Whether it’s a spoonful of sugar or two in your morning coffee, or that nightly scoop of ice cream you like to enjoy while watching the tube at night- refined sugar is a daily staple for many! And of course, we know sugary treats aren’t the best for us, but how bad can they really be?
I want you to be aware of the facts about the detriment refined sugars can have on our bodies, and how you can easily cut some of it out of your diet.
What is Refined Sugar?
Sugars can be found in a few different forms in our diet.
Naturally Occurring Sugar
The first is naturally occurring sugar, like sugar that comes in fruits and vegetables. While fruits do contain sugar it is often much less than you would find in your typical candy bar. These foods are high in nutritional value you need on a daily basis- containing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber which makes you feel full! I would recommend at least 1-2 servings of fresh, whole fruits per day.
Refined sugar, on the other hand, is sugar that has been processed so much that it essentially has no nutritional value- no healthy fats, no protein, no vitamins. Just empty calories. A real danger of including empty calories in your diet is that they add to your calorie count, but don’t provide you with a feeling of fullness. This can push your calorie count above your ideal daily intake and can lead to weight gain.
Some examples of refined sugars are white (table) sugar, powdered sugar, and some brown sugars. What’s worse is while refined sugar is within the sweets and treats we would expect to have sugar like cake and candy- it’s also a common add-on in all kinds of store-bought foods you might not expect, such as sauces, salad dressings, yogurts, even chicken stock!
Why are Refined Sugars Bad?
Refined sugars not only add empty calories to your daily calorie intake- they have many negative effects on our bodies. In fact, some have gone as far to label sugar as poisonous. Read the facts below for yourself!
Increases Risk of Diabetes
Insulin is an important hormone that uptakes sugar from the blood and delivers it to the cells for energy. However, many studies link high sugar consumption to insulin resistance. And insulin resistance is one of the biggest drivers of preventable disease like diabetes II, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
Increases Risk of Obesity
When you eat refined sugar, like a chocolate bar, dopamine (a chemical that makes you feel happiness and pleasure) is released from the reward centers of your brain. This is a strong and positive feeling that becomes associated with these sugary foods. And it will make you crave those foods again and again, like an addiction! This feeling even has the power to override feelings of fullness, opening up the door to eat much more than you need.
No Fiber/ Nutrients
Pair the positive/addictive feelings of refined sugar, with its lack of nutrient value- and you get the perfect binge food! Think about it, you can’t help yourself by wanting to eat more because of the chemicals released from your brain. But at the same time, you aren’t satisfied or ‘feeling full’ like you would if you ate a big plate of protein and veggies. Thus, it’s easy to keep eating more!
When sugar enters our bodies it is broken down into two components, glucose and fructose. Glucose is the bodies preferred energy source and is quick energy available as blood sugar for cells.
Fructose, on the other hand, is not the preferred energy source for the muscles or the brain. It first must go to the liver to be processed before providing energy to cells, and when the liver’s storage systems are occupied it is stored as fat!!
This doesn’t mean fructose shouldn’t be consumed at all. Fructose naturally occurs in fruits and vegetables; however, it’s almost impossible to consume enough fructose from whole fruit to cause harm.
Consider a whole apple- typically with about 13 grams of fructose; but, also full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals! Because of the nature of the fruit, it will keep you feeling full as it slowly digests in your stomach. As it’s broken down, the fructose slowly hits your liver at a steady state it can easily process and provide your body with steady energy.
Now, consider a 16 oz. bottle of Coke- which contains 52 grams of sugar, 30 of which are from fructose (hello, high fructose corn syrup!). Coke doesn’t have any nutritional value, no fiber, nothing to satisfy you or keep you feeling full. Because of the nature of the Coke, the fructose will shoot right through your system, and overwhelm your liver. And any excess gets stored as fat.
Easy Ways to Cut Refined Sugars Out of Your Diet
Make Slow Changes
If you’re looking to cut down on sugar, remember sugar is addictive, and it might be harder than you think to cut it cold turkey. In fact, I recommend making slow changes rather than cutting it out all at once. This will help you adjust, and help to keep intense cravings and withdrawals at bay.
Some small changes you can make might include slowly adding less sugar in your coffee. If you usually add 1 spoonful of coffee to your coffee or tea, try just a half a spoonful, then a few weeks later just a pinch, then none at all. Or maybe you are a chocoholic? Not all chocolate is created equal. A lot of milk chocolates and white chocolates have a lot of added sugars. Start weaning yourself off the sugary chocolates, and introduce yourself to dark chocolate. Gradually increase the cacao as time goes on. At first, it can be pretty gross, but if done gradually, it tastes really good. You might even begin to consider milk chocolate that you used to love too sugary.
Finally, if you’re having trouble cutting out desserts- maybe try a serving of fruit for your sweet fix. It will definitely not feel as indulgent as a slice of cake, but over time you will come to enjoy this treat. And as your taste buds adjust the fruit will be more and more satisfying.
Avoid Store-bought Items with Added Sugars When Possible
So many store-bought items that you wouldn’t think have sugar, have added sugar! This is easy to avoid if you know what you’re looking for. Check the nutritional label for sneaky words like high fructose corn syrup, molasses, dried cane syrup, sucrose, or brown rice syrup.
Sometimes the easiest way to avoid these sugars is making your own foods at home- like homemade marinara sauce, or granola bars. There are so many healthy recipes out there, that are absolutely delicious and easy to make.
Replace Items You Crave with Similar but Healthier Items
Do you love yummy soda drinks? It’s pretty hard not to love them. For many, these can be the hardest thing to say goodbye to. But after reading up about your liver you might be convinced to make the switch. Try filling that tough craving with another bubbly drink like a sparkling water with a little lime. While a La Croix may not satisfy that sweet, syrupy goodness of a Coke, it is a refreshing alternative. Try it for a few weeks- I think you’ll find you like it more and more as you go.
Don’t Keep Treats in the House
For me, the most important part of not indulging in ‘problem foods’ is not keeping them in the house at all. If ice cream is in the fridge, I will eat it. I’m obsessed with ice cream, an ice cream connoisseur if you will. I ate ice cream every single night for dessert as a child without fail. And whether it’s habit, addiction, pure love, no self-control….who knows my problem, the bottom line is I will eat the ice cream.
So I just don’t keep ice cream in my freezer. It’s not that I never eat ice cream because for me that would just not be a life worth living. Instead, maybe once a week or every two weeks, I treat myself to really good ice cream from my favorite spot or a new spot I’ve been wanting to try.
Hopefully, as you can see, keeping sugar to a minimum in your diet isn’t all that difficult- it’s just a matter of being mindful and making healthier choices most of the time. I’m a firm believer that moderation over deprivation is key. If you want to treat yourself to your favorite dessert every now and again I say go for it! Your happiness is an important part of finding a healthy balance that you can maintain long-term.
PK Fitness Program Coordinator, CPT, CES