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Break the Sugar Habit

Body+Soul, April/May 2007

The average American is sugar-logged, consuming more than 140 pounds of added caloric sweeteners per year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture -- that's a 20 percent increase since 1970. There doesn't appear to be a single, conspiratorial cause -- some point to technology, which allows us to refine thousands of tons of barley, corn, fruits, rice, and sorghum into concentrated sugars available year-round; others speculate that the low-fat trend swung our nutritional pendulum in the direction of sugar. The results of our collective sweet tooth, though, are unmistakable: Sugar's abundance is jeopardizing our health.


Bringing your body and mind back into a balanced relationship with sugar can help you maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of illness, boost your energy, and even out your mood. And it doesn't have to be a course in misery. Our three-week sugar-reduction plan is designed to help you break the sugar habit gradually and painlessly. You'll still have plenty of sweet -- fruit, whole grains, and milk all contain naturally occurring sugar. "Cutting back on the added sugar in your diet while eating whole, naturally sweet foods will give you the physiological balance you need for long-term health," says Dr. Jana Klauer. Best of all, what initially might feel like deprivation may eventually become a bonanza. By stemming the deluge of added sugars that usually overwhelm your taste buds, you'll awaken your palate, allowing naturally sweet flavors to come alive.


Our experts: Dr. Jana Klauer, author of "How the Rich Get Thin"; Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, author of "Potatoes Not Prozac"; Kate Gilday, an herbalist who pracitces in upstate New York; Dr. Darna Dufour, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Colorado.

Week 1: Raise Your Sugar Consciousness

During the first week, your goal is simply to become aware of your relationship to sugar -- without changing your diet at all. By scanning ingredients lists and keeping a food diary, you'll discover where the added sugars are hiding in your diet and notice when you succumb to sugar-laden foods.


Search for Sugars

Be aware that sugar has many guises -- in fact, there are dozens of varieties of added sugar. Although it is unlikely you'll remember all of them, you can keep some of the most common in mind. Familiar sweeteners like cane sugar, honey, and molasses are easy enough to spot; other common sugars include dextrose, fructose, fruit-juice concentrates, maltose, and sucrose.


High-fructose corn syrup is especially abundant in processed foods -- and especially problematic. Its use has directly paralleled the rise in obesity in America, says Klauer. Derived from corn and inexpensive to produce, high-fructose corn syrup is a very concentrated sweetener. "Also, because fructose is metabolized through the liver," says Klauer, "consuming high-fructose corn syrup strains the liver and has been linked to increased levels of triglycerides and total cholesterol."


In your hunt for sugars, don't search just in the expected places; also check breads, cereals, sauces, soups, and yogurts -- in short, anything with a label. Nutrition labels don't delineate added sugars -- "sugars," listed in grams, includes naturally occurring sugars -- so it's hard to determine how much you're getting.


Keep in mind, though, that ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so if any type of sugar is listed in the first few ingredients, the food is most likely high in added sugars.


Start a Food Diary

For the next three weeks, keep a food diary to track the foods and beverages you consume every day. Beside every meal, snack, or drink, record the time of day and your mood, and keep note of any impulsive eating behaviors and food cravings. For the first week, keep close track of all sugar-containing foods, without trying to cut down at all. Read labels, and don't forget the small servings -- the teaspoon of sugar you add to your coffee or the mint you eat after lunch.


After a few days, you may notice a relationship between your eating patterns and your energy level -- for example, an afternoon lull in energy followed by an intense craving for chocolate, or a sluggish feeling after eating sugary cereal for breakfast. Knowing your patterns will help you prepare for the weeks ahead.


Week 2: Prepare for the Sugar Cleanse

During the second week, you'll focus on balancing your diet with healthy foods and timely meals. Before eliminating sugar altogether, says DesMaisons, "it's critical to balance your body chemistry by eating the right proportion of healthy foods." For some people, cutting out sugar "cold turkey" can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and irritability.


