Welcome to October, or as I like to call it, the start of “Sugar Season”.
It starts with Halloween candy. Then come the holiday treats. We get chocolate fever around Valentine’s Day and that takes us right into Easter’s jellybeans, Peeps and chocolate bunnies.
Every winter, I see more patients with colds. In the spring, I see more seasonal allergies and — despite all those New Year’s resolutions — weight gain. These are not coincidences. The root cause is Sugar Season.
When it gets cooler and when we get stressed by the holidays, we reach for comfort foods. We crave sugar. Meanwhile, sugar suppresses our immune system and causes more than 142 other nasty problems our bodies.
So why do Americans eat 130 lbs. of sugar per year?
For starters, it’s addictive – reportedly eight times more addictive than cocaine. And a lot of things we eat qualify as sugar. There also are hidden sugars in our food in the form of artificial sweeteners.
Breaking down sugar
Little colored packets on the coffee cart aside, we most often eat sugar as carbohydrates (“carbs”). These are molecules that break down into sugar for digestion in the body, most often as glucose and fructose (fruit sugar). The body needs carbs in moderate amounts for energy – they help power cells and the brain.
What’s most important about carbs is the types we ingest and when. Typically, we want 20-40% of our calories to come from carbohydrates. We want the majority of our carbs to come from plants. And we want to stretch our carbs out through the day – not eat them all in one sitting.
Plants are high fiber carbs. Fiber breaks down slowly in the body. It is essentially material that humans don’t digest well. When we eat fiber, the gut is working hard to break it down. (Actually, we never fully succeed and we excrete it). Along the way, it is extracting the sugars and other nutrients for energy.
Refined carbs – what we find in “white” foods such as breads and potatoes – are essentially sugar balls. When we ingest them, they immediately break into sugar molecules and go directly into our blood stream.
High fiber and refined carbs are the difference between “It’s a Small World” and “Space Mountain” at Disneyland.
“It’s a Small World” is slow and easy. Having fiber-based carbs is basically like pulling out a banana at the start of the ride and having a quick nibble for energy when you get off.
“Space Mountain” refined sugar is much faster. One quick ride is okay, even fun. But eating a lot means we never get off the ride. Meanwhile, as little as 6 oz. of sugar (one cookie!) can suppress our immune system for an entire day. Basically, the ride operator leaves. The ride keeps going crazy. We get ill. We get stressed out. We can’t think. And as we become more and more inflamed, the immune system is stretched too thin to put the fires out.
This means that bacteria and viruses begin to cause colds, the pollen we inhale causes us wheeze and sneeze, and our hormones go on tilt massively hoarding fat. If this goes on long enough, the worst diseases – heart and liver problems, cancer, Alzheimer’s – take hold.
8 quick survival tips
Now that I’ve totally ruined Disneyland… how do we survive Sugar Season?
There are a lot of little things we can do to minimize sugar in our lives:
Switch to water – Soft drinks – including sodas, canned iced teas and energy drinks – contain up to 40 grams of sucrose. Diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners, which are now found to alter our gut biome and cause more harmful effects than pure sugar. Meanwhile, we need to stay hydrated in the desert. Water is the answer.
Packet-free coffee – If you drink coffee (or tea), take it black – no added sugar or artificial sweeteners from packets. (It’s worth noting that the “sugar-free” syrups at Starbucks and other coffee shops are full of artificial sweetener too). If you like lattes and can tolerate lactose, be sure you’re using real cream or milk. Packaged almond and soy milks can contain cane sugar and/or carrageenan.
Maintain a balanced diet – Strive to eat whole foods and eliminate processed foods. You’re much better off getting carb nutrition (fiber) primarily from veggies and a little fruit than from a box (refined).
Read labels carefully – There are hidden sugars in many processed foods, including many foods advertised as healthy, such as dried fruit, granola bars, and yogurt.
Plan your meals – Create a menu for yourself each week. The more we prepare our own food, the more control have over the content, including sugar.
Consider a cheat day once a week – If you have to indulge your sweet tooth, take a day and go nuts. If you have an otherwise clean diet, your body will rebalance the next day but notice sugar’s side effects — your mood, your body composition and your ability to focus.
Donate your Halloween candy – In the past several years, dentists and charitable organizations have offered to buy your kids’ Halloween candy from you. It’s an easy and rewarding way to get piles of sugar out of the house.
Get a little exercise – Moving around keeps our systems working properly and helps sweat out all the junk. Exercise also relieves stress. It’s as easy as taking a walk around the block every day.
I always enjoy seeing my patients, but I am happier knowing everyone is well.
Eliminating sugar has many benefits including more energy, greater mental clarity, and faster workout recovery.
Take control of your sugar intake this winter and you will take control of your health.