For some people, even the title of this post incites a little bit of angst. Some healthy changes are easier than others, but sugar seems to be one of those things that everyone can agree on– it’s hard to resist. For starters, refined sugar is in most processed foods making it difficult to avoid when you need a convenient snack or meal. It’s also highly addictive. We all know that feeling of just needing one more bite… then another… and another!
Sugar plays an integral role in our food culture. Many holidays and celebrations involve some sort of celebratory dessert. Birthday cakes, cookies for Santa, pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. And then there’s the more mundane 3 PM sugar fix when you’re feeling that afternoon slump.
Giving up refined sugar often seems unimaginable because it is highly prevalent in the Standard American Diet. Added sugar accounts for up to 17% of daily calorie intake for adults and 14% for children. Once you realize the detrimental effects sugar has on our health, that number becomes alarming.
As hard as it can be, avoiding refined sugar is one of the best things you can do for your health. Once you understand what refined sugar is (and isn’t), where it hides, and the healthy alternatives (natural sugars), the idea becomes more digestible… no pun intended.
Natural Sugars vs Refined Sugar
Did you know natural sugars are essential to your health? They come packaged in whole foods and contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber which slow down and moderate the absorption of the sugar. Foods with a sweet taste nourish the pancreas, spleen and stomach which are the organs of sugar absorption and distribution.
Satisfy your body’s need for the sweet taste with foods like sweet potatoes, yams, winter squashes (acorn, butternut, buttercup, hokkaido, hubbard, etc.) carrots, onions, cabbages, parsnips and fruits. Still craving something sweet? A healthy dessert made with maple syrup or honey is perfect!
Refined sugar on the other hand is harmful to your health, is addictive, extremely processed, contains no nutritional value, and even robs the body of essential nutrients. Refined sugar is extracted from cane sugar or sugar beets and is typically found as sucrose (think white and brown sugar). Manufacturers will also add sugars to foods that have been chemically produced (think high fructose corn syrup).
Unfortunately, bad has become even more harmful and we have another factor to consider as a reason to avoid refined sugar – genetically modified sugar beets! Thankfully, consumer power is already influencing this market and manufacturers of candy are switching from sugar beets to sugar cane as there is no GMO cane sugar.
Why it’s important to avoid:
Refined sugar is detrimental to our health in many ways, but here are the top reasons you should try to avoid it:
Refined sugar is highly addictive
It can cause weight gain and is one of the leading causes of obesity
Depresses the immune system and increases vulnerability to illness
Sugar can lead to the development of cancer
Sugar increases your risk of heart disease
It has been linked to acne and acceleration of the skin aging process
Increases risk of diabetes and insulin resistance
Can be detrimental to the liver and can lead to fatty liver
Leads to depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, irritability and mood swings
Leads to nutrient deficiencies
Increased hyperactivity in children
Secret places it hides in
Refined and added sugars hide in almost every processed food. We all know that there are tons of processed sugars in candy bars, packaged desserts, etc, but we usually don’t think about the less obvious sources of refined sugars.
Here are the worst offenders:
Low-fat foods: manufacturers often add sugar to replace the fat
Store bought salad dressing: these dressings are often packed with sugar
Store bought tomato products: ketchup, spaghetti sauces etc.
Processed Gluten-free foods: manufacturers often add sugar to replace gluten
Fruit products: many juices, dehydrated fruits and even frozen fruits contain added sugars
Soda and alcohol mixers
Sauces: check the label on marinades, hot sauces, jellies etc. because many contain refined sugar
Choosing better ingredients
In general, eat whole foods with the sweet taste and use natural sweeteners like maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey or dates, instead of processed, refined sugars. Read food labels and be smart about what you’re putting into your body.
There are also plenty of great, healthy alternatives to processed snacks that contain refined sugar. Spoiler alert: you don’t have to give up chocolate!
Top tips for breaking the habit
Understand reasons you crave sugar – Apart from the additive aspect of refined sugar too much salt, excess animal food, and STRESS can drive you to the cookie jar which only makes the body more unbalanced (and wanting more)! Knowing that natural foods with the sweet taste truly balance, calm and relax makes healthier choices the go-to solution.
Start small: Swap out foods with refined sugar for healthier alternatives. Instead of reaching for that flavored yogurt, choose an organic, whole milk, plain greek yogurt and top it with fresh berries and a little honey. Opt for a sugar free sparkling water instead of a soda. Sweeten your morning coffee or tea with a little honey or coconut sugar.
Make it at home: You can avoid consuming refined sugar by making food at home. Make your own spaghetti sauce instead of buying it from the store. Homemade items don’t always have to be time intensive. Make a quick and easy vinaigrette once a week and keep it in the fridge instead of buying store bought dressings.
Be more intentional about the sugar you do (and should!) eat: Avoiding refined sugar isn’t all about restriction. Instead, try to be more thoughtful about the sugar you DO eat. It will make the experience that much sweeter. If you’re craving a muffin… have that muffin! But instead of grabbing one from the closest coffee shop, find a recipe that uses organic ingredients, good oils (coconut, ghee, avocado, etc.) and sweeten ideally with either maple syrup or honey or dates. Or use a boxed brand that doesn’t include sugar…they’re out there! Changing our relationship with sugar and desserts in general makes avoiding the unhealthy kinds so much easier.
It might be hard to ditch refined sugar at first, but you’ll find that your body will slowly stop craving it once you overcome the addiction. Plus, your body will thank you in countless ways – increased immunity, increased energy levels, potential weight loss, clearer skin and better long term health.