Sugar – the good, the bad, the ugly
I’m sure that you’ve been there too. You’re at home or out and about and suddenly it hits you. You want to eat chocolate, sweets, or just anything carby and it drives you crazy! It’s all you can think about and you don’t feel good until you satisfy that craving.
I feel you! It can be a really hard struggle. Managing stress and organizing our everyday lives can make us crave sugar to feel better. I used to eat sugar nearly everyday and it wasn’t even intentional. I kinda just slipped into it and it was really hard to quit sugar!
That doesn’t mean that I never have sugar anymore, but I finally found a balance for sugar in my life and I can tell you it feels amazing!
So here’s your breakdown on sugar – the good, the bad, the ugly. What it is, why we crave it, how it impacts our health, sugar substitutes and their impact and how to fight cravings. Get ready for better health and guilt and craving free living.
eWhat’s sugar anyway?
When we talk about sugar in everyday life, we think of table sugar, that white crystallized substance that we can buy in the supermarket.
That’s because the term sugar isn’t very clear. Chemically speaking there are many types of sugar with glucose being the most important one. Table sugar is also called sucralose and is a disaccharide, which means that it is formed from fructose and glucose, which are two monosaccharides (sugar building blocks).
Sugars similar to table sugar are called simple sugars, because they consist of a combination of 1-3 monosaccharides. We find these in processed foods, but also in fruit and vegetables.
Complex sugars are very long chains of monosaccharides. In everyday life we call those carbohydrates, which includes whole grains and starchy vegetables.
Sugar and blood sugar
This is a connection you don’t want to miss. Most things that we eat, including carbs and protein, get broken down into glucose. Then glucose gets absorbed into the bloodstream and is used as fuel for your body. The blood sugar that isn’t used by our bodies and cells gets stored in our tissues, muscles, but can also be stored as fat.
Our body wouldn’t be able to get the glucose into our cells if it weren’t for the hormone insulin. Insulin tells glucose to go into the cells and regulates our blood sugar levels.
So why am I craving sugar?
After a meal our blood sugar rises. It spikes when you eat food with little fiber or full of simple sugars like white rice, processed food and candy. Your body then secretes large amounts of insulin to keep your blood sugar response under control. This in turn leads to a crash in your blood sugar and you crave something sweet to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal. This is when you start to have cravings and maybe grab some cookies. The cookies spike your blood sugar again, continuing a vicious cycle of cravings.
Ideally, we want a slow release of sugar into the bloodstream. This happens when you eat enough fiber. Whole food sources including cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, and fruits have higher amounts of fiber and slow down glucose absorption.
Not only the food we eat influences our blood sugar. Stress and other factors also have an effect. High stress can lead to unstable blood sugar aka many spikes and lows, which can also lead to cravings. Even with a perfectly balanced diet, we can end up with wonky blood sugar and cravings, if we’re constantly stressing out our bodies.
Addicted to sugar
Sometimes it can feel like we are addicted to sugar. We might even beat ourselves up for not having enough willpower to resist our cravings or lose that extra pound.
But it’s not your fault! Biologically we enjoy sugar and sweet things, because they give us energy. Our body wasn’t made to eat processed foods out of packages with high amounts of refined sugar, because sugar doesn’t exist in nature like that.
Whole foods have glucose, but also fiber that slows down the absorption into the bloodstream. Food corporations exploit our biological liking for sugar by adding it to all kinds of foods, even tomato sauce. No wonder you might be gaining weight, even if you are eating “healthy foods”.
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When substituting sugar it is best to use natural alternatives such as dates, bananas, maple syrup, honey or even coconut sugar and rice syrup. Whilst they do include glucose they don’t quite spike your blood sugar like table sugar.
Use these substitutes sparingly in desserts and snacks, because they do still contain considerable amounts of sugar.
Whilst they might seem like a good zero-calorie solution, artificial sweeteners can have negative effects on your health.
They confuse your brain, because when we taste something sweet our brain expects glucose, which never ends up arriving in the bloodstream. Artificial sweeteners can also be very addictive, besides upsetting your gut microbes. They might even lead to you craving more sugar and refined foods, whilst increasing your risk of weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, just like sugar.
If you prefer using an artificial sweetener over a natural substitute, stick to stevia. Stevia is derived from the stevia plant and is 100 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Be sure to use it sparingly, if at all.
Become a sugar detective
It is best to eat whole foods, because added sugar can have many names on packaging. It can get quite confusing! You can become a sugar detective and find out if a product includes sugar by looking at the ingredients list. Anything that ends in -ose or has the word sugar in it is sugar.
Further names for sugar include:
Lists of ingredients are structured after the amount in the food. If one of the first ingredients is a sugar, the food probably has high amounts of it.
Sugar detox & dodging cravings
Each person’s individual and quitting sugar can look different for everyone. Some find it easier to quit cold turkey, whilst others like to wane of sugar slowly, by eliminating a different source of sugar every week. Take it easy and keep it playful. Of course it’s okay to have sugar every now and then, but it shouldn’t be daily.
Some tips to make this transition easier include:
- Telling your family & friends that you plan on quitting sugar. Ask them not to offer you any or not bring sugary foods along.
- Try out some sugar free baking recipes and snacks, when you feel like you want something sweet.
- Throwing out all foods that contain sugar and not buying any new ones at the supermarket.
- Have a back up when you’re on the go, like a few dried fruits and nuts. So you don’t end up buying something sweet.
The most important component lies in balancing your blood sugar, so that it doesn’t trigger cravings. Not sure how you blood sugar is going? Take my quiz!
Try this to balance your blood sugar:
- Have fiber, fat and protein with every meal and snack.
- Balance out stress and find moments of relaxation throughout the day.
- Get a good night’s sleep for less stress and better blood sugar management.
- Exercise in a way that is hormone supportive and doesn’t overly stress your hormones.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, manage, or treat disease or serious conditions. Always check with your doctor before making any changes. It’s important to consult a well-informed health practitioner for personal advice about your situation before relying on general information — we’re all wonderfully unique.
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Laurie Villarreal, FNLP, CHWC, FNS, LMC, CPT, RYT
Hi, I'm Laurie, a functional nutritionist and board certified health coach, athlete, dog-mom, and biohacking adventure-lover. After having struggled for years to find lasting solutions for my own debilitating hormone-related symptoms, I created my online practice to begin helping other active, driven women get the support they need. I now help women around the world elevate their health, energy, business and life by optimizing their hormones with personalized nutrition and lifestyle tweaks. Together, we discover new tools and strategies that keep you showing up at your best so you can play even bigger in your life and work.
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