I’ve been experimenting with cutting sugar out of my diet on the advice of my wife, Kerry, a leading nutritionist in New York. The benefits have been almost as transformative as when I first began meditation. I’ve more natural energy, my thoughts are calmer, the nagging runner’s knee pain that had bothered me for months is gone, and so on. I wanted my readers to experience the same benefits so I requested Kerry to share both why a sugar detox is necessary and how one can resist its sweet pull. Over to Kerry:
The urgency to quit sugar
For the past five years, I’ve worked as a nutritionist alongside Dr. Frank Lipman at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York. We read patients’ bloodwork, and realized that if they didn’t cut out sugar, they would soon be pre-diabetic. I learned how sugar puts enormous stress on your hormones, making you feel exhausted. In addition, the stress hormone cortisol is released to deal with the sugar, and an excess of cortisol leads to weight gain.
Sugar is linked with obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, migraines, autoimmune disease, and of course tooth decay. Sugar feeds cancer cells and suppresses the immune system. According to Dr. Lipman, “white sugar is a poison that is corrosive to everyone’s health, disrupting key physiological systems, putting the body on a roller coaster of unnatural and extremely taxing highs and lows.”
Despite hearing all that, if a fresh tray of gooey warm chocolate chip cookies was pulled out of the oven, would you still have trouble resisting? Given that Americans are now consuming 130 pounds of sugar per person each year, I’ll assume that your answer is yes. Read on to find out why.
The addictive nature of sugar
In his book, Revive, Dr. Lipman explains how sugar is processed by the body: “Your body processes sugar rapidly. As you know, when you eat sugar you get an initial burst of energy – the sugar hits your bloodstream almost as quickly as if you had mainlined it. Overwhelmed by the surge of sugar, the body scrambles to process it, producing insulin to transport the sugar from the bloodstream into the cells. This increase in insulin makes your blood sugar level drop. So the energy surge vanishes almost as quickly as it arrived and you “crash.” This process triggers the body to crave more energy. So you eat more sugar or sugary carbohydrates to get the energy high again. A vicious cycle of craving, eating and crashing begins.”
In the 60 Minutes segment “Is Sugar Toxic?” the neuroscientist Eric Stice describes how our brains respond to sweetness as seen by functional MRI scanners. Sugar is “very good at firing the reward regions in our brain” according to Stice. Sugar “activates our brain in a special way that is reminiscent of drugs like cocaine.” Dopamine is released, a euphoric effect is experienced, and tolerance is developed. This means that the more you eat, the less you feel the reward, so you eat more than ever.
So if you’ve been feeling weak or guilty for not being able to resist the pull of sugar, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s powerfully addictive, working on the same pathways in the brain as cocaine and heroin. Sugar, in a sense, is a socially acceptable legal recreational drug.
Now that you’re convinced it’s time to quit sugar, here’s how:
1. Stop Eating Sugar
Because sugar is so addictive, I find that quitting cold turkey works best for most people. You must stop eating sugar, plain and simple. The less you eat it, the less you crave it. It’s easier said than done, I know, but that’s the necessary first step. The withdrawal symptoms (cravings, headache, fatigue, bad mood) usually last between three to five days. The good news is that once you do this, cravings diminish quickly and dramatically.
2. Eat Fat, Fiber and Protein
Instead of eating sugary foods, focus on eating the most satiating foods: fat, fiber and protein. Fat, fiber and protein will keep you full and keep your blood sugar steady. Have avocado, nuts, nut butter and coconut oil for healthy fats. Eat lots of vegetables for fiber. And have lean meats, eggs, fish, beans and lentils for protein.
What you eat for breakfast will set the tone for the rest of the day. Our family has a nutrient-dense and protein-packed smoothie for breakfast every day. As long as you have a blender, this is a quick and easy breakfast that packs in a lot of vitamins and minerals.
Morning Smoothie (Serves 1)
1. 1 scoop of protein powder
2. 1 cup water
3. 1 small ripe banana
4. 1 tsp almond butter
5. 4-5 ice cubes
Add all ingredients to a high-speed blender such as a Vitamix, blend and enjoy.
The protein powder Karan and I use is called Shakeology, and we use the Chocolate Vegan flavor. It is packed with vitamins, minerals and superfoods and keeps us fueled through lunch. I consider it my liquid multivitamin and a good insurance policy against nutrient deficiencies. It has reduced my sugar cravings tremendously.
Note from Karan: I love Shakeology! This is the first time I’ve truly enjoyed a smoothie/shake after a couple of years of experimenting.
3. Understand the Nature of Cravings
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that ‘life is suffering,’ and the Second Noble Truth is that ‘craving is the cause of suffering.’ The reason why cravings cause suffering is that satisfaction of cravings is short-lived, temporary, impermanent, fleeting.
As we know from the physiology of how our body processes sugar, any satisfaction we get from eating sweets is very short-lived. If you really pay attention, you may notice that the anticipation of eating sweets is often more pleasant than the actual pleasure of eating sweets, which is so short-lived and often tinged with some guilt, regret or sadness as the experience ends.
The Dhammapada says, “Like a spider caught in its own web is a person driven by fierce cravings. Break out of the web, and turn away from the world of sensory pleasure and sorrow.” In practical terms, this means putting less emphasis on dazzling the taste buds and more on practicing detachment – including at mealtime. Treat food as nourishment, rather than entertainment.
Meditation is a powerful antidote to cravings. The mind is always racing outwards, chasing the next bit of stimulation – whether that’s checking your iPhone for new messages, or thinking about the next meal or sweet treat. Through meditation, I practice teaching my body and mind to “sit still” and focus on the breath. Through my daily meditation practice, I’ve witnessed how restless the mind is, always chasing the next thrill. Slowly, gently, persistently I work to return to the present moment. This helps to unravel cravings so they don’t have such a strong pull.
5. Rediscover Sweetness
Charles Eisenstein, the author of The Yoga of Eating, provides some compelling insights about sugar as well. First, he describes sugar as offering a “hollow sweetness” that you can detect through mindful eating. “If you slowly chew and taste an over-sweetened food, you’ll probably find it phony and dishonest.” He goes on to say:
“The root cause of sugar addiction is that we are out of touch with the sweetness of life itself… Closed off from the experience of sweetness in life, yet hungering for it in the depths of our souls, we turn to the imitation of this sweetness in sugary foods. Babies are sweet. Intimacy is sweet. Love is sweet…The experience of coming inward, coming back home, connecting with the divine, is one of ineffable sweetness.”
May you reclaim sweetness for yourself, today and always!
P.S. There’s an insightful quiz on sugar addiction that you can take to see how much your behavior and actions are controlled by sugar. Take the quiz, and share your score in the comments. And of course, if you’re feeling motivated to quit sugar today, sign up for my newsletter at http://www.kerrybajaj.com so I can notify you about my upcoming 5-Day Sugar Smackdowns!