10 Tips for Cutting Back on Sugar

10-tips-for-cutting-back-on-sugar

Over the past few months, I published two posts on “natural” sweeteners- one on xylitol, the other on stevia. I put the word natural in quotes because while both xylitol and stevia do occur in nature, the xylitol and stevia that are found on grocery store shelves and in various foods and beverages are highly processed or must go through an extraction process.

I got interested in both of these sweeteners because I have a major sweet tooth. Xylitol and stevia both seemed like a good way to satisfy my cravings for sweets without wrecking total havoc on my blood sugar- and my overall health. I’ve tried them both, but neither one is a perfect substitute, for a variety of reasons. So I usually prefer the real thing.

But early last fall I had a wake up call. I had my HbA1C levels checked. HbA1C is a measure of your average blood sugar levels over the past two or three months. It was within the normal range, but on the high end of normal. It wasn’t happy about the results, though I took full responsibility. I knew what the culprit was: I had eaten WAY more ice cream than is healthy over the summer. Now I was paying the price. I’d tried before, but I decided that I wanted to kick the sugar habit for good. Since then I’ve made some big changes and cut way back on refined sugars. I’ve also overdone it a few times, but I’ve been determined to get back on track. And I’ve found several things that have helped me to keep my cravings under control. If you’re trying to watch the sugar, too, I hope that some or all of these suggestions will be helpful.

Know How Much Sugar is Too Much

I think most of us know that too much sugar is not a good thing. But how much is too much? It’s probably less than you might think. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugars a day, while women should keep their added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day (source). This translates to about 37.5 grams of sugar for men and 25 grams for women. When you consider that a 12-oz. can of regular Coke has 39 grams of sugar, it becomes clear how easy it is to exceed these limits. However, I find that having a number to aim for is very helpful. If I know that I should shoot for 25 grams or less of added sugars a day, then I know when I’ve had enough.

Understand the Difference Between “Naturally Occurring Sugars” and “Added Sugars”

There are different kinds of sugars that are found in foods (though they all get broken down into glucose in the end). Naturally occurring sugars are those found in foods such as fruits and dairy products. Fruit contains fructose, while milk has lactose. Both fructose and lactose are forms of sugar that contribute carbohydrates to the diet. However, when you consume fructose or lactose in foods, you also get other needed nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fat, and protein.

Added sugars are those that do not occur naturally in foods, but are added during processing. Juice, for example, often contains added sugars. And sugar is also added to products such as candy, soda, granola bars, cereal, instant oatmeal, and flavored yogurt, to name a few. It is the added sugars that are especially important to watch- the ones that should be kept at or below 37.5 grams (for men) or 25 grams (for women) per day.

Read Labels

Food manufacturers are required to list the ingredients in their products and to state on nutrition labels how much sugar is in a serving of each product. The amount of sugar is given in grams. It is generally helpful to know how much sugar is in a product, except when it contains both natural and added sugars. In these cases, it is difficult to tell how much of the sugar is natural and how much is added. Fruit juice, for instance, will have the natural sugars from the fruit, but it may also have added sugars as well. To cut sugars from juice, look for products that have no added sugars or that are made with 100% fruit juice.

Sugar has many names, so learning to recognize them can help you to cut back. As a general rule, any ingredient that ends with –ose is a form of sugar. Fructose, dextrose, and sucrose are all examples. There are other ingredients that also indicate the presence of sugar: honey, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, agave, cane sugar, fruit juice, molasses, and maple syrup all have sugar in them. Keep in mind that even if products- such as cookies- are sweetened with natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, sugar is still being added to them.

Also be sure to look for where in the list of ingredients sugar (or some form of it) falls. If sugar is near the beginning of the list, it’s likely that there’s a lot of it in that food or drink.

Keep Track of Your Sugar Intake

Knowing what your limit should be and reading food labels can help you keep track of how much added sugar you’re actually eating. For the first couple of weeks that you’re trying to cut back on sugar, you may find it helpful to keep a journal or to write down how many grams of added sugar you’ve eaten throughout the day. After you’ve established new habits, you may find that you no longer need to do this.

