One of the single most powerful things you can do to prevent disease, increase longevity, and improve your health is to stop eating refined sugar. Yet, giving it up can be one of the greatest health challenges to accomplish and maintain long-term. Especially within a society that uses sugar to celebrate nearly everything significant and wonderful! Add to this the addictive nature of sugar, our natural desire for sweet flavors, and conflicting information on what constitutes a “healthy” vs “unhealthy” sugar and it’s no wonder most people throw in the towel after just a few weeks.
However, once you understand the science behind how sugar negatively affects your health and how to use other foods and lifestyle changes to balance out those cravings, you’ll find it’s not so difficult to say goodbye to refined sugar after all.
What refined sugar does to your body
Most of us know sugar isn’t good for us, but we don’t really know why—or more specifically what refined sugar actually does to our bodies. Once you understand this, it’ll make passing up the white stuff a lot easier.
Sugar impacts our physical, mental, and emotional health in many ways. First of all it’s important to understand that most modern refined table sugar no longer comes from sugar cane; it comes from genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. For those who aren’t familiar with GMOs, they are seeds which have been genetically engineered to resist large amounts of glyphosate pesticide application, a probable carcinogen1). So, the sugar we’re consuming today is genetically different and higher in pesticides than the sugar we were eating just a decade or so ago. That doesn’t mean refined sugar from sugar cane is (or ever was) healthy either, it just shows how much our food has quietly changed in a short period of time.
So, what happens when you consume refined sugar? Refined sugar is essentially a naked carbohydrate that’s been completely stripped of all its nutrients and fiber during processing. This causes it to rob your body of essential nutrients like B-vitamins and magnesium,2 when eaten in order to be metabolized. As it enters your bloodstream it causes a major spike in blood sugar which creates a cascade effect, forcing your pancreas to produce extra insulin, which causes your adrenals to pump out stress hormones, all of which your liver must process later on—which is why excess sugar has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.3 As it’s broken down and absorbed, refined sugar continues its rampage by feeding pathogens and yeasts (like Candida albicans) which disrupt your body’s microbiome leading to a drop in immune function. Excess sugar consumption also produces free radicals which causes cell damage resulting in inflammation which can lead to a variety of chronic conditions, from heart disease4 and obesity5 to dementia (now known as “Type 3 diabetes),6 depression,7 and even cancer (if you can believe it, new evidence has surfaced showing scientists knew about this link back in the 1960s but did not report it).8
Last and most important, refined sugar suppresses infection-fighting white blood cells, disrupts the microbiome, and devastates immune function making us more vulnerable to contagious disease!
If this sounds crazy that’s because it is! Yet large food corporations and their nutrition “experts” (even the “healthy” and “organic” ones) continue to mislead consumers about the health hazards of their sugar-laden products.
Where refined sugar is hiding
It’s estimated that Americans eat about 152 pounds of sugar per person per year9…which is about 150 pounds more than we ate 200 years ago and about 29 pounds more than we ate in 1970. To give you a visual, that equates to about 3 pounds a week! However, much of that sugar comes from hidden sources: namely processed foods. Which means you can greatly reduce your sugar consumption by scrutinizing labels for refined sugars (see list below) on these common kitchen staples:
- Condiments: especially ketchup, honey mustard, and other sweet-tasting spreads.
- Frozen and canned prepared foods: look out for ingredients like corn syrup, glucose syrup, natural flavors.
- Sauces, jams, and jellies: tomato products often contain loads of added sugar.
- Low-fat foods: manufacturers often add sugar to replace the flavor found in fat.
- Store bought salad dressings: these are typically loaded with refined sugar, especially the sweet tasting ones.
- Gluten-free foods: including breads, crackers, cookies, donuts, etc.
- Processed fruit products: many juices, dehydrated fruits, popsicles, and even frozen fruits contain added sugars.
- Flavored yogurt (even the organic varieties): and watch out for sugar-free varieties containing artificial sweeteners, as these are even worse than refined sugar!
- Soda and alcohol mixers: check the sugar content on the label if you’re suspicious.
- Chips, crackers, pretzels, etc. often contain sugar, especially if they’re flavored.
The many code-names for refined sugar (and why organic cane sugar is still sugar)
Food manufacturers are experts at deception…especially when it comes to marketing their unhealthy products as healthy. Here’s a list of code-names for refined sugar:
- Agave nectar
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Castor sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Demerara sugar
- Ethyl Maltol
- Glucose solids
- Glucose syrup
- Golden syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
- Turbinado sugar
- Yellow sugar
As you can see, food manufacturers have gotten very creative in disguising sugar. However, once you get the hang of identifying hidden sugars it’s not difficult to spot them on food labels. You can also look for sugar-free brands, but even then you need to make sure they aren’t substituting harmful artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, erythritol, etc., which in our opinion are even worse than refined sugar.
The best sugar alternatives
The rewards of giving up refined sugar for your health are endless, but that doesn’t mean you need to deny yourself of everything sweet and tasty! Research has shown one of the best ways to overcome an unhealthy habit is to replace it with a healthier habit; in this case: a healthier sugar alternative. Here are our favorites that allow you to have your cake and eat it too:
- Stevia: look for 100% pure stevia with no artificial sweeteners (like erythritol), flavors (including natural flavors) or fillers. While baking with stevia requires a little practice, there are some great recipes online to help flatten your learning curve.
- Dates: dates are rich in fiber and trace minerals and date puree is delicious in chocolate or caramel desserts. Get the Detoxinista recipe here.
- Coconut sugar: can be used 1:1 in place of white sugar in baking, coffee, etc.
- Maple syrup and maple sugar: rich in trace minerals, maple sweeteners can be used in baking, beverages, whipped cream, etc.
- Raw honey: this is as medicinal as it is delicious. Great in tea and coffee and we like it best in fruity, citrusy, or caramelly desserts.
We are not big fans of sugar alcohols, like xylitol and erythritol due to the fact they typically come from GMO corn and they can cause a variety of unpleasant digestive (and other) side effects.10
Break your refined sugar addiction!
Even if you’ve tried to give up refined sugar before without success, we’d encourage you to consider it a learning experience and try again! With all the delicious and readily available natural sweeteners out there these days plus the new information you’ve learned today, you have a perfect recipe for sweet success! It only takes 10 days of refined sugar avoidance to break the addictive hold. Knowing what to expect makes withdrawal easier. Many people depend on refined sugar to get a quick high or elevation of mood and withdrawal from refined sugar may cause depression and anxiety. Once out from under the addiction people report a feeling of freedom and a lifting of their “Sugar Blues”! For more help making healthier food choices, check out our favorite healthy refined-sugar-free-snacks in: The Ultimate Healthy Snacks Guide.