There are those who can double-down on food deprivation long enough to keep the pounds off, but most of us will last only a short spell before quickly rebounding to our former weight — or worse.
But as researchers are now discovering, it’s not moral turpitude, it’s natural. As Traci Mann, a psychologist and eating researcher at the University of Minnesota, recently described to Business Insider, dieting basically causes our body to fight back: we release hunger-triggering hormones, our metabolism slows to hang onto fat, and our brains become overly aware of that tantalizing bowl of fun-sized chocolates on our colleague’s desk.
So if we are wired to fail, what’s to be done about these unholy pounds? The answer may be as simple as exorcising one particular demon.
One of the biggest changes to the Western diet in the last century has been the amount of industrially-refined sugar we consume. Americans are now taking in about 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. The American Heart Association recommends only 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 for men.
It’s a disparity that is taking a toll on our health and waistlines.
But sugar is my oldest and sweetest friend!
Not by a long shot. Look at what sugar has been doing behind your back -– and in your gut.
According to the results of a 15-year study published last year in Journal of the American Medical Association, people who eat 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who eat less than ten per cent. This was true regardless of age, activity level, body-mass index and an otherwise healthy diet.
Sugar has also been strongly linked to Type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, liver disease and, of course, obesity. There is also growing evidence that it plays a role in some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.
But life without goodies? It’s unimaginable!
There’s a very good reason it seems that way. Sugar is addictive. In fact, researchers have found that sugar affects the human brain much like opioids. It is habit-forming with cravings similar to nicotine and cocaine. Honestly, that’s no big surprise for those of us who think about cookies and can’t stop drooling. Like any addiction, cutting out added sugar may cause some withdrawal. But once kicked, many find that the cravings go too.
But isn’t sugar natural?
Many sugars are indeed naturally present in food. But there is a big difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are found in whole foods such as fruits, beans, nuts and whole-grain pastas. But these foods come with healthy fibers and nutrients which outweigh the negative effects of the natural sugars.
Added, refined sugar has no nutritional value.
Of course the sugar demon has disguises. Many so-called healthy alternatives are essentially the same as table sugar with a few added nutrients. This includes cane sugar, maple syrup, corn syrup, agave syrup, honey and molasses. If you mean business, these sweeteners need to go, too.
A note on artificial sweeteners: do your research. The advisability of long term use is not settled.
But a life without chocolate isn’t worth living!
Quite right. The science is growing that the flavonoids in cocoa beans may reduce the risk for heart disease, lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. There is also some evidence that eating dark chocolate may reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart attack.
But how to get chocolate without the refined sugar? Divide and conquer. Buy a high-end bar of unsweetened chocolate and grate it over blueberries and oatmeal for breakfast, over yogurt and nuts as a treat, or over your afternoon coffee. Throw a few unsweetened, raw cocoa nibs over anything that takes your fancy, sweet or savory.
As you eradicate added sugar from your diet, the natural sweetness of many foods will become far more noticeable: cashews, almonds, carrots, fruit, even milk, will come into their own. For a treat, consider dates: they are sweeter than a caramel and very similar in flavor. Try dipping one in peanut butter and prepare to be blown away.
So where do I start?
Aside from the obvious sugar bombs in the cake, donut and candy aisle, sugar is added to a stunning array of foods, expected and unexpected. It’s in ketchup, spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, spicy nuts, flavored potato chips, drink mixes for cocktails, breads and healthy-sounding cereals, among many other foods. The only way to catch it is to religiously read the ingredient list.
Health food stores tend to carry more foods without added sugars, but beware the cane sugar substitute. When in doubt, stick with foods that have not been processed.
But does it work?
It depends on your perspective. If you are not naturally slim and only a size zero will do, cutting out sugar alone may not get you there. But if you want to stabilize your weight, live without dieting, and reduce your health risks, ban the sugar demons and free the real you.