What is "sugar"?
April 15, 2011 9:48 AM   Subscribe

What are ways to eliminate sugar from my diet?

I read this article today in the New York Times, and obviously it scared the hell out of me.

I know that looking on the label and eliminating refined sugar, HFCS, and such are obvious solutions.

What are some less obvious solutions?

If fructose is so harmful, should I eliminate fruit from my diet as well? Or is fructose only harmful in high doses?

What about lactose? Is it just as bad?

What exactly constitutes "sugar"?

Your help is grateful appreciated.
posted by jefficator to Health & Fitness (38 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Usually if I can get to a cup of tea or an orange after a meal, then it kills the craving. Or sugar-free (xylitol) gum.

The trick is having one of those things handy at all times.
posted by hermitosis at 9:52 AM on April 15, 2011

I think elminating fruit is more harmful than fructose. I think the problem is high fructose corn syrup which is refined, man-made, etc. rather than pure fructose.

Lactose I think is bad only if you have an allergy to it.

For what constitues a sugar--wikipedia it. And I think the overall goal to good health is less processed foods, less "bad" foods (sugars, carbs, salt, fat), exercise, etc.
posted by stormpooper at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2011

Fruit is an interesting grey area when trying to eliminate sugar from your diet and it depends what you're doing.

If you're super serious about losing weight and have a healthy nutritious(you're getting the nutrients that fruit provides from other foods) diet, then there's nothing wrong with removing fruits. What I refer to above is what you do all day, I would not recommend that a construction worker trying to lose weight remove fruit from their diet, it's generally low calories, nutrient dense, and they're using it as energy. If sugar sits, it turns into fat. So like myself, who sits in an office most of the day, I try to avoid fruit.

Sugar content is sugar content, but the source of it being natural or synthesized is the difference. Your body knows how to break down and deal with natural sugars, and doesn't know how to as well with things like high fructose corn syrup.

I think the most sugar content I get is from milk personally, and the protein and vitamin benefits greatly outweigh the sugar in my opinion.
posted by straight_razor at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would strongly recommend Taubes' book Good Calories, Bad Calories, which will scare the hell out of you times two. Basically his premise is that carbs, especially refined stuff and sugar, is what causes diabetes and heart disease.

I cut sugar and carbs out of my diet after reading that book. The first two weeks were HARD, but I found that regularly excising carbs (that means fruits as well as more obvious stuff like potatoes, breads, pasta, etc) effectively shut down my appetite for sugar. Not to sound cultish, but cutting out sugar has been pretty awesome. I have so much more energy now that I don't eat it.

Lean on high protein snacks (yogurt, almonds) when you get sugar cravings, and don't fall for sugar alcohol stuff like Maltitol and Sorbitol.
posted by slightly sissy tea hound at 9:59 AM on April 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

You're not really going to be able to get a straight answer on this, because even the most knowledgeable experts disagree. Some say that sugar in moderation is fine, healthy even, and that Taubes is wrong. Some say that eating natural food is the most important thing. Some say that replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners is great and makes you healthier, while others say that artificial sweeteners have the same effect as sugar on the body, or worse. Some say that no sugar of any kind, even from fruit, should ever be eaten. Some say that fruit is the best food in the world and we should eat it as our primary source of nutrition. There's no right answer here.

If you want to learn more about anti-sugar viewpoints, I highly recommend the Primal Blueprint forum at Mark's Daily Apple. It's a website fully of people who have cut out all artificial sugars and most natural sugar, including most fruit and modern carbohydrates, discussing how it's affected their lives, how they feel, and what strategies they employ in their diets. I'm not endorsing the viewpoint they espouse, but I do think it's a good place to learn more about that viewpoint.

Honestly, if I were you, I'd play around with different foods and see what makes you feel good. Monitor your energy levels, what your body is craving, and how you feel, and see what works best for your body. The human body is very resilient. Almost nothing you eat in moderation is going to poison you. People around the world live long, healthy lives eating a wide variety of different diets. You need to figure out what works for you.
posted by decathecting at 10:05 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good Calories, Bad Calories is a great book but it's a little dry to read if you're not science-minded. His new one, Why We Get Fat, distills the science of GCBC and is far more accessible.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:05 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, regarding fruit: I think that the American diet is so out of control at this point that we assume eating fruit is the healthiest thing ever because it's not a Snickers bar.

