Eliminating obvious sources of sugar without also avoiding wheat and other grain products doesn't go far enough for many sugar addicts, and can lead to binges.
Q: I am 35 pounds overweight and prediabetic. I really want to try to cut out my sugar, but don't want to fail before I start. Do you have some suggestions on how to begin? In one of your previous columns, you mentioned that going sugar-free can be really hard, and that more than likely, there are withdrawal symptoms. Is there a way to minimize that so it's not too bad?
- Stephanie T., Jacksonville, Fla.
There are several different strategies you can try to cut sugar out of your diet. As a nutritionist, I individualize a plan adapted from one or a combination of the following three programs, depending on a client's health condition, eating habits, and specific weaknesses for sugar.
The Sugar Freedom Plan
This is a five-phase program designed to gradually reduce and eliminate sugars and the carbohydrates that fuel sugar addiction. It was developed by Nicole Avena, PhD, and John Talbott, authors of Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar). The plan starts by eliminating sugary beverages. This is followed by periods of cutting sugar-rich junk foods; then complex carbs that quickly turn into sugars, such as bread, pasta, and rice; then the hidden sugars found in salad dressings, marinades, and condiments; and finally maintaining all those phases.
This plan can work well for some people. But just like sugar, wheat and other grains can be addictive. Based on what I've seen with my clients, eliminating obvious sources of sugar without also completely avoiding wheat and other grains doesn't go far enough and can lead to binges.
JJ Virgin's Sugar Impact Diet
This is a three-week program that takes people from a high-sugar diet to a low-sugar diet. Virgin, a nutritionist, spells out what I see in my own practice-there are seven hidden sources of sugar, including grains, roots, fruits, low-fat and diet foods, sauces and dressings, sweet drinks, and sweeteners. In the first week of the plan, the idea is to taper from a high-sugar-impact diet to a medium-sugar-impact diet. Instead of a muffin and a latte for breakfast, a shake made with chia seeds, protein powder, coconut milk, and berries is recommended. Instead of a white flour wrap sandwich for lunch, use a rice tortilla wrap with some wild salmon and lots of veggies. For a snack, have some coconut yogurt and fresh fruit. And for dinner, some sweet potatoes and a grass-fed beef patty with no bun and more veggies.
After tapering your sugar intake during that first week, the next two weeks focus on substituting medium-sugar-impact foods for low-sugar-impact foods-and eliminating fruit. Breakfast might be a lower-sugar cocoa-cashew shake, followed by a roast beef veggie wrap with beans for lunch, a turkey avocado lettuce wrap for a snack if needed, and some chicken kabobs with lentils and an artichoke for dinner.
After three weeks, try eating two medium-sugar-impact foods per day and see if you start to feel sluggish, notice more cravings, and/or gain weight. This will help you decide how much of a sugar impact your body can handle. I find many aspects of this plan helpful, but my clients tend to feel more satisfied and have fewer sugar cravings throughout the day if they eat a meat-and-vegetable-based meal for breakfast instead of drinking a liquid shake.
The Paleo Approach
Another way to cut sugar is to transition to a hunter-gatherer Paleo diet, first by eliminating sugar and grain products, followed by gradually eliminating dairy and beans. Focus meals on animal proteins, generous amounts of nonstarchy vegetables, and natural fats, such as avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, and coconut and olive oils.
The combination of these whole foods keeps blood sugar levels steady and provides ample amounts of nutrients, which makes low blood sugar levels and sugar cravings less apt to occur. Switching to a Paleo diet is a big change for most people, but some prefer this approach for kicking the sugar habit because they find that blood sugar stabilizes and cravings go away more quickly.
If you try this plan, when you get a craving, use protein and fat-for example, a few slices of organic chicken or beef and unsweetened almond butter spread on celery sticks-to stabilize your blood sugar. Many people, especially diet-conscious women, don't eat enough protein and fat to support steady blood sugar. If protein and fat don't satisfy, allow yourself some smart Paleo-based fruit treats, such as:
- Sautéed apples in organic coconut oil or butter, sprinkled with cinnamon. (Add a few raisins if you need it sweeter in the beginning weeks.)
- A bowl of berries topped with shredded coconut and/or unsweetened coconut milk. (Add some fresh cherries or pineapple cubes for extra sweetness in the beginning weeks.)
- Almond flour- or coconut flour-based pancakes sweetened with unsweetened applesauce or mashed banana, vanilla extract, and cinnamon.
As part of a sugar-reducing plan, try the sugar-smart alternatives on the right in place of the drinks and foods that contribute to sugar cravings on the left.
Instead of ...
Regular or diet soft drinks
Sparkling mineral water with lemon
Brewed tea with lemon
Sweetened vitamin-enhanced water
Hint water or Metromint water
Extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, & oregano
Salsa or mustard
Wheat or corn tortillas
Lettuce wraps or coconut wraps (made from coconut meat and oil)
Spaghetti squash or shiitake noodles
Unsweetened kale chips
Home-toasted raw nuts
Sweetened nut butter on bread
Unsweetened nut butter on celery sticks