Start with the Low-Hanging Fruit

There are many, many foods and drinks that contain added sugars, which means there are lots of opportunities to cut them out. Think about some of the moderate- to high-sugar foods that you could easily give up. Maybe you don’t like soda that much. Maybe you can live without a glass of juice in the morning. Maybe you can skip the cookie after lunch. Identify these foods and drinks, and cut or reduce them from your diet first.

Several years ago, I stopped eating flavored yogurt. Flavored yogurts are very high in sugar, and I decided that I could go without them. A 6-ounce container of Dannon vanilla yogurt has 25 grams of sugar in it (source)! Of course some of those sugars come from naturally-occurring lactose. Plain yogurt, in comparison, has 12 grams of sugar in a 6-ounce serving (source).

Plain yogurt has an acquired taste, though. It tastes a lot better with a little bit of fat it, so if you want to replace flavored yogurt with plain, I suggest trying low or full fat yogurt. If you still can’t do straight plain yogurt, eat it with some fruit, or mix a little bit of flavored yogurt into it.

Cut it in Half

Cutting sugar out altogether can be very difficult, so you may want to try decreasing it gradually. If you add sugar to your coffee or tea, try cutting the amount you use in half. If you enjoy soda, drink half the amount that you normally do. After a week or two, try cutting the amount in half again.

Enjoy Nature’s Sweet Treats

As you cut back on added sugars, you may find that you can more easily taste the sweetness in fruits and even some vegetables. Fruit can make a great dessert. Baked apples or pears with cinnamon or various kinds of berries can gradually take the place of sugary desserts. I’m happy to say that frozen cherries have replaced the ice cream that got me into trouble last summer.

Limit Sugar Substitutes

The effects of artificial and natural sugar substitutes on blood glucose is up for debate, and is also the topic of a whole other post (or two). But whether they affect blood sugar or not, they can still trigger cravings for sweets. So trying to limit sugar alternatives- like you would sugar- can help reduce these cravings.

Savor a Few Sweets

I still enjoy sweets. Chocolate has always been my downfall. But now I try to choose my chocolate carefully and to savor it when I have it. I eat a little bit of dark chocolate each day and try to eat it slowly, so I can enjoy it.

Don’t Give Up!

If you get off track, don’t worry about it. Everyone backslides from time to time. Simply remind yourself of your goals, and pick up where you left off.

Sources:

Hilmantel, Robin. “56 Different Names for Sugar.” Women’s Health. 3 November 2014. Web. 25 April 2015.

http://www.womenshealthmag.com/nutrition/different-names-for-sugar

“Sugar 101.” American Heart Associate. 19 November 2014. Web. 25 April 2015.

http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Sugar-101_UCM_306024_Article.jsp

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The Good and the Bad About Stevia

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The Good and the Bad About Stevia

Bottle of Stevia Extract

I first learned about stevia 8 or 9 years ago. At that time, it was not approved by the FDA for use as a tabletop sweetener or as an ingredient in products such as baked goods and beverages. Instead, it could only be sold in the U.S. as a supplement. Seems like a strange way to regulate a sweetening agent, but things have changed since I first became aware of stevia. Stevia has been hailed as a natural alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners. Unlike xylitol and other natural sweeteners, it has no calories. And many of those who are wary of synthetic sweeteners like the fact that stevia comes from a plant.

I was very excited to try it out when I discovered stevia. Over time, though, I did start to wonder about it. Is it as safe as proponents claim it is? Are there any downsides to it? It’s not that I had heard or read anything particularly negative; I just wanted to know more about it. So I decided to do some research. Like everything else in the natural health world, there are varying opinions on stevia- and various benefits and downsides.

A Brief History of Stevia

Stevia rebaudiana is a South American plant related to sunflowers and chrysanthemums. It grows naturally Brazil and Paraguay but is also cultivated in Japan, China, India, Argentina, and other South American and Asian countries.

Stevia has been used as a natural sweetener by the Guarani Indians in Paraguay since the 16th century. They used crushed stevia leaves to sweeten teas and medicine (source). Stevia’s use as a sweetener had spread through much of South America by the 19th century (source).

