Is sugar really all that bad for you? We often hear people say that they have a sweet tooth. They may even refer to themselves as sugar addicts, but what does that mean? Most of us grew up playing Candy Land, watching the Cookie Monster on TV, and thinking that a bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal provided a nutritious way to start the day. We somehow survived, so what’s the big deal about sugar? And, does sugar consumption relate to health in general and to fibromyalgia, specifically?
I’ve noticed that the word “sweet” is used to describe, creative, pretty, or impressive things? We can get a sweet deal, buy a sweet-looking outfit, or drive a sweet hotrod.
And, of course, it also describes something sugary.
When you think of sugary foods, you probably think of donuts, gumdrops, candy bars, sodas, cookies, cakes, pies, and pastries. These are obviously items we’d consider treats. No one would expect that a diet made primarily from these foods would be healthy.
And, that’s where our problems lie …. our expectations.
We expect treats to be sugary. We don’t expect non-treat foods to be sugary. You may be surprised to learn that that expectation has the potential to derail your desire to get or stay healthy. In fact, as consumers, we’ve been misled in many ways that didn’t affect generations past.
Think back to what your great-grandparents most likely ate for dinner. If they had pot roast and green beans, for example, the roast came from a local butcher (if not their own farm). The green beans came fresh from their garden or from a local produce market.
Vegetables were fresh, live foods — not something found packaged in cans. Consider that when the canning food industry first began to package vegetables, they had a big problem. To sell their products, they had to overcome the general distrust from the average consumer. Sure, I’m certain they advertised and promoted the superior longevity and shelf life of their product. That’s an undisputed truth, and it did serve a purpose when fresh vegetables were hard to come by. However, when it came to taste, early canned vegetables simply did not taste like fresh vegetables.
To compete with nature, food manufacturers added salt and sugar to their products. Later they added dyes, chemical preservatives and artificial flavorings, too. They advertised the superiority of their products using healthy-looking and happy children on the labels. (See Vintage Vegetables Labels)
Nutrition and ingredient labels weren’t even required and didn’t become common practice until far more recently than you think. Not until the early 70s was a standardized nutrition label suggested (even then, it still wasn’t mandatory).
Typically, consumers rate convenience as a high priority, and that’s understandable. If your great-grandmother could choose between growing her own vegetables and purchasing ready-made foods (if she had the financial resources to do so) it’s not a big surprise that this trend began to flourish. All things being equal, it sounded like a great advancement.
Unfortunately, all things were not equal.
The common practice of adding sugar to packaged foods isn’t isolated to the canning industry. It became common practice to add sugar to a plethora of canned, boxed, bagged, frozen, and packaged foods. (We now, thank goodness, have the ability to read labels and get a get a general idea of what’s in the foods we purchase.)
The reason I bring up this scenario is to show the progression of our dependence upon sugar. We didn’t wake up one day and find our populace overweight, unhealthy, and sugar-addicted.
It happened over time.
And, the next step in this disastrous progression? You guessed it, it’s a giant step, and one that’s all about profit.
Food manufacturers found that as their uses for sugar increased, their costs for ingredients skyrocketed. Chemists were hired and put to work looking for cheaper, sweeter, and locally abundant alternatives to sugar beets and sugar cane. They focused their experimentations on corn. In the 1950s, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was developed, and by the 70s it was widely used since it was sweeter than sugar, cost less to manufacture, and was easy to come by.
So, is the use of HFCS at the root of our desire for sweeter foods?
Yes, and sort of.
Sugar is the main problem. HFCS just happens to spread the problem faster and more efficiently. Because HFCS is cheap and abundant, it’s added to far more products than you may think. Unfortunately, foods that are by nature, sugar-free, are now sweetened and chemically-engineered to create flavors that are “hyper-palatable.” Food manufacturers even discuss what they call the “bliss point” of foods that taste great and make consumers want to eat substantially more.(1)
As mentioned above, we expect to find sugar in sodas, cakes, pastries, and cookies, but what about foods where the sugar may not be as obvious? Here’s a quick look at just a few foods with hidden sugars that can sabotage any person’s desire to limit their intake. Maybe some of these surprise you?
|Ketchup||Dipping sauce||BBQ sauce|
|Pasta sauce||Tomato sauce and paste||Salad dressings|
|Processed meats (sausage, bacon, patties, lunchmeats, etc.)||Packaged bread, rolls, buns, biscuits, etc.||Muffins, scones, etc.|
|Jams, jellies, fruit spreads||Fat free foods||Canned fruit|
|Frozen fruit||Snack pack fruit||Fruit juice|
|Lemonade||Sweetened bottled teas||Blended coffee drinks|
|Sports drinks||Flavored alcoholic drinks||Coffee creamers|
|Fruit yogurts||Sweetened non-dairy milks (rice, almond, soy, etc.)||Breakfast bars / energy bars|
|Instant oatmeal||Packaged microwave meals||Packaged “diet” meals|
|Packaged “diet” snack bars||Packaged “diet” snack drinks||Milk chocolate and white chocolate (much higher in sugar content than dark chocolate)|
Do you see a theme in the foods listed above? I hope you do.
