Oh, sugar sugar

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“Fat free.”  “Whole grain.”  “Low carb.”  “Diet.”  “Reduced fat.”  All sound good and healthy, right?  Well, for me for a long time those are the tag lines I looked for in food packaging.  Sugar?  No problem.  As long as I wasn’t eating fat, carbs, and too many calories I figured the only people who needed to worry about sugar were people who were prone to cavities and diabetics.  Besides, I didn’t eat that much sugar.

One day I was sharing my logic (read:  totally limited understanding of food science) with my husband as I was eating gummy bears or some other low-fat-high-sugar candy.  “You know,” he said, “those have a lot of sugar.”  “So?”  “So, you know sugar just turns to fat.”

Hold up.

Actually I didn’t know that.  Or maybe I did….but I just hadn’t realized how much sugar I was actually eating.  I started my first fitness challenge at the gym a few weeks later and with the help of my trainer and the Anytime Health app I realized just how much sugar was in….well, just about everything.  Bread.  Milk.  Fruit.  Salad dressing.  My typical Starbucks order.  Everything.

And then the real challenge began — cutting sugar from my diet.  I focused first on added sugars (sugar in milk, sugar in baked goods, cereals, etc.) and later zeroed in on natural fructose found in fruit.  Don’t get me wrong, fruit is “good” for you but it’s not actually great for you if you’re trying to lose weight.  Your body actually doesn’t recognized the difference between the sugar found in an apple and sugar added to a cookie or brownie.  It reads it all as a “simple carbohydrate” and according to WebMD “is quickly turned into glucose in your bloodstream [causing ] your blood sugar levels spike.”  The good thing about fruit is that while it does have plenty of sugar (which, yes, turns to fat if you don’t burn it off) is that it also has things like vitamins and fiber which your body needs.  My personal take though is if you can get fiber from a complex carbohydrate (ex: broccoli) that is a better fiber option than several apples throughout the course of the day.

As far as added sugar:  avoid it.  This can be tricky for several reasons: first, you may not realize how much sugar is in things you eat every day.  During the challenge and training to reach my weight and body fat percentage goal I tried to keep my sugar intake to below 16g.  My real wake up call was when I entered my typical breakfast into the Anytime Health diet tracker and found that the amount of sugar in my Kashi Go Lean cereal and a half cup of lactose free fat free milk was 21 grams.  Yup.  In 1 cup of Kashi Go Lean there are 9 grams of sugar (along with 10g of fiber and 13g of protein which are great, but I’ll tell you how to get that in in a minute.)  My milk had 12 g of sugar.  TWELVE.  In MILK for crying out loud.  The bottom line was that I was blowing my sugar allotment for the entire DAY just at breakfast — and that was even before I factored in my morning Starbucks run.

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The worst part about my breakfast was that not only did it have way too much added sugar but it wasn’t providing the necessary amount of protein.  Don’t get me wrong, 13g of protein in a breakfast cereal is pretty good, but doing regular strength training and weight lifting my trainer was recommending I get more like 25g.  What the heck was I supposed to do eat 2 bowls of cereal????  Answer:  NO!  Instead I started using a protein supplement (Jay Robb Whey Protein Powder) and mixing it with water and a little bit of unsweetened soy milk.  With my protein needs being met I could enjoy carbs at breakfast and not have to worry about overeating.

Next thing I had to tackle was my Starbucks order.  This was definitely a multi-week process.  I had been
ordering a tall iced coffee with soy milk and one pump of sweetener (in the summer) or a skinny vanilla latte with soy (in the winter).   Well, a tall soy iced coffee (sweetened) is 18g of sugar.  The unsweetened version by comparison only has 2g of sugar according to the Starbucks website.  But let me tell you, getting to that “unsweetened” order was rough.  I had already sacrificed my breakfast cereal, my milk, my Chobani blueberry Greek yogurt, and now my coffee!?!  I went into a hostile, grouchy, lethargic, headache-prone funk most experts would refer to as…..withdraw.  Yes, friends, I was suffering from a sugar addiction and hadn’t even realized it.

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Some folks (even experts) debate whether sugar addictions are real.  To these people I would say, you try cutting sugar from your diet and tell me how you feel.  I bet it won’t take more than 48 hours for you to notice a severe physical and emotional reaction.  But alas, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  After several weeks (and yes, it did take weeks) I was able to tolerate unsweetened coffee (with milk;  black coffee took me about a full 9 months to warm up to.)  I could go without fruit concentrate in my yogurt.  I didn’t have a taste for juice or sugary sodas almost at all.  After months of a low-sugar diet something else happened when I finally did begin reintroducing fresh fruit into my diet:  it was the best fruit I had ever had.  I remember eating a peach after a few months of low-sugar as a lifestyle and it stopped me in my tracks.  It was like an explosion of sugar in my mouth.  I had never never tasted a piece of fruit that sweet.  It was incredible.

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But what if you fall off the wagon and into a bag of gummy bears or, worse, my personal kryptonite — sheet cake?   Well, don’t panic.  You can burn off sugar.  One of the only ways I know of to do this is anaerobic exercise AKA sprinting.  Why sprinting?  Because when you force your body to run really, really fast it doesn’t tap into its fat burning energy it uses carbohydrates (simple carbohydrates = sugar).  According to The Nest.com, “Because short-distance sprinting usually lasts less than 10 seconds, there isn’t enough time for your body to use oxygen to tap into your fat storage for energy. Instead, your body uses one anaerobic system called the phosphagen system for immediate energy source.”  But careful not to just go for an all-out run — just short 10-15 second bursts on a treadmill going as fast as you possibly can will do it.  I burn sugar with my “7-8-9 // 5-5-5” workout (read:  I hate doing this workout…).  I start on the treadmill at a speed of 7.0 and do 5 sprints between 7.0 and work up to 8.0.  Then I do 5 sprints at a speed of 8.0 working up to 9.0.  Last, I do 5 sprints at a speed of 9.0.  I rest about 40-45 seconds in between each sprint which is about how long it takes me to recover and not want to fall off of the treadmill in exhaustion.  (*Note, you should NOT try running above a speed of 8.0 on the treadmill before you’ve worked your way up to it and know where the emergency stop button is on the treadmill!!!)

Now of course, if this workout sounds heinous to you (and it is) then maybe you’ll be inspired to use self-control and discipline when it comes to how much sugar you take in in the first place 🙂  Learning to appreciate the natural sugar in foods (I can even taste the sugar in carrots now — so delicious!) and the effect that sugar has on your body will help you find your sweet spot on your journey to your healthiest happiest self.

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(Author’s note:  Yes, that is my birthday cake from this last week.  No, I am not 27.  Yes, I did eat that cake with all it’s sugary goodness.  Sometimes you just need to indulge — and your birthday is one of those times!  But you better believe I was at the gym the next day *wink wink*)