“You are what you eat.” Simple. But most of us ignore the implications. As a physician, I see the consequences in my patients every day: obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, low energy, depression, unhealthy skin. All of these conditions and more are associated with poor nutrition, especially diets high in sugar and sodium. National Nutrition Month is a great time to begin eating healthy.
Caution: This post is intended for the general public. If you suffer from diabetes or cardiovascular disease, please consult your primary care physician about dietary restrictions and guidance.
Taking the Lifestyle Plunge
Seriously reducing the amount of sugar that you eat is not a fad. It is not a temporary “diet.” It is a change in lifestyle.
At first, you will encounter obstacles. Your own craving for sweetened food is strong. Oddly, eating less sugar will help overcome that craving. But early on, it will be a struggle.
Your friends and family might not be supportive or want to go along with such a change. But your well-being (and theirs!) depends on developing a more healthful approach to food.
The great news is that, if you lower your intake of sugar as I’m about to describe, you will feel much better quickly, even within a few days. Bearing in mind how much better you feel should help you overcome the obstacles that surround us all.
How to Avoid “Hidden Sugar”
Most Americans eat much more sugar than is recommended by wellness experts. Because of the added sugar that we don’t see, controlling intake of sugar is difficult. Many processed foods and beverages contain added sugar to improve taste, color, and preservation. Items containing added sugars include soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks (including fruit punch), flavored coffee, flavored tea, salad dressings, ketchup, dry mixes for baked goods, ice cream, sweetened yogurt, sweetened milk, syrup, cookies, cakes, most cereals, doughnuts, bagels, breads, sauces, candy, most snack foods, processed meats.
Most of us know this. But there can be some surprises. The next time you shop for groceries, take a look at the amount of sugar listed for a cup of raisin bran cereal. If a cup is 59 grams, the amount of sugar is about a third at 19 grams. That’s breakfast candy.
Caloric sweeteners can be listed on food labels as agave syrup, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, and syrup. Amounts are not always included. That’s why it makes more sense to refer to them as “hidden sugar.” And when you eat out, you never know what a restaurant includes in their menu items.
To avoid hidden sugar, my best advice is to cook your own food at home. Use fresh, unsweetened ingredients—fresh fruits and vegetables, unsweetened canned goods, fresh meats—as much as possible. Take a close, squinty-eyed look at food labels. If the amount of sugar listed creeps into double digits (10 or more grams) per serving, be careful.
Cooking at Home
It’s true that preparing your own meals at home requires time, imagination, and some expertise. But cooking at home is the best way to control what you eat in order to stay healthy. So how much time and energy is your health and that of your family worth to you?
These days, we rush to meet work or school schedules. That makes for unhealthy eating. Breakfast, for instance, is a sugar bomb for most people. Prepared cereals (except for plain oatmeal) are loaded with sugar. Most of us know this. But there can be some surprises. The next time you shop for groceries, take a look at the amount of sugar listed for a cup of raisin bran cereal. Assuming that a cup is 59 grams, the amount of sugar is about a third at 19 grams. That’s breakfast candy. Picking up a bagel, doughnuts, or a “healthy” muffin on the way to work will give you a sugar high that will sap your energy and good mood later.
Try something different for breakfast. To scrambled or fried eggs, add a serving of mixed vegetables. What? Vegetables for breakfast? Yes! Or for a quicker breakfast, add some unsweetened frozen or fresh berries (blueberries are good) to unsweetened, plain yogurt along with low-sugar or no-sugar granola for crunch. Delicious!
The best lunch you can eat is the one that you make. Once again, beware prepared foods such as potato chips, prepared frozen entrees, and sandwiches that include sweetened condiments, prepared meats, and thick slices of bread. Substitute celery or carrot sticks for chips. Make a fresh salad, perhaps including some leftover chicken, along with a plain olive oil and white balsamic vinegar dressing. Or take a container of that soup that you had for dinner last night. Add a piece of fresh fruit instead of cookies. Perhaps most important, avoid eating lunch out at a restaurant or ordering a sandwich from your favorite deli—too risky.
