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Leaving the Kingdom of Sweets

Three pathways to living happily with less sugar this year.

Talk about sugar reduction, though, raises immediate concerns. After all, it rarely works to denounce whole categories of foods. It generally makes sense to find a reasonable place in our lives for the things we like. On the other hand, “eating just one” cookie or brownie feels impossible to many—and there’s strong evidence that this is at least partly biological. People with serious weight problems, and those who binge-eat, especially, may have to cut out, not down. And this can spur feelings of deprivation that undermine diet change. So, no one prescription about “how much is too much” will work.

Given all that, what kind of “adjustment” makes sense for you, your health, and your weight? Must you really adjust at all? On average, Americans consume about four times as much sugar daily as the American Heart Association recommends. About 80 percent of processed (canned, jarred, boxed, packaged) foods contain sugar. We’re eating much more of it than recommended by any set of health guidelines.

This translates into elevated blood sugar and insulin levels. As for weight, this weakens the body’s ability to register fullness. It increases fat storage. It stokes hunger overall, and cravings for more sweets, in particular. Obviously this primes us for weight gain and overeating. It also leads directly and indirectly to serious related health problems like diabetes and heart disease. As for peace of mind, both science and common experience find sugar addictive. Many people suffer as a result, binge eating or chronically failing to eat more healthily.

We can see that our modern culture has given sugar too central a place in the diet (think of those canned and packaged goods; think of your local convenience store shelves). And it shows in our waistlines and health statistics. This is indeed a public health problem, but it differs from that of say, cigarette smoking. With sugar, making cuts or changes often helps—quitting completely won’t be necessary for everyone. Just about everyone, though, can benefit from some degree of change.

For most people, changing sugar’s place in the daily routine is best considered a long-term project. How much, and how quickly, to reduce will depend on where you’re starting from. Those with weight-related health risks, those who suffer with binge eating or other forms of compulsiveness may feel the most urgency. Generally, I think of three different change pathways, or places to focus. They of course overlap at times, and one often makes another happen more easily.

Changing Your Baseline

For many, a “progress not perfection” approach to reducing sugar in the diet (and in the family diet, too) will lead to new habits and benefits over time. This often involves becoming more aware of hidden and unnecessary sugars in the diet. It may also involve getting used to some improved substitutions. I repeat here some ideas for getting started:

1.) check labels on any foods you eat regularly that come in cans, jars, or boxes. If any contain unexpected sugar, look for a similar type or another brand that doesn’t. Or, eliminate the food if practical.

2.) check labels on store-bought or take-out sweets (for example, cereals, doughnuts). See if you can find other items that you like that contain fewer grams per serving (for cereals, aim for under 5g per serving).

3.) think about all the times you eat sweets during the week. Try eliminating one.

4.) again think of your weekly sweets intake. Are there any that aren’t particularly special to you? Could you let those go?

5.) if you drink soda or other sweetened beverages, experiment with replacements. Diet drinks aren’t nutritious, but they do cut sugar intake. If you don’t like those sweetened with Aspartame, try one with Splenda. Beyond diet sodas, lemonades, and iced teas, think of water, seltzer, vitamin water, herb tea, seltzer with a splash of juice. Any of these substitutions can radically reduce your overall sugar intake.

6.) if sweets in the house lead to grazing or binging, try buying fewer, or even none at all (in other words, you’ve got to go out to get the stuff). It may be helpful to make a family decision to do this. You don’t really need multiple packages of cookies, candy, and ice cream.

7.) keeps lots of good fruits and berries on hand. Use these for snacks and desserts more often. You’re likely to develop more desire for them as you enjoy them more.

As with many change goals, give yourself (and your family, if you’re making household changes) plenty of time to get used to the reductions and replacements. You will get used to them. New habits take some weeks to stick, though. Once new habits have truly replaced the old, you will certainly feel better for it—that’s the reward for your efforts.

Targeted sweet spots

This approach can coincide with baseline changes, above, or stand alone as an important goal (or set of goals). Whether or not you’re weaving some of those baseline changes into your life, you may have a “sweet spot” that keeps your consumption high. Maybe you’re pulled toward ice cream after dinner. Maybe it’s those giant cookies at the store where you get lunch. Maybe you’ve developed a sweet frozen coffee habit. And maybe you don’t necessarily want to completely eliminate these things—you simply want to be able to say “no” sometimes, or to stop after smaller amounts. You’re pretty sure your weight will benefit, and you’ll also feel good knowing you have more control. How do you manage this?