Fruit is fine relatively speaking, especially if you eat it whole instead of pureeing it into a smoothie or drinking its juice (their cell walls are broken down so the sugar jacks up your insulin almost immediately instead of making your body digest it slowly so the sugar enters your bloodstream over a steady slow period of time). However, fruit is still relatively high in sugar. It's totally not going to kill you if you skip out on it - people act like fruit is a holy grail of nutrition when really it's like a vegetable with way more fructose.
posted by slightly sissy tea hound at 10:06 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If fructose is so harmful, should I eliminate fruit from my diet as well?

Eliminating fruit seems crazy, as it has a lot of other useful things in it, not just fructose. I suspect you need to widen your focus and concentrate on eating right, which involves low amounts of sugar, as opposed to OMG WHAT DO I DO ABOUT SUGAR?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:07 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Eliminating fruit seems crazy, as it has a lot of other useful things in it, not just fructose.

This is why we have vegetables.
posted by slightly sissy tea hound at 10:08 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have started putting cinnamon in my coffee, in place of sugar. It gives a little spicy kick that still satisfies.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:24 AM on April 15, 2011

As decathecting says there's no simple answer to this, because there's no scientific consensus. Taubes' research is extensive, convincing, and clearly explained and it's not a bad place to start. But his primary conclusion in Good Calories, Bad Calories is there's no simple answer and it's important to bear that in mind when considering diet.

A simple change you can make in your diet is avoid refined sugars. Particularly when added to foods that shouldn't be sweet, like bread or chicken or catsup. A little sweetner for flavour isn't the problem, it's the increased background of sugar added to everything processed to make it taste "better" you want to look out for. This change will have you reading lots of labels in the grocery store and can be difficult to apply everywhere. Extremism isn't necessary.

Another simple thing you can do is avoid drinking sugary drinks. More detail in my comment on the MeFi thread on this topic.
posted by Nelson at 10:25 AM on April 15, 2011

I heard Taubes speak a few weeks ago, and so while I haven't read the NYT article, I have a pretty good idea about what he would be talking about. My friends and I think he may be over-criticizing the energy-balance camp of nutrition research in order to promote the carbs-insulin-diabetes camp, so when I had the opportunity to discuss his argument with a registered dietician and diabetes expert, I cornered her.

To address your question, long story short: my dietician friend was saying that there is solid research that you can very effectively mitigate the insulin response of eating sugars by exercising. (I haven't searched the literature yet, so I'm relying on her knowledge). So, while it's awesome to cut out refined sugars and processed foods, it's probably not necessary to agonize over things like fruit and dairy/lactose that are healthy whole foods with micronutrients and minerals your body wants. Rather, you might just want to go for a walk after dinner and try to move around more during the day.
posted by sk932 at 10:34 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you cook from scratch as much as possible, eliminating packaged meals or meal kits and working with actual ingredients whenever you can, you will easily limit the amount of any additive you're not interested in consuming: sugars of any type, salt, artificial colors and flavors, random dairy or wheat based ingredients that lurk in processed foods that should have nothing to do with milk or wheat, etc.

Look at labels: there is sugar added to just about anything in a box or jar, and almost always HFCS. Even fairly basic ingredient-level foods like canned tomatoes or beans occasionally have added sugars lurking within, so you sometimes have to be vigilant in ways you won't suspect.
posted by padraigin at 10:35 AM on April 15, 2011 [10 favorites]

Reading labels is the first step. I try to avoid anything that's got added sweeteners of any type.

