If you’re looking to cut out sugar and take back your health, you’re not alone. A diet full of sugar can lead to a wide variety of health issues, including unhealthy weight gain, skin breakouts, increased inflammation, cardiovascular dysfunction, mood swings, and more!
Why is sugar such a problem? Because we digest simple carbohydrates (sugars) very quickly, this leads to a sudden increase in sugar in the blood. The body tries to manage this spike in sugar by increasing the secretion of insulin, the hormone the body uses to tell cells to take in fuel to feed our muscles and other tissues. The problem is that not all of this sugar is used to fuel immediate muscle activity, nor is all the excess stored as glycogen in muscles to fuel future activity. When there is too much sugar, it is converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. As a result, excess sugar in the diet can lead to increased body fat and a fatty liver, and can cause the cells to stop paying attention to insulin. Over time, this makes it harder for the body to use energy effectively, creating a whole host of health issues.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to cut out excess sugar and help your cells stand up and pay attention again!
Follow these 5 steps to help cut sugar out of your diet:
1. Learn to Spot Simple Sugars
Simple carbohydrates aren’t just found in cakes and cookies; they are often hidden in the unlikeliest of places, such as:
- Bread and crackers
- Coffee drinks and energy drinks
- Granola bars and energy bars
- Some types of rice cakes
- Popcorn and chips
- Yogurt and other dairy products
- Salad dressings, sauces, and other condiments
Take a look in your cupboard or pantry for these foods and examine their labels for the amount of simple carbohydrates (sugar). Then ditch the worst culprits (take them to a food bank along with some healthy donated goods!), or work through these foods by pairing them with a high-protein, high-fat meal to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrates. Most importantly, leave these foods off your shopping list in the future!
2. Ditch the Soft Drinks (and Watch the Fruit Juice!)
Most people now recognize that soft drinks are a major source of sugar. Some soft drinks contain a staggering 300–500 calories per portion (20–25% of the daily recommended calorie intake for many adults!) while providing almost no essential nutrients. Unfortunately, fruit juice is often not that much better. Even juice marketed as a healthy alternative can contain just as many calories as soft drinks, as it is often little more than water with fruit flavouring, fructose, and other sweeteners. Rather than trying to wean yourself off these drinks, it’s often best to get rid of them altogether. That’s because the sugar and insulin roller coaster caused by one soft drink can propel cravings for another.
Instead, swap your soft drinks and juice for plain water, herbal tea, or water flavoured with cucumber slices, fresh mint, or lemon slices. This cuts calories, can support blood sugar regulation, and can help you better manage hunger levels and hydration. Maintain your resolve by leaving soft drinks off your shopping list and carrying a water bottle with you to avoid impulse purchases.
3. Avoid Convenience Junk Food
After a couple of weeks of being soft drink-free, and as you work through any remaining junk foods in your kitchen, take some time to assess the junk food you consume outside your home. Cut out obvious sugar culprits such as cakes, cookies, candy, and ice cream. Also look at salty and savoury foods that you might not think contain simple sugars, like chips, popcorn, and pretzels, for instance. Some granola bars and energy bars sold as healthy alternatives are also packed with sugar, so read nutrition labels or, better yet, snack on fresh fruit, nuts, and water instead.
4. Snack Smart
If you regularly snack on sugary junk foods during work hours or when watching shows at night, take a moment to consider why you’re eating these foods. Are you genuinely hungry, or are you dehydrated and thirsty? Maybe you’re just eating out of boredom or habit.
Identifying the reasons behind your food choices helps you begin to make healthier decisions. This may mean going for a walk with the family or a friend after dinner instead of sitting on the couch using a device.
People commonly reach for junk food mid-morning or mid-afternoon when hunger (and boredom) strikes. Instead of grabbing some cookies from the staff kitchen or vending machine, try drinking a glass of water and taking a five minute stroll outside or around the office. This gives your body a chance to re-hydrate and recalibrate so you can decide if you’re actually hungry or just bored. Often the craving passes and you can enjoy a healthy lunch a little later.
