“Stop the insanity!”
-Susan Powter, fitness enthusiast
As the source of one of the defining weight loss slogans of the 1990s, Susan Powter’s zany personality and bubbly energy gave hope to many people who were longing for a fitter body and a healthier life. As she defined it, the “insanity” was the overwhelming barrage of complicated diet and exercise regimens that emphasized a particular angle or set of tips that would surely and rapidly set you on the path to having the supermodel body you always dreamed of.
One doesn’t have to look too far to see evidence of the seemingly endless fad diets and eccentric exercise routines and devices; everything from Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons to the bizarre Shake Weight craze have been filling infomercial airwaves for decades. Sadly for Susan Powter, it appears that the insanity is still alive and well and making it as overwhelming as ever to pick a plan that will be effective and sustainable.
One of the reasons that finding the right diet option is so challenging—besides having to wade through so many ideas and articles and opinions—is because nutrition science is relatively new compared to other medical disciplines. Indeed, vitamins, and their importance in daily nutrition, weren’t even fully defined and understood until the middle of the 20th century. And even then, nutrition was primarily understood in terms of how deficiencies in a certain vitamin led to disease—as opposed to looking at how combinations of foods would be beneficial in an overall sense.
In the decades since, scientists have continued to do research and have attempted to make links between the foods we eat and long-term health. Progress has been slow and varied, though, and it has led to swings between very different conceptions of what counts as “healthy.” One only needs to look at the USDA’s shifting guidelines over the years to see this sometimes confusing transition. For example, the original “Four Food Groups” from the 1950s-80s recommended the same number of servings of the bread and cereal group as the fruit and vegetable group; in contrast, the current “My Plate” recommendations include twice as many fruits and vegetables as grains.
Fortunately for us, scientists are now doing a lot more research into nutrition, and there are some things about healthy eating that can be said with a high degree of certainty. And one of the best examples of this is the effect of sugar on a person’s diet.
Why Cut Out Sugar?
Every time we eat, the food enters our digestive system before being broken down and absorbed into our bodies. Some parts get discarded as waste, but the components that are capable of entering the bloodstream are carried throughout the body where they can be used by cells. Sugar, technically known as glucose (or dextrose) in terms of metabolism, behaves in the same way. The difference with glucose is what happens after that: blood passes through the pancreas, and, when high levels of glucose are detected, the pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin essentially signals some cells to use the glucose as energy.
It’s perfectly natural and normal for our cells to use glucose as energy just as it is for fats and proteins. But the process of insulin signalling cells to use glucose can become a problem when there is too much glucose in the blood. When that happens—say, after a coworker brings donuts to the office and you have too many—the excess glucose then can become stored as fat. Which, for many Americans, is an all-too-familiar tale.
It is this connection between blood sugar levels and insulin that is behind chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, but it is also widely believed to be the culprit in the obesity epidemic that is rampant around the world. In 2015, the World Health Organization published a set of guidelines that strongly recommended reducing sugar intake in order to avert obesity (and tooth decay).
So why cut out sugar? Because the vast majority of scientific evidence agrees that it is far and away the largest contributor to being overweight.
Eight Tips to Help Cut Out and Lower Sugar
Being aware of one’s sugar intake isn’t exactly a brand new idea, of course; way back in 1972 it was Dr. Robert Atkins who first popularized the idea of a low carb diet and the effect carbohydrates have on blood sugar. And since sugar is a carbohydrate, the basic idea of that diet was sound.
However, the idea of completely cutting out sugar may be a bridge too far for most people. What about Halloween? And Christmas cookies? And cakes decorated like the American flag? The good news is that having sugar occasionally and in moderation isn’t going to make you fat. Nevertheless, it can be a little overwhelming to know how to proceed, so here are some tips to get you started:
- Check Food Labels: Get yourself into the habit of checking the nutritional information on everything you buy. Becoming familiar with ingredients is an excellent first step; over time you’ll know to avoid anything with terms like high fructose corn syrup, a highly unhealthy food additive.
- Eliminate Soda: One of the easiest changes you can make is to eliminate (or at least cut back on significantly) sugary drinks. Sodas, energy drinks, and even some fruit juice have a lot of the kind of processed sugars that can lead to a blood sugar spike and an increase in insulin. Switch to beverages with no-sugar sweeteners (like stevia) or diet sodas instead (or water!).
- Be Wary of Breakfast: Traditional breakfast foods like muffins and donuts may be quick and taste great, but they often have a lot of sugar. Eating a lot of sugar early in the day can easily lead to sugar cravings later on. Instead, try oatmeal or make a smoothie with fresh fruit and sugar-free Greek yogurt.
- Snack Items: Similar to breakfast, many of the easy-to-unwrap snack foods we typically reach for have added sugar. Consider a handful of nuts or some trail mix as an alternative (provided that you’ve checked the label and it doesn’t have added sugar!).
- More Protein and Fat: Most people already have plenty of carbohydrates in their diet, but they’re usually lacking on protein and fat. High sugar diets often lead to greater hunger and the tendency to eat more calories than you need. So make sure every meal has a sufficient amount of protein by incorporating foods like lean meats, fish, eggs, full-fat dairy, avocados, or nuts.
- Give Quinoa a Chance: Pronounced like “keen-wa” and described by some as a “superfood,” quinoa is a healthy and filling alternative to starchy foods like white rice. Preparing a whole foods like quinoa with a healthy protein can help you feel fuller—and less likely to binge on a sugary dessert.
- Dessert Overload: Cake, ice cream, cookies, pies … the list of our favorite sweet stuff could go on for pages. And while it’s OK to indulge once in a while, make sure it doesn’t become a daily affair. Instead of that ice cream, try fresh fruit. Instead of a cake, try roasted fruit with cream. Like chocolate? Switch to dark chocolate, a healthier alternative.
- Time Your Shopping Trips Well: Don’t shop when you’re hungry! If you haven’t eaten much and then you stop at the store, you’ll be tempted to buy sugary stuff that you just don’t need. And then, once it’s in the house, you’ll definitely eat. So just plan to go after a meal instead.
Weight Loss Revolution
By making some initial, minor efforts to reduce your sugar intake, you can set yourself on a path to a healthier and fitter you. They key is sustainability; don’t try to give yourself a wholesale revolution in one week. Instead, start out with some minor tweaks and develop some new habits. Eventually you can make bigger changes and you’ll see even better results.
Still, we all need help sometimes. If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of a low sugar diet, or if you want to explore other weight loss methods, contact a nutritionist at NEW You Weight Loss for a personalized approach to your weight loss goals.