WTF Wednesday – The Sugar Detox

One item in our food supply has been under attack.

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Seemingly, this ingredient didn’t do anything wrong. It made cookies taste good, made bitter foods, like coffee, bearable, and sometimes just put a darn good smile on our face. So how did we end up here? For this week’s WTF Wednesday, we’re talking about the sugar detox your friends, relatives, and that neighbor down the street have embarked on.

Let’s start from the beginning. Sugar is the general name for a group of molecules that fall under the class of nutrients, called carbohydrates. The sugars that have been getting the bad rep lately are fructose, found in fruit, and sucrose, commonly known as “table sugar.” Oh, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is a mix of two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose, and used widely by the food industry…we’ll go there later.

Sugar has been a common ingredient in our food supply for a long, long time. It’s what gives food that amazingly sweet taste! We are wired to enjoy foods with sugar because the taste is, well, delicious, aaaand the sweetness signals that this food is a source of energy (a.k.a. calories). Sugar can be pretty awesome because the monosaccharide, glucose, which is the major sugar found in our body and food supply, is the exclusive fuel for our brain (side bar: when we don’t eat enough carbohydrates, our body can make a limited amount of glucose from breaking down muscle and produce ketone bodies from fat stores to fuel our brain…but this is super not ideal). However, besides calories, sugar lacks other nutrients making it a nutrient-poor food.

Sugar can be found intrinsically in foods, like fruit and milk, or it can be added to foods, like baked goods, soda, yogurt, and all sorts of unsuspecting goods, like bread, tomato sauce, ketchup, etc. HFCS came into play when the the food industry started using a mix of glucose and fructose sugars to sweeten foods because it was cheaper than cane sugar (sucrose) and tasted sweeter. Sugars that have been added to foods were given the name “added sugars.” Due to studies showing that higher consumption of sugar may be linked to metabolism problems and weight gain, sugar, especially added sugars, have gotten a ton of buzz in the past couple years.

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Added sugars have been hit hard because they’re not found “naturally” in certain food items, so they’re seen as removable. Also, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the top sources of added sugars are sugar-sweetened beverages (I’m looking at you, soda and juice), as well as snacks and sweets. We can all agree that we feel less than optimal after eating too many nutrient-poor foods (candy) and not enough nutrient-dense foods (veggies and hummus).

The current recommendation for added sugars is to limit our intake to less than 10% of our total calories. So if you’re consuming a 2,500 kcal diet, you’re aiming for less than 250 kcal from sugar. There are 16 kcal in 1 teaspoon of sugar, so roughly you’re limited to about 15 teaspoons. Since carbohydrates provide 4 kcal per gram, you’re looking at ~60 grams. If you were to go for 2 glasses of sweetened iced tea, you’re done. Forget getting a cocktail. That’s way too easy to go overboard.

Hence, here we go with the sugar detox. People are attempting to completely remove sugar from their diet. Some are just removing added sugars (added sugar is sneaky and hides in foods, so this will be difficult), others are attempting to remove both intrinsic and added sugars (eek, bring on the low energy). The problem here is similar to my previous post. Banning foods is not a sustainable strategy to teach good nutrition.

Sure, we can all put more effort into choosing foods that provide more nutrients, instead of relying on sugary snacks for a quick energy source. But we also can’t forget that the sugar, glucose fuels our brain. Fruit is also a great source of different nutrients, including certain vitamins and minerals, water-soluble fiber, and phytochemicals (that have antioxidant properties). Plus, fruit tastes good, so it’s easier to adopt eating fruit into the diet.

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Eating is all about creating a pattern. Healthy eating is about creating a pattern centered around nutrient-dense foods, with the allowance for the occasional treat. Don’t bother with starting the New Year with a sugar detox. Instead, practice these sustainable nutrition strategies to lower your sugar intake:

1. Choose Carbohydrates Wisely: Go for whole-grains, like oats, brown rice, barley, buckwheat, and whole-wheat couscous. These whole-grains will provide fuel for your brain and body, while also giving you other nutrients. Plus, you cook all these yourself, so you avoid mystery sweeteners that appear in pre-packaged foods.

2. Sugar-Free Hydration: Make water your primary drink of choice. You can add citrus or cucumbers and mint for added flavor, or even go with seltzer for a pop! As for alcohol, your best bet is vodka with seltzer and lime wedges.

3. Calculate Your Energy Needs: Find out your estimated energy requirement using a tool, like the USDA SuperTracker, to figure out roughly your calorie recommendation for the day. From there, calculate your sugar allowance of 10% of total calories.

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Have you ever tried a sugar detox?

What are your food goals for the year?

 

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