I was on my second slice of king cake (of the day) when I realized that I might have a bit of a sugar problem. It wasn’t so much that I was worried about gaining weight, but all the sugar coursing through my veins left me feeling slumped over. With the holidays, Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras, I was on a bit of a sugar bender. Dunking the last bite into coffee, I thought to myself, “Man, I need to break up with sugar.” But do I really?
Not if you ask registered dietitian, cookbook author and TV personality Ellie Krieger. “I think most of us would really benefit from reducing the amount of sugar in our diet. But that said, we really don’t have to cut it out completely,” Krieger said. “There’s no reason to go cold turkey on this situation.” (Of course, if you have a medical condition that requires you to closely monitor your sugar intake, you should continue to do so with the guidance of your doctor.)
Sugar is maligned in our culture for claims that it causes hyperactivity or diabetes, but both assertions have been debunked on some level. (For example, sugar isn’t the only thing that causes diabetes. Too much sugar could put you at risk, but there are other factors at play, too.) Still, there is such a thing as too much sugar.
“When we consume carbohydrates, refined foods (like white pasta, white rice and white bread) and chocolate or candy, that’s just sugar in there without protein, fiber or fat,” registered dietitian Lainey Younkin told HuffPost. Ingesting these foods causes a spike in blood sugar, which signals insulin to be released from your pancreas. Insulin carries sugar from your blood to cells for energy, but leftover sugar gets stored as fat.
Let’s say you’re like me, and focused on body positivity, but you still may feel sluggish when you eat too many sweets. So, whether your concern is weight loss or generally wanting to feel better, here are some ways to strike a better balance with sugar, according to the experts.
Understand the difference between natural and added sugar
The goal, Younkin said, is to stay under 25 grams of added sugar per day for women (36 grams for men), per the American Heart Association’s recommendation. The key word is added.
Foods like fruit and yogurt have naturally occurring sugars, but our bodies process them differently because of the nutrients they’re packaged with. For example, an orange has fiber that our bodies break down, allowing the sugar to hit the body more slowly. The fiber also keeps us full, so we’re likely to eat less. But when you drink orange juice, even if it’s made with fresh-squeezed oranges, the sugar is going to quickly hit the bloodstream. And without other nutrients present (besides vitamins), it’ll cause a spike followed by a crash. It also won’t sate your hunger.
Added sugar is found in nearly every processed food, from ketchup to tomato sauce to your favorite potato chips. Shortcuts in the kitchen are totally valid in our energy-draining world, but it helps to be aware where the sugar in your diet is hiding, so you can make more conscientious decisions when you choose to enjoy it.
Incorporate more whole foods into your diet
One of the best ways to cull added sugar is to focus on eating whole foods. No one is saying you have to resign yourself to a life of salads and cut fruit (unless that’s what you want!). Rather, take a look at your go-to recipes and see how you might be able to reduce the added sugar or swap out a sweetener with fresh fruit. Krieger does this with her mango barbecue sauce, which relies on pureed mango for sweetness and a little bit of molasses to deepen the flavor.
Andrea Mathis, the registered dietitian behind the blog Beautiful Eats and Things, feels similarly. “I love to add fruit to my pancake or muffin recipes. A lot of times I will omit the sugar and just add in the fruit because the fruit is naturally sweet,” Mathis said.
Mathis is also a fan of shaking up the palate by using ingredients that add flavors other than sweet. “If I’m going to make a cocktail or a drink, I’ll use herbs to add flavor without using more sugar. You can also add them to sweet desserts,” Mathis explained. Sometimes she’ll make a cake and use rosemary or thyme to change the flavor profile without missing the sweetness.
Pinpoint your main source of sugar
You might think you’re not eating that much added sugar, but are you considering that daily can of Coke? Or the heavy pours of creamer in your thrice-a-day coffee? That’s what will get you.
Evaluate your diet to see what the main source of sugar is, and swap it out (or see what else you can swap out to better accommodate that treat if it’s what makes you happiest). “For most people, it’s actually beverages. What are your sugary beverages? How can you cut back on that in a way that’s still reasonable for you and that you’re still able to enjoy your hydration?” Krieger said.
Consider adding a splash of citrus juice and sliced fruit (like berries or watermelon) or herbs to filtered water. “Keep it in the refrigerator and it infuses beautifully with no sugar at all,” Krieger suggested. This gets bonus points for being low effort.
Eat enough throughout the day
One important strategy is making sure you eat regular, balanced meals throughout the day. “I find that people are more likely to reach for sugary foods when their appetite is raging because sugar is the fuel that is most quickly absorbed by our cells,” Krieger said.
Use your best judgment when it comes to artificial sweeteners
Before you rush off to buy sugar-free ice cream, consider that artificial sweeteners might not be the best solution. Krieger suggests using sweeteners like saccharine and sucralose sparingly. “It doesn’t help train your taste buds out of that sweet trap and if you use them excessively, we really don’t know the long term implications,” she said. Have the real deal, but less of it.
Mathis is a fan of stevia and monk fruit sweetener. Both are plant-based, but contain zero sugar and therefore no calories. “I feel like stevia’s a good one because it’s a little bit sweeter than sugar, so you don’t have to use as much, but it is a natural sweetener,” Mathis said. “And there has been some research that it may help to lower blood pressure or it may actually help with your blood sugar, so there are some type of benefits to using that one.”
Remember, sugar isn’t inherently bad
So much of the angst we feel toward sugar is because of how demonized it is in our society. From “That Sugar Film” to anti-sugar diets, there’s no shortage of sources telling us that sugar is BAD. And if you eat it, YOU are BAD.
While we shouldn’t eat sweets with reckless abandon, it’s important to remember that a food isn’t inherently good or bad. “Yes, some foods are more nutritious for us, forget that idea that you did good or did bad,” Younkin said. “Enjoy it, without guilt, and move on. Because you chose to eat it, and you enjoyed it, so why feel guilty about it? It was your decision.”
To help mitigate those guilty feelings, Younkin suggests thinking about why you’re eating a particular treat. She explained that there are four reasons that we eat: Physical hunger, boredom, stress or cravings (or some combination thereof). So, when you reach for something like a brownie, stop and think about why you want it, and if it’s going to make you feel good.
“One food or meal doesn’t make or break someone’s health or weight loss efforts,” Younkin said. “I think that’s a good thing to remember. People think, ‘If I eat one thing, I’m totally ruined.’ And it’s like, well you eat one salad, you’re not going to lose five pounds in a week from one salad. You’re also not going to gain five pounds from one brownie.”