Although she thought her diet was healthy, Pam Overton was 30 pounds overweight and had sky-high triglyceride levels and prediabetic blood sugar levels-strong risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The problem? Sugar-laden foods and beverages, including "healthy" options such as fruit smoothies, sweetened milk substitutes, and granola bars. To reverse her troubling health problems, Overton needed to completely cut foods containing added sugars or sweeteners from her diet. But that's easier said than done.
Like many of us, Overton was quite dependent on getting regular hits of quick-fix, sweet-tasting food and drink, so it took time-about 5 months-to break her sugar habit. Now, she not only feels dramatically better physically, emotionally, and mentally, but she has also lost the excess weight, and normalized her triglyceride and blood sugar levels.
The Negative Health Effects of Sugar
Researchers now view sugar overconsumption as an independent risk factor in cardiovascular disease (CVD), type 2 diabetes, liver cirrhosis, and dementia-diseases all linked to metabolic syndrome, which involves unhealthy blood fat levels, hypertension, and insulin resistance. The World Health Organization recommends limiting calories from added sugar to less than 10 percent of a person's daily total. About 71 percent of U.S. adults get more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugar, primarily from sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, and candy. One in 10 Americans get a full 25 percent of their calories from added sugar.
In a February 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who got 10-25 percent of their calories from added sugar were 30 percent more likely to die of CVD compared to those who consumed less than 10 percent of calories from added sugar. Those who ate 25 percent or more of their calories from added sugar were more than twice as likely to die of CVD. "Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick," Laura Schmidt, PhD, MPH, of the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in an editorial that accompanied the study.
Sugar has become a major focus in cancer research, as well. Scientists have found that the high levels of insulin produced by the body in response to eating or drinking sugar drive the growth of many cancers. A segment on 60 Minutes featured researchers who said they have been so influenced by their findings that they changed their own eating habits to avoid sugar.
Robert H. Lustig, MD, author of FAT Chance, whose You Tube video, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," has been viewed more than four million times, classifies sugar as a toxin that we tend to want more and more of, but one we all should avoid to protect our health.
Avoiding sugar isn't easy, though. Not only is sugar ubiquitous in our society, but research suggests it is addictive. Nicole Avena, PhD, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, has found that rats given intermittent access to sugar demonstrate all the criteria needed to diagnose addiction: tolerance, withdrawal, craving, bingeing, and addiction transfer (meaning sugar-addicted rats can readily switch to alcohol or amphetamine use).
Based on this research, some people, perhaps many people, simply can't have just a little bit of sugar. Due to their addiction, these individuals are unsuccessful when they try moderation, according to Avena and coauthor John Talbott in Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar). Just like an alcoholic needs to completely avoid alcohol, sugar-addicted individuals need to completely avoid simple sugars-including natural sweeteners such as agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, honey, and maple syrup-and greatly reduce all complex carbohydrates, such as bread, cereals, and pasta, all of which are quickly converted to sugar.
How to Go Sugar-Free
How do we cut sugar from our diet? One way is to eliminate all sugars and flours, and sometimes even grains, which convert to sugars, all at once. This is initially difficult: People tend to experience strong, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms from sugar, such as cravings or irritability, for the better part of a week. However, if they can get through it, the unpleasant symptoms, including cravings for sugar, typically disappear.
Another approach is Avena and Talbott's Sugar Freedom Plan, a five-phase program to gradually reduce and eliminate sugars and carbohydrates. You start with cutting out sugary beverages for a couple of weeks, followed by periods of giving up sugar-rich junk foods. Next, you eliminate complex carbs, which quickly convert into sugar, and then "hidden" sugars, including salad dressings, marinades, and condiments. Keep following these steps until you've finally removed all excess sugar from your diet.
A key to this diet is replacing sugar-laden foods with non-starchy veggies, meat, poultry, and fish. A little fruit is also okay because the fiber offsets the effects of fruit sugar. If you are a vegetarian and want to go sugar-free, eat more blood-sugar-balancing proteins (e.g., tofu, eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, and beans).
When you're avoiding sugar, the best foods to snack on are free of added sugars and contain some protein, healthy fat, and slow-burning carbohydrates. Try these examples:
- Raw, dry-roasted, or sprouted nuts and seeds. Try: Living Intentions Sprouted Pumpkin Seeds.
- Flax crackers with salsa. Try: Go Raw Simple Flax Snax.
- Vegetable sticks with guacamole. Try: Wholly Guacamole.
- Unsweetened chips. Try: Just Pure Foods Cheesy Kale Chips.
- Celery sticks or apple slices with unsweetened nut butter. Try: MaraNatha Organic
- Raw Almond Butter (unsweetened).
- A mini-lettuce or collard green wrap made with hard-boiled eggs or chicken slices and sugar-free mustard. Try: Annie's Naturals Organic Yellow Mustard.
Helpful books on sugar addiction
In addition to the books within this article, the following titles contain helpful information about sugar addiction:
- Lick the Sugar Habit by Nancy Appleton, PhD
- Sugars and Flours: How They Make us Crazy, Sick and Fat, and What to do About It
by Joan Ifland
- From the First Bite: A Complete Guide to Recovery from Food Addiction by Kay Sheppard
- Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It
by John Yudkin
Melissa Diane Smith is a nationally known writer and holistic nutritionist who counsels clients across the country and specializes in using food as medicine for a wide variety of conditions. She is the author of Going Against the Grain and Gluten Free Throughout the Year, coauthor of Syndrome X, and a non-GMO educator and speaker. To learn more about her books, long-distance consultations, nutrition coaching programs, or speaking, visit her websites melissadianesmith.com and againstthegrainnutrition.com.