How to reduce sugar…a step-by-step guide
I am ALWAYS shocked by how much sugar people generally have in their pantries (Even in their bedroom cupboards, cars, handbags and kids’ lunchboxes). I am ALWAYS horrified by how much sugar I once consumed…even straight out of the sugar jar! My journey towards removing processed foods and refined carbs from my and my family’s diet was paved with information and the understanding of 1) How sugar causes damage in the body, 2) The insane amounts of sugar hidden in foods we eat, even seemingly ‘healthy’ foods, 3) How awful, restless, hungry sugar made me feel. The only way I realised that was when I cut sugar out. Suddenly, I felt more relaxed, my mind was clearer, I slept better, I was not hungry all the time, my skin looked better, my stubborn baby fat disappeared and overall I just looked better.
I realise that many people over consume sugar because they just do not know what damage it causes. Perhaps there has been no motivation to learn and people think that excess sugar in their diet does not do any harm. For example, many people believe that as they age, that it is normal for them to gain weight. Many people expect that if there is a family history of diabetes, that there is nothing they can do to prevent it.
I want you to know that this is simply NOT TRUE! It is not normal or expected to gain weight as you age. You should for the most part stay the weight you were in your early 20’s. Yes! Read that again. That extra 2-3 kilos you gain every year is not normal. It is inflammation in the body and is driven by food. It can just as easily be lost when you make real food a priority. I see this daily in my practice. People shedding their weight and completely dodging the chronic disease bullet or even reversing their disease. The first thing I notice in patients after 2 weeks is how much more chiseled their faces look. My patients tell me how great it feels to feel so centered and in control of their bodies and choices.
My motivation to change the way I ate was both personal and professional. It was personal because when I became a mother and realised the immense responsibility of that title, ‘mother’ I knew that I needed to do my best to honour this gift of parenthood. I also wanted us all to use intelligence to dodge the diabetes, heart disease and atherosclerosis that is part of our genetic pool. In my professional journey, I had a devastating front row seat to what a neglectful attitude towards food and overindulging in high sugar processed foods could do to my patients and the young families they left behind. Right now, many people, young and old, are sick or dying from COVID. We, as a global nation, have not made enough noise about sugar and immune health, I write about that in another post, but if you have decided that you want to eat less sugar and just don’t know where to start, then this post is for you. It is my ardent desire that as many people as possible become more selective and pickier about what they choose to fuel this ‘once-in-lifetime’ body with and to do our best to honour the privilege of life.
Before you start reducing your sugar intake, it is helpful if you know a bit about WHY sugar is harmful:
- Do you know that excess sugar blunts immune function some (immune cells actually get sleepy and do not function post sugar binge), raises damaging free radicals that cause direct injury to the inside of our blood vessels, directs the body towards inflammation which drives obesity, diabetes and other diseases like cancer? Did you know that excess sugar and its consequences leads directly to diseases that result in poor quality of life? Many people argue that ‘everyone must die’. I argue, ‘what about quality of life before you die?’ Why would you work so hard in life only to spend your retirement money on medications and doctors’ fees and your precious time as a chronic patient? And if you knew that sugar is addictive AND harmful, then why feed it to children so early in life? The average child eats more sugar in one day than our ancestors could eat in TWO years!
2) Why do you want to reduce your sugar intake?
Become quite clear on this. Do not just do it because your wife wants you to or because your doctor wants you too. Do not just do it because you want to fit into your old clothes again (though this is a form of motivation which can help). If you really want to make this stick, do it for your health. Do it as an act of self-love. Do it because you truly believe that your life is precious, and you want to take better care of your body and those close to you.
How to start
Start with intention, the intention to do better, not perfect but better. Make an intention to keep improving. Do not wait for Monday to start, start at the next bite and when you fall, stand up again, and again and again. Make a mental tally of how much sugar you eat every day. Include the bad days. Some people are able to just cut out sugar, carbs, bad oils cold turkey and do so successfully. For others who feel too overwhelmed by the thought of healthier eating and give up before they have started, this is for you!
How do you eat an elephant, one bite at a time?
Start with added sugar…in food, porridge, tea and coffee. Make an intention or just do it, whatever works for you. Reduce your added sugar by a mere 1/4 or even 1/8 teaspoon a day. If you feel that it is too drastic then reduce every 2 or 3 days…just do not give up!
One method suggests a quick sugar reduction trick is to do it in three days. Half on the first day, half again the next day, stop the third day. This method claims that the worst day will be day 1 and after that, it is smooth sailing.
There is just too much sugar in cool drinks and even 100% fruit juices. Drinks are something we have become used to buying and we have lost the taste for water.
Start the day with a tall glass of water -hot or cold- and the juice of half a lemon…. then do that again. Just like that you have consumed 800ml water.
Drink tea, especially herbal teas, hot or cold. Preparation is key so buy yourself a good quality bottle or cup and make sure it is always filled with water or tea. Caffeinated beverages tend to dehydrate so always account for that when it comes to fluids.