There are actually about 300 species of stevia plants, but it is the species Stevia rebaudiana that contains compounds that have a sweet taste (source). Scientists isolated these compounds, known as steviol glycosides, in the last century. Stevia became particularly popular in Japan, and that country began cultivating stevia plants in the 1950s. Stevia is approved in different countries for use in various foods. Around the world, it can be found in ice cream, yogurt, chewing gum, candy, bread, beverages, and other products.

There are eight steviol glycosides that contribute to Stevia rebaudiana’s sweet taste, but just two of them, stevioside and rebaudioside A (or Reb A) are generally used in food products. These glycosides can be 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so only a very small amount is needed. As sweet as stevia is, though, it often has a bitter aftertaste that many people do not care for.

It is not whole stevia leaves, like those traditionally used by the indigenous populations of South America, that are approved for use as a sweetener in the U.S. It is the glycosides contained in the leaves (source). Isolating glycosides from stevia leaves involves a multi-step extraction process.

How are Steviol Glycosides Extracted?

Extracting steviol glycosides requires a series of steps, the first of which is drying harvested stevia leaves. The dried leaves are then soaked in hot water. Next, the leaves are passed through a resin material that traps and collects steviol glycosides. This extract is then spray-dried and ground to create a powder. Because the glycosides are so sweet, a bulking agent, such as cornstarch is typically added to glycosides intended for use as tabletop sweeteners. Glycosides may be further altered by clipping off the molecules’ more bitter parts, so that only the sweet part remains (source). In addition to coming in a powdered form, stevia is also available as a liquid. Only one or two drops of the liquid are needed to sweeten a cup of coffee, for example.

While steviol glycosides do occur in nature, they don’t occur naturally in this isolated form. Some consumers may be okay with this; others may question how natural stevia extracts are after having undergone this process.

The Benefits of Stevia

Proponents of stevia point to several benefits of using it: it comes from a plant, it has no calories, it doesn’t affect blood sugar in the same way that sugar does.

A “Natural” Sugar Substitute

As I mentioned above, stevia is a plant and therefore natural. How natural extracted steviol glycosides are is a matter of opinion. If you don’t mind the fact that these glycosides must undergo numerous steps before they can be used as a sweetener, then, yes, they are natural. As such, they may be a better choice than artificial sweeteners.

Stevia Has No Calories/Doesn’t Contribute to Weight Gain

Steviol glycosides are not broken down well in the digestive system; they pass intact through the stomach and small intestine. In the colon, probiotic bacteria begin to act on steviol glycoside molecules, partially breaking them down. The smaller molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream, processed in the liver, and excreted in the urine (source). Because steviol glycosides are not fully metabolized, they do not contribute calories to the diet.

Since the glycosides in stevia have no calories, it has been suggested that the use of stevia as a sweetener can help control weight. Stevia-sweetened foods can help those trying to lose weight reduce their energy intake by avoiding foods that contain sugar. Some health experts also like stevia because it doesn’t trigger appetite-stimulating hormones, such as ghrelin (source).

Stevia has a Positive Impact on Blood Sugar

There have been questions over the years about how stevia affects blood sugar, if at all. There is some evidence that stevia may stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin (source). This may not sound like a good thing at first. After all, the excessive release of insulin can lead to insulin resistance. That is, cells that have been exposed to too much insulin begin “ignoring” it and therefore do not accept the glucose that the insulin is shuttling. However, in addition to increasing insulin levels, stevia may also increase cellular sensitivity to insulin and help clear glucose from the blood after a meal (source). Mark at Mark’s Daily Apple describes stevia’s effects on blood sugar in this way:

It may induce insulin secretion, but it increases insulin sensitivity, reduces blood glucose (i.e., the insulin is doing its job), and does not increase appetite.

Problems with Stevia

Using Stevia Doesn’t Guarantee Weight Loss

The fact that stevia doesn’t contribute any calories to the diet is very appealing. However, using sugar substitutes won’t necessarily keep people from overeating. And, calorie-free or not, stevia is still intensely sweet, so it won’t help dampen a person’s sweet tooth. There is even concern that stevia’s extremely sweet taste could alter our food preferences (source).