Eat Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Skipping meals results in low blood-glucose levels, which can lead to impulsive eating, often of sweets. Try to eat every three to four hours, says Klauer, and keep healthy snacks on hand. Breakfast is particularly important, since your body has been fasting all night; skipping breakfast can trigger late-morning cravings for sweetened foods. And be sure to eat a breakfast that contains adequate protein. Protein will balance your blood sugar and make you feel full, leaving you less susceptible to quick-energy cravings. So get up in time to make yourself eggs, or have a piece of whole-grain toast with almond butter.


Focus on Whole, Unprocessed Foods

Processed, refined foods are a double whammy when it comes to sugar: They often contain added sugar, and they're low in vital nutrients that help your body metabolize sugar. Whole foods, however, contain a complement of fiber, minerals, vitamins, and water, all of which help stabilize blood sugar.


This week, choose foods that are as close to their natural state as possible: brown rice rather than white rice, whole wheat bread instead of white, an apple instead of apple juice, and home-cooked soup over canned.


Nutrients such as B vitamins, calcium, chromium, copper, magnesium, vitamins C and E, and zinc are particularly important for healthy sugar metabolism. Foods rich in these vitamins and minerals include high-fiber whole grains, such as barley, oats, quinoa, and long-grain wild rice; protein-rich foods such as free-range chicken, eggs, fresh fish, legumes, tempeh, and unsweetened yogurt; fruits and vegetables; and healthy fats such as avocados, flaxseed oil, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.


Balance Each Meal

Balance your meals by eating complex carbohydrates in the company of proteins and healthy fats. The proteins and fats will help stabilize your blood sugar levels and keep you satiated longer, says Klauer. So rather than eating an apple or a cookie on its own, combine it with a handful of nuts or a piece of cheddar cheese. If you have spaghetti for dinner, choose whole wheat pasta and top it with roasted chicken.


Try These Healthy Choices

Choose Healthier Oils
Make Spicy Tomato Soup
Make a Spring Vegetable Salad
Make Quinoa with Toasted Almonds


Week 3: Go Sugar-Free for a Week

During the third week you'll eliminate all added sugars. This means no chocolate or cookies, no sugar in your coffee or tea, no sweetened cereals, and no packaged foods that contain added sugar. Taking a hiatus will help cure your sugar cravings, break the habit of always reaching for something sweet, and reset your palate. When the week is over, you'll be ready to reintroduce sugar in a healthier way: as an occasional treat, rather than a constant companion, and as a choice, rather than a compulsion or craving.


Clean House

You can't eat what's not there. Rid your fridge, freezer, pantry, and office drawers of tempting sweets. For some, this step may be the hardest. "Sweetened foods have become a source of comfort for many people," claims Dianne Sullivan, a psychotherapist in Hartford, Connecticut, who works with clients on food-addiction issues. "Eliminating those comfort foods can feel like losing a close friend."


Keeping up the good habits you focused on last week will help, says Klauer. "By eating nutritionally balanced meals and healthy snacks, and not allowing yourself to become overly hungry, you may find that your cravings disappear." Remember that healthy foods that contain natural sugars aren't the target -- they may, in fact, help stem your cravings. So go shopping for fruits such as apples, dried apricots, bananas, figs, and mangoes and vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes. In addition to sweet fruits and veggies, be sure to have cheeses, nuts, seeds, and plain yogurt on hand.


Quell Your Cravings

"Initially, when eliminating sugar, you may feel an intense craving for it," Klauer says. Sugar cravings, although not true hunger, can be overpowering. They signal an imbalance and have been linked to diminished beta-endorphins and serotonin levels in the brain. Succumbing to the sugar craving will initially raise the levels of these chemicals but ultimately leave you in a sugar "deficit," only to crave again. When you feel a craving, try Klauer's suggestions:


1. When the craving begins, set a timer for 15 minutes. Most cravings last only eight to 14 minutes.
2. Drink a full glass of water. Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, says Klauer.
3. If the sugar craving persists, eat a protein-rich snack, such as handful of almonds or walnuts, some unsweetened yogurt, or a piece of cheese.


