Sugar is an often invisible, but ever-present part of American life. We all know it’s in cookies, candy, soda pop and pastries, but it’s also present in surprising amounts in other foods — spaghetti sauce, catsup, salad dressing, soups, yogurt, coffee drinks, sports drinks and juice, cereals and protein bars, for instance.
How much sugar is too much?
Many people can take sugar or leave it, but some are really hooked despite mounting evidence of its role in serious health problems, including cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, even in people of normal weight.
Many scientists consider sugar a serious health hazard. Two physicians, writing in the New York Times, urge health policy officials to require label warnings and taxes like those on alcohol and tobacco, writing: “If you consider that the added sugar in a single can of soda might be more than most people would have consumed in an entire year, just a few hundred years ago, you get a sense of how dramatically our environment has changed.”
Most American adults eat about 22 teaspoons worth of added sugars a day, the American Heart Association says. Its advice is to limit added sugar, both from the sugar bowl and as ingredients in foods you cook or buy, to:
- 6 teaspoons (100 calories) per day for women.
- 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men.
The association offers tips for cutting back and help identifying how much sugar is in foods. The tips — like substituting alternative sweeteners, using less sugar in baking, tossing out the sugar bowl and giving up soda pop — are useful. But they don’t get to the heart of what makes sugar so addictive.
I asked obesity expert Dr. David Ludwig if science has answers on how to quit sugar. Ludwig is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and has spent a career treating, researching and writing about adult and childhood obesity. In his recent book, “Always Hungry: Conquer Your Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells and Lose Weight Permanently,” he recommends a high-fat, low-carb food plan that includes dropping, at least for a time, sugar, potatoes and highly refined carbohydrates.
Low-carb weight-loss diets like The Zone, the Atkins Diet and paleo diets have been around for decades. Ludwig’s is a less-restrictive low-carb plan. It includes fresh fruit and, after a two-week kickoff, whole grains and starchy vegetables.
Most weight-loss programs, however, regard all foods as equal when it comes to weight loss and so they are based on eating fewer calories than you burn.
Ludwig says that’s an outdated approach. Whether controlling sugar intake or losing weight, research shows that sugar, potatoes and highly refined carbohydrates alter the body’s chemistry, creating cravings and causing cells to store fat, he says.
Willpower can work in the short term, but old habits and cravings usually regain the upper hand, causing dieters to regain weight and sugar addicts to backslide. What’s required, he says, is making friends with your body’s metabolism to interrupt the cycle.
Here are seven tips to break the chains of your unhealthy relationship to sugar:
1. Change your metabolism
Fat doesn’t make us fat, he says. Rather, sugars and carbs do that by triggering a flood of insulin, a hormone that turns fat cells on and off. High insulin levels in the blood stream tell fat cells to pile on fat and store it. Lowering your insulin lets your fat cells release fat, suppressing appetite and cravings and shedding body fat.
Sugar can trigger addictive responses, Ludwig says. It hijacks the brain’s pleasure and reward systems, producing intense, addiction-like cravings. Potatoes and highly processed carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta and refined cereals and snack foods have similar effects: They digest quickly into sugar, raising insulin, calorie for calorie, more than any other food.
Ludwig’s research lab scanned the brains of overweight young men four hours after they’d drunk milkshakes sweetened with corn syrup and found that the drinks activated their nucleus accumbens, the brain center stimulated by addictive substances like heroin, cocaine and alcohol.
To loosen sugar’s grip, Ludwig advises replacing it and high-carb foods with fats to satisfy hunger and quell cravings. Get the fat from nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocados, unsaturated oils, whole-fat (unsweetened) dairy products and — for a treat — dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cacao (or cocoa, which is cacao in its roasted, ground form).
Saturated fat raises the body’s LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, Ludwig acknowledges. However, “it also potently raises HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, so the all-important overall ratio of bad to good cholesterol remains largely unchanged. And unlike carbohydrate, saturated fat lowers triglycerides, another important risk factor.”
2. Avoid trans fat
Stay away from even small amounts of one type of fat: trans fat. Read labels and avoid foods with “partially hydrogenated oil,” an industrial oil made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil to make it harden. It’s common in fast food, fried food and commercially made cakes, cookies, crackers and snacks, including some microwave popcorn. Even small amounts add up, so try to avoid eating it at all. For more detail on the subject, and what products to avoid, check out:
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2015 determination that trans fats is unsafe in food
- Center for Science in the Public Interest on trans fat, and if you are brave, move on to its “Trans Fat Wall of Shame” on Pinterest
3. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners make it hard to quit sugar as they keep your sweet tooth active, depriving you of the chance to let go the cycle of cravings and taste the subtler natural sweetness of fruits and vegetables. Try cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice to highlight sweetness in some fruits, tubers, squashes and even meats.
4. Avoid low-fat and nonfat foods
When food manufacturers take out the fat they typically add sugar. One example:
- Jif Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter Spread has 12 grams of fat and 4 grams of sugar.
- Jif Regular Peanut Butter has 16 grams of fat and 3 grams of sugar.
Exercise alone has been largely discredited as a weight-loss tool. “Physical activity is crucially important for improving overall health and fitness levels, but there is limited evidence to suggest that it can blunt the surge in obesity,” says the International Journal of Epidemiology, and researchers found that members of a hunter-gatherer tribe burn roughly as many calories as the typical city dweller despite their vastly different levels of activity, according to a report in the New York Times.
But there are many other reasons to move, among them reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Exercise boosts your sense of vitality and vigor. It replenishes your sense of well-being and pride.
6. Get enough quality sleep
When you’re weary and pushing too hard you’re vulnerable to setbacks and emotional eating. Treat yourself with special care and give yourself credit when you’re giving up the undeniable pleasure of sugar. Take a warm bath before bed, read a good book, indulge in a cup of (unsweetened) herbal tea, get a massage and get plenty of healing rest.
7. Get the lowdown on sugar
Learn more about sugar and its effect on health:
- The USDA’s post on Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweetener Resources has details, links and research on sugar. and sweeteners, from honey, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup and agave to aspartame, stevia and sucralose.
- Read What’s Really in Your Soda?
- Read How Sugar May Fuel the Spread of Breast Cancer.