Sugar

If you read mainstream nutrition you would come to the conclusion that sugar is evil. People watch Hungry For Change and are told that is just as bad as heroin.

There was a period of a couple of months after Christmas when I couldn’t check Facebook without seeing that someone was doing the I Quit Sugar program by Sarah Wilson. Status updates of “3 weeks without sugar and counting” were a plenty and it was interesting reading people’s comments. It would indicate that sugar is rapidly replacing fat as the number one health villain.

During the first consult new clients often ask me if I am going to tell them to stop eating sugar and my response is always no. We’ll have been been going through their food log and it is littered with sugar products. Mid mornings, mid afternoons and after dinner are all times where cakes, biscuits, chocolates or fizzy drinks regularly appear. But despite this, I feel no need to tell them to quit sugar or avoid these products.

Sugar cravings from my experience come from two areas. The first is a basic need for energy. When you are tired or your cells are low in energy, your body creates cravings to remedy this. You crave the simplest and easiest form of energy that your body can immediately use and this is sugar.

When I go through the food logs of clients who have sugar cravings, they’re invariably not eating enough or not eating regularly enough. So their body stimulates their appetite for sugar to combat this energy shortage. Signs and symptoms of the body shouldn’t be ignored and this is an important indicator. Telling someone to avoid sugar is not really dealing with the issue.

The second area that relates to sugar is emotional; sugar is a crutch for some people. Foods like ice cream and chocolate and cookies are pleasant to taste, no one is going to argue with this. But the experience of eating these foods is greatly heightened when emotions are involved.

A child is told that if they are good they will be given a chocolate. This changes chocolate from being just a sugary snack into an emotional stimulating reward. The child behaves themself and is rewarded accordingly. When the chocolate is given to the child there is lots of oohing and ahhing and wowing. The parents look down lovingly as he or she eats the chocolate and ask questions like ‘how amazing does that taste?’ which is normally followed up by things like ‘thanks for being such a good boy/girl’.

When this is repeated again and again these foods take on a magical quality. The enjoyment from eating chocolate is then less about the chocolate itself and more about what the chocolate means. Obviously the example given isn’t the only way sugar becomes bigger than the sum of its parts, there are lots of other ways that it can become your emotional crutch.

What I have found in practice is that the best way to deal with sugar cravings is to focus on the other parts of the diet. As I mentioned most often people aren’t eating enough food and so I recommend changes in this area. I get people eating more regularly, so instead of having three meals a day they are having something every three hours (this isn’t forever, but is needed in the beginning).

I advise that if they are going to have chocolate or biscuits or some other sugar treat, that they have it as part of a complete snack or meal. Rather than having their afternoon snack consist only of a bar of chocolate, they need to have some proper protein, carbohydrates and fat along side it.

Once people start to follow this advice, it’s amazing how quickly sugar cravings disappear. People who describe themselves as addicts are going for days or weeks without evening thinking about chocolate. They say that they now have so much more energy that they don’t need the pick me up.

What I also notice is that the emotional stuff seems to take care of itself when these people are well fed. Stable emotions aren’t easy when you energy deprived and the natural response is to turn to your sweet-tasting crutch. When energy is stable, emotions follow and sugar-laden cakes and biscuits are no longer on speed dial.

Does this mean that these people never eat sugary treats again? Of course not and this shouldn’t be the goal. What changes is that they now have choice. While previously they felt that they ‘must’ have sugar to get through the day, now they ‘choose’ to eat it when they want it. They decide to have a couple of pieces of chocolate in the evening without needing the will power of a saint to stop eating the entire family block that was given to them as a gift.

Banning anything from a diet (or from life in general) only increases our desire for that item. I can go weeks or months without drinking, but if I actively decide I want to stop drinking then it becomes a real challenge. All I can think about is what wine will match with my breakfast! When the month is over I can’t wait to have a drink, like I now deserve it for abstaining for a month despite previously going many months without it, but without a formal embargo.  Rather than banning sugar from your diet, add new things in so it naturally pushes the other stuff out.

I don’t want this article to give you the idea that I think sugar is bad because I don’t. I recommend people eat high amounts of fruit and root vegetables, both of which contain high amounts of sugar. I encourage people to eat honey, maple syrup, black strap molasses, and other natural sugars. I even think that white sugar and things like Coke Cola have a place in our diet and not just as treats but serving an important nutritional function. But like everything, it is about balance and understanding how you can make the most out of these foods.

If you crave sugar please don’t make a pledge to give it up, your body is trying to tell you something and you should listen. Putting it on the banned substances list doesn’t resolve this. Workout what you can be adding to your diet so your body doesn’t feel addicted to energy in its most basic form. Then you can enjoy sugar the way it should be enjoyed, when you choose to.

This article originally appeared on the Frame blog here.



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Chris Sandel is the founder of www.seven-health.com. He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

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