Do you have a sweet tooth? It sounds innocent enough. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that consuming too much sugar wreaks havoc on health. Learning how to significantly reduce the sweet stuff in your diet can help you potentially avoid a variety of chronic health problems.
For many people, the struggle with sugar results from overwhelming cravings and the feeling of being addicted. It’s not surprising then to learn that our love of sugar is partially innate.
“We are born with a natural preference for sweet taste,” says Dianne Brown, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Harold Hamm Diabetes Center in Oklahoma City. “Our first food is mother’s milk, which has a natural sugar in it (lactose), or infant formula, which is processed to be similar to mother’s milk. Lactose is not as sweet as other sugars, but if we did not like some sweetness, we might have starved to death. We can look at our ‘sweet tooth’ as a survival mechanism at first.”
While there is debate about whether or not sugar is clinically addictive, there’s growing evidence that individuals can develop a dependency on it.
“Some researchers propose that foods rich in sugar can promote addictive-like behavior and neuronal changes in certain situations,” says Brown. “These high-sugar foods may become ‘addictive’ if consumed in a restrictive/binge-like pattern.”
The American Heart Association currently recommends that women have no more than 100 calories per day, or about six teaspoons, of sugar, and men have no more than 150 calories per day, or about nine teaspoons.
“This is down from the average intake of 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily,” says Brown. “A safe range means most of us need to cut our sugar consumption to about 10 percent of our total calories.”
To reduce sugar in your diet, Brown suggests cutting out soft drinks and fruit juices, limiting desserts and sweets and being conscious of dressings, sauces and low-fat or reduced fat food, because the lower amount of fat can be replaced with added sugar. She also notes that to find hidden added sugars, you need to carefully read the nutrition label information.
Lori Manning, a registered and licensed dietitian with Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, recommends a gradual decrease in sugar intake as an effective long-term strategy for limiting sugars. Her tips to tame a sweet tooth include relying on fruit to naturally sweeten foods like oatmeal, cereal and muffins, and choosing fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruit without added sugar. She also suggests cutting in half the amount of sugar, syrup and honey you typically add to items like coffee, tea, cereal and pancakes. Manning adds that when it comes to beverages, water is the best choice.
For some people, a reduction of sugar in their diet may lead to an experience of sugar withdrawal.
“Symptoms and hurdles of sugar withdrawal could include physical symptoms, but more likely are emotional symptoms,” says Manning.
She encourages clients to eat a piece of fruit between meals to help minimize sugar cravings.
“When individuals use food (i.e. sweets) to deal with stress, anxiety or boredom, it is helpful to find other tools that can replace food. Examples include walking, talking, taking a bath and having a comforting cup of tea,” says Manning. “In my opinion, sugar addiction is typically the individual’s way of numbing and soothing a negative emotion. As dietitians, we coach clients to develop a healthy relationship with food and avoiding using it to manage emotions.”
Are you stressed? Do you often feel overwhelmed, anxious or irritable? If so, you’re not alone. According to the “Stress in America” survey conducted annually by the American Psychological Association, Americans “continue to report stress at levels higher than what they believe is healthy, struggle to achieve their health and lifestyle goals and manage stress in ineffective ways.”
The survey also reported that 75 percent of Americans experienced at least one symptom of stress within the past month, and one in five Americans said they never engage in an activity to help relieve or manage their stress.
“People experience stress every day in different ways,” says Dr. Matthew Meyer, medical director of Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital. “The triggers of stress vary by individual and by circumstances. For some it might be time pressure or the challenge of meeting expectations, while for others it could be managing a chronic health problem.”
The most commonly reported sources of stress include money, work, the economy, family responsibilities and personal health concerns. Meyer shares that human beings will always feel a certain degree of stress.
“It’s a part of our daily lives,” he says. “We dream of a circumstance where we will be free of stress, but the phenomenon of being stress-free is rare, if not imaginary. For instance, we take vacations to relieve stress, but a vacation has its own level of stress as well.”
Emotional indicators of stress can include being easily agitated, regularly feeling overwhelmed, anxious or sad and finding it difficult to relax.
“Feeling stress is about being out of balance internally. It’s when what is demanded of you exceeds your capabilities or is beyond what you perceive to be your ability to accomplish the task or cope with the situation,” says Meyer. “While being overstressed isn’t a diagnosable condition, it can contribute to the development of other illnesses, such as high blood pressure, excessive eating, insomnia and potentially full episodes of clinical depression.”
He explains that achieving a healthy balance of stress in life is the process of aligning outward expectations with our internal resources.
“To manage stress, it’s important to focus on structure and self-care. Structure in our lives helps us reduce stress by developing a routine. For example, we use calendars to plan our day and create a more predictable schedule,” he says. “When you’re feeling out of balance and overwhelmed, there are several healthy options to help you wind down. These include exercising, yoga and meditation, as well as having a regular sleep schedule. What’s most important is to have a daily routine that fits you and helps you manage stress in a healthy way.”
Not many of us are destined for a career in powerlifting, but all of us can benefit from resistance training. As defined by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), resistance training, often referred to as strength training, is a physical activity designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or muscle group against external resistance.
There are various ways to incorporate resistance training into your workout. Options include traditional free weights and dumbbells, weight machines, resistance bands, medicine balls and even using your own body weight or items around your house, such as soup cans or milk jugs filled with sand.
Dr. Matthew O’Brien, an associate professor and clinical education coordinator for the Oklahoma State University Athletic Training Program, explains that resistance training builds muscle strength, but also increases bone health and bone density.
“We know women begin to lose bone density as they age, which can be the early stages of osteoporosis,” says O’Brien. “It’s why it is especially important for women in their 20s and 30s to include resistance training as part of their workout. Women can potentially reduce bone loss through resistance training.”
Other benefits of increased musculoskeletal health may include lowering body fat and blood pressure and improving flexibility and coordination.
The ACSM recommends a minimum of two non-consecutive days of strength training each week, with one set of eight to 12 repetitions for healthy adults or 10 to 15 repetitions for older and frail individuals. In addition, eight to 10 exercises should target the major muscle groups.
“As with anything, moderation is essential when working on increasing your strength,” says O’Brien. “Your muscle needs its own balance of activity and rest, so alternating days of resistance training is beneficial. If you begin to experience excessive soreness, muscle strain or fatigue, you may be overstressing your muscles and need to take a step back.”
He emphasizes the importance of making a commitment to health and making a daily decision to choose to exercise. He also suggests speaking with a doctor before starting a new exercise program.
“Anytime you begin any fitness routine, check with your physician first to make sure you are able to begin cardiovascular exercise and that there are no metabolic or orthopedic issues that would affect your health or performance,” says O’Brien. “It’s never too late to begin exercising and increasing muscle strength. It’s not about just strength training or cardiovascular exercise, it’s about being healthy. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it matters how you feel.”