested in how to improve my lifestyle by eating in a way that makes me feel good … and if I have something that can help others do the same, I'm glad to share!

How much sugar is too much sugar?

Everyone's body is different, but as a general guideline, the American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than 25 grams (or about 100 calories), and that men get no more than 37.5 grams (or about 150 calories) of added sugars in our daily diet. Added sugars are those that are not naturally occurring in whole foods (like fruits and vegetables), but that are added during processing to enhance flavor or texture. These are considered free-floating sugars that kind of go rogue in your system and cause all sorts of havoc.

To give you an idea of what these numbers look like, if I eat a granola bar (which has about 12-13 grams of sugar) and 1/2 cup of pasta sauce (also about 12 grams of sugar) in a day I have right there met the AHA recommendation of 25 grams. Crazy, huh! As I've been watching nutrition labels for sugar content, I've been surprised sometimes by the amount of sugar, especially in foods that I want to think are good for me. For example, during a recent trip down the protein bar aisle of my local health food store, I was startled to realize that pretty much all of the mainstream protein bars out there (e.g. Clif, Balance, Quest, etc.) have sugar counts in the double digits - many of them with a total sugar of 20 grams or more! That would just about do it for you daily recommended sugar, and that's just in a supposedly healthy food. Drinks are an especially notorious place to watch out for sugars. Sodas, obviously, but also many bottled juices, teas, and energy drinks have upwards of 50-70 grams of sugar. Also, smoothies and specialty cafe drinks have very high sugar levels. (For more about the sugar content of popular foods, check out this article from WebMD.)

Now, I'm not saying that you should completely and permanently eliminate all of these foods from your diet (though some have and they report that they are happier for it). What I am saying is that I'm realizing that the more we pay attention to the sugar content of our food, in an effort to limit where we can, the better off it seems we'll be. And I'll be the first to admit that it's not easy, but that it is doable - I have definitely noticed as I've been working on this that my sugar cravings have decreased and that my appreciation for more subtle flavors in foods has increased! I can still feel my sugar monsters lurking, but I feel much more in control of them.

So, here's your first week's challenge to get started on the road to fighting the sugar monsters in your life:

Look for sugar in your diet

Sugar sometimes shows up in surprising places in our diets. Sometimes we don't realize how much sugar is in a food, but by reading labels you can start to be more aware of it. To give you an idea of what to look for, below are some of the names for sugar you'll find in ingredient lists (Hint: the more names and the closer to the top of the nutrition list they are, the more sugar is in that food.):

Here's your mission for this week: Notice how much and where you are getting sugar in your diet. Read labels on the foods you eat, looking for total sugar content (for me, anything around 4-5 grams I consider okay but worth monitoring, and anything over 9-10 should be limited), as well as if sugar shows up in the ingredients (especially within the first five ingredients). Try to keep track of your sugar intake, and if you are tracking your eating (like Deb recommended last month!), notice your total sugar intake at the end of each day.

I'd love to hear more about your relationship with sugar, and if you're up for this month's challenge to lower your sugar intake. I'd also love your feedback on what you would like to hear more about or work on. Leave comments below!

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