So, you have now read my previous posts about the addictive properties of sweetness; you know what sugars are and you know that added sugars have negative health effects, and that these effects are different when you talk about fructose or glucose, or when they are naturally present in food or added as external ingredients. Surely you also remember that if all sugars are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are sugars and therefore not all carbohydrates should be limited/avoided (as I too often hear in the “health conscious” community)…! Up until here, you might have found many other blogs, websites, articles and people talking, all mentioning similar concepts (let’s be fair though, this time you liked it better, right…?!?).
But one thing you might have found more difficult to read about, is how to put all these nice and healthy theories into practice… And this is one of the reasons that actually drove me towards the creation of this blog. What I am going to try with this post is indeed to help you wean off added sugars. Remember, they are addictive, it is not your fault if the more you have, the more you want; and if you put it together with the concept of a “toxic, obesogenic society” and the “Big Food” industry, whose aim is not to keep you healthy, but to sell you more food, then you would easily realize I am embarking in a David vs Goliath task…
And you will understand why you need to “wean off” sugars. It is easy to say “quit the desserts and go to the gym”, as you will have read and heard millions of times, but if it has not worked until now, I believe it is because that is just not enough… Otherwise there would probably be no obese as much as there would be no smokers nor drug addicts in the world either…
What follows is an approach that not only I have experimented on myself several years ago, when I moved form an added-sugar-rich diet to an added-sugar-moderate diet before moving to an added-sugar-limited one, with current stints of added-sugar-free nutrition (I do not reject the odd dessert, but I choose when to have one, rather being tempted into it)… And please note, it is not by chance that I have repeated the word “added” so many times… Sugars are present naturally in many foods, every fruit and vegetables, most grains and dairies and they are part of a healthy diet. What science more and more points at as a likely reason for the current epidemic in food-related diseases (often referred to as “non-communicable-diseases”) is added sugars (the “empty calories”), and that is the one thing I would invite you to and help you to try to reduce/eliminate from your diet. What that has led me to, is a lifestyle that allows me to be active and on my feet most of the day every day, working out between 10 and 15 hours a week and still have plenty of residual energy, have an impeccable cardiovascular risk factors profile and a body fat percentage at pro-athlete levels for the past 3+ years.
If the health benefits are already a big drive for me to be willing to share my knowledge and experience, several side-effects are of no secondary importance…: tasting food at a much “deeper” level (I have learnt to taste the difference between an earl grey tea, a black tea, a green tea macha or senchu…something I would challenge you to do, once you fill your cuppa with one, two or even more teaspoons of sugar!). Sure you can survive without all that, but I can promise you, the enjoyment of food once you widen the spectrum of flavors you can recognize at every bite or sip will make you repel all that processed stuff that fills aisles and aisles of supermarkets and will make you fast rather than eat the sugar-laden desserts offered in poor quality eateries and stores…; be able to control yourself and win your fight against Goliath and in doing so regain full control over your food-choices (remember, I choose when to have a dessert, I am not chosen by the dessert…). It is a multi-step approach, and as such, I will discuss them in different blog post to make it easier to digest, so to speak…:
- Acknowledge and measure your added-sugars intake
- Recognize the easy-to-avoid and easy-to-correct sugary habits, thus moving to a moderate-added-sugar diet with little effort
- Fill the gap with more nutrient-dense foods and improve the macronutrient profile of desserts
- Progressively move from a moderate-added-sugar diet to a limited-added-sugar diet (you will soon find out, the less the merrier..!)
- Be completely in control of your nutrition
1. ACKNOWLEDGE AND MEASURE YOUR ADDED SUGAR INTAKE
The first step into reducing your intake of added sugars is to recognize its presence in your diet… Sounds obvious and simple, right? Wrong…! I am not just talking about the sugar you put in your coffee and tea (a good first step anyhow)… I include here the sugars you have when you drink your soft drinks and juices (and do not be fooled by the “sugar-free” theories, they might not have caloric sugars, but still have artificial sweeteners, so they keep you addicted to their products! Remember it is not the sugar but the sweetness to be addictive and promote overeating…), or eat your organic jam/marmalade or honey (again, do not be fooled by the wording, organic does not necessarily means healthy!), or have the fat-free frozen-yogurt (if you ever tried to make an ice-cream or sorbet you will know that to keep a good texture and avoid ice crystals forming in the ice-cream, you have to put either sugar or fat, and apart rare exceptions, if you reduce one you have to increase the other…!) or your diet cookies and snack bars (“diet-” is mainly referred to fat reduction, which most of time means they have increased sugars to maintain flavor). And if again, all these listed foods have a sweet flavor that can hint towards the presence of sugars, although you might have never thought about it, much more subtle but equally damaging are the sugars added to ready-made sauces (no exceptions, from ketchup to mayonnaise, mustard to barbecue sauce), packaged foods (from frozen burger patties, to nuggets and fries, to ready-made meals) and any other snacks.
