It’s that time of year when people are resolving to eat better, exercise more, and generally make improvements to their lives. While I think that New Year resolutions can certainly be inspirational, most people ultimately find them demotivating when they fall off the wagon and the resolutions are there, mocking them. I’m all for self-care and being mindful of your wellbeing, but you don’t need resolutions to do that.
People often ask me what the best thing is that they can do for their health. My answer is always met with shock and protest: “oh, but I couldn’t do that!” I always suggest that people give up sugar, at least for a time. Is it because I’m a backer of cruel and unusual punishments? Nope. It’s because I know how destructive sugar is within the body, and if you only want to do one thing that’ll have the broadest impact on your total body wellness, this is it. It’s also because I’ve done this many times over the last decade and I can unfailingly see huge improvements in my physical, mental, and emotional health every single time.
For the record, when I refer to sugar I mean all forms of refined and unrefined cane sugar, but also corn syrups, agave, artificial sweeteners, syrups, honeys, and anything else that tastes sweet to your tongue, except possibly for pure stevia. Yes, that’s extensive, and yes, sugar is in “everything,” as people like to tell me. But you know what sugar isn’t in? Unprocessed, whole foods, like vegetables and meats. You don’t have to give up fruit when you quit sugar, unless of course you only eat fruit, which would be very unbalanced indeed. But why is sugar so bad for you anyway?
Sugar is Addictive
There’s a reason why people experience sugar cravings. Our brains can become hardwired to heavily rely on the sweet stuff, and if we don’t get a regular fix, it sends out signals for more, more, more. Constant intake of sugar can also disrupt your body’s ability to metabolize glucose, and can make you resistant to insulin, which is dispatched to help your body manage your sugar intake. Sugar is a temporary mood booster, too, so that’s why we often crave it when we are sad, sick, or hormonal. It lifts us up, and we sigh happily, but before we can get the cookie crumbs wiped from our mouths, our blood sugar is already starting to dip, and we require more sugar. And so goes the teeter-totter relationship our bodies have with sugar after it leaves our mouths.
Sugar is High Calorie
Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, it’s hard to argue that sugar is remotely healthy when its caloric impact is dramatically higher than that of, say, vegetables. A half cup serving of chocolate pudding contains 340 calories, with 68 grams of sugar. That’s 17 teaspoons of sugar for one dessert, which is appalling when you consider that the American Heart Association recommends that women only consume 6 teaspoons daily, and men 9 teaspoons. In contrast, a half cup of unsweetened applesauce contains 9 grams of sugar from natural fruit sources, not from refined sugars. Sugar is not only calorie dense, but it’s not even filling. If you eat that serving of pudding you’ll likely be hungry again, and because of the dramatic blood sugar spike you received from that whopping 17 grams of sugar, you’ll probably want even more pudding.
Sugar is Inflammatory
As I mentioned above, the American Heart Association thinks sugar needs to be limited. Why is that? Because it’s inflammatory. Cardiovascular disease causes roughly 25% of all deaths in the US, and heart issues are closely tied to the inflammatory result of poor diet and lifestyle habits like smoking, lack of exercise, and a diet rich in processed foods, including sugar. Inflammation isn’t only associated with heart problems, though. There’s been a dramatic rise in autoimmune conditions like thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and more. All of these conditions and many more can often improve dramatically with dietary and lifestyle changes, including getting rid of the sugar and increasing fresh, whole foods that are nutrient dense.
Sugar is Nutrient Poor
You know how vitamins and minerals and amino acids are necessary for good health, and how things like fruits and vegetables, eggs and meat, and healthy fats contain those things? Well sugar? It has nothing. Nada. It packs a nice caloric punch, and tickles your taste buds, but that’s about all it can offer. When we frequently fill up on nutrient-poor foods that naturally means we are leaving less room for foods that are nutrient-rich. This may be the simplest and most straightforward reason why we should avoid sugar, and it’s why our parents wouldn’t let us eat it before dinner when we were kids. Sugar spoils our supper, and that’s applicable to adults, too.
Sugar is Highly Processed
Processed foods are convenient, and we live in a society that demands quick, easy, and cheap food. We’re so busy doing our things and food is something we squeeze in, or something we use to reward ourselves with after a harried day at the office or at home chasing after the kids. Food isn’t looked at as sustenance and nourishment in our culture, at least not nearly as much as it should be. When we consume these highly processed foods, what we are really eating is a little bit of something that used to be food, but once combined with chemicals and flavorings and preservatives is unrecognizable to nature as food. It may fill our bellies, but beyond that, even our digestive systems don’t know how to process all of these fake ingredients. This ties into the inflammatory issue: are you meeting a short-term need with long-term consequences? Processed food isn’t the only option, but it’s far easier and in many cases far more tempting than taking the time to prepare whole foods, or to teach our palates to learn to like them.
Sugar is Unnecessary
If it’s one thing, sugar is worthless. You won’t die without it. No one gets hospitalized from refined sugar deficiencies. It won’t save your life, and in fact, it could help to kill you. Yes, that’s an extremist view, but I think you take my meaning. If you were without vitamin C, you would end up with scurvy. No minerals? Your bones would disintegrate. No B vitamins? Your nervous system would be a wreck. No fiber? You wouldn’t poop for weeks. No water? You would die. The worst thing you’ll experience from cutting out sugar is a temporary increase in crankiness. Most people will feel a little edgy for 2-5 days when they ditch all forms of processed sugars, but on the other side? There is clarity. There is energy. There is improved digestion and reduced inflammation. There is weight loss and mood stability. There is concrete proof that you can most certainly live without it.
Am I saying that you have to give up sugar forever? No, but you wouldn’t die a long, slow death if you did. As I mentioned before, I’ve repeatedly given up sugar for short and long periods, and I’ve always seen distinct health benefits. When I have gone back to sugar, I’ve become increasingly stingy about what kinds I’ll let into my body. Pure maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar have become my go-to’s because they’re minimally processed, unrefined, and versatile. I can achieve any sweet tasting food by using one or more of these ingredients. The thing that I’ve learned each time I’ve said goodbye to sugar, however, is that a little really does go a long way. I used to binge drink cans of soda every day, and now I’m quite content to get my “sugar fix” from a Paleo muffin that has been lightly sweetened with honey. No, I’m not legalistic when it comes to sugar; I just learned that I don’t have to be dependent on it to enjoy what I’m eating.