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Healthy Balance

How to Stop Eating Sugar Without Losing Your Mind: 6 Strategies to Try

stop eating sugar - sugar effects series graphic
What does sugar do to your body? We answer all your sugar questions in Bittersweet? Effects of Sugar.

It happened last Halloween. The kids went out, collected the candy, and I ate it. Masses of it. (Don’t worry; they hoarded all the good stuff.) As my nerves went haywire and my stomach churned and the pounds of fat started massing on my middle, I realized that it was time for me to figure something out, before more damage could be done. I needed to figure out how to stop eating sugar.

Why I Need to Avoid Sugar

I’m a middle-aged woman, so I’ve had time to learn a few things about myself. One of those things is that I’m never going to be a skinny person. It’s not that I couldn’t develop the discipline to eat only steamed broccoli for the rest of my life. I just don’t care enough to do it. I’ve got short, dumpy Irish potato farmer written all over my genetic code, and I’m fine with it.

What I DO care about is avoiding:

  1. Growing too fat to fit into my clothes and have to buy a new wardrobe
  2. Getting diabetes like grandma did
  3. High cholesterol, so I don’t have a heart attack like my dad did
  4. Missing sleep because of sugar-high jitters

Sugar threatens to make all of these horrors come true.

Too Much Sugar

If you’ve been following our sugar series, you know that sugar is added to a A LOT of products. Too much sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dental problems and even brain disease.

And sugar has similar addictive properties as drugs. Which is why (for me, at least) the more I eat, the more I crave. One little bit and I want more. (I learned about the danger of added sugar last summer, when I wanted to eat ice cream.)

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

To our bodies, sugar is sugar. Much of what we eat has a mix of naturally occurring and added sugars. The reason we care about added sugars these days with processed foods – crackers, breads, yogurts – isn’t about the type of sugar, but how much and how its delivered.

The reason sugar from a chocolate bar gives me a sugar high and the same amount of sugar from an apple doesn’t has to do with the fact that the apple has fiber and other nutrients that help my body break the sugar down slowly. The chocolate bar, on the other hand, might as well be a needle in my vein. It’s a direct hit, and our bodies don’t always have the ability to process all that sugar at one time.

The Season of Sugar

My candy binge on Halloween night terrified me. Not only did I feel disgusting, but ahead of me loomed an even bigger sugar threat: Christmas fudge. My mother-in-law turns sugar into fat little flavored squares, hundreds of them, and then she leaves them, like weapons of mass destruction, lined up and ready on every counter in the kitchen. I spend the holiday trying not to look, circling around those delicious dangers, always aware that they’re there, wanting me to eat them. We stay with her a week.

What was I going to do? What would I eat? I would exercise of course. Drink lots of water. But the easy-access fudge would still be staring me down.

My 6 Strategies to Stop Eating Sugar

I’m not saying I managed to avoid added sugar completely through the holiday season. But I did come up with a few ways to not relive the Halloween binge.

I checked in with UVA nutritionist Katherine Basbaum, RD, to get her feedback on the choices I’ve been making. Because, you know… Valentine’s Day is coming. And Easter… Mother-in-law or not, there’s a lot of opportunities for me to shove too much chocolate in my mouth coming up.

“A lot of the things you’re doing are right on the money,” Basbaum says. Lowering or limiting added sugars is a hard thing to do. Foods with added sugars “might have good things in them. Or foods without added sugars might have things that will derail your diet in other ways.” She underscores, for instance, that “cutting out added sugar doesn’t equal weight loss.”

Still, Basbaum applauds my effort. “Added sugars are one of the number one things I work with patients on,” Basbaum says. “Heart disease, diabetes, inflammation — sugar is a detriment to all chronic diseases. If you have cancer or an autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis, it’s like adding fuel to the fire.”

colorful donuts and candy make it hard to stop eating sugar
Holiday candy, birthday parties, office treats all make it hard to stop eating sugar.

About the Binge Effect

Not that I planned it this way, but the first item on my plan of attack to avoid added sugar was that binge. Eating all those fun-sized bars made me never want to have one again. My stomach burned; my head got dizzy; I felt weak and anxious at the same time.

I ask Basbaum what she thinks about this.

“Well, it’s something that happens,” she says. “You go out to a big dinner or go on vacation and overindulge and feel disgusting. It’s a wake-up call. It can serve as a jump start.”

