Get Off the Crack: 8 Ways to Cut Sugar from Your Diet
Are You a Sugar Cookie Away from Pre-Diabetes?
More than 84 million Americans have pre-diabetes, a condition that often leads to type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more alarming, most of those people don’t know it.
And I was one of them.
A standard blood test called the Hemoglobin A1C, or A1C for short, told me so. The results indicated I had pre-diabetes. The diagnosis meant my blood sugar level was higher than it should be but not yet high enough to be type 2 diabetes. My doctor said if I didn’t do something about it, it was likely I’d have full-blown diabetes within five years.
So I did something about it.
My first step was to examine at my lifestyle and diet. Even though I exercise and eat a healthy diet (or so I thought), a three-day food diary showed me the error of my ways: I consumed too many refined carbs, like bread, pasta, and baked goods. My drinks were too sweet. And added sugars were sneaking into my body from sources I never expected, like my morning peach yogurt (25 grams), my salad dressing (6 grams), my iced tea (17 grams), and even my protein bar (the sugar equivalent of four Oreo cookies!).
That food diary was a wakeup call. (I encourage you to write down everything you eat even just for one day and examine food nutrition labels; I’ll bet that simple exercise will surprise you.) So I became a Sherlock Holmes of added sugars by checking nutrition labels, and I learned as much as I could about reversing pre-diabetes, enough to write a book about it, The 14-Day No Sugar Diet. Prevention starts with understanding what hidden added sugars do to your body and then doing everything you can get them out of your diet to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
How Sugar Screws You
Here’s the 411 on added sugars’ impact on the body and eight practical ways to limit consumption:
Added sugars cause your body to store fat. And where does it land? You guessed it: Your belly. It’s the worst kind of fat, too: the dangerous deep abdominal fat (visceral fat) that surrounds your organs.
- Added sugars trigger cravings that cause you to eat more. Sugary foods train our taste buds to require sweeter and sweeter foods to satisfy our brains. A recent review of dozens of studies reported in the journal Nutrition Reviews linked added sugar consumption to a poorer diet and lower intake of healthy nutrients.
- Added sugars feed the growth of bad gut microbes that fuel inflammation, a natural body response that when it goes on for too long can lead to heart disease, stroke, and autoimmune disorders.
- Added sugars raise your risk of dying of heart disease. A 15-year study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who consumed 25 percent or more of their calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as people whose took in less than 10 percent of their calories from sugar.
- Added sugars advance the aging process, especially contributing to saggy, wrinkled skin.
Get Off the Crack in 5 Steps
This is the good news: There’s a lot you can do to avoid pre-diabetes and diabetes by doing what Spartans do best: taking control of our lifestyle, our exercise routines, our diets. You have the power to prevent one of the most preventable diseases and be leaner, healthier, and fitter in the process. Start now by taking these steps:
1. Find the Candy and Crush It
Added sugars are everywhere, and not just in candy bars and Big Gulps. A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina found that sweeteners appear in 68 percent of all processed foods found in grocery stores. They are not all obvious; you have to hunt for the hidden ones, because they show up in places you might not expect, like most flavored yogurts, boxed cereals, condiments, jarred pasta sauces, bagels, ketchup, and granola bars.
2. Learn to Love Coffee Black
Did you know that there are 58 grams of sugar in a 16-ounce Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino? That’s the sugar equivalent of about 9 chocolate éclairs. Beware of those sweet coffee drinks. And if you dump tablespoons of sugar into your homemade Joe, gradually wean yourself off the granular white death. Cut back a teaspoon at a time and within a week you’ll have trained your taste buds to accept coffee black. Kick your sweet tea habit, too. Make unsweetened iced tea your go-to beverage. The American Heart Association recommends we limit ourselves to about 6 teaspoons of sugar daily (for women) and 9 teaspoons for men. Do you see why identifying hidden added sugars in your foods is so important? According to the USDA, the average American consumes a whopping 32 teaspoons of added sugars ever day, mostly from sweetened beverages.