I don't know that avoiding all things sweet is necessarily good for you, but choosing wisely--a tablespoon of made-with-sugar jam mixed into my yogurt or having a made-with-sugar Coke once every couple of months--is key.
I don't have a huge sweet tooth to begin with, but I did try to "retrain" my taste buds. I also will choose fruit over juice, and anything that's got more fiber than processed carbs.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:35 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have to keep things in perspective regarding fruit consumption. Before the advent of processed food at the turn of 20th century, on average sugar consumption per capita was 40 lbs per year. Most of it came from fruits.
Compared that to ~150lbs of per capita sugar consumption today.
Some sources claim that we consume even higher than that - up to 8 times more sugar consumption compared to 1900s level.

Sugar is sugar. Sugar from fruit will behave the same way as sugar from other sources. But you'll have to consume 15-20 apples a day, every single day, to approach that level. If you're a typical American, there are plenty of other ways to curb your sugar consumption before fruit becomes an issue.
posted by 7life at 10:36 AM on April 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

To paraphrase Pollan: "Track your food, find alternatives, replace gradually."
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I find that, for me, the best thing I can do when having a sugar/carb craving is eat a protein snack. A handful of nuts, etc.
posted by annsunny at 10:41 AM on April 15, 2011

I usually kill my 3 pm sugar craving with a spoonful of peanut butter (unsweetened). It's fewer calories than a bunch of M&Ms or a cookie, and it's got good fats and other nutrients in it. I stopped putting sugar in my tea and stopped noticing its lack of sugar after a few days.

Think small steps and harm reduction. If cutting out all sweet stuff means you go one a weekly chocolate binge, that's no good. Eliminating the obvious things where you won't even miss the sweetness (because salad dressing is not supposed to be sweet! fried chicken doesn't need HFCS!) will be the easiest step, so keep reading labels, and don't worry quite yet about eliminating all fruit from your diet forever.
posted by rtha at 10:41 AM on April 15, 2011

All you folks talking about natural vs. artificial and HFCS vs. sugar and good vs. bad carbs - it's all interesting, but the NYT article linked above is truly excellent and I think worth reading, all the way through.

As for eliminating sugar: most people say that once you have eliminated sugar, you don't crave it as much. I've experienced this effect myself.

The article itself references 40 pounds of table sugar (sucrose) per year as being an earlier benchmark which wasn't regarded as harmful, and seems still to be not harmful, but is much lower than the current amount consumed in the average American diet. So, if you cut out the obvious offenders, maybe that will be a big step in the right direction; you may not need to eliminate sugar entirely, unless you want to stop craving it entirely by cutting it completely out.

Other than that, look closely at ingredients labels for _everything_. Most commercial salad dressings contain sugars. Most crackers, probably especially your favorites, contain sugar. Many breads, especially whole-wheat breads, are made with sugar or honey. One of my most favorite and healthiest-seeming cereals, Raisin Bran, has sugar crusted on the raisins -- both Post and Kellogg's brands (why????? I'd love it more without, I think).

I would suggest avoiding fruit juice; I know it has the same effect on me (crashing) as a sugary soft drink, and the juice form allows me to consume a _lot_ of fructose in a short time. I've found that taking a vitamin C supplement makes me not crave massive quantities of fruit, which is helpful.

Good luck.
posted by amtho at 10:51 AM on April 15, 2011

Get to know Dextrose, which is pure glucose -- almost as sweet as sucrose, but contains no fructose. Then just buy unsweetened foods and add this in, as desired.
posted by blargerz at 11:34 AM on April 15, 2011

Take care of the easy and big parts before worrying about the hard and small stuff. That means cutting soda, juice, sweet tea, and other sweet drinks first. Cut candy, sweet cereal, and other foods that are pure sugar. Ditto the crazy sweet desserts.

Then, when that has been going well and you are 100% on that, you can worry about the small amounts of sugars that are added to a really crazy amount of products. (I mean, how much ketchup to do you need to be eating for the sugar in it to be a problem?) In aggregate, those small amounts add up, but the big issues come from the stuff above -- sodas, donuts, etc.
posted by Forktine at 11:34 AM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

(I mean, how much ketchup to do you need to be eating for the sugar in it to be a problem?)

Sidenote; There's a local burger joint that makes its own ketchup, with less sugar than the bottled stuff. It is delicious and the place is always packed, due to that and their general philosophy of getting their ingredients locally and making everything fresh. The flavor difference is incredible.

