It's no secret, but it's worth repeating: Too much added sugar ain't good for ya. In fact, recent research has revealed that America's love affair with all things syrupy is not only making us fat, but may even be killing us. And I don't know about you, but as much as I love a good from-the-oven cookie (or five), overdoing the sweet stuff just isn't worth my life.
No, you don't have to give up buttercream on your birthday to stay healthy, but if you want to look and feel your best, you do need to be in control of your sugar cravings, not the other way around. That way, you can indulge on the special occasions of your choosing, but you're no longer a slave to the office cupcakes that, let's be honest, are really just a welcome distraction from your out-of-control inbox.
Want to show that pastry plate who's boss? Follow these 8 rules for sugar-free success, adapted from The Sugar Smart Diet by Anne Alexander, editorial director of Prevention magazine:
#1 Sugar Smart Rule: Begin your day with breakfast -- and pack it with protein. Don't skip the "most important meal of the day" if you want to stay slim. Eating a morning meal is a common habit among people who have lost weight and kept it off. In fact, breakfast skippers are 4.5 times more likely to be obese than breakfast eaters, a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed. Another study from the Harvard Medical School found that eating breakfast led to better blood sugar control, cutting in half the odds of having high glucose levels.
What you eat is important, though. Start your day with a bowl of cold cereal (even whole grain), a bagel, a muffin, or some fruit, and chances are you will be ravenous in just a few hours. Why? Those meals are primarily carbohydrates -- and quickly digested ones at that. Glucose levels spike and insulin is released, then glucose levels drop precipitously and you’re left scrounging for something else to eat.
The antidote: Pump up the protein. It slows digestion, and research shows that calorie for calorie, protein is more filling than carbohydrates or fat. Researchers at Saint Louis University found that overweight women naturally took in about 160 fewer calories at lunch when they ate protein-packed eggs in the morning versus a bagel. What's more, other research shows that protein in the morning makes it difficult for sugar cravings to take hold later on in your day.
#2 Sugar Smart Rule: Never go hungry -- eat five times a day. We told you why you shouldn’t skip breakfast. Now we’ll tell you why you shouldn’t skip lunch, dinner, or snacks, either. If you cut down on the amount of food you eat for an extended period of time, your body is going to slow things down to conserve its energy supply. If you’re looking to flatten your belly, that “starvation response” is the last thing you need. Meal skipping is also a guaranteed way to fire up sugar cravings. Skipping meals lowers blood sugar levels and causes you to overeat the rest of the day to make up for missed calories.
#3 Sugar Smart Rule: Jolt your taste buds with flavor, not sugar. What’s the difference between the two? As delightful as sugar is, it always tastes the same, with variations on sweet and sickeningly sweet. On the other hand, flavor is wonderfully diverse and surprising. If you’ve ever laid a branch of fresh rosemary on chicken as it bakes, seeded a deliciously fragrant vanilla bean for a special dish, or topped a sliced tomato with basil leaves still warm from the garden, you know how much flavor fresh herbs and spices can add to everyday fare. Plus, sweet spices, such as cinnamon, can ease cravings for sugar, which can help you stick to a healthy eating plan.
The dried herbs and spices in your spice rack are the workhorses of everyday cuisine, but when a dish calls for fresh herbs, do your best to use them. Leafy basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, dill, and thyme are far more flavorful than their dried counterparts. And when you chop them, the fragrance they release is an olfactory delight. Enjoy the spiciness of freshly cracked pepper on your salads, or treat yourself to fresh vanilla beans. Stir your coffee or tea with a stick of cinnamon. Toss a serving of plain, air-popped popcorn with a teaspoon of smoked paprika -- its deep color and intense flavor go way beyond what you get from the regular type. The more adventuresome you are, the more you’ll grow to appreciate flavor and put sugar in its rightful place in your daily diet.
