How a dietitian’s quest to nix sugar helped change the way she looked at food.
I’m sitting down to write this article and I want a sweet treat. So I make myself hot cocoa, but whereas I usually sweeten my cup with a tablespoon of chocolate chips, this time I add none and hope the natural sweetness of milk, vanilla, and cinnamon and the richness of a swirl of heavy cream are enough to tame the bitter cocoa powder. It’s actually delicious.
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When Yoga Journal asked me if I would give up all added sugars for 10 days, a petrified voice inside screamed, “No!” I love to bake, and I generally have some sort of cookie, scone, or muffin daily … OK, sometimes twice daily. The way I eat, no food is taboo—so ice cream and donuts find their place alongside kale and quinoa. But I was also curious to see how much added sugar my laissez-faire attitude was letting into my body and just how difficult it would be to go without.
Beware Hidden Sugars: Natural vs. Added Sugars
Turns out, eliminating sugar isn’t as simple as cutting out cake, cookies, and other sweet treats. “Many people tell me they don’t eat sugar, but they don’t realize there are so many foods that contain sugar, including some that seem healthy,” says Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and co-author of Why Diets Fail. “You can’t go to a restaurant and order spaghetti and meatballs and think that you’re having zero sugar, because there’s a lot of added sugar in that meal.”
To start, let’s clear up the difference between natural and added sugars. Natural sugars are those that occur naturally in whole foods (such as lactose in milk and plain yogurt, and fructose in apples and other fruit). They exist in tandem with other nutrients like protein (in dairy products) and fiber (in fruit), which help slow how quickly your body absorbs the sugar. Added sugars are added to foods when they’re processed or prepared. They go by lots of names—sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, agave, molasses, dextrose, and about 5o other pseudonyms—and they’re often found where you least expect them, even in foods that don’t taste sweet. On my first day of sleuthing, I was surprised to find that even salty pita chips and Greek-yogurt spinach dip had added sugar.
There are several reasons sugar is added to foods, the most obvious being that it tastes good and keeps us coming back for more. “We have this biological propensity to like things that taste sweet,” says Avena. “When we were hunters and gatherers, we could tell if a food was safe to eat because it was sweet.” Sugar is also added to some foods to mask the taste of other ingredients, such as fillers and dyes, or as a preservative.
It is in fact sugar’s sneaky ubiquity that’s causing us to eat too much of the stuff. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 6 teaspoons daily for women, 9 for men. Those amounts are far less than we consume on average—a woman typically takes in 15 teaspoons daily, and a man has 21 teaspoons. Annually, that adds up to 51 pounds of sugar for a woman, 71 pounds for a man.
Sugar-Free Diet + Health
Added sugars are linked to a host of health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, and gum disease. And consuming added sugars raises the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Studies have found that fructose (one of the two components of table sugar) can lead to high blood pressure, a main culprit in heart disease.
The fact that excess sugar is bad for us isn’t news, and it should be enough incentive to make us quit. Trouble is, sugar may be addictive, which explains why it can be hard to stop consuming it. For instance, researchers who tracked brain activity in high-school students as they drank chocolate milkshakes found that high-sugar shakes stimulated pleasure centers in the brain that play a role in compulsive eating.
Create New Eating Habits
For me, the hardest part of forgoing added sugars was feeling like I was missing shared food experiences. Halfway through the challenge, my sister had a birthday. I made her a chocolate layer cake. The candles were blown out, slices were passed, and I had no plate in front of me. I felt left out.
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But as the days went on, I was able to satisfy cravings with nonsugary foods: sweet raspberries bathed in heavy cream, or a salty Caesar salad. My baking habit presented new challenges, but I found that I could create a satisfying cheesecake by using a date purée in place of sugar.
By the end of the 10-day challenge, I realized that when I do eat sugar, I should do it more intentionally. And although I didn’t miss traditional baked goods as much as I thought I would, I confess: I awoke on the eleventh morning with delight at the thought of visiting my local bakery for a croissant.
Four Sugar-Free Recipe to Try
About Kerri-Ann Jennings
Kerri-Ann Jennings is a registered dietitian, yoga teacher, and freelance health writer based in Burlington, Vermont.