If you’re like most people, you want to eat less sugar. Despite our good intentions, the results are disappointing. Obesity rates are not improving. Diabetes rates are skyrocketing. A new study found that death rates from diabetes may be four times higher than was previously thought.
Why are we having such a hard time reducing our sugar intake?
Shouldn’t we just be able to enjoy sugar in moderation, like food companies tell us?
Unfortunately, humans don’t seem to be able to control themselves when it comes to sugar intake. Sugar has the effect of altering hormone response and brain function so that we are driven to eat more of it. For example, levels of the brain transmitter dopamine that make us feel pleasure are altered in response to sugar. At the same time, the hormone leptin, which suppresses hunger and signals fullness, is not released in response to sugar as it is to other foods.
Then there’s the fact that sugar is sneaky:
First, there are foods that we often think of as being “healthy” but actually are packed with added sugar: cereal, granola bars, canned fruit, protein bars, fruit juice, and crackers are just a few examples.
Then, there are the foods that aren’t sweet but have surprising amounts of added sugar: Ketchup, canned soup, oatmeal, salsa, and iced tea.
Next, there are the refined grains, which turn into sugar in the body. Anything that contains wheat, corn, rice, or other grain is processed by the body in a similar way as plain sugar, turning into glucose in the blood stream. For all metabolic intents and purposes, eating these foods (bread, crackers, chips, pasta, etc.) is just as bad as mainlining sugar.
Finally, there are the sweet foods that you would expect to contain sugar: Oreos, ice cream, pastries, chocolate, sugary soda, and so on. Based on data gathered from food journals, we know that many people eat much more of these foods than they even realize.
Studies show that the more sugar we eat, the more of it we need to get the same “sweet” sensation. Food manufacturers are aware of this, working to make processed foods “hyperpalatable” for enhanced taste with the intention of enticing as many people as possible so they become hooked.
It works the other way too. By cutting back on sugar, it’s possible to re-train your tastebuds. In a recent study, subjects who reduced sugar intake by 40 percent rated sweet treats (pudding and raspberry soda) as 40 percent sweeter than a control group did. Researchers concluded that the less sugar you eat, the more sensitive you are to sweet flavors, suggesting you can be satisfied with lower sugar foods.
This study also implies that it is literally possible to re-train your tastebuds to appreciate and enjoy foods that are lower in sugar. The catch is that it takes time: An average of two months passed before the reduced-sugar group noticed any difference in sweetness. The sweet sensation didn’t intensify until the third month.
Removing the hyperpalatable sugar and processed carb foods may take some time if they are a regular presence in your life. What follows are seven of our best tips for retraining your tastebuds for a healthier sugar intake. Some of these are simple (don’t add sugar to coffee). Others are more complex (favor protein foods over carbs) and generally require you to adopt habits that make them sustainable.
#1: Don’t Add Sugar To Foods Or Beverages
Sometimes it’s the little things that we forget! If you currently drink tea or coffee with added sugar, it’s time to stop.
One alternative is the natural non-calorie stevia. It comes from the South American stevia bush and is metabolized via the kidneys and liver. Instead of causing an insulin release like other sweeteners, stevia improves blood sugar tolerance. This makes it a great tool for everyone who wants to avoid sugar and it’s safe for diabetics. Don’t eat huge quantities because large doses haven’t been tested by science.
#2: Replace Processed Carbs With Complex Carbs
Something like 99 percent of processed and packaged foods contain added sugar. Removing them is the first line of defense to reduce your sugar intake. Replacing processed carbs will pay off in other ways too: A recent study found that when women ate berries as a snack instead of a sugary “fruit” candy, they ate less pasta at dinner, lowering energy intake by 135 calories, which translates into more than a pound of fat over the course of a month.
Complex carbs are foods in the natural form that are higher in fiber. They are more slowly digested, leading to a more moderate elevation in blood sugar. Think fruit, sweet potatoes, lentils, squash, leafy greens, heirloom grains (millet, buckwheat), oats, and other colorful vegetables.
#3: Read All Food Labels
In the rare cases when you can’t stay away from processed carbs, check the ingredient list for all of the following incarnations of sugar: Evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, agave, honey, molasses, brown sugar, and fruit juice concentrates.
Of course, sometimes, it’s simply impossible to entirely get away from sugar. In that case, you can start by limiting your added sugar intake to 100 calories a day, which is equal to about 24 grams or 6 teaspoons, which is the limit recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA).
#4: Plan Meals Around Whole Protein Instead Of Carb-Based Foods
Most Westerners plan meals around carbohydrates. Since the majority of these carbs are processed, people end up with way too much sugar for their digestive systems to handle safely. Depending on the survey, Americans get between 30 and 50 percent of the calories from foods containing corn, rice, or wheat.
A smart alternative is to plan meals around whole protein foods: Meat, eggs, fish, beans, and dairy. Whole protein is processed differently from carbs, resulting in more energy being burned during digestion and a greater impact in hunger and appetite.
#5: Avoid All Sweetened Beverages & Fruit Juice
Sweetened beverages and fruit juice are arguably one of the worst things about the American diet. There is compelling evidence that they are linked to accelerated fat gain and diabetes because liquid sugars are turned into fat very quickly and alter insulin sensitivity.
Fruit juices are equally bad. Although they come from a seemingly healthy source of sugar, juice has the fiber removed, which means the body treats juice just like soda, spiking blood sugar and raising insulin. Any excess calories are quickly stored as fat—often in the organs and abdominal area.
#6: Minimize Fructose Intake
The two main types of sugar we are concerned with are glucose and fructose. Glucose is turned into glycogen and used by our cells for energy. It is not very sweet by itself. When combined with fructose it becomes sucrose and is very sweet.
Fructose is derived from fruit and vegetables. It was originally thought to be a great alternative to sucrose because it doesn’t affect insulin. Recent research shows that when you consume food or beverages with added fructose, it will slow your metabolic rate and halt fat burning in the body. Small quantities of fructose, such as that found in vegetables and fruit are not a problem, however, processed carbs and sweetened beverages tend to be packed with fructose, meaning that the average person is eating way too much.
Save your fructose intake for fruit and vegetables and avoid other sources. Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, making them an important part of your diet. Lower fructose foods include most berries, nectarines, grapefruit, avocado and tomatoes. Bananas, apples, and pears are on the high end of the scale.
#7: Accept That There Is No Healthy Sugar
The idea of “healthier” sweeteners is a myth. For example, agave syrup is often recommended as an alternative sweetener but in reality it is one of the unhealthiest sweeteners because it is highly refined and has an even higher fructose content (88 percent) than high-fructose corn syrup!