As the post-Halloween sugar high slowly fades and we make our way into the holiday season, it is time to consider the goals we have set for ourselves this year and take stock of where we are at in the process. With more and more activities and commitments, you may rely on quick and convenient pre-packaged foods- but are you aware of the added sugars that live in these packages? No matter how informed you are, it can be challenging to weed through all the rhetoric on a food label in search of hidden sugar. Read on to learn more about how to spot sugar on a food label, the role sugar plays in our body, and why a sugar reset may be a great way to jump-start your body, increase your energy, and feel better quickly.
How to Spot Hidden Sugars
The average American adult consumes 77 grams of sugar each day- that is three times the recommended daily amount. Sadly it is even worse for children: the average child consumes 81 gm of sugar daily, which adds up to be over 65 lbs of added sugar each year. For children, the leading culprit of these added sugars is sugary beverages. For adults, it’s a combination of sugary beverages and quick grab-and-go foods that have hidden sugars packed into them.
Here are the facts: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend sugar should be limited to <10% of total calories. The American Heart Association takes it one step further, recommending men should consume no more than 36 gm (9 tsp) daily and women no more than 25 gm (6 tsp) daily.
By educating yourself on what to look for on food labels, we can start to slowly cut down on these hidden additives. On ingredient lists, sugars can often be referred to as syrups, juices, or nectars, and sometimes even use names like glucose, barley malt, sucrose or maltodextrin. Food manufacturers can also use marketing tricks like “no refined sugar” or “refined sugar free” when using sugar additives like agave nectar or beet sugar. Although these sugar substitutes may have a slightly lower Glycemic Index because they contain mostly fructose, they are processed and broken down into sugar once in the body. The bottom line is no matter what fancy name sugar is given on the food label, it is broken down and processed the same way in the body.
Here is the tricky part- ingredients are listed on the food label by weight. Most people know that the higher an ingredient is on the food label, the more of the ingredient the food contains based purely on weight. Manufacturers make a food appear to be lower in sugar by using multiple sweeteners in a food item, having them appear lower on the ingredient list, but the combined sugar content still adds up to be the main ingredient. We expect sugar to be included in foods such as baked goods and sugary beverages. However, checking the food label for foods we assume to be “healthy” is even more critical. Cereals, yogurt, granola, and even spaghetti sauce have excessive amounts of added sugars.
Tip: Use nutrition labels as a guide. They can provide information on the amount of total sugar (#1) in the food you are consuming. Limiting added sugar (#2) is essential to maintaining a healthy diet.
Sugar and Dopamine
Dopamine is a chemical messenger that plays a significant role in motivation and reward. The release of dopamine can happen when we eat foods we enjoy. The brain associates certain substances, such as sugar, with a rush of dopamine. That is why sugary foods can be so addicting.
This is important because, over time, a person’s dopamine system can become less sensitive. After prolonged exposure to certain substances, our dopamine systems can become less reactive, creating a higher threshold we need to achieve to feel the impact of dopamine. When our system becomes less sensitive to certain dopamine-inducing foods, we often find ourselves consuming more of the food to experience the same ‘big rush’ of dopamine that used to be experienced from a smaller amount of food.
Over time, the brain may become dependent on these outside sources, such as sugary foods, to fill the dopamine production. This is called dopamine downregulation.
Removing Sugar From Our Diet
When we remove added sugar from our diet, dopamine downregulation begins to reset. There is a decrease in dopamine production, which may cause a depressed mood and cravings. The bright side is that our taste buds reset as well. In turn, food cravings begin to change once refined, and processed sugars are removed from the diet.
When sugary items are replaced with whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, the body minimizes cravings for sugary foods and begins to crave healthier items.
Why should we care? When we improve our diet, we are also improving our health span as well as our mental and physical health.How to Detox the Right Way
Reducing sugar in your diet can feel overwhelming and scary if you don’t know how to do it the right way. Prioritizing your health is important. High-sugar diets can lead to chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. You may not realize how bad sugar makes you feel until you slowly remove those items from your diet. Initially, you may feel lethargic and see mood effects due to the previously mentioned dopamine effect. But, when eating a diet full of whole foods, you will eventually start to feel more energized, more alert, and have mental clarity.
How can you put this into action?
- Read the food label! You are now prepared with all the sneaky ways food manufacturers hide sugar on the ingredient list. Start to read food labels and ingredient lists to determine how much added sugars foods contain.
- Drink more water! Sugary beverages are the primary source of empty sugar calories in America. By swapping out water for these beverages, you will automatically reduce the total added sugar in your diet.
- Eat a diet based on whole foods: vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods will make you feel full and satisfied, and eventually, the sugar cravings will subside.
- Choose dessert wisely. Cutting sugar out cold turkey can be difficult. Have items that can help curve your cravings, such as dried fruits, dark chocolate, or flavored teas that can help you feel satisfied.
At Nutrition for Longevity, we take pride in our wholesome ingredients. Many of these ingredients can help stop sugar cravings and keep us full and satisfied. Some of these foods include:
- Protein sources such as beans and legumes
- Berries and heart-healthy nuts
- Vegetables such as sweet potatoes, broccoli, and butternut squash
These ingredients can be found in our N4L’s meal plans as well as our Produce Boxes and Recipes.