Our large family relishes the adventures of road trips together. In addition to numerous short jaunts, we usually make one long family trip each year, hitting the road in our 15 passenger van. West Texas is a long way from almost every travel destination. Generally, we spend many miles and hours traveling before we reach our landing place. We have learned to make our hardest push on the first day. Getting the longest drive out of the way first makes the rest of the trip more enjoyable and relaxing.
Completing the most difficult leg of the journey first makes the entire trip better.
In a similar fashion, tackling one ambitious, challenging aspect of your health today will make your quest toward fitness obtainable.
Putting first things first forms the foundation of my nutritional advice to my patients. The first principle of good nutrition and healthy living is to reduce the amount of sugar you consume.
Now. Before you groan and shake your head in skepticism and self-doubt, read the next sentence. I am not urging you toward complete elimination, just reduction to the point at which you experience meaningful health and symptom improvement.
Let’s begin with some questions.
What, exactly, is sugar? How does sugar differ from other carbohydrates? How can I possibly set a reasonable goal for reducing, then minimizing sugar in my diet?
I’ll explain. Carbohydrates occur commonly in natural foods, and all carbohydrates are not created equally. For example, starch is a complex carbohydrate found in potatoes and rice, while fiber is an even more complex and indigestible carbohydrate found in such foods as vegetables. On the other hand, simple sugars like fructose are present in honey and agave syrup and lactose occurs in milk. Sucrose is the simple, processed sugar found in all forms of granulated sugar, including table sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar and “Sugar in the Raw” (those misleading white crystals in the small brown packages that marketers attempt to pass off as more “healthy”).
The simpler the sugar and the larger the quantity, the faster this substance gets into your blood, where it causes problems. Sugar belongs in a bag, not in your bloodstream!
So the problem doesn’t simply lie in eating carbohydrates—complex carbohydrates can play a beneficial role in a healthful diet. The problem is consuming sugar too frequently, in too large of quantities.
Table sugar is not the only culprit in our complicated food selection system. As you read labels and become aware of the ingredients of the food you purchase and ingest, brush up on the different names sugar goes by: sugar, cane syrup, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, maltodextrin, rice syrup—and up to 57 other names. Take a look at http://www.prevention.com/food/healthy-eating-tips/the-57-names-of-sugar. No need to memorize this list. Just notice that sugar is added to almost 75% of our processed foods and learn how to spot it and avoid it.
When my wife, Angie, was beginning to educate herself about how to lessen the amount of sugar our family consumes, she decided to become curious and began to read the ingredients listed in the nutritional information portion on cans and bags and boxes in the grocery store. She has always been a health-conscious shopper, but she was shocked and dismayed once we learned how detrimental sugar is to health—it is hidden in the ingredient list of countless items. In fact, next month’s “One Thing” will begin to teach you to read labels and help you discover the surprising places where hidden sugar lurks.
The American Heart Association allows a daily sugar intake of 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women; if you’ve never considered your sugar consumption, these quantities form a good starting place. Simple sugars are simply not essential for healthy human nutrition. Zero teaspoons (or grams) per day makes an excellent goal! Cutting your simple sugar intake in half is a good starting place. This is particularly helpful for people who are taking in more than 80 grams of sugar per day. Exchange a sweet snack for a non-sugary snack. Instead of eating a doughnut (11 grams or 2 ½ teaspoons), eat 1 ounce (count ’em—23!) of roasted almonds, which contains just over 1 gram of sugar—a fraction of a teaspoon. After a week or two you can look for more foods to eliminate or exchange in order to reduce your sugar intake even more. You will find that you are choosing fewer processed foods and more natural, whole or “clean” foods.
If you eat a lot of fruit, you may be adding a great deal of sugar to your diet. While fruit is hardly bad for you, remember that serving size counts. The simple truth is that fruits taste sweet because of the sugar they contain. If you are regularly taking in several servings of large fruit a day, you can easily ingest more than 50 grams (11+ teaspoons) of sugar. I recommend that people stick to berries and small pieces of hard fruits like apples and pears.
Reducing sugar is the most important preventive action you can take to improve your health. This may feel impossible or unthinkable. Don’t panic! Just take one small step today in the direction of better health. Remember, I am not talking elimination, just reduction.
My patients have reported many benefits experienced from reducing sugar: weight loss, better sleep, better moods, better concentration, elimination of indigestion, headaches, sluggishness, and rashes, as well as improvements in diabetes, hypertension and triglycerides, along with some reduction in medications.
Begin the process of optimizing your health and living the best life possible for you.
Now that you know a bit more about what carbohydrates are, let me explain how to reduce them in your diet.
First, take time to think about what you typically eat. Count or estimate the amount of sugar you are currently consuming. Start with the amount of sugar that you are aware of taking into your body. Don’t worry if you are uncertain—I will teach you more about finding hidden sugars in future posts. You can easily google “how much sugar is in __________?” Worth noting: most people actually devour 2-3 servings of breakfast cereal (or similar boxed foods) in one sitting! “Healthy” breakfast cereals contain a shocking amount of sugar. And one 12 ounce soda contains a whopping 39 grams of sugar—a little more than 9 teaspoons—the daily outer limit for recommended sugar intake for men.
The first “One Thing:”
Reduce your intake of simple, processed sugar.