1. Education - First we need to know how sugar effects our bodies, I will give you a very brief education lesson on how this works. There are a few ways your body recognizes sugar. When you put something sugar-filled in your mouth (chocolate for example) the first thing that happens is you teeth and saliva start to break down the chocolate which bathes your tastebuds sending a signal to your brain that you are eating something sweet. As you swallow and the partially digested chocolate reaches your stomach, your body sends in enzymes to break down the sugar and recognizes that it is in fact sugar that you ate, and also sends a signal to your brain. In both cases, you receive a flood of endorphins and hormones that give you that "feel-good" feeling of eating something sweet.
As your stomach digests the chocolate, the next stop is the small intestine where the sugar is absorbed into the blood stream. Remember how your tastebuds first recognized something sweet, and then your stomach confirmed this? Well those signals that were sent to the brain then activate your pancreas to release insulin to match the spike in your blood sugar levels. Insulin acts as a transport system to carry that sugar around the body. The sugar is either stored in your liver, or taken to your muscles for immediate energy usage. Whatever sugar is not burned off almost immediately is then stored as fat.
Insulin is an incredibly efficient chemical, and you almost immediately have a rush of energy after eating sugar which can cause that feeling of a "sugar-high". Unfortunately, since your blood sugar can raise so quickly, it can fall just as fast. The next thing you know, your blood sugar levels have dropped below the level of what they were before and you experience what is known as a "sugar-crash".
Sugar crash is unfortunate because one of the primary sources of fuel for your brain is sugar, so it panics and sends out a signal for a craving of guess what...more sugar. It is a vicious cycle!
It is entirely possible for us to base a diet around naturally occurring sugars such as fruits, vegetables, pastas, and breads and receive more than enough energy, never having to turn to quick fixes such as candy and energy drinks, however we are all human and we like to indulge from time to time, the trick is moderation! Majority of the time however, you should be ingesting sources of sugar (also known as carbohydrates) from carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables as the fibre in these items slows the digestion of sugar and creates a much lower insulin spike.
2. Moderation - Now this is where everyone is going to be different and everyone tends to make their own 'rules' as to being 'good' or having things in 'moderation'. Let me be perfectly honest here, a can of pop a day is NOT moderation. Having a dessert after dinner every night, or even a couple of times a week is NOT moderation. Having a teaspoon or two in your coffee in the morning and then staying active throughout the day while having a balanced diet IS moderation. See the pattern here? You should be consuming your carbohydrates on a need-to-use basis. Sitting down to watch tv so you decide to have a can of coke or an energy drink...probably not the best idea as that will cause an insulin spike, almost all of that sugar get stored as fat, and worst off, you will cause a crazy insulin crash creating more sugar cravings.
3. Remove High Fructose Corn Syrup Whenever Possible! - There are more and more studies coming out today linking high rates and rises in obesity to products containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The reason may be that there is a slightly higher ratio of fructose to glucose in HFCS and during its refinement, there are unbound fructose molecules which case the HFCS to be absorbed much quicker. Table sugar contains fructose and glucose as well, but the fructose is chemically bound to the glucose in table sugar, causing an extra step in the digestion process.
HFCS can be found in such things as pop, cakes, candy, pies, cookies, etc. But what may alarm you is the use of this product (or its derivatives) in other products such as ketchup, peanut butter, salad dressings, and even bread! *cough* Subway *cough*
Check out the following articles: here, here, and here
I don't mean to pick on Subway individually, I just want people to realize that these kinds of things are hidden everywhere and it is up to you to make educated decisions as to what goes in your mouth.
If you wanted even more reason to give up HFCS, check out some new scientific studies being done that links diets high in fructose to pancreatic cancer! Read here and different spin on it here
4. Fruit Has Sugar OH MY GOSH! - Yes, you are correct, fruit has sugar, and a lot of it! Fruit also has a lot of other vital components to them such as fibre, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. The key here is the fibre as it slows digestion of sugar and drastically reduces the highs and lows of a blood sugar spike/crash. Fruit is still one of the best ways to give your body those simple sugars that it so desires.
