Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Healthy Habits Challenge February: Eat Less Sugar, Part 2

Welcome back to this month's Healthy Habits Challenge to Eat Less Sugar!! Last week I challenged you to identify where and how much sugar you are getting in your diet. I wonder if anyone was surprised by anything they found. I know as I have tried to do this, I've been at times surprised, even shocked by my sugar intake. But overall, I've tried to not get down on myself, and just realize that by being aware and having a better gauge to work from about how much sugar is in my food I am on my way to making long-term changes about how much sugar I'm eating. So, if you're still with me and committed to those long-term changes about eating less sugar, let's keep going!

You've realized by now that because we love sugar and we are getting it in so many of the foods we eat, most of us are getting much more than is good for us. Not only that, the excessive amounts we are getting all throughout the day change the way we taste and think about our food. When we are getting a lot of sugar, not only can it fuel an addiction to the stuff, it also alters our sensitivity to the taste of sugar and sweetness. Put simply, if everything we eat has some sweetness to it, things that are slightly sweet start to not taste sweet at all, and things that are very sweet taste less sweet. So, if you're like me and constantly looking to fill that sweet tooth, the threshold gets higher and higher and it becomes harder and harder to satiate. Hence, the constant need to have something sweet going into my mouth!

Breaking the Cycle: Changing your Palate, Changing your Habits

The trick to breaking that cycle of needing more and more sweet to fill the craving is to change your palate ... or to bring back your ability to taste (and enjoy) the flavor of foods without tons of sugar. In trying to figure out how to do this for myself, I've discovered that there are essentially two camps of thought about how to reset our sweetness sensitivity: Detox and Moderate.

First, is the detox approach. These approaches favor eliminating, to one degree or another, all things sugary from our diet for a set period of time (anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks, or more) to allow the body and brain to "reset." Depending on the approach, this may include not only refined sugars, but also natural sweeteners (honey, agave, maple syrup, molasses, etc.), artificial sweeteners, fruit, and even many carbs (the idea being that carbs convert to sugar in our body and so fuel the sugar addiction further). One approach I've looked at even suggested getting rid of peanuts and cashews, as well as caffeine, claiming that these also trigger sugar cravings. The idea behind this approach is that it clears the body of sugar, and resets the brain from craving sweetness. After the elimination period, you can then reintroduce moderate amounts of certain types of sugar, creating healthier habits around sugar. Some of the criticisms of this type of approach to eliminating or reducing sugar is that because it calls for drastic changes for most people, it is unsustainable and more likely to either a) fail, or b) not lead to long-term changes to eating habits.

The second approach is what I think of as the "moderation approach." Supporters of this approach suggest that sugar is acceptable in moderation, and if we are getting too much of it we can tone down our cravings by gradually eliminating sugar from our eating. Suggestions on how to do this include putting less and less sugar in coffee or tea, reducing or eliminating sugary beverages, substituting sugary snacks for healthier alternatives, replacing syrups or other sugary toppings with low-sugar options (such as replacing syrup with pureed fruit). By gradually reducing sugar in our diets, supposedly our sensitivity to sugar will increase, and so our desire for it will decrease. On the other hand, critics say that if a person is truly "addicted" to sugar in the same or similar way as someone becomes addicted to other substances, then all of those addictive brain chemicals start screaming "more! More! MORE!" the minute we ingest sugar, and so "moderating" our sugar intake becomes impossible because those sugar monsters are just so darned difficult to ignore.

I'm not going to tell you which approach is the right one - mostly because I think it depends on the person. I'm also not going to give you a detailed step-by-step on how these different approaches work - mostly because that would take all day! I will tell you what I figured out has been working for me (I think of it as the Combination approach), and give you some links for more information about the different approaches in case you want to know more about trying them for yourself.

My Experience (So Far)

As I've mentioned, I have always had a sweet tooth. And in recent years, as I've been in workplaces where sugar is constantly available, and then as a way to cope with the stress and exhaustion of parenting, my sweet tooth has become really powerful - to the point that I've felt truly addicted. I've tried various approaches now and again to curb my sugar intake, including trying to motivate myself with incentives, doing on and off days where I allow myself sugar on certain days but not on others, moderating my sugar consumption by reducing it in certain foods (for instance, we haven't bought syrup in years - instead we put applesauce or yogurt with fruit on our pancakes). Still, though, I kept feeling like my sugar monsters were constantly getting the better of me when it came to my weak spots. Anytime I had candy in the house, I couldn't say no. If I went to a party or something that had desserts, I would end up trying everything (and then going back for more of the ones that were especially good!). And practically every evening I didn't feel like my day was complete unless I'd had dessert. I also noticed that when I was trying to ban sugar from my diet, I would compensate by eating loads of fruit (especially high sugar ones like watermelon and grapes) or carbs (crackers, bread, etc.).