#4 Sugar Smart Rule: Start each day with an intention. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow isn’t here yet. Today is what you have to work with. Setting an intention -- a personal goal or hope for the day -- each morning can help you make the most of this unique 24-hour slice of your life. It opens you to the opportunities for joy, growth, and wisdom that are unique to you and that help you place sugar in the right context: a pleasure, to be savored mindfully in healthy amounts. Try waking up 30 to 60 minutes earlier for some quiet morning "me time" -- mediate, do yoga, read that book that's been collecting dust on your nightstand.
#5 Sugar Smart Rule: Add some joy to your life each day. To lose weight and shrink your belly, it’s vital to commit to everyday R&R. Otherwise, chronic stress may eventually gain the upper hand and grind your physical and emotional well-being to dust. Chronic stress -- a daily assault of stress hormones from a demanding job or a life in turmoil -- grinds away every cell in your body. That wear and tear comes at a price. Numerous emotional and physical disorders have been linked to stress, including depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, digestive problems, even autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
You may also hit the cookies and ice cream pretty hard. When you’re stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which signals your brain to seek rewards. Foods loaded with sugar and fat apply the brakes to the stress system by blunting this hormone. When you reach for food in response to stress, you inadvertently create a powerful connection in your brain. The food gets coded in your memory center as a solution to an unpleasant experience or emotion. Face that same problem again, and your brain will likely tell you, “Break out the cupcakes!”
#6 Sugar Smart Rule: Sleep more to eat (and crave) less. One important goal of the Sugar Smart Diet is to restore metabolic harmony between the hormones ghrelin (an appetite trigger) and leptin (which signals satiety), along with insulin. When these hormones are working in concert, the result is fewer cravings and less propensity to store fat. But if you get less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sack time, you may be undercutting this goal.
In a University of Chicago study, a few sleepless nights were enough to drop levels of leptin by 18 percent and boost levels of ghrelin by about 30 percent. Those two changes alone caused appetites to kick into overdrive, and cravings for sugary foods like cookies and bread jumped 45 percent. Another reason to get to bed at a decent hour: Sleep deprivation may not only make sugary, fatty foods more appealing, it may also lower your ability to resist them, according to two small yet intriguing studies presented at a 2012 annual meeting of sleep researchers.
#7 Sugar Smart Rule: Move away from cravings. If you’re plagued by strong sugar cravings, getting more active may help deactivate them. According to a study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, the more you sit, the greater your appetite -- even if your body doesn’t need the calories. In fact, sedentary subjects felt 17 percent hungrier than those who moved around during the day, possibly because inactivity spurs secretion of ghrelin.
Moderate exercise also helps keep muscle cells sensitive to insulin. Even better, strength training builds muscle density -- stronger muscles that use more glucose. And, like cardio, strength training aids weight loss. Any physical activity that you actually enjoy will help get sugar off your brain -- and belly. Brisk walking and tai chi both rev metabolism as they quiet and divert the mind. If you’d rather swim, cycle, do yoga, or dig in your garden, that’s fine, too. The point is: The more you move, the faster your sugar belly will melt away.
#8 Sugar Smart Rule: Soothe what’s really bothering you. You don’t remember this, but from the moment you were born, you associated sugar with comfort. Held to the breast, newborns derive comfort from skin-to-skin contact, sucking, and mother’s milk, rich in lactose and naturally sweet. (Even if you were a bottle baby, you got the sweetness of lactose in your formula.)
The link between comfort and sweets is primal -- and persistent. Rewarded with candy while growing up? You may still treat yourself to dessert for a job well done. Handed cookies so you’d stop crying? You may unknowingly have linked sweets to being soothed. Do you associate sweets with periods in your life when you felt safe and loved? You may try to re-create those positive feelings every time you pick up a fork. Did you push back the confusion and loneliness of adolescence with candy bars? Are you doing it today, to push back those same feelings?
You may not know the answers to these questions, yet intuitively know they’re worth exploring. We’ve all read enough magazine articles to make at least a hazy connection between how we feel and what we eat. But the first step to breaking that emotional connection to sugar is to become aware of the feelings that drive you to it.