The use of sugar, HFCS and what not reminds me of the popularity of cold beer (in the US at least). It's use is to kill or hide the crappy taste and make the product palatable (while adding to shelf life), not to actually make it taste good.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:51 AM on April 15, 2011

Some of the sugar-free products I return to, after a year of reading labels.
Archer Farms peanut butter and fruit leather snacks, both from Target. Their pomegranate juice also has no added sugar, if you require juice. (I need juice to take vitamins or I gag.)
Annie's Balsamic & Vinegar salad dressing.
Polanar all-fruit.
Plain yogurt , sweeten it with a little all-fruit or some honey.
I only ever found one kind of tomato sauce without sugar, and it was like $8 a jar. I mostly ended up using raw crushed tomatoes or making my own sauce.

One thing: different items from the same line can contain sugar, while others don't. Like, Reeds Ginger Ale is sweetened with pineapple juice, but Reeds Extra Ginger Ale is sweetened with sugar. So just because TJ's blueberry yogurt contains sugar, the same brand of mango yogurt might not.
Be prepared for grocery shopping to take much, much longer.
posted by 8dot3 at 11:57 AM on April 15, 2011

Switching to a low carb diet will reduce a large percentage of all the sugar in your diet. Check up on lots of the LC questions that have been posted.
posted by unixrat at 11:58 AM on April 15, 2011

You can safely and completely eliminate fruit from your diet by the way.

Not only will it improve your health, but transporting all that out-of-season fruit to your local grocer is fairly awful for the planet.
posted by unixrat at 12:25 PM on April 15, 2011

I just wanna note what a large topic this breaks into. There are some huge pieces of information that would help guide your answer.

What is your goal? This will affect greatly how you treat your diet, if you increase protein, cut carbs, bring more fat content, the level at which you reduce sugar.

And an intelligent diet that's specific to your goal WILL CHANGE as you utilize it.

An athlete for example is far less concerned about removing all sugar, as they've hit a weight number that is appropriate for their discipline, and their metabolism is faster then a humming bird and sugar is a great source of quick energy.

Weight loss would be a completely different set of evolving factors.

Much like people have noted, no two humans are identical, and you need to experiment and find out what feels good for you and what gets the results you're looking for. The article you referenced is but one view and you should compile your own personal views on nutrition by both education and balancing with experience. It's taken me the past 5 years to really understand how my body works.
posted by straight_razor at 12:29 PM on April 15, 2011

That article *rocked*. Thank you, Gary Taubes and Robert Lustig, and NYT for having the nerve to print something so likely to make advertisers a little uneasy.

I've been fructose-free (and entirely sugar-free) for almost 10 years, due to having been diagnosed with fructose malabsorption. For me, it was an easy transition since eating sugar = sick, not eating sugar = not sick, but if you don't have an immediate "I feel so much better!" epiphany it might be trickier. I'll try to answer some of your questions.

What are some less obvious solutions?

I don't think there are any. It's pretty simple: read every label, or better yet only eat foods that have no label. For foods that don't have a label - say, an unfamiliar vegetable (yes, many veggies have fructose in them) I have an app on my Android phone that lets me access the USDA food nutrient database. It doesn't break down into types of sugars, but if the carb count of any given item exceeds the fiber count, I don't eat it.

If fructose is so harmful, should I eliminate fruit from my diet as well? Or is fructose only harmful in high doses?

Depends on what you're trying to solve. If you have a malabsorption problem like me, you may need to eliminate all fruits. In addition to fructose, I can't eat sorbitol, fructans, or inulin, so I'm a pretty extreme case. If you don't have a problem, there's nothing wrong with a few fruits a day. To keep the fructose count as low as possible, limit your fruits to berries only.

What about lactose? Is it just as bad?

No, unless you're lactose intolerant. It's not metabolized in the liver, it's not used in copious amounts to sweeten processed foods, so if you are a milk drinker, there's nothing wrong with drinking real milk. Avoid the frankenfood "fat free" dairy stuff though, as the fat is generally replaced with sugar.