Certain herbs, available in tea form in natural-foods stores, can help balance blood-sugar levels and cravings, according to Gilday. Look for teas made with blueberry leaf, holy basil (also called tulsi), or nettles, says Gilday, who suggests adding a pinch of powdered cinnamon for added potency. You also can try Sweet Tamer, an herbal tea designed by Gilday (who does not profit from its sale) to balance blood sugar, improve the function of the pancreas, and support the nervous system.


Pique Your Palate

Humans recognize five distinct tastes -- bitter, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet. The American diet, however, places heavy emphasis on sweet and salty foods. But it is the bitter-tasting foods, an important part of many cultures' cuisines, that can help balance sugar cravings, suggests Dr. Andrew Weil. "If you crave sweet," he says, "add arugula, radicchio, endive, or chicory to your diet."


Other sources of bitter include broccoli rabe, collard greens, kale, and mustard greens. Bitter foods might taste unfamiliar to you at first, but they can help bring your tastes back into balance. Once that happens, the flavors of natural sugars, such as those found in apples, carrots, and even milk, may become much more pronounced.


Avoid the Artificial

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are best avoided this week. Don't add them to your coffee or tea, and check labels on "sugar-free" foods.


Although they do not have the same effects as sugar on the body, artificial sweeteners swing the palate in the direction of sweet and stimulate parts of the body's sugar response. "They stimulate the cycles of sugar cravings without giving the body calories," explains Klauer.


Sleep -- and Rest

Preliminary studies have suggested that chronic lack of sleep can lead to a hunger for sugary foods. "Resting replenishes the adrenal glands, which grow fatigued in a culture of high sugar, over-stimulation, and overdoing," adds Gilday. When you're tired, she says, avoid "pushing through" with the help of sugar and caffeine. Instead, honor your body's need to rest, be it with a nap, meditation, or a walk. After three weeks, you can slowly reintroduce added sugar in a healthy way. Stay conscious of its presence, keep reading labels, and celebrate sweetness sparingly. "Instead of eating large quantities of processed sugar," suggests Klauer, "savor a small piece of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate or a warm cup of cocoa."


You won't see results overnight. But over time, you'll make a profound nutritional shift, says Dr. Nancy Appleton, author of "Lick the Sugar Habit." "Little by little, your cravings will diminish, and reducing sugar will get easier and easier." We've built our sugar habit over many years. One gram at a time, we can help turn this habit back in the direction of natural sweetness. Success, in the end, lies in a bigger vision. "Reducing your sugar intake is not a revolutionary process," says Appleton. "It's an evolutionary one."


Do You Know?

1. About 46 percent of Americans' added sugar intake comes from beverages.

2. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup rose 1,000 percent from 1970 to 1990. Americans consume an average of 12.5 teaspoons daily.

3. To burn off the average number of sugar-related calories consumed in a month, you'd have to walk 52 miles.

4. A can of cola contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. A bottle of sweetened iced tea may have up to 8 teaspoons.

5. According to the USDA, we should consume no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar daily. The average American consumes 20 teaspoons daily.


Sugar Glossary


Are All Added Sugars the Same?

Some would argue that the body cannot distinguish between a refined and an unrefined sugar. Others claim important nutrients, necessary for the digestion of the sugar, are lost in the refining process. Either way, a glut of any kind of sugar can cause health complications, so use all sweeteners sparingly. Sugar alcohols, or polyols, occur naturally in plants and are added to foods for sweetness. Compared with sugar, they're less caloric and their effect on blood sugar is less dramatic; they can, however, cause stomach upset.


More-Refined Sugars

Brown sugar, confectioners' sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, glucose, granulated (table) sugar, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltodextrin, maltose, malt syrup, polydextrose, sucrose, syrup.


Less-Refined Sugars

Agave nectar (sweet cactus nectar), amasake, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, brown-rice syrup, cane juice, date sugar, demerara, fructose, fruit-juice concentrate, honey, lactose, maple syrup, muscovado, raw sugar, sucanat, turbinado sugar.


Sugar Alcohols

Erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol.

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