At one time, fat was the most maligned macronutrient in the American diet. Health-conscious shoppers in the 90s dutifully reached for low-fat yogurt, low-fat ice cream, and even low-fat cookies in hopes of having something guilt-free to nibble on unaware of the sugar cravings these processed foods caused.
Fast forward to today and sugar is on the hot seat. Savvy consumers are quick to read the grams of sugar rather than fat grams when deciding which products to buy. The number of packaged items advertised as low fat is contracting, yet packaged food manufacturers are still failing to meet the growing demand for foods that are lower in sugar.
On the plus side, some companies are taking notice and responding to the demand. For example, Pepsi is committed to reducing sugar in their soft drinks by 2025. Unfortunately, even cutting the sugar won’t turn soft drinks into a health food – but it’s clear that sugar consumption in Western countries is higher than it should be. In fact, the average person consumes 66 pounds of sugar yearly, a phenomenal amount by any measure.
Is sugar really as bad as it’s portrayed? Eating a diet high in sugar is now linked with a variety of health problems, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and even mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. As Medscape.com puts it, “sugar is the new tobacco.” So, now that we know that sugar degrades diet quality and is linked with health issues, what happens when you give up sugar? The benefits will vary per person but here are some of the benefits associated with curbing the sugar habit.
Improved Skin Health
Did you know that sugar is a contributor to skin aging? Diabetics who have a high blood sugar level typically develop more pronounced signs of skin aging and often earlier than non-diabetics. The reason? Sugar bonds to two important proteins, collagen and elastin, that help keep your skin firm, youthful, and wrinkle-free. This process, called glycation, is a direct contributor to skin aging. It’s not just sugar that’s an issue either. Your body breaks refined carbohydrates down into sugar very quickly, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar. So, make sure you’re choosing fiber-rich, whole food source of carbs for healthy skin.
Reduced Sugar Cravings
Sugar cravings are a major problem for some people. A growing body of research suggests that sugar has addictive properties. When you eat something sweet, it stimulates the release of feel-good brain chemicals, like dopamine, that contribute to further sugar cravings. Plus, sugar causes a rapid rise in blood glucose and insulin followed by a fast fall. Your body craves sugar to try to raise your blood sugar back up to its previous level.
A More Consistent Energy Level
Right after you eat a sugar-sweetened drink or food, you feel a surge of energy as your blood sugar shoots up. But, you quickly start to feel tired as the rise is followed by an equally rapid fall. Zap! There goes your energy. You start to feel hungry too, so you eat more sugar to try to ease your hunger and boost your energy level so you can make it through the day. When you stop consuming sugar, you might feel tired until your body adapts to burning less sugar, but after a few weeks, you’ll notice your energy level stays more consistent without the ups and downs you previously experienced.
Healthier Body Weight
Yes, nixing sugar can help control your weight as well. A diet lower in sugar and refined carbs helps reduce insulin spikes. This, in turn, creates an environment that’s less conducive to storing fat. Don’t forget, sugar is nothing but empty calories. It has no nutritional value and offers no benefits, only drawbacks. By simply eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages, you can significantly reduce your calorie intake and see your weight drop. Plus, according to the Framingham Heart Study, sugar-sweetened drinks are associated with visceral fat, deep belly fat that increases the risk of health problems, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Lower Risk of Heart Disease By Stopping Sugar Cravings
Cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer in Western countries. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that those who got more than 21% of their calories from sugar were at double the risk of dying of heart disease relative to those who moderated their sugar intake. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit calories from sugar to no more than 100 per day, whereas the guidelines advise that men get no more than 150 total calories from sugar.
The Bottom Line
Eliminating or drastically cutting back on sugar will positively impact your health but it’s not always easy to do. The problem is sugar hides in so many packaged foods, even ones that don’t taste sweet, like salad dressings, condiments, and soup mixes. Plus, refined carbohydrates are as bad as sugar. The best approach is to avoid packaged foods, except those with a single ingredient, and choose fiber-rich, whole food carb sources, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you can’t go “cold turkey” with giving up sugar cravings, gradually scale back on sugar over a few weeks. When you sweeten your tea or coffee, reduce the amount of sweetener every few days. Your taste buds will gradually adapt and not miss the extra sweetness that sugar provides.
Should you switch to artificial sweeteners? Artificial sweeteners have problems of their own. According to some studies, they alter gut bacteria and can potentially create an imbalance. Plus, your body expects calories to follow when you eat something sweet. When they don’t, you may not experience the same reduction in hunger. So, try to eliminate all sweeteners from your diet. It’s not always easy making changes to your diet but cutting back on sugar is a dietary move that will pay off in a number of ways.
USA Today. “PepsiCo pledges to cut the fat, salt and sugar by 2025”
Medscape Family Medicine. “Sugar Is the New Tobacco, so Let’s Treat It That Way”
Clin Dermatol. 2010 Jul-Aug;28(4):409-11. doi: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2010.03.01.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Cutting back on added sugar”
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