I finally decided that I'd had enough. Even though I wanted to believe that I could find a system of moderation that really worked, I really was having a hard time curbing the cravings. So, as a New Year's resolution, I decided to try a more drastic detox approach. I didn't go so far as to eliminate all added sugar, nor did I feel like I could take out all grains, beans, etc. (I have kids after all, and sometimes I just need the convenience!), but I did decide that in order to reset my brain/body's need for sweet that for 8 weeks I would eliminate all sugary foods (which I defined as anything with more than 7 grams of sugar per serving), most fruit (with the exception of berries in my morning smoothie, grapefruit, and the occasional tart apple), and that I would stay away from artificially sweetened drinks (e.g. diet drinks). Since I don't normally have a hard time curbing my bread and other carb intake, I decided that I would focus mainly on getting rid of the sugar, but that I would monitor my carbs to make sure I wasn't overcompensating to fill my cravings. My only other exception was that I allowed myself two squares of dark chocolate (72% or above) per day. This gave me something (not too sweet, but just enough) to look forward to when cravings were particularly strong.

As you can see, I tried to be somewhat strict, but also gave myself some specific leeway so that I didn't feel like all of my eating habits were turned upside down. I've been at it since January 1 (6 weeks!), and while I haven't been picture perfect at it, I feel really good about my progress and I'm thinking about keeping it up (to a degree) indefinitely! It hasn't been easy, but it also hasn't been as hard as I expected. Here are some things I noticed along the way that I think are pretty typical of anyone getting rid of sugar in their diet:
  • Week 1: Starts strong with lots of excitement. Somewhere between day 3 and 5, though, the excitement goes away, and the cravings strike. I noticed that for a few days there, I was craving not only sugar, but also any carbohydrates. I tried to not overdo it with crackers, breads, etc. because I could tell that I wanted them just to fill my sugar cravings.
  • Week 2: By day 7 or 8, the sugar monsters are going to sleep and the cravings are much less. I stopped thinking about sugar so much, and focused on enjoying the other foods that I was getting used to eating instead.
  • Week 3: I notice that foods that didn't taste sweet before suddenly have new flavor. Suddenly, I can taste how sweet a carrot is, and I savor the flavor of foods more! My energy is up, and I'm sleeping a bit better. By this point, I'm not craving carbohydrates as much. Even though I hadn't set out to reduce my carb intake necessarily, I am definitely eating less breads, crackers, rice, pasta - especially because I'm not snacking or eating between meals as much. Instead, I crave high protein foods and foods higher in fat that I know will keep me feeling full and energetic.
  • Week 4: This is kind of a tipping point for me. This far in, I have to admit I start to miss certain treats and desserts. Plus, I'm feeling confident about my progress and start to think that I can fudge the rules a bit more. But the minute I do, I can feel the sugar monsters start to wake up a bit. I try to pay attention to this so that it will increase my resolve to stick with it.
  • Week 5, 6, 7: I feel really good about the changes I've made, and am thinking I would like to make some of the changes permanent. I still have to fight the overconfidence, though, because I can tell that, for me, it's a slippery slope into old habits once I give myself some leeway. I'm starting to think about what long-term changes will look like so that I can set goals and hold myself accountable. 
Overall, the best part of this for me is that I totally feel like I'm finally not controlled by sugar. I love that I've gotten better at slowing down my eating to really stop and taste the flavors, and that I'm rediscovering and enjoying food in all new ways. The other day I was at a party where they were doing root beer tasting with all different kinds of sodas. Instead of trying them, though, instead I smelled each one to get a sense of the different flavors. As everyone compared their perceptions of the taste, I added my two "scents" and had fun realizing that the smelling was almost as much fun as the tasting!

So ... all that being said (sorry if this has become too much of a personal narrative!) here is my challenge for you this week:

Decide where and how much you want to eliminate sugar from your diet. Maybe it's cutting out some of the excesses such as soda, juice, syrup, flavored yogurt and replacing them with healthier alternatives. Maybe you want to cut out desserts and treats for a week. Maybe you can reduce the amount of sugar you are putting in baked goods (trust me, I've definitely realized we do not need nearly as much sugar in things like cookies and cakes as we put in and they'll still taste good). Or maybe you're thinking you are ready to go detox for a bit. Whatever it is, make a goal of what you are going to do to reduce your sugar intake for the next 3 weeks (they say it takes 21 days to form a new habit).

If you want some help figuring out ways to make your new goal a reality, here are some links with more specifics on the detox approaches to cutting out sugar, as well as tips for moderating sugar:
  • Sugar Detox plans (this is not all-inclusive, I'm sure there are more out there):
    • 21 Day Sugar Detox (book and website) - This is a 21-day approach to ridding your body of sugar. The author is a big Paleo fan, and so this method has a strong emphasis on getting rid of most carbs. She provides lots of tips, recipes, and lists to help you plan and get through a detox, but you pretty much have to buy the book to get a lot of it.  
    • I Quit Sugar (books, website, and online 8-week program) - This is an 8-week program to cutting out sugar (not as much emphasis on carbs). There's a book, and you can sign up (and pay) to do the whole program, which apparently gets you full access to recipes, online communities and support, and I don't know what else. There are also some limited but useful resources on the website, including some information and recipes.
  • Moderation tips and resources: 
 Also, here are some of my tips on substitutions you can use when you have a sugar craving:

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