An alarming new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that over 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes. Even more concerning is most people don’t realize it. The report stated that 25 percent of adults living with diabetes (7.2 million Americans) didn’t know they had the condition, and only 11.6 percent of adults with prediabetes knew they had it. A big problem with both of these conditions is that even though all that uncontrolled blood sugar is inflicting massive harm to your blood vessels and organs, most people don’t experience adverse symptoms for a long time. Unfortunately, once the damage accumulates enough to cause physical pain, nerve damage, metabolic disease, etc, it’s difficult to reverse it.
Despite companies like Coca Cola spending millions to inject confusion and skepticism into nutrition discussions (much like the cigarette companies did concerning the effects of smoking), research is making it pretty clear just how destructive added sugar can be to your health:
Sugary drinks linked to 180,000 deaths per year.
Sugar increases the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Sugar shortens telomeres which prematurely ages cells and shortens lifespans.
Refined sugar in the intestines contributes to over-expression of beta-catenin, which helps cancer cells proliferate and prevents your body from destroying these damaged and mutated cells.
Sugar causes brain shrinkage.
Sugar causes systematic inflammation which contributes to accelerated aging and a host of disease and dysfunction in general.
And of course, the consequence most people do see and understand; added sugar increases appetite, increases fat storage, and prevents the release of body fat which leads to obesity.
As a final bit of proof that high blood sugar is harmful, doctors have discovered that the blood sugar controlling medicine metformin seems to offer a host of benefits outside of just lowering out-of-control blood sugar in type 2 diabetics. It works by increasing insulin sensitivity throughout the body so more muscle and fat cells pull sugar out of the blood stream before it can do harm. Metformin has not only been shown to reduce blood sugar levels, but it reduces body fat percentage, decreases cancer cell growth and proliferation, reduces the chances of developing atherosclerosis, lowers LDL cholesterol, reduces blood pressure, reduces likelihood of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and improves symptoms of autoimmune diseases.
Hard to quit
Whether you knew about all the consequences of added sugar or not, deep down we all understand that sugar isn’t good for you. Most people also understand that it’s really hard to cut back to the recommended levels of added sugars (150 calories per day for men, 100 calories per day for women). Sugar is soothing because it suppresses levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It’s why people reach for junk food to comfort themselves from life’s stresses. Sugar also hits the reward center of the brain by elevating dopamine levels just like tobacco, cocaine, and opioids. Unfortunately, in a similar manner to these drugs, frequent use causes less and less dopamine to be released, so addicts continuously up their consumption to try to reach the previous levels.
Quitting sugar causes a double punch of unpleasant feelings. You’re no longer suppressing cortisol levels so you feel stressed out, and your dopamine levels plummet (possibly for months afterwards) making you feel depressed and fatigued. Unless you find ways to properly manage these feeling (which I’ll go over below), the cravings for sugar will eventually build up and cause a relapse and binge eating.
Another reason why cutting out added sugar is so hard is because it’s in everything. Sugar is a natural preservative that extends the shelf life of anything it’s added to, which is why food manufacturers add it to products that don’t even taste sweet like condiments and sauces. My standard advice is assume anything with a nutrition label isn’t nutritious and just stick to the refrigerated section around the outside aisles of the store.
At least cut out some sugary drinks
If cutting out sugar entirely sounds too challenging (or has been in the past), I highly suggest cutting out sugary drinks. Even replacing one sugary drink a day with water, tea or coffee decreases the risk of prediabetes by 46 percent and diabetes by 25 percent. The high fructose corn syrup in sugary drinks is more detrimental to your health than other carbohydrates. Sugary drinks won’t satisfy your appetite at all. In fact, they cause your appetite to increase while simultaneously reducing fat metabolism and increasing fat storage.
Don’t replace sugary drinks with artificially sweetened ones
A new article on artificial sweeteners points out something we’re all realizing more and more, artificial sweeteners don’t seem to help control weight. The promise of a sweet taste without the harmful side effects sounds great, but the evidence doesn’t support that it’s actually working. Researchers looked at 7 clinical trials of over 1000 people and found that artificial sweeteners didn’t contribute significantly to weight loss. Additionally, they analyzed 30 observational studies of more than 400,000 participants and found that people who regularly used artificial sweeteners still suffered from obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart problems. I’ve previously written about various reasons why artificial sweeteners don’t seem to reduce total calories, so let me quickly summarize it below:
It confuses your body’s feedback systems. The theory is that a sweet taste is supposed to alert your body that sugar calories are coming. When they arrive, your body signals that you should feel full so you don’t crave any more food. However, since no calories arrive with artificial sweeteners, it damages the feedback mechanism and you eventually train your body to not recognize when normal sugars are consumed.
Sugar suppresses cortisol but artificial sweeteners do not. Trying to comfort your stress with artificial sugar doesn’t work, so you keep seeking out more and more comfort foods to finally trigger the effect.
Possibly interrupts the microbiome. Just because you can’t digest something doesn’t mean it’s indigestible. You can’t digest fiber but the beneficial bacteria in your gut can. What you eat influences the make up of your microbiome and some research has shown that artificial sweeteners changes the composition in ways that makes you glucose intolerant. This leads to prolonged and dangerous levels of blood sugar (like a prediabetic) when you do consume other carbohydrates.
When people consider a processed food to be “healthy” (like when it contains indigestible sugars), they feel comfortable overindulging on it. They may also overeat throughout the rest of the day because they previously ate something “healthy.”
