Laura Lea Goldberg is a certified holistic chef, recipe developer, writer and the force behind LL Balanced, a healthy eating website designed to introduce new ideas about food and nutrition. She’s also the author of an upcoming cookbook. As a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, Laura Lea knows a thing or two about nutritious food. Her recipes are approachable, satisfying and won’t leave you feeling deprived. Her educational background and practical application in the kitchen make her one of our go-to resources for healthy eating, and today she’s dishing on all things sugar.* Welcome, Laura Lea!
In the last few years, scientific studies have broken the mainstream barrier on a conclusion most are now familiar with: too much sugar is not a good thing.
Excessive consumption of sugar is at the root of the most deleterious health conditions (read more here). On the mild end, too much sugar can lead to cravings, overeating, skin rashes, acne, epic mood swings, dull hair and weight gain. Long-term overconsumption of the sweet stuff causes chronic inflammation, a thematic foundational condition of autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes and heart disease (read more here and here).
Thankfully, this barrage of literature and expert opinion has gained enough strength to make an impact. Many large-scale corporations are removing high-fructose corn syrup, a particularly insidious form of sugar, in their products (read more here). Also, natural sweeteners such as raw honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup are readily available in most grocery stores, and healthy living advocates such as Kimberly Snyder and Ella Woodward have reached celebrity status.
We are headed in the right direction, but one question is still fairly unclear: how can you cut back on sugar without having to fight brutal cravings? Here is my take, which will hopefully help guide you toward the proper answer for your body.
Let’s start with three basics.
Identify the culprits and replace them with healthier alternatives.
Almost all traditional packaged candies, such as Skittles and Snickers, but also many brands of “healthier” or noncandy foods, such as boxed crackers, cereals, bagels, pastas and many condiments and sauces, are filled with refined white sugar. In addition, natural, nonwhole food sweeteners like the aforementioned — raw honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup — should be viewed as condiments and treats … a dollop in your coffee, a honey-sweetened muffin, a sprinkle on your oatmeal.
Understand that there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for health.
Our backgrounds, genes, living environments, jobs, preferences and exercise levels all affect what nutrition is appropriate for each of us. Some people can enjoy daily intake of high-sugar fruits, such as a pineapple, banana or mango. These people might also thrive on a diet that includes ample carbohydrate-rich whole grains and starchy foods, like sweet potatoes and beets. For others, these choices might disrupt sleep patterns, increase cravings and leave them constantly dissatisfied. Instead, they might feel immensely better sticking with organic berries in the fruit department, and making healthy fats, proteins and nonstarchy vegetables the main players in their meals. This means you need to …
Learn where you fall on the spectrum.
One way to determine this is to know the signs of unstable blood sugar and note when you experience them. Your blood sugar might be off key if you experience symptoms such as craving for sweets, irritability, anxiety, poor concentration, trouble sleeping, shakiness, clamminess, brain fog or dizziness. If you think you might have blood sugar dysregulation, reach out to your doctor or health professional to discuss the best course of action to address the imbalance.
When/if you experience the symptoms of low blood sugar, which often appear between meals, think about what you’ve eaten that day. Keep a food journal for a few days, and mark when you experience “hanger” (that desperate need to eat something before you lash out at someone).
6 Tips and Tricks to Cutting Back
From my personal experience, these tips have helped me enjoy sugar in moderation, balance my blood sugar and reduce my overall sugar intake without setting off cravings.
Pair sweets with healthy fats or proteins.
When you eat sweet and/or high-carbohydrate foods, pair them with a healthy fat or protein. Think apple with nut butter, dried fruit with cashews, toast with avocado, oatmeal with grass-fed butter, popcorn drizzled with olive oil and a little sea salt.
Eat within an hour of waking up, and every 3 to 4 hours throughout the day.
Waiting too long to eat breakfast can send your blood sugar crashing, making it more likely you’ll overindulge and feel constantly carb-hungry.
Lay off the condiments.
Most store-bought sauces and salad dressings are laden with sugar, and we tend to overdo our portions. Eliminate these, and you’ll likely slash your overall sugar intake significantly.
Ditch packages and bottles.
Many store-bought “healthy” snacks and beverages are secret sugar bombs. Most granolas, protein bars, juices and touted “elixirs” have sweetener as the first or second ingredient. Replace packaged snacks with real-food options, such as grass-fed beef jerky, hummus with veggies, hard-boiled eggs, roasted chickpeas, fruit with nut butter or plain yogurt with berries and a drizzle of honey. Instead of store-bought drinks, soak citrus or other fruits overnight in filtered water, and fill your bottle daily.
Combat your sugar cravings.
When you find yourself in the throes of an intense craving for sweets, try having a spoonful of coconut butter or almond butter sprinkled with cinnamon. Not only will the healthy fats help you feel satiated, but coconut and cinnamon have a magical quality of tasting sweet without actually being sugary.
Often, sudden cravings or feelings of hunger — even after eating — are due to dehydration. Keep hydrated throughout the day, as this helps boost your energy levels naturally, which staves off those craving signals.
The Bottom Line
You are your best sweet sleuth. Become a savvy shopper, sticking to whole foods at the grocery, except in emergency or “treat” situations. And tune into your body, making note if you start to experience those potential signs of wacky blood sugar. Master these, and you’re well on your way to a healthy relationship with sugar and a healthier you!
*Laura Lea Goldberg is not a doctor or dietitian. Her guidance should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult with one such professional before making major changes to your health.