Last week I had lunch with my friend Margaret Floyd, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and author of Eat Naked. (You may remember her from her October Unprocessed guest posts, The Salad Dressing Formula and The Superfood Secret to Making Homemade Condiments Last for Weeks.)
You probably know I’ve been railing against added sugar lately (not just high fructose corn syrup) – and especially how it is being added to more and more foods, using more and more names. As much as I enjoy a sweet treat from time to time, “sneaky” sugar has become one of my bigger pet peeves.
After our lunch, I sent Margaret a list of questions about sugar. I hope you’ll get something out of her answers below.
Andrew: There are so many different things that are pervasive and harmful in the Standard American Diet. Why do you focus on sugar?
Margaret: I don’t think anyone’s under any illusions about sugar – it’s hurting us on every level. There isn’t a disease or health condition out there that isn’t exacerbated by sugar. But you could say that about trans fats as well, so why sugar? The main reason is that sugar is ubiquitous. It’s in everything processed – even “healthy” processed (if there is such a thing). When you remove sugar from the diet, by default you end up taking out all the other harmful aspects of processed foods, because you’re forced to eat strictly whole, real foods.
A: You use the term “sugar” a bit more broadly than other people. Can you elaborate?
M: When I talk about sugar, I’m not just talking about what we sweeten our coffee with. I’m talking about anything that converts to glucose (sugar) quickly in the blood, thus spiking insulin levels. In moderation, insulin is a very important hormone. But in excess, it drives inflammation, it drives fat storage, and it is the pathway to more serious blood sugar handling issues such as metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
So yes, I’m referring to table sugar, but it’s also anything “starchy”: potatoes, all grains (even whole grains), and most fruit. I also include anything that has an “insulinemic” effect (this means it raises insulin levels even in the absence of an increase in blood glucose) such as dairy and non-caloric sweeteners (there’s been some research showing that even the taste of sweet can initiate an insulin response).
I also include any carbohydrates that are metabolized by the liver in a way that stresses it – fructose falls into this category, as does alcohol.
A: So it sounds like you’re talking about the “Paleo” diet?
M: Well, it’s close to the Paleo diet, but not identical. For example, we allow legumes, which are typically eliminated in the Paleo diet. These are what we call “slow carbs” – yes, they’re starchy, but their fiber and protein slow down the blood sugar spike, so we include them on the cleanse. They’re a great way to get that starchy feel without the impact on blood sugar levels. And we haven’t seen any adverse reactions by including them.
A: You told me that it’s really important for someone who is getting off of sugar not to have the taste of anything sweet during their detox — so that means artificial sweeteners are off-limits, too. Why?
M: As I mentioned earlier, there’s been some research showing that even the taste of sweet can initiate an insulin response – this means you’ll have the negative physiological reaction even without the calories or the actual sugar. But even without an insulin response, having the taste of sweet on our tongue maintains its dominance on our palate. A key aspect of any successful sugar detox is to re-sensitize yourself to flavor. One of the bonus side effects of our cleanse is that food tastes amazing. You can taste the natural sweetness in foods that previously seemed bland, and the whole array of flavor profiles – bitter, sour, tangy, sweet, spicy, salty, and so on – will come forward in a whole new way. Simply put: you’ll taste more.
This is also a key aspect of the sustainability of this cleanse. That sweet treat you love so much will be almost intolerable after the cleanse. It makes it much easier to maintain the benefits.
Also – artificial sweeteners have their own set of issues neurologically (Amazon affiliate link). Even the natural alternatives such as stevia have typically been so highly processed that they’ve lost their nutritional value, so we don’t recommend them.
A: I get this question a lot from my readers, so I’m curious to know your answer: Do you ever use added sweeteners in your food? If so, which do you prefer? Which do you avoid?
