Sugar, Sugar, Sugar
It may come as no surprise that most Americans consume way too much sugar. Between our coffee drinks, sports drinks, breakfast choices, and secret stash of desk candy, sugar is hidden (and not so hidden) everywhere we look. What makes this sneaky little ingredient even worse is that it is literally addictive and is shown to trigger the same brain response as drugs and alcohol. So simply put, the more we eat sugar, the more we crave sugar. Most of us are probably aware that sugar can have negative impacts on our health like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to name a few. But you may not realize that sugar is also linked to negative effects on both our short and long term brain health as well.
Now I know what you’re all thinking, you don’t plan on inviting me to your next birthday party….
As a dietitian I never want to suggest unrealistic goals or try to pretend that I didn’t finish off the leftover Easter candy this past weekend. I do, however, hope to create mindfulness around food choices in hopes of fostering long term, sustainable changes. Because at the end of the day we are all human, and no one should be told to live their life without cake.
1. Don't Fear Fruit:
If you’ve ever considered skipping bananas or other fruit at the grocery store because of its sugar content, please reconsider. I often get asked if fruit is bad for us because, “doesn’t it have too much sugar?!”
The answer is no, fruit is not bad for us, and it is not the type of sugar that we need to avoid. There is a HUGE difference between added sugar and natural sugar, ADDED SUGAR being the keywords to pay attention to. Natural sugar, which comes from foods like fruit, contains fiber, water, nutrients, and antioxidants, all of which provide mental and physical health benefits both short and long term. When we eat something with added sugar, like a candy bar for instance, all we get is a blood sugar spike resulting in mood and energy imbalances without any of the positive nutritional benefits. If you feel like sugar has a hold over you, eating more natural sugar in the form of fruit is shown to help fight overwhelming cravings and reduce added sugar intake overall. So, if you’re looking to cut back your sugar, be realistic in the type of sugar you eat and where it comes from, because I can guarantee you that the banana in your smoothie isn’t the culprit.
2. Start Checking Labels:
If you’ve ever been told to limit your sugar intake, but truthfully you don’t know what that limit looks like, you are not alone. We are always being told to eat foods in moderation, but rarely have a baseline for what is considered to be moderate. So I’ll help you out…
The suggested limit of added sugar per day (KEYWORD BEING “ADDED”) is 24 grams for women, and 36 grams for men. Let’s put that into perspective…
1 Grande Frappuccino from Starbucks has 45 grams of sugar.
1 can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar.
1 Gatorade has 36 grams of sugar.
1 Dunkin blueberry muffin has 41 grams of sugar.
A bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios has over 20 grams of sugar.
Now that you have your baseline number, start checking your “healthier” foods like oatmeal, yogurt, breakfast cereals, and granola bars, because this is where sugar gets sneaky.
You may be saying to yourself that you’re not ready to give up your morning coffee drink or your evening sweet snack, and that’s okay. But having that baseline number for the day and being aware of how much sugar is in your Starbucks beverage is a great place to start.
If you’re morning Dunkin run brings you joy and you’re not ready to give it up, consider switching from 3 sugar packets in your coffee to 1. If you need to have something sweet in the afternoons, check the serving size and consider cutting it in half. If you just realized that your yogurt has way more sugar than you thought, compare labels next time you’re at the store and choose a better option. No one is expecting you to quit cold turkey, but once you have an idea of where you should be, it makes it a little easier to know where to begin.
3. Try to Avoid Sugar in the Morning:
If there’s any one time in your day to avoid added sugar, it’s in the morning. The first reason for this goes back to how your brain responds to sugar and contributes to food cravings. If you eat something sugary in the morning, this sets your brain and body up to crave more sugar for the rest of the day making it hard to break the cycle. The second reason is based on how your body physically responds to sugar. When we go all night without eating, we are in a fasted state, meaning our blood sugar is low. If we wake up and eat something that is primarily sugar or carb-based (think just a piece of toast or a glass of juice), this will cause our blood sugar to quickly spike and drop shortly after. The effect this has is a surge and crash on our energy level and mood which can lead to a repeated pattern of ups and downs, as well as an increase in our hunger level throughout the day. If you’re goal is to gradually cut back on sugar and reduce cravings, the morning is the best place to start.
4. Eat Protein:
Consistent protein intake throughout the day is beneficial for more reasons than one. When it comes to food cravings and how your body processes and responds to sugar, protein is your number one asset. When we think about how added sugar or carb heavy meals send us on rollercoaster regarding mood, energy, and cravings, protein is what helps to balance or counteract this response. Eating protein helps stabilize blood sugar which results in a better mood (think less hangry moments) and improved energy level. It also helps fight those cravings that you might get sporadically or at a consistent time daily, like the dreaded afternoon slump. When you hear the word protein you might be thinking of bland chicken or a hardboiled egg. While these are still effective and nutritious options, they are not the only choices out there. Fairlife Core Power Protein Shakes and Think! Bars, for instance, are a few of my favorite on-the-go options that have the perfect amount of sweetness while still providing 20+ grams of protein a piece. Next time you are at Wawa looking for an afternoon pick me up with your coffee, consider grabbing a chocolate protein shake and a banana to satisfy your sweet craving while also regulating your blood sugar. The changes in your energy level and mood will shock you.
Eating food in moderation may not always be the easiest advice to follow, especially if you often feel powerless to cravings. Placing more mindfulness and intent around your food choices, however, is a great place to start for any nutritional goal you may have. Before you go to Starbucks tomorrow morning, check the nutrition info of your usual drink online. Before you leave for work, consider packing a protein-based snack for the afternoon instead of going to the vending machine. Before you sit down at your desk, bring some fruit with you so you have something to eat instead of the candy sitting in your drawer. Everyone’s version of moderation may be different from one another, but anytime you can make a modification in support of your goals you are taking a step in the right direction toward a healthier you.
- Chelsea Hoover, MS, RD, LDN