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No matter how pumped you are about what you do for a living, the grind gets to all of us — and at some point, you get sick and tired of feeling, well, sick and tired. The question is: What can you do about it? As a health and wellness editor, I’ve proffered my fair share of self-care advice — and I believe in its ability to stave off exhaustion and burnout. I also know scoring downtime is more elusive than a bottle of Purell during a viral pandemic.
Working less just isn’t a realistic option for many of us.
What is? Changing how you eat —specifically, cutting back on added sugars. Through writing my new book, Sugar Free 3: The 3-Week Plan for More Energy, Better Sleep & Surprisingly Easy Weight Loss, I discovered just what a scourge sugar is, sapping us of our health and vitality when we eat too much of it… which we all do. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum calories from added sugars you should eat in a day is 100-150. Said another way, less than 10 percent of our daily calorie intake should come from added sugars, according to government regulations. And yet a brand-new study from Tufts says a whopping 42 percent of our daily calories come from low-quality carbohydrates like refined grains and added sugars.
So, I devised a plan —with help from a number of credentialed wellness pros —to ditch sugar from your diet. It isn’t about following a fad or a narrow list of allowable foods (grapefruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—hard pass). Instead, I encourage you to eat whole, delicious food (lean proteins, healthy fats, vegetables, whole grains, dairy) that will keep you satiated. And you can eat them until your stomach is content because you don’t have to count calories or eat tiny portions. Translation: You’ll never be hangry.
Know Thy (Ingredient) Enemy
To be clear, Sugar Free 3 focuses on ridding your diet of added sugars and their evil twins —refined carbohydrates and artificial sweeteners. Added sugars are sugars that are added to foods when they are prepared or processed—as opposed to the naturally occurring sugar in, say, an apple or a glass of milk. Refined carbs are processed foods that have been stripped of nutrients. For example, to make white bread, manufacturers remove the good stuff— the outer coating of a wheat kernel (known as the bran) and the germ— before the remaining inner endosperm ground into flour. Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that can be hundreds of times sweeter than sugar.
None of those ingredients have any nutritional value —they are just empty calories.
The problem: Avoiding these do-nothing foods is harder than it seems. The reason we’re consuming way more sugar then we even know is because it is hidden in so many foods we don’t even think of as sweet, even savory ones. Food scientists engineer products to have just the right amount of sweetness to make you crave more…and more…and then stick it in everything from soda to pasta sauce to salad dressing.
In the Sugar Free 3 companion video series on the Openfit app, I enlisted nutritionist Keri Glassman to help me walk through how to read a food label to spot hidden sugars. (The program can be done via the book or the digital-streaming app). Once you get the hang of it, you can easily outsmart even the most cunning food package —how’s that for a confidence booster?
The Energy Myth
On top of unknowingly eating too much sugar (which makes us crave more), our desire for sugar is an innate survival mechanism — albeit, an outdated one. “When we were under stress in caveman days—say, from running away from an animal predator— we’d expend a lot of energy,” says Glassman. “To replenish that energy, we’d look for natural sugar in the form of something like berries to provide immediate fuel. The problem nowadays is that we’re stressed, but we’re sitting on our butts at desks or on the sofa and we don’t need to hunt for fuel—it’s sitting in front of us, in the form of processed, refined sugar. And when we have too much of that in our body, it gets stored as fat.”
And that’s just for starters. Over-consumption of sugar has been linked to chronic health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity, in addition to contributing to unstable moods, skin issues, sleep disturbances and low energy. In fact, the long-standing belief that chowing down on a sugary treat can cure a late afternoon slump with a quick energy fix is a total fallacy, especially in adulthood. Smacking back a donut is actually more likely to make you sleepy. Several studies show that orexin, a brain chemical that makes you feel awake, is inhibited when you eat sugar. A 2019 meta-analysis of 31 studies published in the journal Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews found that simple carbohydrates like sugar decrease alertness and increase fatigue within an hour of consuming them.
These findings proved out in the test groups we ran for the Sugar Free 3 program. In the initial group, 80 percent of participants reported feeling more energy and subsequent participants have reported similar results. Bonus energy and better sleep were among the earliest benefits I experienced personally when I started eating sugar free. It makes sense. Without added sugars sparking a short-term “energy” boost before bedtime, we’re able to drift off naturally, leading to steadier energy levels when it matters most — during the day!
Better Brain Power—and Sex!
When it comes to preserving good health, it’s not smart to ignore how harmful sugar is. And the more of you that you eat, the poorer your choices are bound to be. How so? There’s plenty of research out there backing up the deteriorative impact sugar can have, including one study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that associated mild cognitive impairment with elderly people who ate a diet high in carbs and low in protein and fat. Another study in Clinical Interventions in Aging surveyed more than 1,200 adults over the age of 60 and found an association between “excessive sugar consumption” and poor cognitive function.
But sugar issues don’t just kick in with old age. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition of more than 7,000 people between the ages of 45 and 70 also linked higher sugar intake with a decline in cognitive function. The study didn’t determine whether excessive sugar consumption caused a lack of brain power, or a lack of brain power caused excessive sugar consumption. Chicken or egg, less sharp people tended to eat too much sugar. So, if you’re feeling foggy, or you lose focus during the day, I can report that those who cut back on sugar swear it cleared their heads.
If thinking straight isn’t motivation enough, maybe this will prove more enticing: Curbing sugar may be a boon to your sex life. High consumption of sugar negatively affects your energy levels, and we all know how a lack of energy can impact the desire to get busy. Lethargy is a major reason why sex lives fizzle out, especially for long-term couples.
And if you’re a guy, consuming excess sugar may have an even more dampening effect on your mojo. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, men who consumed sugar-sweetened beverages had a lower testosterone level than those who abstained from those drinks. My number one tip for more energy and better performance? Kick the sugar out of bed!