I had to think twice about writing the subject header because the title itself is an overly reductionist approach to our sugar consumption. It makes us think that, “Hey, this is going to be a breeze!” The reality is that it is easy for the average person to reduce his or her sugar intake by half with a few keystone changes. However, it’s the last mile—and the upkeep of those steps—that can make our journey more challenging.
1. Replace sugary beverages like juices and soft drinks with cleaner options.
One of my former colleagues, Liz, always drank a Coke while at work. I would rag on her about it all the time. One day she surprised the whole team when she came in with a Sodastream—one of those clever devices that carbonates water. “I’ve determined that it’s not the soda I like,” she said, “but the carbonation, so I bought a Sodastream to make carbonated water instead.”
Turns out if we can follow Liz’s lead, we’ll all be in a healthier place. As a matter of fact, removing sugary beverages from one’s diet can eliminate between 33 – 47% of our added sugar intake, according to reports from the CDC and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. That’s nearly half the battle right there!
When we talk about sugary drinks, our mind often goes directly to soda, but it also includes juices, fruit drinks, nectars, smoothies, energy drinks, sugary coffees and teas, sweetened bottled water, alcoholic beverages and some milks. In addition to this, “drinking” our meals just doesn’t make us feel full the same way that solid foods do. All the fiber that may have been part of, say the orange or apple that was turned into orange or apple juice, respectively, is no longer there. It’s part of the reason why we’d have trouble eating 20 whole apples in one sitting, which is around how many apples we need to press the sugary juice to make 1 cup of apple juice.
2. Eliminate processed foods in at least 1 meal a day, if not more.
There are different definitions and levels of what “processed food” is but a good rule of thumb is if it comes packaged, boxed, canned or bagged, then it may very well be processed. There are, however, some exceptions, like many plain frozen vegetables or some fermented foods. If you want to start off slow, then choose at least 1 meal a day to eat unprocessed, fresh food. Then you can take on a second meal and a third meal when you feel ready.
When I first started learning about the extent of my sugar intake, the first meal I completely shifted was breakfast. Traditionally a lot of American breakfast options are sweet and processed: think waffles, pancakes, cereal, granola, oatmeal, breads, pastries, bagels, flavored yogurts, and even honey for tea and sugar for coffee. When I learned that the amount of sugar we typically consume in the first couple hours of waking up completely exceeds our added sugar intake for the day, I made the switch to healthier options.
If you’re a parent, you may also want to consider switching up your children’s breakfast choices. In 2014, the Environmental Working Group conducted a study that revealed every single cereal marketed to children contains added sugar and on average, children’s cereals have more than 40 percent more sugars than adult cereals, and twice the sugar of oatmeal! Considering that there is such a rise in obesity and metabolic diseases in children, switching to healthier breakfast options is a wise step.
3. Turn habits into healthy ones!
Take note of how many times you snack a day, what you typically snack on, and how much you end up eating (or drinking). This may be harder than we think, largely because snacking or drinking for so many of us is habitual, which means it is a behavioral routine that is largely programmed into our brains. The hardest part is this: Habits never disappear. On top of that, our brains can’t distinguish a “good habit” from a “bad habit”. They are simply unconscious behaviors hardwired into our brain. This is why I say a sugar cleanse is a “journey,” because it is so easy for us to slide right back into our old habits, particularly if we are under stress and can’t gain control what author Charles Duhigg calls our “habit loop.”
Sugar releases dopamine, which is part of the pleasure center in our brain. The presence of something sugary, like a cake in the kitchen, can trigger a habitual response in our brain. This is something we know as a craving. If you start to notice that every day after lunch, you get up to grab a cookie, or every time you come home, you have to have that glass of wine, then chances are you’re stuck in a habit loop.
Duhigg explains that it’s easier for us to adopt a behavior if there is a familiar beginning and end. The key is learning—habituating—yourself to healthy, eating—and identifying proper cues (think leaving out your kitchen utensils in the morning to cook) and what that reward is (maybe it’s having to rely less on your insulin, maybe it’s fitting into your old jeans, or just overall feeling better about yourself)—so that it overrides those bad habits. Once you get a sense of your cues and rewards, then you are halfway there to reprogramming your brain and turning bad habits into good ones.