Sugar Purge


As I've stated in other posts, I'm a fan of the Naturally Slim program. As I've been improving my abilities as an endurance athlete, not all of the "rules" fit my nutritional needs. But, the amount of knowledge you gain about the metabolic process makes you a dietary kung fu master.

The initial part of the program has participants try to eliminate all major sources of sugar in their diet for three weeks. The first time I experienced this, it was amazing. I slept better, I had more energy, food tasted better, and everything just felt better. At the end of the three weeks, I didn't really have any serious cravings for sweets (which is unusual for me).

The What

The trick to this is that it resets your insulin cycle. In order to process sugars, your body produces insulin. The more sugar, the more insulin. The problem with excessive insulin is that it triggers other hormonal and physiological responses. The most significant response is that it puts your body in "storage mode." All that sugar gets diverted from providing short-term energy, and gets converted to body fat for later use. Additionally, your body starts to develop a tolerance for high insulin levels. Thus, your pancreas has to produce more insulin to handle smaller amounts of sugar. The long-term hazard is that your pancreatic function will diminish, your insulin levels will vary more dramatically, you'll contract adult-onset diabetes, and leave this world as a fat, pasty corpse.

However, if you can maintain your body's sensitivity to insulin (by drastically limiting sugar intake), you will naturally burn more calories instead of storing those calories.

To get us started on the same foot, sugars come in a few common molecules. The chemistry behind them isn't so much important as what they do to your body. Physiologically, sugars are all pretty much the same thing (regardless of their source). Thus, if you think HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) is the source of all evil, you're only partly right. All sugars consumed at the same quantity will have the same effect on your body. This includes, but is not limited to, sucrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, and maltose.

The How

I'm nearly through my latest purge cycle, and I felt like recording what I did. So, here's how to engage in a sugar purge if you feel it might help you curb some negative dietary habits in your life.

First, pick a period of 21 days (three weeks) where it will be relatively easy to turn down offers of junk food and sweets. Mark it on the calendar. Commit. Don't back out just because someone at work brings in those apple fritters you think are made by magic elves. Tip: Don't pick your three weeks to intercept or span Christmas, Thanksgiving, St. Valentine's Day, or an extended vacation from your normal routine. You'll just be setting yourself up for misery.

Now, stop eating or drinking anything with appreciable amounts of sugar. That doesn't necessarily mean if sugar shows up on the label, you can't eat it. However, it does not mean that if it indicates there is no sugar that you can eat it. What the FDA requires food suppliers to label as sugar has absolutely nothing to do with science. Food labeling is 99% economically driven, and 1% good intentions.

The following is a list of obvious things that you can not eat if you want to reset your body's insulin cycle.

Here's where it gets tricky. This list has things that you might think are healthy, but they're full of sugar. Hint: Read the labels. Anything more than about a gram of sugar per serving is too much--especially when no one actually consumes a single serving of these things anymore.

I'll also point out that if you're reading labels, be careful with foods that advertise "no sugar added." Let me be clear: I love that there are "NSA" options for a lot of things these days. It helps me enjoy some foods I wouldn't otherwise touch. However, if you're trying to reset things, "NSA" is not the same as "no sugar." Those things will usually still have copious amounts of sugar.

Help, I Can't Do This!

If you start this cycle with good intentions, but find your cravings are just too much, there are a few tricks you can use to help nudge your body in the right direction.

First, there are a small number of natural sources of sugar that seem to be well-balanced enough with their overall caloric content to not cause hideous insulin spikes. The best case is strawberries. If you find yourself backed into a corner, eat two strawberries. Slowly. Those should take the edge off the cravings without pumping your bloodstream full of sugar. While not as healthy as strawberries, most citrus fruits have a low-enough amount of sugar to be enjoyed in small amounts. But, don't eat a whole orange or grapefruit at a time. Try one-quarter of an orange, and see if that helps.

Second, you can still eat things with some sugar in them. To get your body to react positively, though, you need to accompany the sugar with at least double the amount (by mass) in protein. For example, a typical jar of brand-name peanut butter declares 3g of sugar and 7g of protein per serving. (In reality, it's probably closer to 5g+ of sugar, but it puts us in the ballpark.) As long as you also take note that a serving is two tablespoons (which may be shocking), eating a little peanut butter can help curb cravings for sweets.

Third, strong sugar cravings can be a sign of carbohydrate depletion. People can occasionally side-step the sugar entirely by eating a few whole-grain crackers or a piece of whole-wheat toast. Just remember you can't plop a fat piece of cheese on the cracker, or smother the toast in butter, and you should be fine.

Sugar-free Foods and Drinks

I subscribe to the basic philosophy that nothing in life is free. This includes anything claiming to be sugar-free. In a lot of cases, non-sugar sweeteners have other, non-sugar-related, health implications. More commonly, though, the alternative sweeteners will still spike your insulin levels, and give you the same problems as sugar.

My advice: If you can't live without the occasional diet soda, two-or-three cans per week is not going to kill you. If you drink two sodas a day (diet or non-diet), you're really not ready to cut sugars and give your body a chance to restore itself.

Going Further

If you give this a shot, and find it helping you, I would highly recommend seeking additional nutritional advice from professionals. The Naturally Slim program is great, but it isn't a universal solution. It's hard to find out what really triggers your body's unhealthy responses to food. But, I fully believe that our addiction to sugar in the modern world is so frighteningly destructive, that everyone could benefit from consuming less of the stuff.