5. Sugar can be useful! - Immediately before or after a workout is a great time for you muscles to have a shot of carbohydrates. Before a workout is obvious as it will give your muscles that extra kick to blast through a tough workout or sporting event. Just make sure you are working hard enough to burn the sugar you took in...having an energy drink and then walking on the treadmill for 10 minutes is not going to cut it. Secondly, carbs after a workout have been shown to have very positive effects on your muscles as they help replenish your electrolytes as well as help protein synthesis (rebuilding of your muscles).
6. If sugar is bad, why is it so prevalent? - There is no simple answer to this, but it is probably along the same lines as any other company...supply and demand. That is what drives the economy. Think of it this way, a company and all of its employees only have jobs if they keep selling things. If you sell something that people like, great, you get to sell more of that stuff. For the rest of the population that consumes sugar, this stuff sells itself! When you ingest sugar, we already talked about how sugar releases those feel-good hormones in the brain that can make the feeling somewhat addictive. That is why most people turn to sweets when they are depressed, anxious, etc. It is a vicious cycle because every time you get that craving, you reach for sugar, and then that sugar causes you to crave MORE sugar...and so on and so on. The companies that produce such tasty products reap all of the monetary benefits. Also, pound for pound, sugar is one of the cheapest food products to use on the market, yielding a very high profit...even if it is void of any nutritional benefit. So if you were a company that produces food products, you would be stupid not to add something to your products that people enjoy eating in large quantities and also drops your production costs.
7. Be Aware - What would you do if you saw someone putting 10 teaspoons of sugar in their morning cup of coffee? You would probably think, "That person is going to rot the teeth right out of their head!" Well guess what, the average can of pop contains 40g or 10 teaspoons of sugar! That big gulp at 7-11 or at the movie theatre...try 53 teaspoons of sugar! It is hard to equate something unless you can understand it in a recognizable measurement, so try and remember that about 4g of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon. So the next time you are reading a food label, check out how many grams of sugar per serving it has to better understand.
Also keep an eye out for sugar derivatives. A company may break down "sugar" into multiple ingredients on the label to try and trick you. Watch for any of the following names: molasses, honey, sorghum, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HCFS), glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, sucrose, galactose, maltose, or concentrated juices like grape or apple.
8. Hidden gems - You can swear off certain products that you KNOW contain high amounts of sugar (I don't drink pop at all anymore) but you can't always avoid sugar unless you know what you are looking for. Companies hide sugar in a lot of products for a few reasons, some of which we have touched on. One, it is a cheap, high-profit calorie (filler). Two, it makes things taste good, and if things taste good, it increases the likelihood that you will buy a product again.
Here is a list of products that may surprise you as to how much sugar they contain!
Pasta Sauce - Yes, they contain natural sugars from tomatoes and other vegetables in it, but companies also add sugar so aim to choose the lowest sugar-quantity product you can find.
Ketchup - Up to 20% sugar! High in salt as well...
Low-Fat - Companies are aiming at the current trends that people feel "low-fat" means "healthier" and better for you. Truth is, fat tastes good, humans like the taste of dietary fat. So when a product has most of its fat removed, they have to make it taste good too so they often pump it full of sugar...which makes us fat...
Bread - Processed breads contain a lot of sugar. Aim for whole-grains.
Fast-Food - I don't think I even need to add this to the list but I will. Not only does pop and desserts have lots of sugar, but sugar can also be hidden in fries, burgers, buns, etc.
As I have said before and will say again, moderation is the key here. Yes, we all like a sweet treat now and again, but realize that when you think you are limiting your sugar consumption by only having dessert 'every once in a while' you are forgetting about all of the other potentially sugar-laced products you are consuming throughout the day that adds up.