What exactly constitutes "sugar"?

Table sugar, corn syrup, HFCS, brown sugar, molasses, honey, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup, barley malt syrup, treacle, sorghum syrup are the ones that come to mind that I've seen. Many of these will be in products that boldly proclaim "SUGAR FREE!" because rather than sucrose, they are sweetened with honey or something along those lines. Avoid it all if you're serious about this.

Good luck with this, and good for you!
posted by chez shoes at 12:48 PM on April 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

IANAD. brain metabolism is dependant on glucose for energy. I am way of anyone who so broadly defines sugar as "evil" and a "toxin".

But I would avoid anything that is labled "fat free" "lite" "low fat" etc. because those are often filled with added sugars and thickeners to make up for the fat. Check out In Defense of Food which is basically: eat local & eat seasonal, don't eat "diet" anything, don't eat food with more than five ingredients, eat mostly plants.
posted by inertia at 1:30 PM on April 15, 2011

Watching Lutig's lecture on Youtube. He says "When God made the poison, he also made the antidote" or something similar. He says not only that sugar is poison, but also that fiber moderates many of its effects. Indeed he spends much of the lecture ripping sugary beverages and points out that fast food is stripped of fiber.

Most fruits of course come packaged with fiber, so I don't see why you should suddenly shun fruits.

I'm shocked--shocked!--that a newspaper article would rip something out of context like that!
posted by massysett at 1:31 PM on April 15, 2011

As I understand from this book (IANAD), eating foods low on the gylcemic index prevents blood sugar spikes and make you feel better overall. Fruits like apples are fairly high on the glycemic index but if you eat them with a protein it helps slow this effect. For example, I really like apples with peanut butter.
posted by orrnyereg at 1:34 PM on April 15, 2011

IANAD. brain metabolism is dependant on glucose for energy. I am way of anyone who so broadly defines sugar as "evil" and a "toxin".

Fructose, not sugar. Fructose, not glucose. Watch the video.

The NYT is distorting this? No way!
posted by massysett at 1:36 PM on April 15, 2011

These people talking about glucose and the brain don't know what they're saying. You can safely ignore them.
posted by unixrat at 1:38 PM on April 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

This makes me a little sad. There is not much in life as delicious as fresh, in season fruit-a ripe peach! Raspberries! I'd suggest starting by giving up the processed and added sugars and juices, before throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
posted by purenitrous at 2:31 PM on April 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

About fruit specifically:

No one needs fruit in their diet for nutrition purposes. Seriously. You could never eat another fruit again and you would be fine. Read either of Taubes's books if you need convincing of this. You can get anything else you might need from vegetables if you're concerned -- but even then, there are and have always been entirely carnivorous human populations that are in excellent health because you can get everything you need from meat except perhaps vitamin C, and it turns out you don't even need additional vitamin C in the absence of eating carbohydrates. The biology at play here is described in Taubes's books as well, but the short of it is that insulin interferes with vitamin C absorption.

That being said, if you want lower sugar fruits, berries are where it's at. They're even allowed on most low carb diets; I eat strawberries and raspberries several times a month. You also don't need to worry about lemons or limes -- in fact, there's some evidence that they suppress insulin response. Cantaloupe is a bit more sugary but you can have a few slices without any real problem.

Past that, eating whole fruit, even pretty sugary fruit, will not mess you up as badly as liquified, refined forms. I eat apples a couple times a month, and watermelon, oranges, and pineapples every now and then. If you're trying to lose weight, you may not be able to have those fruits very often. If you're just concerned about health, cutting out the refined stuff and making sure you aren't like, I dunno, stuffing yourself with fruit every day is more than adequate. For me, though, eating the more sugary fruits sets off serious sugar cravings, so pay attention to your response and decide how often it's worth it.

Do not drink fruit juice -- or at least if you're going to drink it every now and then, don't fool yourself into thinking it's healthy. You could drink a soda and take a vitamin for all the effect it has on your body. Even all natural smoothies are not good for you; though the fiber of the original fruits is present, your body still has to do very little to get at the sugar since it's been liquified. Yeah, I still get all natural smoothies every couple months or so because they're fucking delicious -- but they're basically desserts. Be honest with yourself and don't try to rationalize eating/drinking fruit "because it's healthy" and you'll do fine.

