In this article you will learn:
Some basics about blood sugar management
Why sugar is dangerous to your health
How (and where) to go on a "detox" journey from sugar and sugar cravings
Lazy Reader's Section:
Sugar is live energy that gives your body a stress reaction, which over time will cause serious issues in many areas of your health. It is addictive physiologically and psychologically, so both aspects must be accounted for in a detox program. For a free book on how to do both of these, check out my friend Michael Collins' The Last Resort Sugar Detox Guide or take his 30-Day Sugar Detox Challenge.
Sugar is one of your biggest enemies for optimal health, and in this article we're going to go over some basics of sugar, how it interacts in your body as a chemical, why it's dangerous and should be used responsibly (or avoided, really) and how to setup effective habits around it so that you and your family don't fall prey like moths to the proverbial flame.
Firstly, sugar is a carbohydrate, so in some sense it is essential for life because it provides energy. Don't get too excited, because remember that even water or oxygen can kill you if used irresponsibly. Everything degrades to sugar in your body, so all this means is that sugar is the basic energy unit we use. You can get sugar from a soft drink or you can get sugar from some organic yam. Even broccoli degrades to sugar eventually.
Besides their primary role in giving your body immediate access to energy, carbohydrates also allow storage of energy through glycogen in the liver and muscles. Think of this as a backup reserve tank. For thousands of years, we evolved on intermittent periods of fasting and scarcity, so the body had to evolve some way of storing energy and preserving muscle tissue from being broken down as long as possible. That’s the buffer that carbohydrates provide through glycogen storage, and most people have about 300-500 grams of glycogen in their body at a given time.(1)
This is why you usually wake up hungry, because the body has run out of its glycogen (or sugar) stores overnight.
So far so good: we need sugar for energy, and the body stores unused sugar in bank. We also didn't have lots of sugar available when we were evolving. Put a mental pin in all of this for later.
Blood Sugar Basics
The next important thing to understand here is how blood sugar works. The primary role carbohydrates have is to give you immediate energy, and what that means is that your body will have an immediate response. Everything in the body operates in that sweet spot of optimal functioning between two extremes, and your blood sugar has a golden zone that must be maintained both for short-term and long-term health.
If your blood sugar goes too low or too high, your body has fail-safes in place to correct the imbalance. Too low and it releases cortisol, a stress hormone, to break down your glycogen reserves for energy (the piggy bank mentioned earlier). This is one of the things that happen metabolically during starvation or fasting because your body, in essence, perceives this as a stress.
When you eat, your blood sugar will rise and this triggers the release of the hormone insulin to bring the blood sugar back down. Your body doesn’t have eyes to see, so it uses chemical and electric signals to know what’s going on. When sugar rises, this tells your body that you’ve eaten and it’s time to shuttle that energy into the cells. Insulin does this job, and if there’s runoff, it puts it back in storage (your bank) as glycogen.
So, blood sugar as a wave represents your life force just like the iconic EKG graph represents your life through a movie of your heartbeat. Your sugar goes up and down according to your circadian rhythm, when you eat, your stress level, exercise and so on.
Furthermore, your body automatically responds to imbalances using hormones like cortisol and insulin to keep it in the functional zone, and the less it swings wildly the better off you are. Keep all of this in mind because it is very important.
Different Sugars, Different Outcomes
The next thing to know is that different carbs impact your blood sugar in different ways. This is called glycemic impact or Glycemic Index (GI) and it is a measure of how a particular food reacts in your blood within the first 2 hours with pure sugar having a score of 100. Carbohydrate sources that digest slowly, meaning they are low in sugar but
high in fiber, will have a lower GI than those that are closer to pure sugar.
A second measurement that is also valuable is the Glycemic Load (GL) and it is obtained by multiplying the Glycemic Index of a food by the amount of carbohydrate grams in the serving, and then dividing by 100. Why using these two numbers in tandem is important is that it gives you a comprehensive picture of the impact on your blood sugar that a particular food has.
Let's take for example a bagel with 45 grams of carbs and a GI of 72 compared to a watermelon with 11 grams of carbs and a GI of 72:
72 (GI) x 45 (carbs) = 3,240
3,240 / 100 = 32 (GL)
72 (GI) x 11 (carbs) = 792
792 / 100 = 8 (GL)
A Glycemic Load of 10 or under is considered low, whereas anything over 20 would be high. The points to take home from all of this math are pretty obvious but worth reiterating: not all sources of carbohydrates are the same and how much you eat of a given food will determine the impact on your blood sugar.
