How to reduce sugar in your diet
(but never give up your favorites)
As the chocoholic dietitian, I stand for balanced living. I want people to eat enough of the geeky nutritious foods they need for good health but I also want to make sure you have saved room for soulful foods like chocolate, dessert or potato chips chosen for taste, enjoyment and social fun. But how much is too much and if you are overdoing it with sweets what is the best way to cut back without feeling deprived?
The science of sugar
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Our brain and central nervous system run exclusively on carbohydrate for energy, and our muscles use carbohydrates for fuel.
WATCH Andrea’s Facebook LIVE on this topic:
To our body, regardless if we consume honey, brown sugar, white sugar, agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar, fruit, vegetables, milk, or yogurt, these all contain simple sugars made up of single and double units of sugar. The difference between them all is nutritional density, or the amount of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre they contain.
There are also differences in what is known as the glycemic index or how fast the sugar enters the bloodstream.
Health guidelines are targeting a reduction of added sugar, which include glucose, fructose, sucrose (table sugar) as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. Added sugar is found in foods such as pop, cake, cookies, chocolate bars, frozen desserts, granola bars, and more. Health guidelines are not suggesting you reduce natural sugar found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and yogurt.
- Similar to consuming too much of anything, too much added sugar can increase the total calories of your diet and increase the risk of obesity.
- Excess added sugar consumption is also a large concern for tooth decay in adults and children.
- Taking in too much added sugar can also take the place of other nutrient-dense foods that are rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fibre that we need for good health.
- There is also growing research to suggest that high added sugar consumption can increase triglycerides (a blood fat similar to cholesterol that can increase the risk of heart disease).
You certainly don’t need to reduce healthy natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits, milk, and yogurt. The key message here is EXCESS added sugar is harmful. You don’t need to eliminate sugary foods altogether. There are no bad foods, only bad overall diets.
How much sugar is OK to eat?
The diet industry is really good at providing lists of good foods and bad foods and depriving people of enjoyable. This includes sugar. While of course there are people that eat too much sugar and could benefit from reducing how much pop, sweets and other low-nutritional foods they eat, this does not mean you need to avoid sugar like the plague. In fact, even people working towards weight loss or those with diabetes can include sugar and sweets in their diet, the key is being intentional about your choices and working with a Registered Dietitian to come up with a game plan best for you.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations suggest added sugars should make up less than 10% of your total calories per day, but also that a reduction to less than 5% of your total calories intake would have additional benefits (primarily for dental health).
While adults need variable levels of calories, for a 2000-calorie diet, 10% of total energy would be the equivalent of 50 grams of sugar per day (about 12 teaspoons).
Here are some examples of sugar in foods:
- 1 can of pop has about 40 grams sugar (10 teaspoons)
- 1 cup of sugary cereal has about 15 grams sugar (4 teaspoons)
- A couple of bought cookies without icing have at least 15 grams sugar (4 teaspoons).
3 ways to reduce sugar in your diet without feeling deprived
- Build a soulful food “pyramid of love”
Just like many things in life, not all things matter equally. Be intentional about what you really love. When you are less quantity actually contributes to more satisfaction.
Take out a piece of paper and sketch a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid place the absolute most favorite ways you enjoy sweets, treats and savoury foods. At the bottom of the pyramid place those that would fall into the category of “take it or leave it” that are tasty but that are not absolutely necessary to make your soul sing. These may be items that you may be eating mindlessly because it was around your office or because someone in your house was eating it and you grabbed this because you were hangry.
Your ability to discern what is essential and pass on those that are less important is key. This means that while you may pass on the junky bought birthday cake someone at work brought it and the cans of pop your workplace stashes as afternoon pick-me-ups, you may decide ice cream with your kids on Friday night is absolutely worth it.
In our office we often find many of our clients feel guilty when they are consuming soulful foods and instead of enjoying every bite, they are eating these without being fully present. Society also encourages multitasking and this has spilled into how we eat. Food often gets consumed while driving, while watching TV or while on a computer or smartphone.
If you’ve ever found yourself at the bottom of a box, bag, bowl or having polished off a plate of food and can’t remember consuming it or enjoying it, you could benefit from the simple act of mindful eating.
Less is always more when you consume foods slowly, without distraction and in a thoughtful way. Framing the quantity by avoiding eating out of bags or large containers is also key since few people do well with a bottomless large quantity.
Moving from mindless to mindful eating means pausing, being present, and savouring your bites. Turn off all distractions and avoid multitasking. When you are eating, just eat. Use your senses and fully appreciate the sight, smell, aroma, mouth feel and flavor of your top soulful foods. When you do, smaller amounts can satisfy a craving (aka “less is more”).
- Choose smaller portions often OR larger portions less often
Experiment if you are someone that does better with little treats built in daily or if instead it is more effective to have a larger potion a few times per week. If you take chocolate, for example, some people find they can be successful having a few squares of chocolate or a homemade cookie every day to be successful. Others find they just can’t do that since small portions never satisfy.
If you struggle with eating whole chocolate bars, a bag of candy or rows of cookies at a time and simply find it ineffective to stop after a small portion don’t worry you are not alone. It takes time to train your taste buds and shift habits. Rather than some sort of “all or none” approach that never works, work your way down in frequency and/or quantity over time and go easy on yourself when you fail. Research shows the average time to anchor a specific eating, drinking or exercise habit was 66 days (but the range was from 18 to 254 days).
The bottom line:
Remember there is a basic psychological principle that we all want what we can’t have. Simply trying to substitute a geeky healthy food such as fruit may do the trick to satisfy a sweet craving but it often does not. We don’t eat solely for the purpose of physical necessity, we also eat for emotional reasons, habits we established from early childhood learning and because of sensory, social and environmental triggers.
I’ve seen many of my clients (myself included!) sample a wide range of healthy foods in your kitchen hoping this will satisfy a craving only to find yourself unsatisfied. Tune into what you are craving and determine if a substitute will work – if it won’t you’re better off having some of what you crave instead of “chewing around a craving.”
As the chocoholic dietitian, if I am craving chocolate, sometimes a mug of calcium-rich hot cocoa may satisfy, while other times the only thing that will do the trick is the real deal. In this case, using the tips above can ensure when you are eating your top soulful foods, less is always more.
If you need assistance with nutrition counselling to shift your eating habits, manage sweet cravings and emotional eating, contact us for more information.
Looking for more help? Struggling to determine why you are eating? Or finding it hard to manage cravings? Contact us for personal nutrition counselling at our local Calgary dietitian office (or by phone or online). Download our free resource:
Visit www.healthstandnutrition.com for more information