About yo' brain:

It is absolutely false that glucose is the preferred fuel for pretty much anything in your body. Your body burns it first because having too high blood sugar is toxic, and the evidence suggests that ketones -- the fuel your body burns in the absence of excess glucose -- make your body run better and make you feel better (though a lot of people have an adjustment period of a few days to a couple weeks).

In other words, saying your brain (or any body part) prefers glucose is like saying it prefers alcohol so you MUST drink daily; your body will preferentially burn alcohol for fuel because you will die if your blood alcohol level gets too high. So too will you die if your blood glucose level gets too high. Your body is playing damage control when it burns these things because you will die if it doesn't; it's not that these fuels are essential.

Furthermore, protein is also partially broken down into glucose. Any absolute glucose needs your body has are more than covered by your protein intake. (Do not worry about protein having a significant effect on your blood sugar or weight gain or anything else.)
posted by Nattie at 8:12 PM on April 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

Not all fruit is the same. Most of it has been selectively bred for hundreds of years for sweetness, juiciness and shelf life, not nutrition. A bunch of grapes is probably going to be better for you than a block of chocolate, but if the grapes are sweet, green, seedless and thin-skinned you'll be getting less nutrition and a faster sugar rush than if they're less sweet and purple with large, crunchy, (healthy) oil-filled seeds and thick skins.

I think raspberries are good. Reasonable amounts of fruits like pomegranates, figs, strawberry guavas and other things that are full of seeds are probably good too, as long as you actually eat the seeds.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:13 PM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Replace it with fat! Many people, my mom included, get vicious carb and sugar cravings that are also satisfied by eating healthy fats (butter, animal fat, avocado, and other tropical plant fats - polyunsaturated should be avoided).
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 12:10 AM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

The answer to this is way more simple than the conversation would suggest:

Simple carbohydrates, if not used soon after digestion, will be stored as fat. Complex carbohydrates provide longer burning energy.

Eat as much fruit, vegetables and whole foods as you want, get regular exercise and you will be fine. Add processed foods and processed sugars to the mix, reduce your activity and you won't be fine.

Removing fruit from your diet is silly and as a weight loss plan has no basis in science or reality. You can force your weight to fluctuate wildly by eating "all meat" or "all fruit" or "all carbs." But that isn't a sustainable way to thrive or train your body and metabolism for health. You need simple sugars sometimes (before, during and directly after vigorous exercise) and complex ones at other times as well as protein. Eating less food does not necessarily result in weight loss, and weight loss can be achieved by eating more of the right foods. You've got to think about food as fuel, and the body as a machine that needs fuel. But different fuel for different activities. You need the sugars in carbs to power muscles, you need protein to build muscles.

If you have sugar cravings, you're not eating well. I repeat, if you crave sugar and simple carbs, pasta and bread and cake and soda, your body, metabolism and diet need to be changed. Once you do, those cravings will go away.

Have a look at my answer to related question here.
posted by jardinier at 12:47 PM on April 16, 2011

Eat balanced, cook for yourself, exercise more, and stop freaking out.

I say that to everyone who comes up to me waving their arms about the latest hysterical food book or article they read. Because, honestly, there's nothing wrong with gluten, or fructose, or lactose. The problems come when your system can't handle them, and then you just work around them. For the rest of us, moderation is the key.

There's a ton of bad science around food and nutrition, I think because we individually have a lot of experience with food and therefore that makes us all experts and prone to confirmation bias.

I would recommend putting the books and articles down and picking up a cookbook or three. Learn to cook. Then learn to work in a daily walk. Over time, you'll stop thinking about whether sugar is a poison because you'll just feel better.

(Oh, and if you really want some confirmation-biased anecdotal solution: I kill sugar cravings with nuts like peanuts and almonds. Salted, not honey-roasted.)
posted by dw at 6:59 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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