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No Sugarcoating the Truth

Is there such a thing as a healthy sugar? The latest research says no.

Gummi Bears by Pamela Michelle Johnson

The latest research on sugar isn’t so sweet. Over the past three decades, dietary fats and cholesterol have taken the rap for causing cardiovascular disease, obesity, and a host of other ailments. Now we’re learning that, in fact, sugar may be the true culprit.

Calling sugar “the new tobacco,” a consortium of British medical professors recently launched Action on Sugar, a campaign to cut sugar consumption in the United Kingdom by 30 percent. Across the Atlantic, the American Heart Association recommends an even steeper slash: reduce our current consumption from a whopping 22 teaspoons per day to six for women and nine for men.

And doctors aren’t just singling out the obvious offenders: sodas loaded with high fructose corn syrup or coffee laced with packets of snow-white granules. So-called natural sweeteners—think molasses, maple syrup, agave, date sugar, and, yes, even honey—also deliver potentially unhealthy doses of sugar.

The human body runs on glucose—a simple sugar produced from carbohydrates through the course of digestion. Increasingly, the Western diet has incorporated a form of sugar called fructose. Until the 1970s, we consumed fructose in small amounts, primarily from fruits. But our diets have become increasingly tilted toward artificially sweetened foods, along with processed products that may not taste sweet but still come loaded with fructose—foods like ketchup, cereal, and salad dressings.

“Added sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever,” says cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, the science director for Action on Sugar. Unlike fat and protein, sugar—no matter what delicious form we may be consuming it in—provides empty calories. It gives us a burst of energy but not the building blocks our bodies need.

Even worse, it triggers the pancreas to produce excess insulin, which ushers sugars from the bloodstream into our cells. When insulin levels are ratcheted up several times a day, cells resist absorbing more sugar, and the liver begins converting the excess sugar to fat. This condition, known as insulin resistance, is now considered the catalyst for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. It might also be the underlying cause of many cancers.

The good news? Insulin resistance is reversible. Changing your diet—and getting rid of those added sugars—can reroute you toward good health.

Retrain Your Sweet Tooth

With a physical and emotional grip on most Westerners, sugar cravings can legitimately be described as an addiction, says nutritionist and ayurvedic specialist John Douillard. But while ditching sweeteners can be daunting, it’s not impossible. Try his tips for breaking the habit:

  • Wean yourself slowly; start by limiting yourself to one sugary treat a day, then one a week. Your taste buds will adjust. Over time, you will regain the ability to taste the sweetness in fruits and vegetables. Your cravings will diminish.
  • Avoid processed foods. Just about everything that comes in a package has added sugar.
  • Increase your intake of greens. Aim for one to two pounds of vegetables a day. The naturally occurring sugars in vegetables are moderated by fiber and enter the bloodstream in a slow and steady fashion.
  • Avoid snacking, which conditions your body to rely on quick bursts of energy. Instead, eat balanced meals: one-half vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter starch such as whole grains, yams, or potatoes.
  • Affirm that you deserve a life free of diet-caused diseases.
  • Saturate your food with high-quality oils: coconut, sesame, avocado, and ghee. These healthy fats impart a satisfying sense of fullness.
  • Hydrate. It’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger, particularly an appetite for something sweet.
  • Add pungent spices and bitter and astringent fruits and vegetables to your diet. These will help balance blood sugar and offset your addiction to the sweet taste.
  • Do your best to include all six tastes at every meal: sour (lemon), salty (salt, sea vegetables), pungent (spicy items such as ginger), bitter (leafy greens), astringent (beans, pomegranate, cucumber), and sweet (carrot, beet, squash, rice, milk)
  • Cultivate sweetness outside of mealtimes, by smiling, playing, and expressing contentment.