3. Drink Protein Smoothies, Not OJ
A cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice contains 21 grams of sugar. Avoid juices. Eat the whole fruit instead. Juices contain little of the fiber of whole fruit, which means the fructose speeds directly into your blood stream, spiking your blood sugar. Fiber slows the absorption of sugars. If you need a fruity drink in the morning, have a blueberry smoothie made with whey or plant-based protein powder. Unlike juices, smoothies made with whole fruit keep the fiber intact. Combined with the protein powder, a fruit smoothie will not impact your blood sugar as dramatically as juices will. In a double-blind clinical study published in the Journal of Nutrition, obese, insulin-resistant people who drank two blueberry smoothies daily and did nothing else to change their lifestyles or diets boosted their insulin sensitivity by 10 percent or more. This is important because being resistant to insulin can lead to type 2 diabetes.
4. Crush Cravings by Eating More Fiber
Nutrition researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that basing meals around high-fiber plant foods improved feelings of satiety. This means you should fill up with more vegetables throughout the day—not just at dinner. Throw some greens into your morning smoothie, power up at lunch with hearty salads, and pair your dinner main with a vegetable side. Doing this will keep you from succumbing to cookies and ice cream when cravings hit. In the Copenhagen study, participants who boosted their intake of plant fiber felt fuller longer than those who consumed meat protein meals. In fact, the subjects who ate protein from beans and peas consumed an average of 12 percent fewer calories at their next meal than if they had eaten meat. Think about that: Meals with meat are typically very satiating, but this study showed that high-fiber plant protein was even more effective at keeping post-meal cravings at bay.
5. Lose Weight; Slash Diabetes Risk
Excess weight is one of the leading factors for type 2 diabetes. In fact, being obese makes you up to 40 times more likely to develop diabetes than someone who is a normal weight. But safely losing a minimal amount of weight can help you dramatically cut your risk. (It worked for me.) Losing just seven percent of your body weight can cut your chances of developing type 2 diabetes by nearly 60 percent, according the Diabetes Prevention Program, a long-term clinical study. Make that your goal. Even a five percent reduction in weight delivers significant benefits.
6. Build More Muscle
By limiting sugary foods from your diet and incorporating a strength routine into your workouts, you can build more lean muscle mass. And when you have more muscle mass, uptake of glucose improves, reducing your risk of insulin resistance. Recent research by scientists from the University of Delaware and the National Institute on Aging suggests that reducing starchy, sweet, and processed foods may help us hold on to our precious muscle and strength. As you age, your muscle mass decreases, reducing your body’s ability to process metabolize blood sugar.
7. Eat a High Protein Breakfast
A study at the University of Missouri compared the blood sugar impact of a high-protein breakfast to that of a high-carbohydrate breakfast in people with type 2 diabetes. Blood tests showed that the high-protein breakfast lowered blood glucose levels after both breakfast and lunch and that insulin levels were slightly elevated after lunch, indicating that the participants’ bodies were working properly to manage blood sugar. Shoot for 25 to 30 grams of protein at the morning meal. Researchers say that amount of protein at breakfast will satisfy your hunger for a substantial timeframe and keep your blood sugar levels stable. You can get that much protein by scrambling two large eggs and two large egg whites, drinking a banana-avocado smoothie, or eating a Greek yogurt breakfast bowl made with quinoa.
8. Shop the Perimeter of the Grocery Store
Do your heart a favor and gather the bulk of your food from the perimeter of your supermarket, where the fresh produce, meats, fish, and dairy foods are found. The interior of a grocery store is a wasteland full of packaged foods and highly-processed, sugary carbohydrates. A study by Johns Hopkins Medical School researchers showed that a diet that’s low in processed carbohydrates could improve artery function. Furthermore, an analysis of 23 clinical studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that keeping blood sugar stable with a low-carbohydrate diet is effective at reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels that increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
See, there’s lots you can do to prevent diabetes. Start dumping the sugar today.
Jeff Csatari is the author of The 14-Day No Sugar Diet, and a contributing editor of The Spartan Way, by Joe De Sena.