First, think of the amount that you feel would be best for you. Set that as your initial goal. Know that as you begin, you’ll probably want more after you’ve had that amount. Think of how you’ll deal with the desire for more. Here’s one example of a successful cutting-down scenario:

You’ve decided, for example, that what’s reasonable is to enjoy dessert on weekends, but not week nights. You start by not buying packaged cookies or ice cream for the house. You go ahead and bake brownies on Friday afternoon. After dinner, you get out the plates and whipped cream. You put a decent-sized brownie on the plate (not tiny, not gigantic). You sit down to eat it with a fork. You try not to gobble and rush. You savor it. (Note that here you’re employing several strategies to help reduce overeating: setting a plate, eating more slowly and mindfully.) When you’ve finished, you definitely would like more. However, knowing that you’re trying to learn moderation, you’ve helped yourself out in advance by not keeping the serving platter in view. In fact, the brownie container is already closed and put away. You tell yourself, I’m not going to have another for at least 20 minutes. Then you make some coffee or tea. In 20 minutes you rate your desire for the second brownie. It’s definitely reduced. You decide to wait another 20 minutes. By then, you’re busy doing something else and don’t care about the brownie anymore.

As successful episodes like this accumulate, your ability to stop after one serving will increase. If an episode is not successful, analyze what went wrong. Ask yourself what might have helped. Then try again another time.

Cold turkey and abstinence – short-term or long-term

“Your Brain on Food” warns one caption. “Can Some Foods Hijack the Brain?” asks another. Now that science finds similar pathways lighting the brain whether it’s on sugar or cocaine, many overeaters feel validated. It does indeed look as if some people respond to sugar (and perhaps other food elements) in a way that resembles how addicts respond to drugs. The comparison, for many, though, is imperfect. For some who binge once they start on cookies or brownies won’t be triggered by sugar that’s added to soup, say, or sweet potato casserole. And still others can and do learn to “eat just one”, even if this proves no simple feat.

As with any addiction, people fall on a spectrum of vulnerability. Genes, learning, temperament, level of impulsivity, body composition and metabolism all play some part. This means that for some “having just one” will come more easily than for others. For some, in fact, stopping completely is the only way to gain control. The decision for abstinence comes with built-in challenges. Feelings of deprivation can interfere. The need to now deal differently with feelings becomes obvious. Social support may be lacking—people who care for us may continue to proffer sweets, not knowing just how difficult it can be.

Twelve-step groups often help those opting for full abstinence. They offer needed social support, and tools, along the way. Psychotherapy and other supports can help with the learning to deal with feelings. It helps, too, to remember that time makes a big difference—almost universally people report craving less as the sugar-free days and weeks and months pass.

Does abstinence have to mean forever? For many, it does. However, here again we meet “no one prescription fits all” . For some of those who clearly see the “sugar addict” in themselves will opt for and benefit from a more time-limited abstinence. Taking a few weeks or months off of the triggering substance can sometimes allow a person to then engage in the kind of moderation learning touched on in “Targeted Sweet Spots”, above.

In the end, leaving the Kingdom of Sweets is all about finding your own prescription for living with less and feeling satisfied with the choices you’ve made.


To Read More: Related blogs and articles:

Some of the above material appeared in earlier blogs: -
-Who Can Eat Just One? More Thoughts on Sugar Addiction
-Less Sugar in Your Life: A Guide to Getting Started
-Sugar in Moderation? But How?
-Should You Call Yourself a Food Addict?
-Sugar: Eating Sanely With a Sweet Tooth (Part 1)
-Sugar: Eating Sanely With a Sweet Tooth (Part 2)
-Moderation: Yes, But Easier Said Than Done

On the science of sugar and your health, and sugar and addiction -
-60 Minutes, CBS, 4/1/12 segment, “Is Sugar Toxic?”
-“Is Sugar Toxic”, by Gary Taubes, New York Times Magazine, 4/13/11
-Nutrition Action’s April 2012 issue focuses on sugar and belly fat and metabolic syndrome.

For a review and update of the “Is Sugar Toxic” research -
-“The Sweet Lowdown” , by Stephanie Schomer, O the Oprah Magazine, 1/13