Your body is very intelligent and follows the same principles that Nature employs all around us: never hurry yet accomplish everything needed. Nature does not waste or do anything out of timing. It always responds appropriately and accordingly. When you eat foods of varying glycemic impact, your body will release only the insulin needed to do the job (assuming you are healthy and have no issues) so that your sugar can regain balance.
The Downward Spiral
Disorders like type 1 diabetes happen when the body’s sensing capabilities have been compromised, like damage to the pancreas, and it is responding inappropriately to the messages your blood is sending. Likewise, type 2 diabetes is when insulin’s ability to do its job becomes less and less effective because your body has become desensitized from constant insulin spikes (due to high sugar or carbohydrate intake), meaning that
too much sugar remains in the blood and leads to a host of other problems.
While type one is usually autoimmune in nature, type two can be reversible with good dietary practices.(2) This is because of an intermediary step that generally precedes full on type two diabetes and that’s called insulin resistance. A simple example to understand what this is can be seen anytime you eat. Imagine you are starving, and you’ve managed to secure yourself the perfect meal that’s going to hit the spot. That first bite is absolutely amazing and deeply satisfying, but something happens bite after bite to where the last few are just faint echoes of pleasure. What's going on here?
This is because of habituation or desensitization, a process that happens in nearly every aspect of our life. What habituation has to teach us is that the strength of a stimulus will weaken as we are continually exposed to it. This goes the same for relationships as it does for food, drugs, movies or anything else. When you get “desensitized” to something, it doesn’t have the same effect anymore and it takes much more of the stimulus to achieve the desired result.
Interestingly enough, this happens in many areas within the body and it is what can lead to chronic disease. In the case of blood sugar, excess sugar intake and insulin, too many drastic spikes in your blood sugar over time will habituate your cells to insulin’s rallying call, rendering it less effective over time and leading to insulin resistance, which eventually leads to diabetes and all of the issues associated with it.
This means your pancreas has to go on overdrive to produce more and more insulin to get the same effect. The result? You’ve now become resistant to your own chemicals and have entered a state of chronic stress.
Why Sugar is Evil (Sorry, it's True)
In 2017, the CDC released a report estimating that about 100 million Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes,(3) which is about a third of the population. The worrisome thing to me is that diabetes is just the first warning sign of much worse things to come. Complications from not managing your blood sugar can be severe like nerve damage, organ damage, heart disease, brain issues, and of course, an earlier death than someone who’s healthy.
Understanding what foods will spike your blood sugar, make it crash and eventually lead to insulin resistance will be key areas of focus so that you can live a long and healthy life, as well as have the energy needed throughout the day to do what you want. Understanding how to minimize excess sugar, and also re-train your body (and mind) so that you don't have sugar cravings in the first place is also very important.
When I used to lift weights, I would throw in some pure dextrose powder (literally pure sugar) into my workout shakes so that I’d have a boost of energy available to do what I needed. This is a decent strategy for high intensity exercise or weight lifting, but those diabetes numbers are the way they are because people do this kind of thing to their bodies on a regular basis while maintaining a sedentary lifestyle.
Consider that the average amount of pure sugar in most common drinks that people don’t give a second thought to (like a large soda, a “big gulp” or your favorite mocha latte
insulin resistance coffee) is anywhere between 60 to 100 grams. When you consume these types of simple sugar bombs, they are absorbed into the body rapidly and your pancreas goes into freak out mode because there was no warning.
Remember, there were no big gulp or mocha latte trees in our evolutionary journey (can you imagine if there were though?)
These kinds of spikes in blood sugar had practically no way to occur in our ancient food supply, so the body treats these events as a stressor. Enough of these attacks over time and you are bound to become insulin resistant or worse.
The difference between a vegetable and a piece of candy (or the soda and the yam I mentioned at the beginning of this article), is that a vegetable has other components that impact its load on your body like nutrients, water and fiber. Our isolation of sugar without these added buffers is what has created the major problem. Does this mean that sugar is the enemy and should be avoided as much as possible? In some ways yes, and we’ll get more specific in guidelines at the end of this article, but again I’ll caution you against absolutes.
