If you follow nutrition and health news closely, you’ll know that 2014 was the year of the War on Sugar. Having taken the place of fat as America’s #1 Food Villain, sugar has received all kinds of bad press.
Is it deserved? Probably.
Sugar in all forms is highly addictive, unbalances the body and processed sugars contributes to health problems like metabolic disorder and cancer. We’re just not designed to eat sugar in the volume we have come to, and because it’s in just about everything, it – and its side effects – can be difficult to avoid. Below, see the ways a high-sugar diet is hard on your body, then be kind to your hardworking system by trying our easy suggestions to reduce your intake.
The Great Energy Drain
Sugar plays with our ability to produce energy. Just like caffeine, sugar provides a quick hit – an upper, if you will – of easy-to-absorb energy. But just like caffeine, relying on sugar for energy is like borrowing from the bank: if there’s nothing substantial, like proteins and fats, to back up that energy supply, you’ll have to pay it back (which usually comes in the form of a mid-afternoon crash. More on that here!). Avoiding sugars that spike blood sugar can help your body regulate its own energy production and keep you on a more even keel.
Just ask any kid who is used to Oreos, Twinkies and sugary cereal to eat something unsweetened: they’ll crinkle up their nose at the ‘grossness’ because the food will appear to be lacking the hit of tongue-tingling sugar they’ve come to prefer. Adults are no different. Relying on the sweetness from foods like root vegetables and fruit can help keep the taste buds more aligned with their natural setting.
Sugar causes and exacerbates a number of chronic conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dementia, obesity and cancer. We are not designed to consume as much sugar as we do today, and our systems have not adapted to process it effectively. The resulting overwhelm can lead to the conditions above, as sugar’s acid, extra empty calories and metabolic interruptions take their toll. See our information on Plant-based Eating and Diabetes for more information.
Cancer cells needs glucose to thrive, and when carboydrates break down in the body, they become glucose. (The exception here is vegetable-based carbohydrates, like those found in non-starchy veggies like onions or Brussels sprouts.) Excess sugar consumption has been shown to not only feed existing cancer cells, but potentially initiate the growth of new cancer cells. What’s most impressive? Some studies have shown that reducing sugar intake can slow tumor growth.
Take a look at the premises on the expansive/ contractive theory of food and notice how sugar occupies the far end of the spectrum (directly opposite salt and meat). Particularly in a body that consumes no animal products, sugar is aggressively unbalancing. Without an extreme hit of meat or dairy to bring it back into balance, the system remains in chaos, away from its preferred energetic center. My thinking? You’re best off avoiding both extremes, which includes sugar.
Fructose, in particular, is highly addictive and contributes to liver malfunction and metabolic disorders. High-fructose corn syrup, which is added to an alarming number of processed foods, is one of the main culprits of the USA’s addiction to sugar. There is literally no ‘done’ signal to tell the body to stop eating when it comes to fructose. Makes sense that this substance is one of the most highly addictive ones we can (legally) procure.
Sugar interrupts our body’s ability to burn fuel and overtaxes the pancreas. Every time we eat sugar, the pancreas secretes insulin to encourage cells to open up and take in that sugar for fuel. The higher the sugar content, the more insulin the body must release, and with regular exposure to high amounts of sugar, the pancreas tires out: it can no longer provide sufficient insulin and our ability to metabolize sugars is compromised. Excess insulin also leads to weight gain: as a fat-storing hormone, insulin tells the body to convert sugar to fat and store it for later. The more insulin coursing through your body, the more fat you are likely to retain in the longterm.
Here are some simple ideas:
Use spices or naturally sweet plant-based foods, like pumpkin, apple or sweet potato, as sweeteners. Not only are these gentler on the body, they can help retrain taste buds to prefer less intense sugars. Here’s a great article on the healthiest alternatives to white sugar, too!
Consider using gentle sweeteners like maple syrup or brown rice syrup instead. This Vanilla Maple Cashew Butter might just change your life… or at least how you think about natural sweeteners.
Read product labels closely. If cane sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, agave or their relatives appear in the first 10 ingredients, leave it on the shelf. As an alternative, you can make your own Sugar-free Vegan Protein Bars at home.
Eat fat. It helps the body feel ‘done’ and can improve the texture and flavor of meals to make them more satisfying. Nut butters or plant-based oils are good options. Which oil should you use when? So glad you asked. Check out our ideas for how we enjoy how to use what oil when.
A whole-food, plant-based diet that is low in packaged foods and added sugars can be an effective way to sidestep many of the problems found with sugar. Avoid the sweet stuff however possible. Your health and taste buds will thank you for years to come!
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