In the past several years diet trends have come full circle. First, it was low fat, then fat was where it’s at and carbs were evil. The latest diet craze is shunning sugar.
Living with a disease that is basically defined by sugar and managed by calculated carb counting, I have to admit, the whole cutting sugar thing is a bit of a mystery to me.
To me, “cutting out sugar” is simply a re-marketed tagline for the ubiquitous low carb diet. And aren’t we over that yet??!!
When clients tell me that their newest diet trial is going to be to “cut sugar from their diet” I say, “ok great, so what does that mean?” My goal is to make people think about what that really means to them, and how they’re going to do it, rather than just blindly appropriating the tagline.
Will you be cutting out dairy like milk and yogurt?
What about fruit and fruit juice?
Will you still be eating bread, grains, cereal, and potatoes?
Is alcohol like beer and wine included in this diet?
What about honey, agave, and maple syrup?
I don’t mean to be obtuse here, but when someone makes a statement about cutting out sugar these questions are relevant. Why? Because all of the above contain sugar! In my practice I find that even well informed clients don’t often know where sugar resides and what foods breakdown into the sweet stuff.
It may come as a surprise to some that sugar can be healthy. Many foods that are nutritious contain it. Did you know that ALL foods that contain carbohydrates contain sugar? For example, the sugar in milk is called lactose, the sugars in fruits are called fructose and glucose, and complex carbs like breads, potatoes and grains contain starches (complex chains of sugars). Furthermore, did you know that ALL digestible carbohydrates are broken down into sugars in the body? That’s right, all the carbs you eat end up the same. As SUGAR!!!
Now, if your goal is to cut things like ice cream, pies, candy, chocolate and sugary drinks, and start limiting the white stuff added to tea and coffee then I totally back it. Eliminating such “treat” items containing lots of ADDED sugar is a good way to cut calories; mainly because these foods are calorie dense and NOT nutrient dense. But be careful. Using broad statements like “I’m gonna cut out sugar” can and has led to over restriction, and confusion about what exactly to limit. I see it in my office all the time. The fact that labels don’t yet reflect what sugar is added and what is naturally occurring in the food makes this near impossible to navigate. The result is often a low carb diet and as we know from my previous articles, that’s not always a desired goal.
As an active person, carbs are my friend. Since they’re responsible for fuelling exercise, and brain function, I don’t suggest cutting them too much. Logically then, when cutting sugar pops up in conversation, I’m always quick to clarify what that means and the responsible way to do it. Furthermore, if you’re an athlete or someone who has trouble getting in enough carbohydrates and calories for performance purposes a little added sugar is helpful. If everything you eat is low in sugar you are naturally restricting carbs. Remember too that post workout, some quick sources of sugar are legit.
Still Sold On Cutting Sugar? Here’s some take away tips
As it stands food labels list “sugars” under the carbohydrate heading. BUT unless you cross reference the ingredient list, it’s impossible to distinguish the ADDED sugars from the natural sugars. Take a serving of sweetened yogurt for example. Yogurt will naturally contain some “sugar” due to the lactose found in milk but certainly added sugars are there for taste. Hard for you to know what’s what. Ultimately though it just comes down to total carbs and calories. Make an informed choice. Avoiding sweetened varieties will obviously be more calorie wise, but remember that carbs are fuel and sometimes this is desired. When reading labels check this: 1. Serving Size 2. Calories 3. Total Carbs 4. Fibre. Sugar is part of the total carb, it all becomes sugar anyway. The fibre portion isn't digested so higher fibre is best.
Spend less time dwelling on the sugar content and more time considering the quality of the carbs in your cart. If you eat a lot of refined carbohydrates like white bread, bagels, cereals, pasta, rice, and juices, switching to whole grains and whole fruits is the better choice. This isn’t cutting “sugar” per se but ensures the form of sugar entering your body is more optimally absorbed and nutrient dense.
If you drink sweetened beverages like soda, specialty coffee, or habitually sweeten your tea and coffee try adjusting your taste to less over time. The problem here is added calories without nutritional benefit, so why not chuck it? Developing research on artificial sweeteners makes me wary on recommending this as a replacement in large amounts. Small amounts are fine. Note that honey, agave, and maple syrup are sugar too so you’re not saving any calories there, and sorry to say that nutrient wise the difference is nil.
Eat less processed food in general. Whole foods made from scratch - not from a box - typically have higher nutrient content, fewer preservatives, and less added sugar. Cooking from scratch gives you the control. Keep in mind that sweetening with more nutrient dense alternatives like dates over brown sugar may not change the total calorie, carb, or “sugar” count, but higher fibre and micronutrient content make this a worthy swap.
Baked goods, candy, and chocolate goodies do have loads of sugar. But the sugar is only half the problem. Essentially these foods pack a high carb count coming from refined flours plus a ton of fat. Altogether this makes them enormously high in calories. Limiting these to special occasions is a solid strategy for any health and weight management plan.
Hopefully these sweet tips have demystified the shunning sugar shenanigans.