The Tyranny of Sugar

For the past few weeks, I have been trying not to eat, or drink, sugar as part of a post-holiday health kick to make putting on skinny jeans just a tad easier. It’s been surprisingly easy to do this at home. Based on the plethora of low/no sugar options at the store, I’m clearly not the only person watching sugar. But then I started traveling and eating in a lot of restaurants, hotels and planes. I quickly realized how out of step they are with this trend. Out of the 10+ restaurants I’ve dined at this month, only one offered a non-alcoholic, no sugar beverage option besides Diet Coke or Pepsi, club soda, tea and coffee. Not one offered low sugar wine, a hot category that grew 70% last year alone.

On average, Americans consume three pounds of added sugar a week or about three times the recommended amount. About 47% of added sugars are consumed from beverages, primarily soda. A single can of soda has the entire allotment of recommended daily sugars. But sugar is often added to less obvious products, like breads, soups, cured meats, and ketchup. If you are trying to read an ingredient list, sugar has over 61 different names, from high fructose corn syrup to dextrose. Too much sugar not only drives weight gain, but also diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, and chronic inflammation. It can also cause headaches, skin issues, and low energy levels. 

Sugar addiction is a thing

It’s also much harder to cut back than people realize. Some health experts consider sugar highly addictive. “Physiologically, it’s as addictive as cocaine,” said author and health expert Susan Peirce Thompson. “So, people are literally trapped in a physiological addiction. The brain scans are very clear on that.” People cutting out sugar report cravings and other withdrawal symptoms including depression, anxiety, fatigue and dizziness. Experts say it takes about three weeks of no sugar for the brain’s dopamine system to get back to where it should be. While I didn’t have side effects, I did learn I have zero willpower when key lime pie or baked alaska is ordered for the table.

Most people do want to cut back. According to the American Heart Association, 77% of people are trying to reduce sugar in their diet. 7 out of 10 would give up a sugary product for a healthier alternative if readily available.

3 steps to reducing sugar

So what can you do to support bringing down the sugar levels at home and at work? First, if you have any influence on beverage choices in a cafeteria, restaurant, bar, kitchen or vending machine, break up the monotony of Diet Coke and club soda. Add flavored seltzers and waters, stevia-leaf based beverages like Zevia or Virgils, or a wider variety of diet sodas (recognizing artificial sweeteners have some downsides). Even Red Bull has a sugar free option. Add at least one no-sugar wine to the wine list, but be sure to educate the bartender and wait staff as I got a ton of puzzled looks this week when inquiring about it. Offer a cheese plate or sugar-free ice cream, pudding, or cheesecake on the dessert menu. 

Second, find ways to listen to and support your employees on their own wellbeing journeys. Whether that is enabling a culture that offers benefits for healthy eating or simply providing educational materials around nutrition and why it is important.

Lastly, learn to decode the new food label, which now shows both total sugars (naturally occurring) and added sugars. It might take a longer trip that first time through the store as you review your choices, but the labels can guide you towards lower sugar content. For example, I had no idea how much sugar was in our bacon, but it was easy to find a sugar free option. 

What happens when you kick the sugar habit? Get ready for younger looking skin, more energy, reduced abdominal fat, a healthier heart and a reduced risk of diabetes. And yes, I can attest to better fitting skinny jeans.

Quote of the Week:  “Sugar is not love. But it can feel like it.”

Bee Wilson

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