Another Look at Stevia’s Impact on Blood Sugar

While there is some evidence that stevia may increase cellular sensitivity to insulin, there are those who view stevia’s effects on blood sugar differently. Sweetness receptors in the intestines, liver, pancreas, and brain all respond to a sweet taste on the tongue, whether it comes from sugar or a sugar substitute (source). When a sweet flavor is detected, the body prepares itself for an increase in sugar, clearing glucose from the blood and releasing insulin. If no actual carbohydrates or glucose arrive in the body, adrenaline and cortisol levels rise in order to pull glucose from other sources, such as protein or body tissues (source). In this scenario, normal blood glucose levels are restored through the release of stress hormones. However, consuming actual carbohydrates along with stevia might help to lessen this effect.

Concluding Thoughts on Stevia

Americans have a large appetite for sweet foods. I certainly am guilty of having a sweet tooth (although I do try to keep it under control). With all of the negative effects that too much sugar can have on health, it is easy to understand why sugar substitutes are so appealing. Stevia seems to have a bit of an edge over other sugar replacements. For one thing, it is (more) natural than many others. But it is important to be aware that the stevioside or Reb A that is added to many foods and beverages does not naturally occur in isolation; they are extracts. Whether or not they are still natural after the extraction process depends on your point of view.

As for stevia’s impact on blood sugar, the evidence is mixed. As I mentioned above, consuming stevia along with foods that contain some carbohydrates might ensure a healthier hormone response to the sweet flavor. As with sugar itself, it seems to me that consuming only small to moderate amounts of stevia is probably best.

Sources:

Bratskeir, Kate. “7 Things You Didn’t Know About Stevia.” Huffington Post. 16 October 2014. Web. 11 April 2015.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/16/stevia-what-is-it_n_5983772.html

Gutherie, Catherine. “Stevia: Too Good to be True?” EXPERIENCE L!FE. May 2013. Web. 2 April 2015.

https://experiencelife.com/article/stevia-too-good-to-be-true/

Lemacks, Jennifer. “How is Stevia Made?” Healthy Eating. Web. 12 April 2015.

http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/stevia-made-7125.html

Mercola, Joseph. “Stevia: The ‘Holy Grail’ of Sweeteners?” Mercola.com. 16 December 2008. Web. 12 April 2015.

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2008/12/16/stevia-the-holy-grail-of-sweeteners.aspx

Sisson, Mark. “A Primal Primer: Stevia.” Mark’s Daily Apple. 8 February 2015. Web. 22 April 2015.

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/stevia/#axzz3Y9ZsxzSP

“What is Stevia? What are the Health Benefits of Stevia?” Medical News Today. 29 December 2014. Web. 12 April 2015.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/287251.php

“What refined Stevia preparations have been evaluated by FDA to be used as a sweetener?” FDA. Web. 15 April 2015.

Wright, Carolann. “Is Stevia Healthy and Safe to Use?” Natural News. 2 February 2015. Web. 3 April 2015.

http://www.naturalnews.com/048882_stevia_dangers_blood_sugar_insulin.html

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DIY Sanitizing Wipes

DIY Sanitizing WipesHave you ever used those disposable sanitizing wipes? They’re so handy and convenient…and, unfortunately, so wasteful, too. Not to mention frequently loaded with chemical ingredients. Wipes made by more eco-conscious companies have fewer chemicals in them, but they’re still intended to be thrown away after one use.

I’ll admit that I occasionally buy and use these wipes. As I just said, they’re convenient. But it occurred to me a while ago that there may be a better alternative. Before our kids were potty-trained, I made Reusable Diaper Wipes. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner, but I realized that I could make my own sanitizing wipes for cleaning, too. You just need to cut up an old shirt or towel and use some Castile soap and essential oils to make a sanitizing solution for the wipes. Many essential oils have been shown to have antimicrobial properties, so they are ideal natural cleaners.


