How to Quit Sugar Without Being Miserable
An expert shares easy ways to reduce sugar intake
We’ve all heard about the sugar epidemic in America — in fact, I explore this topic in my documentary Fed Up . But when it comes to really wrapping our heads around this pervasive problem, it can all get a bit muddled: What does sugar really do to our bodies? Is it all bad? And how can we reduce our sugar intake — without eliminating all things sweet? To find out, I turned to Dr. Mark Hyman, a family physician, New York Times bestselling author (with a new healthy cookbook, Food: What the Heck Should I Cook? ) and a bonafide expert on the topic. He broke it all down for me.
Katie Couric: Sugar is a major issue in the U.S., and we know you’ve done a lot of work around the topic. So before we even get into how pervasive it is in our culture, can you tell us what exactly sugar does to our bodies?
Dr. Mark Hyman: Our hormones, taste buds, and brain chemistry are all hijacked by sugar. Not metaphorically, but biologically. Simply put, you get addicted, like you would be to some of the deadliest drugs on the planet, to sugar and anything that turns to sugar in your body, like white flour.
This is because food contains not just calories or energy to fuel our cells; food contains information. When we eat sugar, it increases our blood glucose and it tells our body to increase insulin, in order to shuttle that glucose into cells. But when we constantly eat sugar and have chronically high blood glucose, we develop insulin resistance, which is the predicator to developing type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance usually comes with increased fat storage, high blood pressure, and a poor cholesterol profile. Elevated blood sugar and insulin promote inflammation and cause a hormonal cascade that makes it hard to think clearly, maintain a healthy weight, stay in a good mood, have a healthy sex drive, and so much more.
In our brain, a little receptor, the dopamine receptor D2 (or DRD2 for short), must be activated or switched on for us to feel pleasure. The amino acid dopamine triggers this response. Sugar and other stimulating addictions increase dopamine in the short term, which is what makes it addictive. Some of us are more genetically prone to this than others.
Are there any forms of sugar that are good for us, or are they all dangerous?
All types of sugar and refined carbohydrates act the same in the body. So honey, white sugar, and whole wheat bread all break down into glucose. With that being said, some types of sweeteners have zero nutritional value (like white sugar and artificial sweeteners like aspartame, which have other added dangers) while some at least lend small amounts of vitamins and minerals, like maple syrup and coconut sugar. And then there is naturally occurring sugar in things like fruit and starchy vegetables. These foods have other nutrients and fiber that help to ease the impact of sugar on your bloodstream and can make them healthy foods to include in your diet, but should still be consumed consciously (choose low-glycemic berries and antioxidant-rich sweet potatoes, for example) and enjoyed with healthy fats for an added blood-sugar buffer. I always say don’t carb it alone!
All types of sugar should be eaten with awareness, and for people who are susceptible to overeating them its better to avoid altogether. If you do want to indulge I consider fresh fruit and those sweeteners that are the least processed and contain any nutrients a better choice — we’re all human after all and a sweet treat once in a while can be really enjoyable.
Okay, so now, onto the sugar epidemic. How widespread is sugar addiction in America? And how might we be ingesting sugar in ways we don’t expect?
It’s very widespread. Some estimates say that 75% of Americans have a sugar addiction. More than 70% of Americans consume 10% of their daily calories from sugar — and about 10% of Americans consume 25% of their calories from sugar. We are hardwired to seek out sugar and prefer sweetness — it’s no wonder that when it’s available to us 24/7 in every aisle of the grocery store we consume too much of it. It’s not a lack of willpower, it’s our biology.
The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 150 calories of added sugar per day (that’s 9 teaspoons!) and for women 100 calories (6 teaspoons). I feel that is still far too much and we should limit added sugar — the stuff that is not naturally occurring in those healthy foods I mentioned earlier — to a bare minimum in our day to day lives. And even when we are eating healthy foods that naturally contain sugar we need to be mindful, because they can still impact blood sugar negatively when eaten in excess.
Most of us don’t know that a serving of tomato sauce has more added sugar than a serving of Oreo cookies, or that fruit yogurt has more sugar than a Coke, or that most breakfast cereals — even those made with whole grains — are 75% sugar. That’s not breakfast, it’s dessert! Farmers growing the crops that are turned into sugar, like corn and wheat, receive government subsidies to keep producing massive amounts of these crops, despite the destruction to our health and the environment, and so there is an abundance of sugary ingredients to put into cheap, packaged foods, even when you didn’t think it would be.
Sugar is commonly linked to obesity, but we know some people are unclear about the exact correlation. Can you explain the link?
When we eat too much sugar and our bodies keep pumping out insulin, it becomes really easy to gain weight. That’s because insulin should be telling the body to use that glucose for energy, but when there’s too much it ends up telling the body to store it as fat. High blood sugar also creates inflammation, and inflammation leads to weight gain and being overweight breeds more inflammation, creating a really vicious cycle.
Unfortunately, when we are overweight and have blood sugar imbalances we are also craving a quick energy boost, and often turn to sugar, worsening the problem and packing in food without any nutritional value but plenty of calories. High blood sugar and high insulin also impact leptin — a hormone that is part of our energy regulation and should normally signal we’re no longer hungry — then we get leptin resistance and feel hungry all the time and continue down the path of overeating and obesity.
What are your tips for cracking a sugar addiction and developing healthier habits — without being absolutely miserable?
For a true sugar addiction, I recommend going cold turkey. Eliminate refined sugars, grain flours, sodas, fruit juices, and artificial sweeteners from your diet, as these can trigger cravings. It might be intimidating, but it’s easier and less mentally painful than trying to moderate if you are biologically addicted because you’ll experience rapid improvements. I’ve had some patients get off insulin in three days when the drop sugar in all its forms cold turkey.
What are your tips for substituting a sugary snack with something else that still hits the spot?
My go-to option for a sweet fix without destroying blood sugar is eating whole low-glycemic fruit, like berries, kiwi, and apples. Fresh fruits like these are a better option than dried since the drying process concentrates sugar content. I also like to make a decadent dessert once in a while for special occasions, like the Lemon-Berry Rose Cream Cake and Salted Pecan-Fudge Cookies in my new cookbook, Food: What the Heck Should I Cook? These use minimal and healthier sweeteners so you can still enjoy a special treat in a healthy way.
And lastly, can you tell us how you handle your own sugar intake? Are you someone who avoids sugar all together, or do you have your own methods for moderation?
When I experienced my own health crisis with gut imbalances, brain fog, and chronic inflammation, I gave up all sugar completely to help my body truly heal. Now that my body is strong and balanced again, I’ve gotten to a point where I can enjoy high-quality sweets in moderation. That means I’ll enjoy a dessert made with dates, maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar on special occasions. Other days, I may have a small piece of super dark chocolate (like 80% or greater) or blend some frozen berries with coconut milk for a no-sugar-added sorbet.
If I feel like my immune system is fighting something, I’m extra stressed, or my brain isn’t as sharp as I’d like, I avoid sweet foods overall and focus on healthy fats, high-quality proteins, and complex carbs from veggies to get my system strong again and either way I always consider sweets an occasional indulgence.
This originally appeared in the October 30, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.