Looking to finally clean up your diet this year? Ready to give up some crappy foods in the name of health and wellness?
If so, then it might be time to toss out the sugar – the #1 ingredient to avoid in 2015, in my opinion.
Why is sugar the #1 ingredient to avoid this year?
Sugar tends to be problematic for just about everyone. Consuming too much sugar can lead to weight gain, hormonal imbalances, acne, type II diabetes, and a weakened immune system, so I would highly recommend cutting back on all sweeteners, both natural and artificial, for a few reasons.
- Most sweeteners contain a lot of fructose which can lead to unwanted weight gain and insulin resistance
- Sugar is an energy stimulant that provides short-term energy followed by the notorious “sugar crash”
- Natural sweeteners can feed unfriendly gut bacteria which can alter your cravings and appetite (1)
- Artificial sweeteners can negatively alter gut bacteria (2)
- Aspartame can modify brain function and have damaging effects on the nervous system (3)
If it’s practical for you, I recommend starting the year off with a sugar-free challenge that I’ll explain later. This challenge will effectively reset your sugar tolerance and cravings, allowing you to permanently reduce your intake of added sugars.
Back to the basics: Carbohydrate metabolism
One of the major problems with sugar is that it contains large amounts of fructose, one of three simple sugars. Table sugar, or sucrose, is the combination of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule.
Glucose, another simple sugar, is essential to the human body, and the majority of our cells are designed to metabolize it.
From the small intestine, glucose enters the bloodstream, where it travels to the rest of the cells in your body. When there’s too much glucose in your blood, your pancreas will secrete insulin in order to maintain a balance.
Insulin reduces your blood glucose levels by converting glucose to its storage form of liver and muscle glycogen. When your fat cells detect insulin, they release another hormone called leptin to let your brain know that you’re not starving (4).
However, these signals don’t always reach the brain. Factors like high stress, insufficient sleep, overeating, carbohydrate-rich diets, and fructose consumption have a negative impact on leptin levels.
The problem with fructose
Fructose is a large contributing factor in leptin resistance because fructose does not stimulate insulin like glucose does. And therefore, it does not trigger leptin release to let your brain know you’re full.
Excess fructose can essentially sneak into the body unannounced and eventually lead to high cholesterol, heart disease, gout, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, leptin resistance, sugar cravings, and possibly cancer (5)(6)(7)(8).
What about fruit?
In general, fruit contains minor amounts of fructose compared to added sugars and syrups. Fruits also contain a good amount of fiber in addition to vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Whole fruits are fairly difficult to overeat, and you would have to eat a ridiculous amount of fruit to reach dangerous levels of fructose, so don’t worry too much about the fruit.
If you’re going to avoid any fruit, I would avoid apples and pears, as they tend to have the highest concentrations of fructose. In fact, 1 medium apple contains as much fructose as 1 Tbsp of honey, so if you’d like to limit fruit, then I would start with those.
It’s important to note that dried fruits and fruit juices do not count as whole fruits. These contain large amounts of natural and added sugars, often stripped of other important nutrients.
What should I avoid?
The best way to quit sugar is to quit cold turkey. Don’t bother weaning yourself off because it won’t work. Sugar is addicting, so it’s best to treat it like an addiction. The list of sweeteners to avoid includes:
- Agave Nectar (75% fructose)
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (55% fructose)
- Sugar/sucrose (50% fructose)
- Honey (40% fructose)
- Corn Syrup (40% fructose)
- Coconut Sugar (40% fructose)
- Palm Sugar (40% fructose)
- Maple Syrup (33% fructose)
- Molasses (30% fructose)
- Brown Rice Syrup (0% fructose)
- Rice Syrup (0% fructose)
- Tapioca Syrup
- Acesulfame Potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet)
- Rebiana (Truvia, Pure Via)
If you’re ready to give up sugar for a bit, then set a goal. Pick a challenging, yet doable amount of time to allocate to your goal.
If you’re a sugar junkie, then try to make it through 1 week without any sugar. If you dabble in the occasional cookie or baked treat… everyday, then try to make it through 2 weeks without sugar.
If you’re a go-big-or-go-home kind of person, then challenge yourself to a whopping 30 days without sugar.
Programs like Melissa Hartwig’s Whole30 and Diane Sanfilippo’s 21-Day Sugar Detox can help you through the challenge with as many resources as you could possibly imagine. Check them out if you’d like a little help along the way.
After you complete your sugar detox, look for products or recipes sweetened with fruit, honey, maple syrup, molasses, rice syrup, tapioca syrup, or stevia if you want an occasional sweet treat.
As you can see, there are many reasons to back off the sugar for a bit.
The key takeaways:
- The overconsumption of fructose is linked to a ton of chronic diseases
- It’s best to avoid added sugars as much as possible
- Try a 21-day sugar detox on your own or with help
- Fruit is okay and does not count as added sugar
- After the detox, choose fruit, honey, maple syrup, molasses, rice syrup, tapioca syrup, or stevia when looking for sweeteners