DIY Sanitizing Wipes

Supplies

Directions

  1. Add 30 drops (total) of essential oils to one cup of Castile soap. Stir gently to mix.
  2. Place the cut-up t-shirt or towel pieces in the container, and pour the soap mixture over them. Make sure all pieces are thoroughly moistened.
  3. Use on counters, walls, door knobs, or other hard surfaces that need a quick cleaning.
  4. Wash the wipes in hot water, dampen with the soap solution, and reuse.

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Healthy Skin from the Inside

healthy-skin-from-the-insideThis post comes from guest blogger Robyn Johnson. Robyn is a Holistic Health Coach, and I asked her if she could provide some information about foods that support skin health. After all, the health of our skin is effected not only by what we put on it, but also by what we put in our bodies. Here’s her advice for a healthy glow from the inside out:


I’ll never forget the first time I looked in the mirror and realized I had a “perma-line” on my face. What?! I stretched my face in all directions possible; I tried smoothing it over with my hands and fingers; I even chugged a glass of water and gobbed on some lotion. Nope, it was a for-real line. I remember thinking, “It seems like it’s too soon for that to happen!” as if I was talking about some scheduled event.

A few years later, I keep an eye on that line like its stranger danger lurking around the corner. On my quest to stop the line from multiplying or digging deeper, I’ve learned a few helpful hints to keep my skin healthy from the inside out. Eating a diet rich in Vitamins A, C and E, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Antioxidants can keep the crow’s feet from landing and the fountain of youth from drying up. Here’s the down low:

Vitamins A, C & E or ACE Foods – Vitamin A tackles free radicals, aka: The Enemy and repairs skin. Vitamin C is integral for production of collagen, aka: plumpness. Vitamin E keeps the skin moisturized and soft. Combine A and E for a powerful duo against skin cancer.

Green SaladFoods include: Red peppers, broccoli, almonds, dark leafy greens, avocados, spinach, oatmeal and eggs.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Keep your skin moisturized and flexible by adding Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) to your diet. The body doesn’t produce these fatty acids, so you must get them through diet or supplements.

Foods include: Walnuts, salmon, sardines, chia seeds and flax seeds.

Antioxidants – Get plenty of antioxidants to escort the free radicals out on a regular basis. Free radicals are your enemy when it comes to premature skin aging like wrinkles.

Foods include: Green tea, berries, pomegranates, nuts and seeds.

Selenium is a powerhouse antioxidant that maintains skin firmness and elasticity, prevents acne and fights off skin cancer.

Foods include: Walnuts, onion, poultry, tuna and brown rice.

Extra Credit! Show your skin and body that you’re serious about staying young. Start every morning with a Royal Flush. Just a cup of warm water with juice from half a lemon gives you multiple benefits, including clear skin. The Vitamin C helps decrease wrinkles and acne, and is vital for catching “the glow”. It also purges toxins from the blood, which keeps skin clear, too. Other benefits:

* Boosts immunity
* Balances pH
* Helps with weight loss
* Aids digestion
* Gives you energy
* Freshens breath
* Enhances your mood

Add these healthy skin foods into your daily diet and enjoy the GLOW from the inside out!

Robyn Johnson helps other busy moms and families build a whole foods foundation WITHOUT breaking the bank, stocking their shelves with wacky ingredients or suggesting they go vegan. She strives to help them define and discover a happy “foodstyle” that fits into their unique lifestyle. Visit her website at www.babykalehealth.com.

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Slow Cooker Chicken Sausage and Kale Soup

chicken-sausage-and-kale-soup

This soup is tasty, nutritious, and popular with all of the members of my family. And it’s so easy to make, too. After about 10 minutes of prep, the ingredients are ready to put into the slow cooker.


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Ingredients

  • 12 oz. chicken sausage, sliced into rounds
  • 1 bunch kale, washed, stems removed, and torn into small pieces
  • 2 14.5 oz. cans diced tomatoes, thoroughly rinsed and drained
  • 2 14.5 oz. can Cannellini beans, thoroughly rinses and drained
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1-2 tsp. diced garlic
  • grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Directions

Put all of the ingredients in a slow cooker, and cook on low for 5 to 6 hours. Ladle into bowls, and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

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