Even sugar can have its role. If you are doing high intensity workouts or long periods of exercise, getting a boost of sugar may be beneficial for your workout(4) because it can replenish your stores during and after, allowing you to have energy to push yourself
and also build muscle. Outside of that limited time frame, though, there aren’t many other reasons to be consuming lots of simple carbohydrates (i.e. sugar).
If you become hypoglycemic often and need rescuing that may be another situation, but the question would be why that happens to begin with. In general, simple sugars outside of fruit or vegetables should be reduced as much as possible and considered just treats or “fun” food, like when you go to a party and someone’s serving that
homemade cheesecake or tres leches pastries. (Yum)
One of the main reasons why you want to treat sugar so carefully is because of the effect of sugar on the body. Sugar by nature creates an acidic response, and germs love a diseased and acidic terrain. Your blood’s pH level, the number that tells you how acidic or alkaline something is, operates at an extremely sensitive range of about 7.35 and 7.45. This means that your natural pH is neutral to slightly alkaline.
When you eat something like sugar and generate an acidic effect on the blood and tissues, your body leaches important nutrients like calcium to balance out the effect and return to the proper levels because otherwise you die. Who ever thought eating sugar was such risky business?
This is why eating nutrient dense vegetables, which have simple sugars in them, will never lead you to diabetes or osteoporosis like drinking soda or eating cookies will. They are alkaline and provide lots of buffers to balance the effect of sugar. Think of sugar like fire because it’s literally live energy. Energy always needs a ground component otherwise it will be destructive, so putting tons of live energy into your body without
buffers will lead to all sorts of problems.
I find it interesting, for example, that in the countries with the highest consumption of dairy are also the highest incidences of osteoporosis.(5) One theory is that because dairy products have an acidic effect on the body through their sugar, it makes the
body leach more minerals than what is provided in these purported rich sources of calcium in order to balance out the effect. Not to mention the many adaptations of dairy that we’ve created have a ton of added sugar like chocolate or strawberry milk.
Sugar Detox Strategies
The following are some basic principles to put into play to both have healthy habits around sugars and carbs, and also support your body back to alignment and less cravings. In my podcast with founder of SugarAddiction.com and the Quit Sugar Summit, Michael Collins (Episode 227), we discuss many of these points along with other important ones like the importance of community and mindset.
You can grab a free copy of his best-seller book, The Last Resort Sugar Detox Guide here or join the 30 Day Quit Sugar Challenge and be part of a growing, world-wide movement around building healthier habits in this area.
Main Principles for Healthy Sugar Detox Habits:
Minimize simple carbohydrates from processed sources like candy, junk food, ice cream, pastries, soda and other garbage. Always read the nutrition label and understand how much added sugar something has. Regardless if it’s brown sugar or white sugar, it will still make an impact on your body. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams a day for men and 25 grams a day for women. Personally, I avoid anything that’s “fun” food unless I’m at someone’s special occasion and then I’ll have a taste. What’s also true is that your general nutrition status (your gut microbiome, deficiencies, stress level etc.) will determine if you crave sweets in the first place. Do a good job there and you’ll never crave the bad stuff anyway.
Be careful with juices. Even if the label reads “100% Juice” it might as well say “100% sugar” for our intents here. Juice is right up there with soda unless it’s something like celery or kale juice. These are extra sugar bombs that can easily add to the burden for your poor blood when you’ve already bombed it with your meal. Unless it has pulp, which carries most of the nutrition and fiber, juice by itself is not something to consume on a regular basis.
Stick to a majority of complex carbohydrates from vegetables with some starches like rice, potato and root varieties. If you are trying to minimize glycemic impact, consider getting a blood glucose monitor and testing various foods to see what you are okay with. Sweet potatoes, for example, are generally much higher in glycemic impact than brown rice even though they both can be a source of resistant starch. In general, avoid refined foods like white flour, white pasta and white bread as these have been totally stripped of nutrition and are basically just sugar. Opt instead for the whole grain version with lots of fiber like sprouted grain bread and always make sure that your vegetables and rice are organic whenever possible. Also, try not to rely on wheat as your main source of carbohydrate because of the zonulin and pesticide issues discussed previously, as well as its ability to distract you from eating a varied diet rich in vegetables. There are other gluten free options like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet and teff. Oats are marketed as gluten free, but their version of the gluten protein, avenin, can cause intestinal inflammation in some celiac patients so I wouldn’t overdo it on these either.(6) Again, stick to a majority of vegetables with a little grain and starch and you’ll be good.
