How can I eat without sugar?
In the United States, sugar is everywhere and in everything. Oftentimes sugar is an added ingredient that just doesn’t make sense. The daily recommendation for sugar intake over 2 years of age is less than 10% of your daily calories. But, it can be found in your breakfast cereal, in your crackers, in your flavored water, and your cup of soup. Sugar has taken over in food production and is a double-edged sword. It may worsen health, but it tastes really good, and sugary foods fly off grocery store shelves. So, this means the average adult American who consumes 2,000 calories a day should be eating less than 200 calories of sugar a day. Children under the age of two should not consume any processed sugar.
To put that into better perspective, a 12 oz can of soda pop can have 8 teaspoons or more of sugar. This translates into 128 calories of sugar or more in one sitting from one product. The average American is estimated to consume 270 calories of sugar (17 teaspoons) daily. As Americans, we know sugar is everywhere. With sugar so readily available and easily consumed, it can’t possibly be that bad. Or can it?
What Counts as Sugar?
Sugar is any sort of sweetener including cane sugar, beet sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, etc. Simple carbohydrates (carbs) can also be considered sugar as the body easily converts those carbs into glucose in the bloodstream, otherwise known as blood sugar. Glucose is what your cells need to function. Now, there are more complexities and nuances on this topic, but for the scope of this article, the goal is to keep things simple.
When food shopping, many of the packaged foods on the shelf have added sugars which is where people can get into trouble. Processed foods can have added sugars like brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, inverted sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar. There are also artificial sweeteners that can be added to packaged foods to make them taste better and be produced more cheaply.
Many processed foods, or foods that don’t occur “as is” in nature, have added sugars. This helps the products taste better which means the manufacturer can sell more and profit goes up. The following are commonly consumed items that tend to be higher in sugar:
- Soda pop, energy drinks, and sports drinks
- Candy/chocolate bars
- Fruit drinks
- Ice cream and other dairy desserts
- Baked goods such as cakes, cookies, brownies, donuts, pies, cobblers, etc.
- reakfast items like toaster pastries, breakfast cereal, and yogurt
Why is Sugar Bad
It’s important to realize humans developed through times when food wasn’t as plentiful as it is now. The body is geared towards sugar because in natural environments, it is a harder commodity to come by. Modern technology and international trade have changed this, making sugar readily and easily available whenever you want it. Sugar in human physiology naturally goes up in times of stress due to hormone release. The problem is when blood sugar remains high long term. Having a high-sugar diet increases the risk of being overweight or obese and having diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gout, dental cavities, ectopic fat accumulation, and even some cancers.
Sugar is inflammatory by its very nature. Normally, this is no problem as the body produces insulin which helps the sugar get to where it needs to go in the body. Insulin is also anti-inflammatory. When you eat too much sugar at once, or too much sugar on a daily basis over a long period of time, the pancreas can have a hard time keeping up which can lead to symptoms of hyperglycemia.
Early symptoms of high blood sugar include increased thirst and/or hunger, blurred vision, headache, or frequent peeing. If high blood sugar has been going on for a while (weeks to months), someone might experience fatigue, weight loss, yeast infections, slow-healing cuts/sores, or even skin changes or infections. If blood sugar levels are high/uncontrolled for a long time (months to years), this can lead to complications such as eye disease, kidney disease, nervous system disorders, gastroparesis or leaky gut, heart disease, and even stroke.
Best Ways to Track Your Sugar Intake
With as much sugar as is typical in the standard American diet, you might not be surprised to know blood sugar-related disease is on the rise. If your blood sugar is too high, it’s called hyperglycemia, and if it’s too low, it’s called hypoglycemia. This is something you can roughly track by using a calorie-tracking app. But, you should consider having a discussion about sugar intake with your doctor. Once you do, they may recommend getting a hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) which is a lab test that evaluates how much sugar you’ve had in your bloodstream over the last three months.
When your overall diet is high in sugar, and your pancreas has a hard time keeping up with the sugar over time, this makes your blood more “sugary.” Your red blood cells will pick up some of that sugar and become glycosylated. Glycosylation essentially turns red blood cells into “sugar donuts.” The HbA1c measures what percentage of your red blood cells have become “sugared donuts”. A normal percentage is 5.6% or lower. If you are at 5.7% or higher, you are trending towards metabolic disease and potentially diabetes. At this point, it’s even more important to have a discussion with me ( Dr. Wendy Wells ) to help find some changes that can help support a healthier lifestyle.
How to Lower Blood Sugar Naturally Through Diet
It’s important to know how to help lower your sugar intake via the foods you eat. Eliminating a lot of processed foods in your diet can help support a healthy lifestyle as well as limit sugar intake. As noted above, a lot of sources of sugar are used in processed foods. By reducing/eliminating these in your diet, your overall health and blood sugar can improve. Also, eating foods such as vegetables and fruits are loaded with fiber and natural sugars which can help slow the delivery of sugar intake. A more whole food-based diet includes buying fresh or frozen produce, fruits, proteins, and fats from the store and preparing them at home. If you are a busy person with little time to cook, there are premade meal programs you can have delivered straight to your home. Alternatively, you can use cooking tools like an instant pot or air fryer to reduce cooking time. A tool that may be helpful is to consider the Glycemic Index, which lists how much sugar is in foods. It can help you choose more low-sugar options for your diet and can be found by clicking here.
Other Natural Methods to Consider
Additionally, it’s important to have a few ways you can support your body if you are dealing with or have already worked through sugar addiction/cravings. Below is a list of changes you can consider to support a healthy diet. If you have already had this conversation with your nutritionist or doctor, the content of these suggestions may already be familiar to you.
Use Natural Sugar Sources. Although sugar is sugar, natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, coconut sugar, or date sugar are better options. Natural sugars tend to be digested more slowly, thus not creating as sudden of a spike in blood sugar. Artificial sweeteners are relatively new to the market and not well researched. While generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), artificial sweeteners have been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
Note: Honey should only be used as a sweetener in infants over 12 months of age due to the risk of botulism.
Supplement Support. A variety of herbs can help your body rebalance and maintain a healthy blood sugar. They can work by improving insulin sensitivity, increasing insulin output, lowering inflammation, and protect cells from damage due to their antioxidant quality. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia), hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), and onion (Allium sativum) are just a few options. You can just add some of these into your daily cooking or make a herbal cup of tea to enjoy. Additionally, nutrients such as chromium and vitamin D can also help support healthy blood sugar, especially in those who are deficient in these nutrients.
Exercise After Meals. Research has found getting some light movement such as walking 30-60 minutes after a meal can improve your blood sugar. Light exercise gets the blood flowing and the muscles working, meaning your muscles can uptake more sugar from the bloodstream. This eases the work your pancreas has to do.
What Should You Do?
If you are considering a healthier approach to life, reducing or cutting out sugar is one way you might do this. Though challenging, lowering inflammation and eating less processed foods can help you reach your wellness goals. As always, your first critical step should be to seek out a holistic doctor for medical information if you suspect you have sugar problems. As diabetes is a serious, life-threatening illness, getting a professional on board early on can help you change your lifestyle and habits to improve blood sugar and overall health!
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- Cleveland Clinic. N.D. “This Is Why Artificial Sweeteners Are Bad for You.” Retrieved Oct. 29, 2023. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/whats-worse-sugar-or-artificial-sweetener/
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- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans; 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020
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