With the keto and low-carb craze still in the spotlight, you might be wondering: do you have to cut out everything that's good in the world sugar in order to lose weight? We enlisted the expertise of two registered dietitians and two doctors to weigh in, and the answer isn't as bad as you think. Read on to find out what they said.
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Registered dietitian Rachel Stahl, MS, CDN, an NYC-based certified diabetes educator, pointed out that sugar can come from many sources. Aside from the sugar you bake with or added sugars in processed foods and beverages, there are also natural sweeteners, like coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, and agave. Is one better than the other?
"Whether it's granulated white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or something that sounds fancier, such as beet juice concentrate or raw sugar, these are all added sugars," Stahl explained.
Many people think these natural sweeteners are healthier choices, but when it comes to weight loss, Stephanie Ferrari, MS, RDN, president of Fresh Communications, said, "They are all pretty much the same calories. If you're looking to lose weight, your best bet is to reduce sugar overall."
Sugar contributes calories and taste to foods, but not nutrition. Ferrari said this is why it's often referred to as empty calories. "Typically, foods that are high in sugar offer little nutritional value and displace other foods that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and healthy fat." This means that when you reach for an afternoon cupcake, you're missing out on the protein, fiber, and vitamins you'd get if you snacked on yogurt and fruit or hummus and veggies instead.
Stahl added that "too much added sugar can crowd out lower-calorie nutritious foods from a person's diet, can lead to weight gain and obesity, and impact metabolism." Ferrari agrees and said, "Cutting sugar is a great way to lose weight and improve your overall diet quality."
When you eat high-sugar foods and refined carbs like candy and doughnuts, they won't help you lose weight, but it's not only because those foods tend to be high in calories. It also has to do with insulin.
Jason Fung, MD, a nephrologist (kidney specialist), explained that processed carbs and sugary foods such as ice cream, cookies, crackers, and regular pasta spike your insulin levels, which causes weight gain. High levels of insulin in the blood block leptin signals (the "I'm full" hormone) to the brain. Your brain doesn't see that you are full, so it thinks you're starving and increases hunger so you eat more.
High insulin levels also cue your body to store fat, which obviously won't help you lose weight. Keeping your insulin levels low by limiting these types of foods is a simple way to help reduce your overall body fat percentage.
Susan Peirce Thompson, a psychology professor with a PhD in brain and cognitive sciences, studied why certain people's brains block them from losing weight. She found that, as we know, sugar elevates insulin levels, which blocks the hormone leptin. It also overloads your dopamine receptors, which leads to insatiable cravings. She explained that this is why you eat cookie after cookie and still want more. Eating sugar makes you crave it, which is another contributor to overeating and weight gain.
Eating sugar "can cause rapid blood sugar level swings that can cause symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, increased appetite, and food cravings," Stahl added, all of which can make you reach for more sugary foods.
"Let's be honest: people are not typically overweight because they eat too much fruit," Ferrari said. Fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, so it definitely has a place in a healthy diet.
Both Ferrari and Stahl agree that you should include a variety of fruit in your day since it's a great source of antioxidants. Ferrari said to pair it with protein and whole grains to improve satiety. Try this vegan protein-packed nice cream recipe or this recipe for apple pie overnight oats.
Stahl said to think of fruit as nature's candy, so it's a great alternative to eating sugary foods or refined carbs. "Make frozen fruit kabobs using pineapple chunks, bananas, and berries. Or try freezing grapes, banana pieces, or peach slices, then topping with a little chocolate sauce or whipped cream for a delicious treat."
Dried fruit can also be a healthy option, but Ferrari warns to keep in mind that it's concentrated, which just means you should be more mindful of portion size. Also avoid the ones that have added sugars, coloring, or preservatives like sulfites.
Instead of using white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or other sweeteners in recipes, use the natural sweetness of fruit — it'll also offer the added benefit of fiber and vitamins. Experiment with using mashed banana, applesauce, puréed berries, and grated apple in your baked goods. These deliciously sweet muffins are made with strawberries, apples, and grapes and no added sugar.
Stahl also suggests using spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla to add sweetness. And if you can't live without sugar, recipes will often taste just fine if you use half the amount suggested. Ferrari said you can also use zero-calorie, no-sugar Swerve or stevia in your baked goods.
While you want to limit the candy bars and cupcakes, sugar is added to many unexpected foods. Be a label reader and watch out for added sugar in salad dressings, sauces, bread, protein bars, all natural juices or smoothies, and yogurt. There are also dozens of names for sugar, so keep an eye out for any of these terms.
Ferrari said it's nearly impossible to eliminate sugar altogether, and trying to swear it off completely can actually backfire, especially if you're the type of person who craves sweets (raises hand).
Instead, identify some sweets that are favorites (like ice cream!) and plan to incorporate them into your diet. For example, if you love chocolate, buy some small, individually wrapped chocolates, and have one after dinner. Or if you know it's your niece's birthday this weekend, eat healthy during the day, then enjoy a piece of cake at the party.
It's OK to eat sugary treats and processed carbs every once in a while — indulging a little can actually help you stay on track and prevent binging later. Stahl said that often a bite or two is enough to satisfy your sweet tooth. But if you cut down on the sugar, you'll definitely notice a difference in how you feel and your weight-loss progress.