A simple 5 step Game Plan to play the ‘Sweet’ game safely!
Sugar can be difficult to resist, even for the most nutritionally savvy. After all, we’re evolutionarily hardwired to enjoy and seek out sweet flavours. But with ready access to hyperpalatable, processed, sugary foods, almost anywhere and anytime (Thanks to Uber Eats) regular intake of sweets can compromise a healthy lifestyle. Sugary foods and refined carbs rapidly break down into glucose in the body and this causes surges in blood sugar and insulin. Over the long term, high glucose variability can lead to insulin resistance, dysregulated fasting blood sugar and an increased risk of metabolic diseases. (And while yes, the body needs a certain amount of glucose to survive, we can get plenty of it from the breakdown of nutrient-dense, whole foods like veggies and fruits.)
An obvious solution is to just cut all added sugar from your diet, but the reality is a lot more complex, due to how ubiquitous sugar is in our foods, the nature of ingrained habits and our neurological response to the sweet stuff, which is often likened to addiction.
What Are the Benefits of Cutting Out Sugar?
There are many perks to limiting sugar consumption. When we eat processed carbohydrates and excess amounts of sugar, our fasting blood sugar goes up over time. Limiting sugar can curtail these risks and offer other benefits as illustrated in scientific research and clinical cases.
- Less insulin resistance and chronic disease: Chronically elevated blood sugar can lead to chronically elevated insulin, and eventually, your cells become somewhat numb to its effect. This is known as insulin resistance and it can increase triglycerides and risk of heart disease, diabetes, fertility issues and Alzheimer’s.
- Easier weight loss and maintenance: Insulin is one of the body’s key anabolic (or storage) hormones. So when it’s repeatedly elevated due to a high-carb, high-sugar diet, it promotes the conversion of excess glucose to stored fat and also inhibits the burning of stored fat, making it harder to lose weight.
- Better hormonal balance: High levels of insulin “cause an elevation in androgens [male sex hormones] in women, which is associated with PCOS, the number one cause of female infertility. And in men insulin resistance is associated with lower testosterone levels and increased risk of erectile dysfunction.
- Reduced joint pain: Excessive sugar intake is associated with increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which drive chronic inflammation and contribute to painful, inflammatory joint conditions such as arthritis.
- More stable mood, focus, and cravings: Crashing after a blood sugar high not only triggers cravings, it can make you irritable, tired, scattered and unable to focus.
- More restful sleep: Eating a carb-rich meal in the evening can delay your body’s circadian clock and reduce the secretion of melatonin a hormone that tells your body it’s time to sleep. You’re less insulin sensitive at night to begin with so your body has to work even harder to stabilize blood sugar.
- Healthier skin and less acne: High sugar intake is associated with acne, while elevated blood sugar is associated with increased collagen glycation (when sugars stick to collagen proteins, causing them to cross-link and get stiff) which can accelerate skin ageing.
- Improved cardiovascular and brain health: Glycation of collagen can also stiffen and weaken blood vessels, promoting high blood pressure. Elevated fasting blood sugar and advanced glycation end products (AGEs) (proteins and lipids that have become glycated after exposure to sugar) are also associated with impaired memory.
- Improved mitochondrial function: High sugar intake can overload mitochondria (your cell’s energy producers) and contribute to the generation of free radicals and oxidative stress, which can cause inflammation and a range of chronic diseases.
How to Cut Sugar from Your Diet: The Game Plan
The “ideal” approach to cutting out sugar will vary by individual, but there are a number of methods that are helpful. Here is a roadmap that could serve as a starting point for anyone looking to reduce or eliminate sugar from their diet.
The foundational tenets of the plan are:
1. It’s not just about sugar. Yes sugary sodas, juices, desserts and candies tend to cause the sharpest and highest increases in blood glucose but other sources of carbohydrates, particularly refined grains (breads, crackers, pasta, cereals) that have been stripped of fiber – can rapidly break down into glucose in the body and spike blood sugar.
2. Take it slow and steady. In general people are more likely to fail and experience more unpleasant symptoms when they go from a high baseline level of sugar and carbs to a drastic reduction in overall carbohydrate intake. So while it’s perfectly fine to go cold turkey on added sugars, refined grains and potent sources of natural sugars like juice, don’t be too hard on yourself right away. Gradually titrating down is often a smarter bet. If life is really hectic, you can even tackle one part of your day at a time, for example, give yourself a week to optimize your morning food intake, which is super important (it can impact your blood sugar for the rest of the day), then focus on your afternoon meals and finally your evenings.
3. In the beginning swap sugar and processed carbs for more nutritious options. If you’re coming from a highly processed diet, start slow on light starches such as low-glycemic berries, squashes, even starchy tubers like sweet potatoes to support the transition. From there, you can further reduce your overall carb intake if desired. Prioritizing protein (about 100 grams a day depending on your weight), fiber (up to 30-50 grams per day is a good goal) and healthy fats is also a must for promoting satiety and balanced blood sugar.
