Why Purge Sugar?
As humans, our bodies normally operate in a state called “glycolysis” in which we burn sugar for energy (the other metabolic state is “ketosis”, where you burn fat). Though our bodies want glucose to function, too much and you eventually can end up diabetic, along with a host of other potential disastrous consequences. In a perfect world, we’d be in the middle all the time, eating enough carbs to keep us alert and energetic, but not enough to make us sick. The problem is people don’t handle moderation that well. Most of the rest of the world, outside of the US I mean, has an upper limit of added sugar in their daily diet that is deemed healthy. For most of the world, that’s about 20-25g a day, but Americans in particular are eating about 85g/day, which is about 60 pounds of added sugar a year. 60 pounds is a lot of ANYTHING; 60 pounds of spinach would qualify you to change your current job to “brachiosaurus”, but 60 pounds of sugar doesn’t make you a dinosaur, it makes you sick. This is a 3-part series on getting to understand your sugar intake and how to identify sugar in your diet, ways to change your eating habits to drastically lessen your sugar intake, and finally how to kick your family’s sugar habit (especially for your kids). Buckle up, there’s learnin’ to be done.
Why Is This Bad?
Well, aside from the fact that adding 60 extra pounds of nearly anything into your diet will likely add weight to your body in general, sugar is rough for your body in excess. I am refraining from using the word “toxic” because toxic has very specific meaning scientifically, and sugar isn’t literally toxic. It is, however, unhealthy. The short reasoning is:
- Blood sugar causes the pancreas to secrete insulin
- Chronically high insulin levels make the pancreas work harder, damaging it over time
- High insulin also diminishes leptin, which is the hormone that suppresses hunger
- We eat more, so blood sugar rises higher, which leads to more insulin
- Cells resist insulin and eventually, high blood glucose damages organ blood vessels
- Damaged blood vessels cause heart, kidney, liver, and pancreatic disease, as well as diabetes and other metabolic diseases
The Standard American Diet (SAD HA HOW CLEVER)
It’s really not far from the mark that the acronym of the regular way an American (or really, most of the western world) eats. It’s high in carbs, fat, sugar, and grease, none of it really healthy, and most of it processed in a way that would make Dr. Frankenstein cringe. Some data(I love data):
- The average American eats out 4-5 times a week.
- The average fast food meal contains 800 calories or more
- HOWEVER, American adults tend to underestimate the calories in their meals by 178 calories or more
- Teens fare worse, underestimating the calories in fast food meals by 259 calories or more
- A little math reveals that 4 meals at 800 calories apiece is 3200 calories a week. A pound of fat is about 3500 calories.
- Averaging the 178 and the 259 gives us 219, and if we multiply that underestimation by 4 meals a week over 52 weeks, we have about 45,552 calories, or 13 pounds of fat unaccounted for.
Unaccounted-for calories can pack on the weight, particularly since if you’re not minding calories at the fast food joint, you’re likely not in any other setting, either. Poor food choices are indicative of poor health habits (or at least correlated to them). This is where the SAD’s negative impact is compounded by lifestyle choices; poor food choices laden with artificial flavors and sugar will condition your palate to only crave highly processed food that’s nearly universally without nutritional merit. This in turn leads to overconsumption of calories, as highly-processed food is most often loaded with energy. Overconsumption leads to weight gain, weight gain leads to inactivity, inactivity leads to more weight gain and insulin resistance, which leads to increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, etc.
So Am I Saying All Carbs Are Bad?
Not at all – various beans and quinoa are both examples of great carbs. Both are healthy and they taste pretty good, and beyond complex carbs, they offer protein and other nutrients that your body needs. Bread isn’t really useful, though it tastes good, and all things bready – pancakes, cupcakes, …cakes – are probably best avoided except for rare occasions. I think the best policy is moderation, but if you’re very far to one end of the bad spectrum on overeating sugar, then you’ll need to purge it first. As before, I prefer purge to “detox” because “detox” has specific meaning, and although sugar behaves in an addictive way to our brains, it’s still not the same, so let’s examine how to purge our systems of and dependency on, sugar.
These steps are meant to be taken for 1 week – 7 days. Follow these fairly simple rules, as we’re going to establish where you stand on overindulging in sugar/carbs. You might not be too bad off, or you might find yourself next week shocked at your sugar intake and ready to change your eating habits for good.
1. Weigh Yourself and Take Measurements
You’ll be making minor adjustments to your diet – primarily you’ll be monitoring everything you eat, and also making some substitutions. It’s worth getting some baseline information at first, because after a week you might see that even minor changes can produce positive results.
2. Gauge Your Sugar Intake
This step is simple. Download a food log (I personally use Myfitnesspal) and log EVERYTHING you eat, every day. If you don’t have a smart phone, I suggest using a small notepad and logging everything that way, then going to your computer and entering it into your food log. Then, keep track of your macros – fat, carbs, protein, and calories – every night. The log will do this for you, but I further suggest writing it down in a separate log. Putting it to paper makes it more real. That’s it – you’re just logging for the first week.
3. Observe Your Labels
Start really reading your ingredient lists. Did you know there are over 60 names for sugar that are approved for nutrition labels? And something that says “no sugar added” or “sugar free” can still have high fructose corn syrup or honey or something similar, which is still sugar, just run through a semantics filter. While you should be paying attention to the carbs and sugar sections of your nutritional labels, getting a feel for ingredient lists and where sugar hides is essential to understanding just how entrenched it is in our diets. Here’s a graphic with just some of the names – bear in mind that none of these is “healthier” than the others. They’re all just sugar, and though there’s trace minerals in honey and molasses that pure sugar doesn’t have, it’s not enough to warrant using them in excess:
4.Try Some Substitutions
Swap white rice for quinoa, try using lettuce leaves for burgers instead of buns, with the knowledge that, for this week at least, you have the option of going back to what you’re used to. This way you can experiment with healthier alternatives and it’s less frightening than just taking the plunge. I fully understand that psychological effect of “fear of missing out” of your favorite foods. This first week is about opening yourself up to change and also to establish a baseline of your current eating habits, so trying healthy options is a great way to breach that threshold.
5. Reach Out
With as popular as keto and paleo diets are now, you surely have a friend or several who have jumped down the sugar-free rabbit hole. I highly recommend seeking out support from other people. Changing your diet is hard because food is so psychological to us. It’s cultural, mental, comforting, and not least of all essential for survival. Having someone who has been there to talk to can greatly impact your chance at success.
That’s all for this week. Next week we’ll talk about transitioning into a sugar-free, whole-foods way of eating.
Part 3 of this series will focus on helping your family, particularly kids, transition off of sugar addiction. Stay tuned!