Q: Could you talk a little about what to do if you're overweight and overwhelmed? I especially feel addicted to sugar and need some help cutting it out of my diet.
- Rose L., Pittsburgh, Penn.
Sweet is the most compelling and powerful taste sensation. You aren't weak, craven, or a bad person because you enjoy the taste of sugar. But if you consume it in large quantities, it can become addictive.
Of course, sugar isn't all bad. Our bodies use glucose to produce energy. Every bite of food you take is converted into the stuff. And one glucose molecule makes about 38 molecules of ATP-the fuel for all living things.
But what happens if you don't burn that fuel? It gets stored as fat-triglycerides specifically, which have a predilection for your midsection. The problem when you eat sugary food is that your blood sugar spikes, and then crashes, which makes you crave even more sugar.
Sugar spikes and crashes eventually overtax your pancreas, which produces insulin to accompany the glucose molecule across cell membranes where it can make ATP. Sugar floating around your bloodstream literally rusts out your small blood vessels; this is why diabetics go blind, have kidney failure, and often have to have their lower legs amputated. If your fasting blood sugar first thing in the morning-after 8 hours without food-is over 120, you're pre-diabetic. Please check this out with a qualified health care practitioner.
Trick Your Sweet Tooth
All foods turn to glucose, but they don't all do so at the same rate. Proteins, for instance, turn to glucose over the span of 6-10 hours, and fats take even longer at 12-16 hours. Eating foods that slowly turn into sugar helps ensure that your blood glucose levels stay steady.
To kick the sugar habit, lose weight, and reclaim your health, I recommend these interventions:
1. Stop buying it. Don't keep any food in your house that comes in a box. Try to buy only food that was actually growing somewhere fairly recently. Experiment with veggies that you've never cooked before. [Editor's note: See "Parsnips Take Root" on p. 60.] For inspiring recipe ideas, try the following websites: cookusinterruptus.com, heartofcooking.com, nourishingmeals.com, and nowheatnodairynoproblem.com.
2. Plan your meals ahead. Another great way to cut back on sugar is to plan what you are going to eat ahead of time. And it's a lot easier than you might think.
Breakfast: Forget about boxed cereal with hormone-laden commercial milk. Instead, go back to the basics with eggs, unless you're sensitive and/or allergic to them. Or try steel-cut oats with hemp or coconut milk, almonds or walnuts, organic butter, and organic dried fruit.
Snacks: A high-fiber, low-glycemic fruit, such as a ½ cup berries or an apple, and a handful of almonds or other nuts, can satisfy morning hunger pangs. Go easy on the nuts if you are trying to lose weight, as they are calorie-dense. For a mid-afternoon snack, try more fruit with a little organic cheese if you don't have problems with dairy, or a spoonful of nut butter on celery.
Lunch: Go for lean protein, veggies, and a little starch, such as ½-1 cup of brown rice, quinoa, barley, or millet (the latter two only if you're not sensitive to gluten). I never recommend wheat. American wheat is hybridized, and has five times the gliadin (the offending protein in gluten) of any other wheat in the world.
Dinner:Consider a vegetarian meal. But if you need more protein, have another serving of lean, clean meat. Add some steamed, stir-fried, or baked veggies, plus more veggies in a raw salad. Make your salads visually appealing: mix in artichoke hearts, grated carrot, seeds, pickled beets, sliced red cabbage or red pepper, and/or tiny tomatoes with your greens.
3. Fight Back Against Cravings. Be sure to stay well hydrated. Whenever you experience sugar cravings, immediately drink some water. It will help stifle the sugar urge.
If water doesn't do the trick, try eating a mouthful of protein: egg, tuna fish, chicken, or organic tofu. If that still doesn't work, try apples, pickles, or grated cabbage (kimchi is also fine). You need to build resistance to sugar. If you blow it occasionally, that's okay.
The trace mineral chromium (use the picolinate form) can also help reduce sugar cravings for most people, usually within a week. Take 200-300 mcg every morning. Chromium works because it helps insulin get glucose into your cells where sugar can produce energy, not love handles. Most health food stores carry "sugar balancing" formulas that combine chromium with other helpful ingredients, such as vanadium (another trace mineral) and the herbs Gymnema slyvestre and cinnamon.
4. Sweeten Smartly. Completely ditching processed white sugar as soon as possible is a good idea for everyone. Don't spoon it into your coffee, and don't buy or eat foods that contain sugar, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, and/or dextrose-especially if they're listed as one of the top five ingredients on the label.
On the other hand, it's okay to have about 1 Tbs. per day of other sweeteners that have nutritional value (mostly due to their high mineral content). These include: honey, maple syrup (use only real Grade B stuff), and traditionally extracted agave, which is hard to find. (Most agave syrup is just as bad for you as high fructose corn syrup.)
Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules and several other books, recommends eating sugar or sweets only on days that begin with "S," and that's a good idea. You simply don't need dessert after every meal. Instead, fill up on clean protein, vegetables, water, fruit, and a little whole grain.
In addition to altering your diet, try to exercise a little bit every day, and ramp it up 2-3 times a week. Find movement you enjoy. If you're too tired to exercise, you may not be getting enough sleep, could have a thyroid problem, or you're crashing your energy with up-and-down sugar spikes. Work with a nutritionally oriented health-care provider to help you sort this out. To find a naturopathic physician in your area, try the "Find an ND" tab at naturopathic.org. And remember, good health feels really good-it's worth the effort required.
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private naturopathic practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.