4. Maintain these healthy habits long-term, but allow for some flexibility. The goal of this plan is to get off the blood sugar roller coaster that often follows holidays or special events, retrain your palate to require less sweetness to be satisfied, curb cravings and promote metabolic flexibility—and that requires consistency. But the goal isn’t to never eat a cookie again. Once you’ve established a rhythm with this plan, occasionally reintroducing eliminated foods or dishes (one at a time) is okay if done with intention.
Of course, if you choose to cut carbs and sugar cold turkey, do so with the help of a nutritionist, group, or partner who can be there for support and to help you troubleshoot symptoms such as low energy and intense cravings.
5 Actionable Steps To Cut Out Sugar, Reset Your Palate and Support Long-Term Health
Try to follow the 5 tips below for about 4 to 8 weeks, which is generally sufficient time to establish healthy habits, reset your taste buds and curb sugar cravings.
Step 1. Eliminate added sugars and “acellular” carbs
After a period of eating sweets and highly processed foods, a worthy goal for just about anyone is to cut out “acellular” carbs for a month or two. These are carbohydrates that have been broken out of their fiber cell and are easy to digest—and therefore more likely to spike blood sugar. These are High GI foods. These carbs include refined sugars such as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, natural sugars and sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, refined carbohydrates (such as white rice or anything made from flour, like breads, crackers, cereal, pasta) and juices—as well as any prepared food containing these individual foods and ingredients. When you focus on eating whole, minimally processed foods, you naturally avoid most of these ingredients.
Step 2. Focus on what you can eat (protein, fat, fiber and the right carbs).
It’s easy to dwell on what you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat, but do yourself a favor and put the main focus on what you’re going to eat more of, rather than what you’re going to avoid.
a. Eat enough protein? How much protein is enough? For most people approximately 100-130gms of protein is sufficient, however it is best to consult your dietitian if you are unsure or have special needs. More importantly protein should not always equate to meat or chicken. There are excellent plant based sources of protein .You can even put protein powder in your smoothie.
b. Switch over to whole-food carbohydrates: While “acellular” carbs are a no go, whole-food carbs are a yes. With these foods the sugar and starch is wrapped in a fibrous matrix so your body needs to exert much more effort (via chewing and the action of digestive enzymes) to break them down, minimizing blood sugar impact. Great options include squash, sweet potato, beans, lentils, low-glycemic berries and other blood sugar-friendly fruits such as apples, pears, kiwis and oranges. While whole-food carbs also encompass things like whole grains (oats, quinoa and brown rice) and tropical fruits (mango, papaya, pineapple) these are more likely to elicit a blood sugar response and should be eaten in small quantities, if at all.
c. Load up on fiber-rich veggies and plants: Research has shown that people who eat an average of 35 g of fiber per day have better blood sugar markers than people who average 20 g—and better blood sugar control can translate to fewer sugar cravings. That’s one reason Levels experts recommend 30-50g fiber per day. So make sure you’re getting plenty of fiber-rich, non-starchy veggies such as leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages.
d. Focus on quality fat sources: The wrong fats (vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil) may cause inflammation and insulin resistance. Always opt for high-quality cooking oils and fats (olive oil, avocado oil, butter, ghee, coconut oil) and embrace nutrient-dense whole food sources of fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds and fatty fish.
Step 3. Pay special attention to your mornings.
What and when you eat in the morning has the potential to drive or curb cravings. This prevents a blood sugar crash and subsequent low energy, cravings and overeating. These types of breakfasts include an egg scramble with avocado, veggies, tofu and veggie scramble, chia pudding with protein powder, Greek yogurt with nuts and berries, or a chocolate almond butter crunch smoothie. And don’t wait too long to eat in the morning. While many intermittent fasting or time-restricted feeding protocols may have you hold off on your first meal until noon, that doesn’t work for everyone’s body.
Step 4 . Use certain sweeteners as desired.
You can use natural non-caloric sweeteners like monk fruit and stevia to ease the transition as you scale back on sugar. Just do so mindfully and gradually reduce the quantity so you can curb your compulsion for sweet flavors. Adding these sweeteners should be used sparingly, one to two times a day. This might mean using them in your morning coffee or tea, or consuming them in the form of a monk fruit-sweetened chocolate. Avoid artificial sweeteners like saccharine and aspartame which have been linked to metabolic consequences. And be cautious with sugar alcohols, a type of carb used as a low-calorie sweetener, as they may be detrimental to the gut microbiome or cause gastrointestinal issues.
Step 5. Prioritize sleep to boost results.
You may have an easier time keeping sweet cravings in check and blood sugar balanced if you’re well rested, so aim for 7-9 hours of quality shut-eye per night. In one study, participants experienced increased hunger, sleepiness, and food cravings after a night of partial sleep deprivation compared to a night of optimal sleep. They also consumed more chocolate and selected larger portion sizes for lunch the following day, suggesting that inadequate sleep can promote consumption of sugary foods.