Try to always eat protein and fat with your meals. This will help you stay satiated and avoid crashing, as well as minimize the impact on your blood sugar from the carbs. Eating plenty of protein and fat with your meals will also prevent you from the downward spiral of snacking on more carbs, which can have negative long-term impacts on your blood sugar and oral health.
While there are many explanations for sugar cravings, generally there are a few main ones:
— Your brain needs more energy so you’ve been stressed out, sleep deprived
or working intensely
— You are deficient in some nutrients
— Your blood sugar is not being managed appropriately for whatever reason
— You have a gut microbiome problem (SIBO, Candida, etc.)
— You have a neurological/habit addiction to sugar
Eating an abundance of healthy fats, nutritious vegetables, quality protein and healthy complex carbs usually eliminates most sugar cravings. Mindset and inner work are also important, as sugar addiction is partly psychological. If you do have cravings, know that reaching for a sugar bomb only worsens the problem because your blood sugar spikes which prompts a crash later. Find a healthier alternative like monk fruit or stevia as you work on your recovery.
When considering how many grams of carbohydrates to eat, remember this simple statistic that I learned way back in high school. It stayed with me forever because it’s super depressing, and with all the love in the world I hope it stays with you, too: the average person will burn about 100 calories in a 6-minute mile. This is the equivalent of 25 grams of sugar. Remember that sugar is live energy, and as long as you are using that energy up, it’s useful. We all have a resting metabolic rate that will vary depending on weekly activity and muscle mass, but there are wild variances in coming up with this number, so I largely ignore it in my own decision-making. Instead, I consider something a little more practical: if I want to drink a can of soda with 50 grams of sugar in it, do I want to take a 2-mile run at an intense pace as the price?
Arriving at your “carb number” or percentage of carbohydrates per day out of your diet is something that I will encourage you to do after you have done the following:
— Come to terms with your protein intake using the previous chapters
— Come to terms with your fat intake in the next chapters
— Eliminated the sources of refined sugar from your current diet
Getting rid of the junky sources of carbs will help reduce how many grams you actually eat per day because you will only be eating what you actually need. Nobody needs a giant cup of milk and sugar, so considering these kinds of foods as part of your total is erroneous. Of course, always give yourself permission to slide a little per the 80/20 rule (as long as you're following your principles 80% of the time), but how many carbs you actually “need” is a different story. Keep in mind also that eating enough protein and fat will deflate your total as well since you will be more satiated, snack less often, have less cravings and still have plenty of energy.
Incorporate the practice of health testing to determine how you respond to various foods and choices. Some tests to consider specifically as a way to monitor your blood sugar and the principles we’ve been discussing are:
— Hemoglobin A1C
— Insulin Resistance Score
— Fructose sensitivity testing
— Blood glucose monitoring
— Genetic Testing
(for detailed breakdowns on these tests, get the full scoop in my giant biohacking book)
While fruit is technically from Nature, remember that it is still candy. Bananas, strawberries, apples, grapes and pears are all examples of high sugar foods that are relatively low in nutrients compared to leafy green vegetables. In this sense don’t use fruit to count as a “fruit and vegetable serving” because they are just not comparable. Separate these categories in your mind and let fruits be their own thing or part of your daily sugar allowance (no more than 36 grams for men, 25 grams for women). Fruits contain fructose, which is a sugar you want to minimize because it creates extra strain on the liver and may contribute to several health problems when consumed in excess chronically, such as in the well-known case of high fructose corn syrup.(7) If you have to have fruit, opt for low-sugar fruit like honeydew melons or peaches. In general, I try to limit my fruit intake to no more than 2 servings per day.
Avoid artificial sweeteners and opt instead for monk fruit and pure stevia. Beware of sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol as they can cause diarrhea, cramping and bloating from fermentation. Choose sweets that are nutritious like high-quality dark chocolate (without any fancy stuff) over sugar-rich milk chocolate. Organic black strap molasses is a great source of many minerals compared to a cheaper option made from high fructose corn syrup. If you can afford it, Manuka honey is great as a sweet treat, but organic honey also does the job and you will eat less of it while also gaining some nutrition. If you have a craving for something sweet and fatty like ice cream, find a suitable replacement that has less sugar and is still satisfying while also aligning your nutrition and eating plenty of good fats so that you heal the cravings.