Food is often the centerpiece of what brings us together, and it can be a challenge to maintain a healthy lifestyle—especially at social gatherings—when you are following a low-carb, anti-inflammatory, low sugar, or gluten-free diet, or are simply trying to eat in the healthiest possible way for your body. The great news is, there are plenty of strategies for not giving into every temptation.
Sugar: The Not-So-Sweet Facts
Eating excess quantities of sugar does more to the body than simply expanding the waistline; sugar consumption depresses immune function, imbalances energy levels, inhibits healthy metabolic function, and wreaks havoc on the endocrine function.
Every time we eat, sugars such as glucose, fructose, and lactose are absorbed directly into our bloodstream. Too much of these chemicals in our bloodstream can be toxic, so our body responds by releasing insulin, the hormone responsible for carrying the sugar out of our bloodstream and into our cells for use or storage. Excess sugar consumption forces the body to release more insulin in order to protect itself.
Not all that sugar can be immediately used as energy, so the rest of it is transformed into fat for storage; this process is known as lipogenesis. Lipogenesis was a wonderful survival strategy at one time in human history when food was scarce, and our bodies relied on this capacity to store sweetness and fat in order to survive the winter. When we emerged on the other side of the cold months, we had burned through that stored fat and were once again lean. Now days, with the Standard American Diet (SAD) so full of processed carbohydrates, refined sugars, and poor quality fats that are accessible (in excess) year-round, our bodies aren’t given the chance to burn their resources and are kept in constant fat-storage mode.
The consumption of sugar and the increased storage of fat also promotes an inflammatory response in the body, and can lead to extremely detrimental health conditions such as hypertension, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome. A body with constant sub-clinical inflammation due to dietary factors—such as excess sugar intake or consuming a food allergen—can, in the long term, lead to even more serious conditions including auto-immune disease and cancer.
Consuming any form of sugar, but primarily the refined sugar found in processed foods and treats, has a highly suppressive effect on immune function. Neutrophils, one of the immune cells responsible for first-line immune defense, are quickly suppressed by the ingestion of sugar, making our bodies much more susceptible to invading pathogens. According to the Environmental Law Centre, consuming the amount of sugar in just one 12-oz can of soda can reduce white blood cell activity by 40%. Even worse, the inhibitory effects of sugar on the immune system begin less than 30 minutes after ingestion, and some studies show immune inhibition lasting up to two weeks after consumption. This is especially true during the winter, when the cold weather is already a challenge to our immune system; indulging in sugar can make it even harder to stay healthy during the cold and flu season.
To add insult to injury (of our physiology), sugar can be considered a drug due to its highly addictive nature. Evolutionarily, our brains are triggered to crave sweetness (and fat); to our ancestors these cravings were satisfied by the occasional lucky find of berries, a beehive full of honey or some delicious raw nuts and seeds. These foods meant fat storage and survival. Unfortunately our cravings haven’t evolved to recognize the constant availability of sweets, sugars, and fats; we still crave them at a genetic level as though they are scarce. The hard truth is: The more we eat sugar, the more we crave it and the harder it becomes to avoid the sweets.
If there is one piece of advice you should follow to support your long-term health and wellness, it is to remove all sugar (and refined foods for that matter), from your diet. This is the most effective lifestyle choice for reducing your overall inflammatory load, combating stress, preventing disease, and succeeding with long-term weight management. This does not include fruits; increasing your consumption of colorful, season fruits can be an important part of breaking your sugar addition.
So What Can We Do?
Simply put, the easiest way to break a sugar addiction is to stop eating sugar. This may seem like a difficult, or even impossible task, but the rewards far outweigh the difficulty. Even after just 3 days without this “drug” in your body can result in noticeable change, namely that you just don’t crave it as much. After a week without any sugar consumption, you may experience fewer energy crashes, an increase in mood and feelings of well being, and maybe even a loss of a pound or two. After three weeks without any sugar, chances are you will feel like a completely new person with increased energy, fewer colds, and a much stronger foundation for making healthy dietary choices.
An important piece of the sugar struggle, and the health-positive outlook, is to recognize that avoiding sugar does not mean turning to artificial sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); these are just as damaging to your health and actually sabotage your attempts to give up sugar. Artificial sweets, such as sugar-free ice cream, cookies, and diet drinks contain chemically processed, carcinogenic toxins. Furthermore, they trick your brain into thinking you just consumed sugar, resulting in the normal release of insulin. Free-floating insulin in your blood stream signals your brain to think you’re hungry in order to receive the sugar needed to bind to the insulin. In short, consumption of fake sugars fosters the up-down cycle of blood sugar levels that lead to sugar binges later on.
The best way to control your sugar intake is to start eliminating the substance from your diet. The less you have it, the stronger your body becomes and the less tempting those cookies and treats will seem later. A good challenge can be using the weeks leading up to a big social event to begin weaning yourself off of the substance; avoiding sugar when you are surrounded by it can be nearly impossible unless you’ve been practicing for awhile.
Herbs to Combat Sugar Cravings
Fortunately, there are several herbs, foods, and supplements that can be your allies during this challenging journey.
Gymnema Sylvestris: Gymnema is known in India as “The Sugar Destroyer” for its ability to tame or even eliminate sugar cravings. The herb has been used in India for thousands of years to treat diabetes. Gymnema has a similar molecular structure to sugar, so it blocks and inhibits a large percentage of sugar absorption. Furthermore, the herb changes the way the taste buds taste sugar. Gymnema can be taken in pill or tea form, or as a tincture dropped on the tongue right before eating a sweet to make the taste far less enjoyable.
Bitters: Increasing your consumption of bitter tastes, such as dandelion root, burdock root, and arugula help support a shift in taste preferences away from sweet and more towards savory. Digestive bitters help to stimulate enhanced digestion and absorption of nutrients, which means you are deriving more nourishment from your food and are therefore less likely to experience cravings for sugars and fats.
Supplements to Combat Sugar Cravings
Another way to retrain your body to avoid sugar is to support it with solid energy levels from other sources. B-complex supplements help support natural energy levels so you are less likely to reach for sugar for a quick pick-me-up.
Omega-3 supplementation can help reduce “sweet cravings” that are actually your body’s need for healthier fats, as well as help reduce systemic inflammatory load.
Foods to Combat Sugar Cravings
Sweet potatoes are full of fiber and manganese which help in the metabolism of carbohydrates. These delicious tubers make an excellent after-dinner dessert with a little bit of butter and cinnamon. Baked apples are an excellent alternative to apple pie; add stevia and cinnamon to increase the sweetness if necessary. Pumpkin “pie” can be made healthy by omitting the crust and replacing sugar with stevia. Frozen blueberries in unsweetened coconut milk provide a healthy alternative to ice cream.
Living without sugar doesn’t have to be a bland and unsatisfying existence; it is a wonderful opportunity to explore the use of fruits, herbs, and spices to satisfy our love of sweet, comforting tastes. Making a commitment to a sugar-free lifestyle will provide multitudes of health benefits and simply requires a bit of creativity and determination.
Written By Betsy Miller, MS, CNS, LDN
Clinical Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Coach at A Balanced Life Wellness
Betsy's practice focuses on integrating herbal medicines, nutritional counseling, and lifestyle coaching, that helps her clients move towards a new and positive state of well-being.Contact Betsy