I will help you at the start by providing a list of some common foods and their sugar presence here. However, what will have to follow, to have you fully in control of your diet and sugar intake, will be to read the nutritional information and ingredients list of what you buy, and understand it… If at the beginning this is a time-consuming task, it will help you understand what I mean when I say that added sugar is everywhere… And after you have learnt how to interpret the label and you have gone through the process for your most commonly used products, it will become much faster and will direct you automatically towards “healthier” options when available… Because listing all foods in this post would be never-ending, what follows is just a list of the most common products found in the supermarket, with the amount of sugars you would have with a reasonable portion (not always matching the portion-size mentioned in the nutrition label, because let’s face it, how many people eat 9 chips??!!??).
And as a reminder, the World Health Organisation has recently proposed to officially reduce the recommended daily intake of added-sugars (including honey and sugars in beverages) to 25g. As you will see, some single portion of commonly consumed foods and drinks alone exceed that amount!!!
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I hope you spent even just a couple of minutes looking at those figures… That would be enough to start thinking how much more sugars is present in processed food than you would probably think…
Can you believe, a seemingly “healthy” fruit smoothie from Caribou Coffee would land you 66g (!!!) of sugars?!? Or a frappuccino and muffin at Starbucks 67g?!?! These alone, would set you almost 3 times over the proposed daily intake of sugars from the World Health Organisation! Have a thought next time you want to meet for a chat with your friend, or browse the internet at the local coffee-shop…
INGREDIENT LIST and NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION INTERPRETATION
As an extra comment in this post, I thought it might be useful to go through how to understand what you are actually buying and eating.
One commonly disregarded but in my opinion extremely useful way to rate the basic nutritional quality of processed / packed food and drinks is as simple as looking at the ingredient list. Not just WHAT is listed (remember it should be an edible product…for once probably you can confidently say that the less, the merrier!), but also in WHAT ORDER ingredients are listed (by FDA regulation, they need to be listed from the most present to the least present!).
That means that if you would like chocolate, the first ingredient should be cocoa, right? Well, not always.. Actually, very rarely that is the case! Sugar is most likely to be the most present ingredient in your chocolate bar! So it should technically be called a sugar bar…!
And in general, when sugar is listed among the first three ingredients, you can be sure that is is present in reasonably high amount. At which point you might wonder if it is really worth the purchase… If you are looking for an ice-cream, maybe you could expect that, but if you would like a tomato sauce or a soup, is that necessary?
If being present high up in the list of ingredients is an indication of likely high amount, to be even smarter you can combine that with what you can read in the nutrition facts label.
A product that has sugar (or any synonym, like sucrose, fructose, HFCS, High Fructose Corn Syrup, etc…) in the top ingredients and shows sugars in high amount in the nutrition facts label, can be confidently be avoided for health…!
But be careful, despite the FDA has proposed to change to regulations, there are still many tricks companies use to show what their products are not… The nutrition fact label often only reflects the amount of macronutrients in one portion, or in 100g… READ CAREFULLY, as it is likely that you are going to eat a lot more than that…! As briefly mentioned above, one serving of chips amounts to about 30g… When was the last time it took you 12 times to finish a medium bag of chips??? Or 5 times to finish a 500g tub of ice-cream? And did you know that the nutritional information displayed on a bottle of sports drink (typically 500ml) is related to 250ml of it? You will likely have to do some simple maths, and multiply the indicated amount by a factor of 2 or even 3…
So now that you have all the tools, next time you go out for a drink or to the supermarket, invest a few minutes to read the ingredient list and nutritional information of the food and drinks you regularly consume… I bet you will be surprised and in the long term, you will be happy you did… Remember, it is never too late to regain you health and you taste buds…!
If you found this post interesting, I hope you will stay tuned for what is coming up, another practical post on how to progressively reduce your sugar intake, what to expect and how to fill the nutritional gap in your diet (with what I believe are not just healthier, but also much more satisfying options…).