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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why I Don’t Want You to Eliminate Sugar

“Sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine,” she declared as I deviously eyed the dessert menu. “After everything I’ve read, I’m heading for sugar sobriety.” 

Stop being an effing killjoy and let me enjoy my chocolate mousse, I wanted to say. Instead, I probably appeared doubtful and even dismissive, even if I loved her phrase “sugar sobriety.”

Needless to say, my friend could be a tad dramatic, believing nearly every dramatic health proclamation she read. Just a few weeks ago, she was telling me about green coffee bean extract’s many benefits based on some blog she had just read. Eye. Roll.

I resolved to write a blog entitled “In Defense of Sugar,” dismissing this sugar backlash as a grand attempt from so-called experts to push hyperbole and sell books. I felt a little cynical that sugar could really be that bad. Besides, God help anyone who tries to take away my chocolate.

Then I did some research.

Turns out, any jury in this great land would convict sugar. One thing’s for sure:
2015 isn't a good time to be sugar.

There went my original blog idea, dammit.

Where do we begin? Cancer specialist Dr. Nalini Chilkov mentions a UCLA study that demonstrates that starving cancer cells, which rely on sugar for energy, unlike normal cells which rely upon sugar for energy only when they are under duress, initiates a process leading to cell death (apoptosis).” 

Not only does sugar feed cancer cells; other research connects it to everything from Alzheimer’s to allergies to hair loss. Dr. Kelly Brogan argues sugar increases inflammation, starves your brain, and imbalances hormones. 

Interestingly, sugar activates the same brain region as morphine and other drugs. “Sugar alters our biochemical pathways in our brain and tampers with our dopamine receptors,” writes Summer Rayne Oakes. “In order for us to get the next dopamine spike, however, we need a greater dose of sugar.” 

In other words, not only can sugar make you fat, feed cancer, and trigger or exacerbate disease; it can also become addictive.

But wait, I reasoned. No one sits down and eats a bowl of sugar. There had to be something more.

Then I remembered The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler’s fascinating book about what he calls hyperpalatable foods. Manufacturers concoct these Frankenfoods with a perfect combo of sugar, fat, and salt for a fabulous mouth feel (and all those other industry terms) that keep you coming back for more.

That addictive quality makes eating small amounts practically impossible, as we’ve discovered when we opened a bag of cookies and one became the whole bag. “Betcha can’t eat just one” might be the most truthful slogan ever.

Our love of all things sweet means that, according to Hyman, an average American eats 22 teaspoons daily, or a whopping 152 pounds annually, of added sugar.

Like me, you’ve probably eliminated sugar in the past. Didn't work so well, right? Those chocolate brownies became the purple elephant in the room and every passed-by bakery became an impossible-to-resist siren call.

Every time I made the no-sugar resolution, I eventually succumbed, finding myself eating even more of the sweet stuff.

There had to be a better way.

Then I read JJ Virgin's new book Sugar Impact Diet, and everything made sense. Rather than over-simplify things, she looks at a food's sugar impact based on several criteria including fructose, fiber, nutrient density, and glycemic load.

Based on those criteria, some higher-carbohydrate foods – quinoa, say – become low-sugar impact, and certain fruits are way higher in sugar than I imagine.

If that sounds confusing, don’t worry: Virgin provides easy-to-follow charts so you know exactly what foods to eat and avoid.

Best of all, Sugar Impact Diet advises against completely ditching sugar at once. “There are a few things I can guarantee going cold turkey will do for you, and losing weight isn’t one of them,” writes Virgin. “Instead, you’ll be shaky, irritable, lethargic, starving, and craving sugar— not the outcome we’re after.”

Instead, she provides a three-cycle plan to gradually transition off of sugar. While not effortless, it's definitely a hell of a lot easier than withdrawing all at once.

Until you get your own copy of Sugar Impact Diet (and you should, now; just click here), here are five a, ha! take-away points.

1.      Beware of sneaky sugar. You know the obvious suspects like candy bars and soda. The real tripper-uppers are so-called healthy foods like balsamic vinegar and dried fruit that come loaded with sneaky sugar. Some culprits Virgin mention even surprised me. 
2.     Add before you take away. Rather than forcefully banish sugar from your diet, look for smart replacements to satisfy your sweet tooth. Rather than tell yourself no chocolate cake, opt for satisfying, filling meals with healthy fat, fiber, protein, and smart carbs. You’ll probably be full and not even want dessert.
3.     Find a non-food reward. We often gravitate to a sugar fix when we’re stressed, bored, or otherwise looking for a reward. Find something equally gratifying that’s non-edible. That might be a long walk with your dog, an Epsom salts bath, or (yeah, I said it) hot sex with your significant other.
4.     Blast your cravings with this delicious drink. Cravings become a sneaky bitch that can sabotage your success, so Virgin created a secret weapon to zap them. Lemon-AID, which combines fiber, glutamine powder, and lemons, can help zap your cravings. It’s not magic, but I found Lemon-AID helped dial down my chocolate hankering a few notches and it tastes delicious. 
5.     Work it out.  “Exercise is one of my strategies for sugar withdrawal,” writes Virgin. “It can provide the endorphin boost you were looking for in the cookie jar, and it’s also great for speed healing because it helps quickly restore insulin sensitivity in the muscles. It’s critical for long-term weight management because it helps burn up your fat- storing enzymes, and it boosts your metabolism so you burn more calories from fat throughout the day. And – yeah, I’ll say it – exercise will help you look better naked.” Can’t add anything to that!

From Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet, I learned how ubiquitous sugar is, how controlling – dare I say, addictive – it can be, and how liberating gradually tapering can help you lose weight and feel fabulous without the miseries of going cold turkey.

Oh, and my hyperbolic friend whose “sugar sobriety” proclamation I initially dismissed? Yeah, I owe you an apology.

Do you find you can enjoy sugar in moderation or does (mostly) transitioning off the white stuff necessary for you? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook page.

Additional References

D Kessler, The End of Overeating (New York: Rodale, 2010).

JJ Virgin, JJ Virgin’s Sugar Impact Diet (New York: Hachette, 2014).

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