Wheat, dairy, soy, red meat—are they healthy or harmful? These days, you can line up an army of nutritionists and doctors on both sides of any of those debates. But there’s one food that is almost universally abhorred for its negative impact on health: Sugar.
You already know that sugar intake contributes to obesity and type 2 diabetes, but weight is just the start: In a 2015 study of 43 obese children, virtually every aspect of the participants’ metabolic health improved after just nine days on a sugar-restricted diet, without change in weight.
If all that isn’t enough, consider this: In recent years, scientists have begun drawing new conclusions about sugar’s impact on mental health, learning capabilities, mood, and overall quality of life. Sugar has been scientifically linked to depression, addictive behavior, and potential memory loss, among other ailments.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Diet helps shape our mental health from the inside out, because about 95 percent of serotonin, one of the hormones involved in mood and emotion regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, sometimes called “the second brain” or “belly brain.”
Our emotional wellbeing relies in part on information that travels from the “second brain” to the brain above. Researchers have found that people with healthy and diverse gut microbes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, and improving gut health can reduce social anxiety and lower our reactions to stress.
How to Reduce Your Sugar Intake
Ready to cut back on sugar? Here are seven strategies.
- Use fewer processed foods. Cooking with whole foods immediately reduces your sugar intake. Even processed foods that aren’t sweets, like salad dressings and frozen meals, often contain added sugars.
- Choose sugar-free options. Look for peanut butter that’s simply peanuts and oil, or jam that’s made just with fruit, with no added sugar (I’m not suggesting that you buy products with artificial sweeteners). It might take a little while to get used to these items, but your taste buds will adjust over time.
- If you can’t eliminate it, cut it in half. If going cold turkey on sugar seems too extreme, just cut back: Eat half of that donut or drink half the soda. A small change is better than none.
- Have healthy substitutes on hand. If you know you have an energy dip at certain times during the day, make sure you have something to grab that isn’t sugary—such as a bowl of nuts, a piece fruit, or a satisfying protein, like a slice of cheese.
- Drink more water. A 2016 survey in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that people who increased their water consumption by just one to three cups each day decreased their sugar consumption by five to 16 grams.
- Spice it up. To add flavor and natural sweetness, try sprinkling cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or a spice blend (like pumpkin pie) on your coffee, oatmeal, or plain yogurt and fruit.
- Try a spoonful of almond butter. When you feel the need for something sweet, have two teaspoons of almond butter instead. Packed with high-quality protein, fiber, and good fats, it has a natural hint of sweetness and is very satisfying.
Hungry for more?