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home : columns : ask the doctors July 11, 2020

4/3/2020 10:34:00 AM
Quitting sugar is a challenge that requires awareness

Dear Doctor: I'm stalled on my resolution to quit eating sugar. Why is it so hard? I just can't seem to stop saying yes to sweets, especially my favorites -- cookies and candy bars. Do you have any suggestions?

Dear Reader: First of all, please don't feel bad. In your quest to control your sugar intake, you're battling two powerful forces -- biology and modern food science.

Sugars provide the body with an efficient source of energy, and the pursuit of them is hardwired into our brains. This, along with the fact that sugar wakes up the reward centers of the brain, has been weaponized by food scientists. The result is a vast array of sweet treats, many of them amped up with fats and salt, and each carefully designed to be irresistible. Adding to these challenges is the fact that quitting sugar cold turkey can leave you with genuine symptoms of withdrawal, including headache, fatigue, irritability and low mood. But don't despair. Armed with a bit of self-knowledge and a few deliberate strategies -- and, yes, some willpower and discipline -- you can successfully get your sweet tooth under control.

Start by becoming aware of how much sugar you eat, and when. Do you add it to your morning coffee or tea? Is it part of your breakfast? Do you drink sugared beverages? All of these, along with any candy, baked goods, ice cream or other sweet snacks that you grab throughout the day, contribute to the estimated 17 teaspoons of sugar that we Americans ingest daily. That's double the recommended limit of 9 teaspoons per day for men and triple the 6 teaspoons for women, and it adds up to almost 57(!) pounds of sugar per person per year. Since 75% of all processed foods -- even those that come across as savory -- contain added sugars, you'll need to check food labels for an accurate picture of your intake.

Once you've identified the sources of sugar in your diet, you can begin the process of weaning yourself off of it. If you're stirring it in to coffee, cut back a little each day until it's gone. If you're a soda drinker, switch to one of the many varieties of sparkling water that have become available. It is helpful to understand that sugar makes blood glucose levels spike, which triggers the pancreas to release insulin. That's the hormone that allows cells to absorb and use glucose for energy. A healthy blood sugar balance depends on limiting surges of insulin, so think in terms of meals and snacks full of protein, fiber and healthy fats. They will fill you up and lessen your cravings without making your blood sugar levels go crazy.

Artificial sweeteners may be tempting, but studies have linked them to a boomerang effect of craving more sugar, as well as to adverse effects on the gut microbiome. Plus, after just a few days of sugar abstinence, you'll find that your taste buds are waking up to the natural sugars in foods, which will become satisfying. There's no question that quitting sugar can be a challenge, so be kind to yourself and take things gradually. 

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