Removing sugar from your diet is the single most important step you can take to improve your health. We've become so addicted to the added sugars in our diet that we don't really taste what we're eating.
To help my patients better understand, I have a simple rule of thumb, "if it tastes good, don't eat it: unless you read the label." If it has sugar in any form it's going to spike your insulin. Over time, this can lead to metabolic syndrome, diabetes, neuropathy and eventually cancer.
Here are some easy-to-remember guidelines to help you make better food choices to improve your health.
1. Give up sugary drinks.
I’ve had patients who cheerfully gave up doughnuts, pasta, chocolate, and other sugary foods, but absolutely refused to give up diet cola. They felt that compared to other foods, it was a harmless, no-calorie pleasure. Once my soda-addicted patients realize that diet soda isn’t such a harmless pleasure after all, they can usually manage to cut consumption or give it up entirely.
Real fruit juice is another sugar addiction that’s extremely difficult to abandon. After all, every breakfast cereal commercial you’ve ever seen also has a glass of orange juice somewhere in camera range. Plus, OJ just tastes good.
Drinking a glass of any sort of 100% fruit juice, however, isn’t much better than injecting it into your bloodstream. The sugar in the juice is absorbed almost instantly — that’s why the emergency procedure for someone with hypoglycemic shock is to give him orange juice to instantly raise glucose.
But if you already have high blood sugar, that’s the last thing you want to do. Fruit drinks are nothing more than flavored high-fructose corn syrup and should be completely eliminated from your diet.
Sadly, the introduction of the juice box in the 1980s came shortly after the introduction of HFCS and gave a big push to the obesity epidemic that also started then. Suddenly it was easy and cheap to give your kids regular doses of addictive sugar water.
Sports drinks and energy drinks are also a big part of beverage consumption. They’re full of sugar, artificial sweeteners, and additives you don’t need. Skip them.
2. Limit fruit.
Once in a while, fresh fruit can be a good substitute as you break away from processed sugars. Yes, fruit contains fructose, but in much smaller amounts compared to high-fructose corn syrup. This fructose is also wrapped up in the fiber of the fruit, which means your body needs to digest the fruit for a while before the fructose is released.
The fiber in the fruit also slows absorption of the fructose, while helping you feel full. Some tropical fruits, such as mangos and pineapple, are very sweet.
Limit how much of those you eat — one serving a day is plenty. Fruit that has been peeled, cooked, and processed (applesauce, for instance) is no longer fruit — it’s sugar. Same goes for fruit that has sugar added to it in other ways, such as dried cranberries or canned fruit in syrup.
To really kick your addiction, though, you need to cut back on sweetness, even if it’s coming from fruit. Now would be a good time to switch your snacking over to foods that have less of a sugar punch or no sugar at all. Nuts make an excellent choice — they’re crunchy and satisfying, plus they give you a lot of great nutrients like magnesium, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Seeds such as sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds are great as well. Raw vegetables such as carrots, celery, cucumbers, and sliced peppers are great snacks, especially if you have them with a sugar-free dip such as hummus, guacamole, or salsa. Try keeping a bag of baby carrots, already peeled and washed, in the fridge; you can prepare other vegetables in advance as well.
For meals, choose sides that have a sweet flavor, like sweet potatoes, or roasted carrots or squash. Candied sweet potatoes are clearly out, but try sprinkling sweet spices such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or cloves on these foods to bring out their natural sweetness.
3. Use real cream, not milk.
Milk, despite all the advertising about how good it is for you, is filled with sugar. One cup of milk — whole, skim, or 2% — has 12 grams of sugar in the form of lactose. Leaving aside that many people can’t digest lactose, that’s 3 teaspoons of sugar.
In fact, once all healthy animal fat is stripped away from milk, the thin, grayish liquid called skim milk is actually just sugar water. And most milk substitutes, such as rice milk, soy milk, and almond milk, contain added sugar. Check the labels and use real cream in your coffee instead.