Kicking the sugar habit offers sweet rewards for your long-term health and wellbeing
WRITTEN BY Robin Howard
The sugar habit is hard to shake, but drastically reducing the amount of added sugar in your diet may sweeten your longevity and quality of life. A decrease in sugar consumption can also mean a decrease in weight and in your risk of heart disease and other serious illnesses. As a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated primary care physician, Dr. Asia McDonald focuses on preventative medicine. She empowers her patients to maximize their wellbeing through smart lifestyle changes, good nutrition, exercise and mental wellness. And putting sugar in its place is one of her best pieces of advice for anyone who wants to improve their overall health.
The Sugar Tax
Sugar is sugar, whether it’s classified under added, natural or another name. However, natural sugars like those found in fruit and other whole foods come with benefits such as antioxidants and fiber. “Our bodies can use natural sugars in positive ways,” says Dr. McDonald. “And they’re easier to metabolize, so you don’t have high levels circulating in your bloodstream.”
On the other hand, added sugars found in packaged and processed foods don’t have anything that our bodies can use besides calories. “Obesity is one of the primary concerns of our day, but eating too much sugar can also lead to secondary illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, gout, lack of attentiveness, memory problems/dementia, decreased immunity, increased risk of infections…. I could go on all day,” explains Dr. McDonald.
“Sugar is a fuel, so it has a purpose,” she continues. “The problem isn’t sugar; it’s too much sugar.” There is room for some sugar in our diets, but in large quantities, it can damage our bodies on a cellular level. The brain recognizes sugar as a stimulant that releases feel-good endorphins and acts as an analgesic to numb pain. However, excessive amounts change the biochemistry of our brains. “Too much for too long affects gene expression and numbs dopamine receptors, so you have to eat more and more sugar to get the same dopamine hit,” Dr. McDonald notes. “That’s why we have sugar cravings; the more we eat, the more we need to get the same fun benefits. It can be incredibly hard to back off.”
Just A Spoonful
So how much sugar is too much? On average, Americans consume about 22 teaspoons (nearly half a cup) of sugar daily, but the American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than six teaspoons (24 grams) per day and men no more than nine teaspoons (36 grams). Unfortunately, added sugar hides in a lot of places. “Soda is the worst offender, along with cakes, pies, cookies, flavored coffees and sweet teas,” says Dr. McDonald. “That’s why I ask my patients to take time to learn about and read nutrition facts labels.”
Since 2018, regulations from the Food and Drug Administration have made it easier to spot added sugar—you just need to know where to look. “On the label, find total carbohydrates, then look beneath it for added sugars. You want those to be less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake every day,” she says. For example, if you aim to eat 2,000 calories a day, you should limit your calories from added sugar to 200 a day.
Breaking the Habit
Reducing sugar consumption to no more than the recommended amounts can have dramatic effects, both now and later. “In the short term, decreasing sugar can improve mental clarity, energy levels and appetite. I’ve personally experienced that,” Dr. McDonald says. “Your taste buds will change, and it only takes a couple of weeks.
You’ll have a whole new enjoyment of foods, plus it’s likely you’ll sleep better and lose some weight.”
“Attempts to wean sugar from our diets often mimic withdrawal. You might experience headaches, fatigue, irritability, and/or poor concentration,” warns the doctor. During the first few days and weeks off of sugar, she encourages her patients to come up with strategies for dealing with withdrawal symptoms. For long-term success, she also recommends transitioning away from added sugar slowly instead of halting your intake cold turkey. “Make a plan to cut back gradually. Decide if you can be successful when there’s sugary food in your house or if you need to make some adjustments to the pantry. And talk to your family,” she says. “Above all, be kind to yourself. Prepare for the mood changes with any tools that help keep you balanced—that may be prayer, meditation or exercise.”
Once you’re over the temporary hurdle of sugar withdrawal and are on your way to changing eating habits for good, you’ll begin to experience the true advantages of reduced sugar intake. “Long-term benefits are really why we want to cut back on sugar: to lower the risks of so many health conditions, improve longevity and vitality, lift our moods, be good role models for our loved ones and maybe even lose excess weight,” says the doctor.
“Sugar is a short-term stimulant and a long-term depressant,” says Dr. McDonald, pointing out that many people who are consciously seeking out sugar are really looking for that stimulant effect. “But there are other, better ways to achieve those results, including getting regular physical activity and adequate sleep, having downtime and consuming a balanced diet. You don’t need to turn to sugar for energy.”
Eating mindfully may also help you kick the sugar habit more easily. “Many foods are packed full of added sugars, so be very deliberate with your snacks. Most added sugars are included to flavor, preserve or give texture and color to the packaged foods we enjoy, but foods in their natural form don’t require that boost. Eat foods that have more life, and shop the perimeter of the grocery store where the whole foods are stocked,” Dr. McDonald advises. “The bottom line? Having good mental, physical and spiritual health in our current society doesn’t just happen by itself. We have to work at it. This sort of change must be intentional.”
Hide & Sweet
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sugars to less than 10% of total calorie intake per day. Beware that added sugar can masquerade on ingredient labels under as many as 56 different names. Some common terms for sugar are:
Photographs by (Dr. McDonald & Sonya Lee) Scott Henderson