Sugar shock

My name is Shaunna, and I’m addicted to sugar.

There, I’ve said it.

A few months ago, I never would have believed that statement. I didn’t have a major sweet tooth, and I didn’t consume much in the way of sugar. Or so I thought.

Feeling sluggish, mentally foggy and just “blah,” I set out to improve the way I felt. Most importantly, I wanted to regain the energy that I’d lost. Previous methods of weight loss and healthy eating that were successful to me in the past were now boring and uninspiring. I needed a motivational shot in the arm to get me back on track before my health choo-choo chugged right off the track and over the ravine.

I enlisted the help of a friend, who, luckily for me, also happens to be a motivational coach and certified nutritionist. One of the first things she suggested I do was to write down everything I ate. Prior to completing this exercise, I stated that I ate home-cooked food about 80 to 85 percent of the time and that I consumed very little, if any, sugar.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

One week of writing down what I ate was probably one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever done. First, I discovered that I was way off on my estimate of home-cooked versus take out or restaurant-prepared food. Instead of 80 percent home-cooked foods, the ratio was much closer to 50-50.

But the most appalling thing I noticed from the exercise? I ate sugar. And lots of it, every day. A handful of jelly beans here, a cup of hot chocolate there, a nightly bedtime “treat”… it all added up to an overabundance of the sweet stuff. All this time, I’d thought I was safe. I was never the person dying for that slice of chocolate cake or the one who had to lick the icing off of the spatula. But there I was, addicted to sugar.

Sugar does many bad things to your body. Nancy Appleton, a clinical nutritionist, lists 146 reasons “how sugar is ruining your health” in her book “Lick the Sugar Habit.” Some of the things sugar can do: increase cholesterol, weaken eyesight, cause food allergies, contribute to diabetes, cause cardiovascular disease, reduce the body’s defense against infectious disease, and impair the structure of DNA. There is also growing evidence that sugar feeds cancer cells. How’s that for a laundry list?

Sugar contains “empty calories.” You’ve heard the term – it means that the calories in sugar have little to no nutritional value. Our bodies do need some sugar, but we can get plenty of that in other foods that our bodies turn into glucose. We don’t need to consume the extra refined sugar. It simply creates more glucose than our bodies need, and the excess sugar in the liver gets converted to fatty acids that get stored in your body as – you guessed it – fat.

Here’s an interesting tid bit: according to a blog by Dr. Michael R. Eades, our bodies want to maintain no more than approximately one teaspoon of glucose (sugar) in our blood stream at any given time. Anything more than that throws it off balance, creating a spike and then a drop in blood sugar. One teaspoon of sugar equals five grams, which equals five grams of carbohydrates. Dr. Eades uses the following example to put this into perspective: “An order of medium fries at McDonald’s contains 47 grams of carbohydrate. 47 grams of carbohydrate converts to about 47 grams of sugar, which is almost 10 teaspoons. So, when you eat these fries you put 10 times more sugar into your blood than that required to maintain a normal blood sugar level. Since your metabolic system has to work very hard indeed to deal with the sugar load from an order of fries, imagine what it has to do when you add a large soft drink, a hamburger bun, and maybe an apple turnover for dessert.”

While I was aware of some of this information, I supposed I’d turned a deaf ear and blind eye to it. Yeah, sugar’s bad for me. I knew that. But after reading all of this new information, I did some refocusing. I beat cancer four times, fighting very hard to return my body to health. Why, after going through all of that, would I want to treat my body so poorly by consuming foods I know are harming it? And I’d always been aware of a possible connection between sugar and cancer, so that fact right there was more than reason enough for me to cut that toxin out of my diet. At that point, I vowed to drastically reduce my sugar intake.

Even though I was always a label reader, I read them much more closely. While my original goal was to cut out the obvious dessert and candy type foods, I also cut back on the amount of carbs I was consuming. As I read labels, I came to a very disturbing discovery – sugar is in EVERYTHING. Foods that I never thought about having sugar had it listed high on the ingredient list (food ingredients are listed on the label in order of amount from most to least – the product contains the most of the first item listed and the least of the last item). Things like low-fat and fat-free salad dressing, ketchup, mustard, tomato sauce, canned soups and fruits, yogurt and peanut butter contain sugar. Fruit juice, sodas and coffee drinks are some of the highest in sugar content. Not only do you suffer from withdrawal symptoms when stopping sugar intake cold turkey, but sugar also sneaks into many of the foods we eat on a daily basis. Can you see how extremely difficult it is to completely cut sugar out of your diet?

Overall, I’m doing great with this new sugar-free diet. Several times in the past few weeks I’ve had to tell people, “No thank you, I’m not eating sugar.” I faced a big test at the “Taste of the Valley” last week with all of those delicious-looking desserts surrounding the perimeter of the Carnes Center. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for years, and as we chatted, I told her that I wasn’t eating sugar. I had picked up a sugary treat from one of the vendors but had no intentions of eating it (it was sort of accidental – I didn’t ask for it, but they just gave it to me), but I lamented tasting it. My friend said emphatically, “Don’t do it, Shaunna. You’re doing so well.” She was right. I didn’t do it.

I won’t lie and say I haven’t eaten ANY refined sugary treats. I’ve tasted a few things, but that’s pretty much all I can do anymore. I’m good for one bite and it’s just way too sweet for me. It’s amazing how much sweeter sugar tastes when you haven’t eaten it for a while. In fact, it was so sweet that it made me a little sick.

I like this no sugar thing I’m doing. I have so much more energy, I feel more mentally sharp, and I’ve lost a few pounds. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to feeling better, pretty much everyone can benefit from cutting back on the sugar. Why not challenge yourself to cut out sugar for just one week? I don’t typically make guarantees, and I won’t this time either, but chances are pretty good that by the end of that week, you’ll feel a lot better.

What have you got to lose – except maybe a little of that belly?