Planned right, dinners can be a time to unwind from a stressful day. If you are the one who is responsible for most of the cooking, ask another family member or your spouse to help out. They can chop those fresh vegetables that you brought home from the grocery store, and they can help clean up after eating your tasty food. While all of that is going on, conversation can flow.
A few tips for healthier dinners that do not skimp on flavor:
· Maximize using green vegetables, cooked or in salads. The darker green, the better.
· Steam vegetables, especially broccoli, carrots, asparagus, and green beans.
· For better flavor, roast bite-sized vegetables (potatoes, broccoli, green beans, asparagus, brussel sprouts, butternut squash, zucchini, etc.) for about 25-30 minutes in your oven or toaster oven. Dribble lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with powdered garlic, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, or other spices (not salt) that pack a lot of flavor.
· Try alternatives to white rice or potatoes such as brown or wild rice, sweet potatoes (baked or roasted), and cauliflower (can be a substitute for mashed potatoes).
· Sauté meats and other foods as much as possible in olive oil.
· Stir-fry is a great way to cook vegetables and small pieces of chicken or beef. Be careful to use low-sodium, low-sugar sauces or soy sauce.
· Fresh fruit, low-sugar or no-sugar baked goods, or low-sugar frozen yogurt in small servings make good desserts. Save the regular ice cream and cakes for special occasions.
Plan ahead. When cooking dinner, prepare a little extra that can be converted to lunch the next day or the day after.
If you drink wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages, reduce the amount that you consume. Instead of two glasses of wine, get by with one. Alcohol converts to sugar quickly and can wreck your attempts to eat healthier.
If you prepare more of your meals at home, you can divert money that you would spend in restaurants on high-sugar, high-sodium meals to healthier and better tasting food. Your lifestyle will change for the better.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
The amount of hidden sugar in our food is astounding, sometimes surpassing the number of total calories that a person should consume in an entire day. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than half of a person’s daily discretionary calories (that is, calories above what is needed for daily bodily maintenance) should come from added sugar. For men, this amounts to about 9 teaspoons and for women, about 6 teaspoons. (On average, Americans consume about 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day.) Remember, added sugar is any amount above what foods naturally contain.
Unless you load up on high-sugar fruits or fruit juice (orange, apple, pear, etc.), you don’t need to worry too much about consuming only the sugar that is naturally present in most foods.
Some beverages, such as soda and sports drinks, contain so much sugar that they should be avoided completely. Lemon-infused water might be a good substitute. Even diet soda should be avoided since research shows that artificially sweetened drinks increase the craving for sugar and caloric intake.
Caution for persons on a gluten-free diet: Those who suffer from celiac disease or who have elected for other reasons to follow a gluten-free diet should guard against consuming too much hidden sugar. While avoiding foods containing wheat or other grains can reduce ingesting added sugar, merely substituting gluten-free for regular baked goods and other foods could result in increased consumption of sugar, which can cause weight gain and other problems. This is because many gluten-free products contain high amounts of sugar derived from rice, tapioca, and other sources. If you are gluten-free, read food labels closely and eat more fresh vegetables and other unprocessed foods.
Benefits of Less Sugar
You will receive many benefits from consuming less sugar, and many of them appear quickly.
· Lower blood pressure
· Less risk of cardiovascular disease
· Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
· Improved mental alertness
· Better energy throughout the day
· Improved sleep
· Less risk of Alzheimer’s disease
· Reduced depression
· Loss of excess weight (see your shoes again!)
· Healthier looking skin
· Reduced stress on the liver
· Less craving for sweets and high-carb food
· Lower inflammation
· Fewer problems with knee and hip joints
We, at Kathy’s Urgent Care, want you and your family to enjoy healthier living. But remember that we’re here to help when you do encounter illness or injury. Contact us if you have any questions.