The Sticky Truth About Sugars, Sweets and Your Health
Hi Sweet Friends,
It’s time we talked sugar. White powdered gold. Legal crack. Sugar is one of the most readily available and addictive foods out there—and you don’t have to be a Pixy Stix guzzler to overdo it. I was pretty floored when I began to really understand the abundance of sugars in food—did you know it’s in everything from pancakes to potatoes?
The average American eats an estimated 130 pounds of sugar per year. You might think “I don’t eat that much sugar,” but this stuff is sneaky. It doesn’t just hang out in the junk food aisle, it’s also in healthy foods (don’t worry, I’m not saying that a sweet potato has as much sugar as a Snickers bar!). Hidden sugar piles up fast, so you may need to budget less sugar in your diet—especially if you’re dealing with a health challenge.
I know how overwhelming this sweet beast can be, but we’re about to change that. The connection between sugar and health finally clicked for me while researching and writing Crazy Sexy Diet. That’s why I looked back at my trusty guide to diet and lifestyle for this blog. So grab your pencils, friends. Let’s go to sugar school!
What are sugars?
To understand sugars, you’ve gotta start with the basics. You’re probably familiar with carbohydrates and glucose, but do you really know what these guys are all about? Let’s learn more about these fellas and then we’ll explore our day-to-day food choices.
There’s a lot of gabbing in the news about good carbs versus bad carbs—but what are they, exactly? First and foremost, carbohydrates are the starchy or sugary part of foods. When we think about sugar, naturally we imagine all things yummy and sweet. But in actuality, all carbs (including those that don’t taste sweet, like pasta, bread and potatoes) break down into glucose—the sugar your body uses for fuel. (More on glucose in a sec!) From your body’s point of view, there’s not much difference between a spoonful of sugar and a slice of white bread.
Carbohydrates come in two varieties, complex (“good” or “unrefined”) and simple (“bad” or “refined”). Complex carbs such as whole grains, beans, and veggies are good for two reasons: First, they take longer to digest, therefore your blood sugar doesn’t spike. This means your energy levels stay on a more even keel—no sugar highs and no crashes. No frantic search for guns, no scraping your torn self (in fishnets) off the concrete. Second, complex carbs come with a lot of other good stuff, like vitamins, minerals, enzymes, protein, and fiber. They fill you up and leave you satisfied.
With the exception of fresh fruit, simple carbs are all the junky foods you already know are bad for you: white sugar, white flour, white bread, some whole wheat breads, cookies, sugary snack foods, candy, cake, muffins, crackers, chips, white pretzels, energy drinks, sodas and sweetened soft drinks, concentrated fruit juices, and all the other empty calorie fillers that today make up at least a third of the Standard American Diet.
When glucose enters your bloodstream, your pancreas releases insulin, the master hormone of metabolism. Insulin has lots of jobs, but most importantly it regulates glucose levels by shuttling it to cells to use as fuel. But if a cell has all the fuel it needs for the moment, insulin carries off the extra glucose to be stored as fat. So far, so good—because everyone needs a little cushion for the pushin’. However, a diet high in simple sugar and refined carbs dumps a ton of glucose into your blood very quickly. As a result, your pancreas is forced to barf out additional insulin, which isn’t good for you or your pancreas.
This is one vicious cycle. Over time you may develop insulin resistance, which makes your body less effective at regulating blood sugar. Insulin resistance also affects your ability to use stored fat as energy. In other words, you can’t lose weight as easily when there’s a bunch of insulin coursing through your body. But it’s not just about weight. Too much glucose and insulin are major culprits in many diseases (for more on the relationship between sugar and cancer, read this).
What foods have the least/most sugar?
I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you don’t have time to memorize how much sugar is in every piece of food that crosses your plate. Luckily, you don’t have to…
How can you learn to make better choices when eating carbs and sugar? Enter the dazzling glycemic index (GI), a measure of how quickly and how high a particular carbohydrate raises your blood sugar level. GI is a numerical ranking system that compares a given food to a pure sugar, such as white sugar. Because white sugar is all carbohydrate, it’s designated 100 on a scale of 0 to 100. The GI is a measure of carbs only; fats and proteins have no effect on the score.
Foods with a high GI value are almost always refined, simple carbs. Conversely, foods with low GI values tend to be unrefined, complex carbs. The difference between high- and low-GI foods lies mostly in how much fiber they contain. Fiber slows the digestion of sugars and keeps you even and peaceful. That’s why a plant-based, low-GI diet is one of the central tenets of the Crazy Sexy lifestyle.
Familiarize yourself with the glycemic index—it’s a terrific tool. As a rule of thumb, any food that has a GI rank below 60 is a good choice, especially if you need to watch your blood sugar. In fact, people who stick to a low-GI diet are less likely to develop diabetes and other medical life lemons. Speaking of lemons, they fall solidly into the low-GI camp, as do berries, apples, pears, citrus fruits and plums.
And guess what? Not only can low GI diets prevent nasty diseases, they can also help to reverse them. Amen, glitter explosion! If you want to learn more, The GI Handbook by Barbara Ravage and The New Glucose Revolution by Jennie Brand-Miller and Kaye Foster-Powell are both great books for self-study.
How can sugars fit into a healthy diet?
Sugar is a part of life, and my goal in bringing you this information isn’t to scare you, it’s to help you make the best choices possible. It’s important to think of simple sugars (cakes, brownies and ice cream, oh my!) as occasional treats. Use tools like the GI scale and plant-based cooking to help you make healthier, delicious, blood-sugar-happy choices the majority of the time.
My Sugars Ranking Chart
I’ve done a little of the heavy lifting for you by creating a ranking system for sugars.
Group A: Your best bets. These foods give you fuel, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Total package.
Group B: Sweeteners that have a little something to offer beyond just the glucose energy—for example, low-GI fruit that has health-boosting vitamins.
Group C: These are your worst options. They are high GI, and don’t bring anything but sugar to the party. One trick ponies!
What about sugar cravings?
If kicking sugary treats to the curb is on your to-do list, here are a few ways to get the job done without going bonkers:
Cold turkey—sometimes, tough love does the job!
Brush your teeth, floss, close up shop.
Incorporate sweet veggies, like yams.
Have a snack that’s high in protein and some fat, such as nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Sip a hot herbal tea with a bit of agave or stevia.
Juice up a green drink or smoothie with some good fat in it, like coconut or avocado.
Enjoy a rice cake with almond butter or a baked sweet potato.
Go for a small piece (about 1 inch square) of good-quality dark chocolate
Change your environment until the crisis passes. Go for a walk, call a friend, take a bubble bath, do some sun salutations, cuddle your pet, have hot sex!
Treat your perfectly sweet body with respect for the work it does to power you through the day. Shocking your system by dumping a ton of glucose into your bloodstream doesn’t a good self-care strategy make. Powering your cells with glucose, vitamins, minerals and fiber, however, is solid sunshine gold.
Have you struggled with sugar? Any great tips for how to get off the dragon? Share all in the comments!
Peace & peaches,