If you need some form of sweetener in tea and you are still using sugar, reduce as suggested above or use an alternative like stevia with a solid plan to keep reducing. If you do not get your brain to stop craving sugar by simply replacing it with something else that is sweet, you do not break the hold sugar has over you. You do not fix the areas in your brain that light up when you have had your sugar fix.
Do this for a few weeks then add on.
Bread deserves its own category because too many people feel like they will not be able to do without bread. This is exactly how I felt years ago. After cutting out bread my low-grade constant heartburn disappeared, I realised how awful bread made me feel…full, but awFULL. Can you go from 4 slices to 2? If you usually eat 1 egg and 4 slices of bread, try 2 eggs and 2 slices of bread. Can you replace just one meal …so instead of a sandwich can you choose the tuna salad at lunch? I ALWAYS prefer packing my own meal so better still, cook extra for supper and pack leftovers for lunch.
Rice, pap, potato…. DON’T eat them all in the same meal. If you eat 2 cups of rice with your stew, can you reduce the rice to 1 1/2 cups and eat extra veg or meat? Do the same with pap or potatoes.
Let us step it up… if you eat a starch at a meal, skip the drink AND dessert.
Try one new rule. Do not snack. Eat full meals. When you are hungry, eat a meal…not a snack. If you are waiting for supper and it is not ready, but you are hungry…can you (GASP) wait? Drink tea, water, something. Do a crossword puzzle, play with your kids, go outside and play in the sun or garden. You do not have to give in to EVERY craving.
Yes, I am going there. Fruit is LOADED with sugar. So many people eat do not eat vegetables but are very proud that they love fruit. That is because fruit is a dessert. I am not asking you to give up fruit (though if you are diabetic know that fruit contains way more fruit sugar than your body can handle, so you decide).
With fruit, become aware of the fruit with the highest concentration of sugar and reduce. Instead of eating 3 mangos have 1 and stop. Instead of eating a banana every day, have half a green apple…or have half a banana.
Sauces, dressings, and mayonnaise have loads of sugar and starches. Be aware of that when you use them. I use fresh lemon, wholegrain mustard and olive oil as a dressing and there are quick and easy recipes for homemade mayo and sauces. A quick idea for a sauce is to mix tomato paste with some olive oil, salt, garlic and seasoning of your choice.
Or mix cream cheese with salt, lemon and mustard.
Out and about and special occasions
We all know that it is generally a lot more difficult to stay on plan when you are invited out or you are out and about (with COVID restrictions in place of course). Here are some tips for staying the course:
- Prep and plan: Pack a meal/dessert that you can eat too. Become familiar with meals you can enjoy that are ok to share like chicken and veg casserole, a platter of fruit instead of cake for dessert, infused water instead of fizzy drinks. This works for going out for the day with the family too. I generally bulk cook/bake and freeze so there is almost always something in the freezer for a takeaway picnic lunch.
- For a day out, plan in advance to get takeaways that are the healthier option. For example, grilled fish (not battered and fried) with veg, chicken salad and water etc. If the treat is to eat out so that you do not have to cook and wash dishes, enjoy the fact that you are doing that and make a healthy choice. If you choose ice cream as a treat, then skip a starch and replace the fizzy drink with water.
- Make sure you have a good meal before leaving with enough protein and healthy fats, for example eggs and sausage. If you are full, you are less likely to snack and nibble on junk food.
- Be intentional about enjoying time with your family or the meal you are eating. When we are intentional about eating, we see, smell, taste the food and are mindful of every bite, we enjoy our food less and the brain gets the signal of being full when we are full. When we eat mindlessly and too quickly, we tend to eat with our eyes rather than all the other senses too and we over consume.
One last thing…. get a glucometer. It is inexpensive, it will shock you and it will change your life. If you can afford to, get a continuous glucose monitor. This is a great way to see firsthand the effect of what foods do to your blood sugar.
I wish you the very best for the rest of 2020 and more mindful health and wellbeing for 2021 and beyond.
George A. Bray, Samara Joy Nielsen, “Consumption of High fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 79
Rachel K Johnson, Lawrence J. Apple, Robert H. Lustig et al., “Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 120, no. 11
Hafeez Ullah Janjua, Munir Akhtar et al., “Effects of Sugar, salt and distilled water on white blood cells and platelet cells,” Journal of tumour 4
Jafar N, Edriss H, Nugent K. The Effect of Short-Term Hyperglycemia on the Innate Immune System. Am J Med Sci. 2016 Feb;351(2):201-11. doi: 10.1016/j.amjms.2015.11.011. PMID: 26897277
About the author
Dr Kajee was instrumental in overseeing and facilitating the Foundation’s first ever Eat Better South Africa! intervention programme conducted in the Ocean View community, and she has since advised on a number of the Foundations subsequent interventions. Her enthusiasm and passion about the LCHF eating science emanates through her and she is always eager to educate her patients about good nutrition.