For whatever reason (or combination of reasons), replacing added sugars with artificial sweeteners doesn’t seem to result in weight loss or health improvements. You will see incredible benefits of giving up sweet beverages in general, but at a bare minimum at least try to replace one each day. Each drink replaced with water, tea or coffee provides a cumulative reduction in disease risk and drastically increases your likelihood of losing weight.
Breaking up with refined sugar
Before I offer some helpful tips, I just want to clarify that I’m talking about the refined sugar found in processed food. You don’t need to go carb-free, you just need to avoid the rapidly absorbed sugars used in manufactured foods to extend their shelf life and keep you hooked. Check out my article on how to structure your diet to see the proper way to incorporate carbohydrates into your meals.
These suggestions are going to be a combination of tips to help with cravings (withdrawal) and advice to undo the damage from too much sugar because they go hand in hand. The disruptions to your body’s chemistry from too much sugar is what makes cutting it out so hard. These tips will help you adjust more quickly to a low-sugar lifestyle.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Short, intense workouts have been shown to result in greater fat loss than longer workouts despite the fact that you actually burn less calories. The reason is because it quickly repairs your dysfunctional metabolism. In one study, HIIT training was shown to improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetics twice as fast compared to longer, more moderate sessions. Another study showed improvements in insulin secretion in type 2 diabetics following 10 to 20 minute HIIT workouts just 3 times per week.
In addition to improving your body’s ability to process sugar, it will also help you reduce your cortisol levels. Exercise releases cortisol to fuel your workouts and provide a pool of free amino acids to help repair and strengthen damaged muscles afterwards. This short term spike in cortisol also trains your body to use less and less cortisol in response to other stressors. It’s why exercise is such an effective stress reducer. HIIT will train your body to use sugar more effectively while making you crave it less.
Whole fruits: Whenever I tell people to cut out sugar or avoid high fructose corn syrup, they inevitably say, “So I should avoid all fruit as well right?” It’s exactly the opposite. The amount of sugar in fruit is not only much less than what you find in highly concentrated, refined sugar, but it’s locked away behind difficult to digest fiber and paired with important vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols that offer a host of healthy benefits for you and your microbiome. They are a great option when your sugar cravings are really intense, especially when you’re first trying to cut back. I generally recommend any kind of berry because they’re lower in sugar and high in fiber, but your best bet in the beginning is the fruit you enjoy most.
Don’t ditch the fat too: The typical Western diet is defined by high saturated fat, high refined sugar, and pretty much no fiber. I’ve noticed when people want to make the switch and move away from this unhealthy combination, they try to cut out all sugar and all fat at the same time. Cutting out all fat causes a similar dopamine crash with the same withdrawal-like symptoms. One mouse study in particular showed that this dopamine crash also primes the brain’s reward system to overindulge and binge when high-fat food is reintroduced into the diet. Plus your body needs some kind of fuel to work. You can’t just cut out sugar and fat and expect to have any energy at all. As I’ve said many times before, saturated fat isn’t the cause of heart disease, but it is harder to mobilize stored body fat during exercise if you primarily eat saturated fat. Add healthy fat sources like grass-fed beef and dairy, avocados, nuts, and olive oil for best results and some easy to use energy.
Get seven hours sleep: In general, getting a good night’s sleep reduces cortisol the next day and improves your will power. When you don’t get enough sleep, you feel lousy, you crave comfort food, and your willpower is diminished so you’re more likely to cave in and eat junk. A recent study demonstrated this phenomena in the context of job stress as well. They observed Chinese workers in high stress IT or call center jobs and found they ate unhealthy food in the evening for comfort from their job stress, but only if they had a poor night’s sleep beforehand.
Make more dopamine: Phenylalanine and tyrosine are two amino acid precursors used to make dopamine. Cutting sugar is going to drop your dopamine levels, so give your body an edge in making more. Both amino acids can be found in soybeans, cheese, nuts, seeds, beef, lamb, chicken, pork, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains. Try to limit the meat sources to grass-fed animals to reduce the amount of saturated fat. Eating a lot of saturated fat has been shown to decrease dopamine receptor sensitivity. It’s OK to eventually add saturated fat back into the mix, but try to keep it lower in the beginning as you work to cut your cravings.
Eat your carbs last: Even the order that you eat your carbohydrates can affect your blood glucose and insulin levels. One study looked at a group of type 2 diabetics and fed them the same meals in a different order to see if the simple act of changing the order that carbs are eaten could slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. They found that blood sugar levels were as much as 37 percent lower when the carbs were eaten 15 minutes after the protein and vegetables as compared to beforehand. That’s actually as big an improvement as you’ll find from taking the diabetes metformin that I mentioned above. It may seem bizarrely easy (and it is), but if you consume your carbs last, you’ll improve your appetite control and reduce your body’s ability to store fat.
Tough, not impossible
While cutting out refined sugar can have some withdrawal-like symptoms, this isn’t going to feel like trying to quit smoking or some other hard drug. For one thing, you don’t need to go cold-turkey to completely succeed. Like I said before, carbohydrates are totally fine. From your body’s perspective, a can of soda and a sweet potato both get turned into sugar, but the soda messes up your metabolism and feedback mechanisms while the sweet potato gets processed slowly and properly. Check out the article on how to structure your diet to learn how to slow the flow of carbs into your system so you can break away from refined sugar and drastically improve your health and weight.