If you are, in fact, hungry, make sure to have healthy snacks on hand, such as raw veggies and a healthy dip such as hummus, which provides proteins, fats, and the slow release of carbohydrates for more sustained energy. Or, try roasting chickpeas in a mixture of curry spices and bagging them so you have a healthy snack on hand that is rich in protein and antioxidants. A protein shake with fresh fruit and a green food powder is also a great low Glycemic Index snack that provides antioxidants, fibre, and protein.
5. Reduce Complex Carbs
At this stage, having cut out overtly sugary food items, foods with “hidden” sugar, and many unhealthy junk foods, you’ll likely be eating a more diverse diet that has fewer calories but is considerably richer in nutrients. Some diets, such many paleo and ketogenic diets, suggest trying to eliminate complex carbohydrates at this point. For many people, this is both unnecessary and potentially damaging to health, as whole foods that contain complex carbohydrates are often a great source of proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients. Cutting out these foods can result in a horribly restrictive and boring diet that is hard to maintain and more likely to lead to nutrient deficiencies.
That said, it can help to minimize your intake of some high-carb whole foods, such as potatoes, whole wheat bread and pasta, and rice. Try cutting the typical serving size of these foods in half and adding in chickpeas, beans, and pulses for extra lean protein, or choose a simple green salad (without the sugary dressing!) for extra phytonutrients.
Eating a whole food diet that includes a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates helps the body to better regulate blood sugar and insulin levels already in the normal range, and can support stable energy levels and overall health and well-being. Such a diet typically provides excellent levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and other phytonutrients, and is so varied and interesting that a sugar-laden junk food diet seems wholly unappetizing!
If you’re really struggling to get a handle on your eating habits, you might want to consider a short-term fast. It may sound extreme, but the benefits of intermittent fasting are beginning to stack up. Intermittent or alternate-day fasting is where you forego food for a certain number of hours or days. During this time, you can drink water and eat or drink zero-calorie supplements to make sure you get essential micronutrients.
Some people fast for a five day period, while others fast every other day. One popular and more manageable type of fasting has become known as the 16/8 fast. This is, in essence, an overnight fast, where you fast for 16 hours a day and only eat during the other 8 hours of the day. You might breakfast at 8 am, for instance, then have snacks and other meals at noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm, then fast until the next morning. Studies investigating overnight fasting suggest benefits for insulin sensitivity, oxidative stress and inflammation, appetite, and weight management, as well as blood lipid status.
A short-term fast can also help “reset” your eating habits, making fasting especially helpful if you tend to consume foods out of boredom, for comfort, or at times of stress. After a fast, chances are that you’ll be more tuned-in to how different foods affect your energy levels and mood. Fasting can help promote more mindful eating, which typically means less sugar and better health!
- Lyon MR, Reichert RG. The effect of a novel viscous polysaccharide along with lifestyle changes on short-term weight loss and associated risk factors in overweight and obese adults: an observational retrospective clinical program analysis. Altern Med Rev. 2010; 15(1): 68-75.
- Walford RL, Harris SB, Gunion MW. The calorically restricted low-fat nutrient-dense diet in Biosphere 2 significantly lowers blood glucose, total leukocyte count, cholesterol, and blood pressure in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1992; 89(23):11533-11537.
- Marinac CR, Sears DD, Natarajan L, et al. Frequency and circadian timing of eating may influence biomarkers of inflammation and insulin resistance associated with breast cancer risk. PLoS One. 2015; 10(8):e0136240.
- Longo VD, Mattson MP. Fasting: molecular mechanisms and clinical applications. Cell Metab. 2014; 19(2):181-192.
- Sutton EF, Beyl R, Early KS, et al. Early time-restricted feeding improves insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and oxidative stress even without weight loss in men with prediabetes. Cell Metab. 2018; 27(6):1212-1221.e3.