M: I do, just very minimally. It’s the exception and treat, not the rule. If it’s something cold, I like raw honey. It’s got great health benefits outside from just the sweetness. If I’m sweetening a sauce or a smoothie, I like to use a couple of raw dates. This is a trick my chef husband taught me. You get all the fiber and nutrients from the dates, as well as their sweetness.
For baking we typically coconut sugar (palm nectar, dehydrated). It’s unrefined and has a low glycemic impact.
I avoid anything highly processed like the plague. And I avoid agave nectar, which surprises a lot of people. Agave nectar – even truly unrefined, raw agave (which is extremely hard to find; most “raw” agave is anything but) – is extremely high in fructose. It’s higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup! And fructose is exceedingly damaging (Amazon affiliate link). It’s the most toxic sugar in our food supply. It is metabolized by our liver putting a tremendous amount of stress on it, and is on the fast track to fat storage in our bodies. In whole fruit and small doses, it’s fine. But agave isn’t whole nor does it have the benefit of the fiber to slow down its absorption.
A: Some folks are now claiming that sugar is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Hyperbole?
M: It does sound extreme, but in fact sugar trigger the same pleasure centers in the brain as do heroin and cocaine, and it is exceedingly addictive. If you look at the seven criteria for substance dependence put forward by the ADA (American Psychological Association), I think you may recognize them as pervasive in many people’s relationship to sugar. They are:
- tolerance (you need more to get the same effect)
- withdrawal (experience physical or psychological symptoms when use stops)
- bingeing (use more of the substance or use it longer than you intended)
- desire or attempts to cut back or quit
- craving or seeking (an “intense drive to self-administer”)
- interference with life
- use despite negative consequences
Now just like with any addiction, not everyone is going to be as susceptible to its grasp. Just like some people can have a glass or two of wine without a problem, some people can give up sugar easily. But for many, without a very specific program and lots of support, giving up sugar is no joke and exceedingly difficult.
A: How can someone know if they have trouble with sugar?
M: There are a lot of different ways to tell if you’ve got some blood sugar handling issues. The key ones are:
- you crave sweets generally (yes, it is possible to live without sugar cravings!)
- you crave coffee or sugar in the afternoon, and/or you get sleepy in the afternoon
- you get irritable, shaky, or a headache if a meal is delayed or skipped. I call this ‘cranky hungry beast’ syndrome and let me tell you I know this one well
- you wake up a few hours after going to sleep, and have a hard time getting back to sleep
- you tend to binge or eat uncontrollably
- you can’t imagine life without one or more of the following: dessert, chocolate, bread, rice, pasta, alcohol, coffee…
A: Hang on there. I can’t imagine life without chocolate, bread, or alcohol… Those are foods I truly enjoy and really wouldn’t want to live without those. Do you mean I’d have to cut those out completely? (For a couple of weeks, sure, but forever? You may be losing me here…)
M: Haha! No, I don’t mean forever, but I do mean drastically reduced and as a special treat rather than on a daily basis. None of these things contribute much nutritional value to our diet, in fact, none of them are nutritionally required. We can live quite easily, fully, and healthfully without them (this comes as a surprise to many people). And all of them are contributing to blood sugar handling issues in their own ways.
All that said, I am a big believer in moderation and I have an 80:20 rule that I live and swear by. If you told me I could never have ice cream again I might punch you. As long as you’re steering clear of this stuff most of the time, then the occasional treat isn’t going to hurt you.
A: What advice do you have for my readers who are trying to reduce their sugar consumption?
M: You know, I’m usually a big proponent of baby steps, but with sugar you need to get aggressive. Baby steps will drag out the process in a way that makes it harder for longer. I’m a big believer in doing an aggressive sugar detox – either ours or another – that’s assisted and supported so that you have someone to go to for support along the way. I like to think of it like a chiropractic adjustment for your blood sugar handling. The majority of people are able to have major breakthroughs and results after two weeks; for some it takes a bit longer.
After two weeks without anything in your diet that converts to sugar quickly in your blood, it’s remarkable how good a person can feel.