We expect to find sugar in our desserts, but not in the main dish. Did you know that 1 C of spaghetti sauce has 23 grams of sugar? Would you be surprised to learn that the same amount of sugar can be found in SIX Oreo cookies? It makes us re-think what we’re feeding our families.
Our modern diet is not the same as it was for our grandparents and great-grandparents. None of the items listed above are substances that your ancestors would even recognize as food.
In the early 1800’s the average American consumed about 18 pounds of sugar per person per year. Current statistics based on USDA estimates show that Americans consume about 12 teaspoons of sugar per day. That translates to more than 2 TONS of sugar in a lifetime.(2)
Increased sugar consumption is a world-wide crisis with cascading consequences. The pattern and habit of becoming accustomed to sweeter tasting foods is far more destructive, in my opinion, to the human population than climate change. And, it’s far more immediate.
For obvious reasons, the topic of palate change is of great interest to me. I personally made the shift from a diet comprised mainly of packaged foods to one of natural whole foods. And, I saw the dramatic health improvements that followed this transition. I found that processed foods – and the sugar in them – were directly linked to my pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunction, IBS, sleep disturbances, skin issues, vision problems, and more.
My shift toward healthier and whole foods was an intentional process, and it didn’t happen quickly. I didn’t snap my fingers and overnight develop broccoli cravings.
But, I do have broccoli cravings now. That’s something I never thought could happen. I crave real, vibrant, healing, and living foods. My palate has been retrained to enjoy and appreciate the freshness and flavors of foods straight from the garden (or the farmer’s market).
Because of my own experience, and from helping others to do the same, I’m fascinated by the study of how we can CHOOSE to change our taste preferences. If we can develop a taste for sweeter foods, doesn’t it stand to reason that we can also – by intention – choose to develop a taste for real, healthy, natural, and whole foods?
Years ago, as I weaned myself from packaged foods, I unwittingly eliminated the majority of the sources of sugar in my diet. Back then, I didn’t sit around all day eating cookies. But I did eat a lot of cereals, breads, and crackers. It’s no coincidence that at that time, I was also very sick.
Here are just a few of the health challenges with an association to increased sugar consumption. How many of these relate to your own health challenges?
Whole body inflammation (which, in turn, is directly linked to pain)
Suppressed immune system
Malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies
Eye disease and vision problems
Itchy, dry skin and rashes
Leaky gut syndrome
SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
High blood pressure
And many more….
What this means for the fibromyalgia community is that we’ve got some re-educating to do. We’ve become accustomed – over time – to prefer and expect sweeter tasting foods. It’s now time to re-educate our tastes.
Would you like to eat less sugar, but you’re not sure what to do next?
To get started, here are my top 7 tips to reduce the amount of sugar in your daily diet:
Reduce your dependence on packaged and processed foods
Read the labels and make discerning choices regarding the processed foods you do plan to purchase
Don’t drink your sugar! Stick with water – always the best bet
Increase the macronutrients in your diet (healthy proteins, fats, and veggies) to ward off sugar cravings and stabilize your blood sugar
Increase nutrient-dense fiber and folate-rich foods in your diet
Don’t fall into the fake sugar trap. Whether “real” or “fake,” continuing to train your palate with a lot of sweet foods will only increase your desire for more
Find healthier swaps for the things you eat the most.(3) That way, there’s no feeling of deprivation.(4)
Bonus tip #8!
Be sure to exclude judgment from your daily diet and include a heaping serving of humor.
That way, you’ll at least feel good about getting one thing done.”
– Author Unknown
Parker-Pope, T. “How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains” The New York Times. June 22, 2009.
Mercola, J. “Sugar: Eliminate This ONE Ingredient and Watch Your Health Soar.” Mercola.com. May 2, 2011.
“Healthy Food Swaps.” Health Fitness Revolution.
Forberg, C., & Roberson, M. (2009). The Biggest Loser Simple Swaps: 100 Easy Changes to Start Living a Healthier Lifestyle. : Rodale Books.
Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.
Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.
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