So, how much does the occasional indulgence throw you off? We’ve all been in that situation. You’re eating healthy, exercising every day, and then your manager brings in donuts. You eat one. Two. And you wonder if you’ve ruined everything. (So then you eat more, because it’s all a wash, right?)

You’ll be OK, Basbaum reminds. “For an average, healthy person and for basic weight-loss goals, one instance doesn’t wipe out all the efforts you made over the course of that week or month.”

She does emphasize one caveat. “Overdoing it is never a safe way to go if you have diabetes or heart failure. Then, sitting down to huge bucket of candy or loads of salt at a Thanksgiving dinner could land you in the ER.”

#1 Go Nuts

The first thing I chose to do to avoid added sugar was to plan to snack on nuts and nut butters (the kind without added sugar). Even though these are high in fat, I’d rather have them than the sugar.

Basbaum points out that nuts have a lot of benefits. “Nuts and nut butters make you feel full and satisfied, and they’re also heart healthy. The fats in nuts are unsaturated fats that help lower cholesterol.”

This worked much of the time. Nuts have that satisfying crunch. Almond or peanut butter can fill me up fast, while taking the place of fudge or chocolate.

She does point out that nuts can pack on pounds. “If you’re trying to watch your weight or lose weight, you may still be consuming the same as or more of the calories in sugary snacks. So, if you’re concerned about weight, watch how much you eat.”

#2 Pick Whole Wheat

It seems like every diet these days ditches bread, baked goods. So this choice falls into the ‘lesser of two evils’ category. I knew I was going to need something to chew, so I bought whole-wheat crackers.

Basbaum’s take on this strategy centers on label-reading. Whole wheat Ritz, she points out, advertises whole grains on the package. “But when you read the nutrition facts label, the first ingredient is enriched wheat flour.  Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are also on the list.” Wasa crackers, on the other hand, have whole wheat flour as the first ingredient.

What to watch for: “Unless whole wheat flour is the first ingredient, it just means they snuck some in. ‘Made with whole grains’ doesn’t count.”

Of course, Basbaum makes sure to point out that “whole grains doesn’t equal lower calorie, or lower sugar.” Still, it’s a good choice for me while trying to avoid added sugars. Whole grains have fiber, and they lower both blood sugar and inflammation.

Bottom line: “‘Made with whole grains’ products are fine. But if you want the best, go for 100% whole grain.”

#3 Mix in Cereal & Trail Mix

Sugar sneaks into granola and trail mix, too. In fact, Basbaum calls granola a “no-no.”

Still, high-fiber, low-added-sugar cereal as a snack can keep me busy and out of the cookie jar. As for trail mix, Basbaum advises people to make their own.

#4 Choose Big Fruit

I made sure to stock the holiday fridge with pineapple, grapes and strawberries. I knew, as I tell Basbaum, that I could eat these instead of candy and cookies and be fine. She tells me that’s good, but to remember: Bananas and pineapples still have sugar in them. “Natural sugar is still sugar, which equals calories. So like with nuts, watch your portions if you’re watching your weight.”

#5 Dress it Up With Mayo & Ranch

When I tell Basbaum about my mayonnaise and ranch dressing habits, I cringe a little. “I know they’re fattening,” I tell her. But I eat more salad and vegetables with a little encouragement.

“Ranch (bottled) can have a lot of added sugar and salt – make your own!” she says. “It’s really easy.”

Stop Eating Sugar

Need help figuring out how? Sign up for an individual session with a dietitian.

#6 Don’t Deprive All the Time

As for allowing myself some unhealthy things, Basbaum actually approves. “Denying yourself doesn’t last for people,” she says. “I like to use the 80/20 rule.  So, 80% of the time you’re eating the way you should – cooking at home, packing lunches, fresh foods, lean meats. The other 20% of the time you eat the two donuts, the big thing of popcorn. You can live your life, stay healthy, and still have treats,” she assures.

Basbaum doesn’t recommend this approach to everybody, though. “Some people might be too strict or take advantage of it,” she says. She does prefer people to follow this rule over an extreme.

My big takeaway from this sugar season has been that, the more I focus on eating real food and not fake food, the easier it gets. Candy and yes, the fudge, makes my body tired. It’s just not worth it.

But, as Basbaum warns, a total denial isn’t a sustainable idea. So, if some chocolate shows up on Valentine’s Day, I won’t turn it down…

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