Most people are aware of at least some of the negative effects of eating processed sugars. Sugar and items with added sugar can increase weight gain, specifically visceral fat which is the dangerous kind around the organs. It also increases the risk of developing heart disease, fatty liver, kidney disease, diabetes, gout, cancer and depression. The aging process is accelerated, memory is impaired and energy is depleted.
A further problem many current and former athletes do not realize is that sugar increases inflammation and thus pain throughout the body. All of the muscle and joint pain so many guys experience after years of playing football are often fueled by sugar and alcohol intake. Cutting back or removing added sugars from the diet and replacing them with healthy, healing alternatives can make a huge difference in overall quality of life and future risk of chronic diseases.
The first step in reducing your intake is to determine the hidden and nonhidden sources of sugar. Of course things like ice cream, cakes, cookies, pastries, sodas, sports drinks and candy are loaded with added sugar. Seemingly healthy items like pasta sauce, peanut butter, salsa and yogurt can be host to sweeteners as well. Processed and fast foods plus condiments are also sources to be aware of.
How much is too much? The American Heart Association states the maximum daily intake should be 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women. Of course there is no minimum, because processed sugar has no benefits and is not a necessary nutrient. The actual average intake is about 19 teaspoons, more than double the recommendation for men and more than triple for women.
As far as reducing your intake to ensure optimal health benefits and pain reduction, it is important to distinguish between moderating and abstaining and which is best for you. If you are able to take a bite of a delicious cheesecake, savor it and then put the fork down and not think about sweets again for days you can moderate your intake easily. This means you just need to become aware of where sugar is hiding in your diet and start to cut back on those items plus any sugary treats. You can enjoy your sweets from time to time without much effort or concern.
On the other hand, if you have that bite of cheesecake and feel that you lose control and need/want to eat the entire piece- maybe the entire cake - and then can’t stop craving sugar for days, you may find the best results with abstaining from sugar altogether. Processed sugar is highly addictive. The same way some people can casually smoke or drink and others end up with addictions, sugar affects people differently. Many people who have a history of eating large amounts of food at once, not being able to follow a traditional moderate diet approach or any food rules that you establish are likely addicted to sugar and processed carbohydrates.
Only you know what is best for you, but if you suspect you are addicted to sugar, it would be worthwhile to completely cut out all added sugars for a week or two and see how you feel. Usually the first few days of getting off sugar will yield the biggest cravings. This will require sheer willpower to overcome. The beautiful thing is after you stop eating it the cravings will begin to subside and you can watch a friend devouring a cheesecake in front of you without the slightest desire to take a bite.
It is still important to honor your natural desire for sweet tastes. There are a lot of healthy ways to do this. Fresh fruits are a great place to start. Try eating them fresh, or you can freeze some grapes for a nice cold treat. Homemade smoothies and sorbets can also be a wonderful treat, just stay away from pre-prepared options as these will likely have added sugar.
As far as natural sweeteners, raw honey is the way to go. Some experts have touted agave nectar, but it is actually very high in fructose which leads to negative effects in the liver and body. Honey can be added to oatmeal, smoothies, plain yogurt and anything else that needs a little pick me up. Cinnamon and nutmeg are great spices that will add some sweetness to your foods as well. Fresh fruit, raw honey, cinnamon and nutmeg not only satisfy your sweet tooth, but they have a ton of health benefits.
Overall, it is important to understand the negative effects of added sugar and be honest with yourself about how well you can moderate your intake. Check the ingredient labels on your sauces, ketchup, nut butters and salsa and choose options with no added sugar. Try adding in some healthy alternatives when you get a sweet craving and enjoy their benefits.