Why Diets Fail (Because You're Addicted to Sugar)

dLifeExcerptLogo by Nicole M. Avena, PhD and John R. Talbott

Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Nicole M. Avena and John R. Talbott.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Ten Speed Press.

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NOTE: Excerpts are provided on dLife.com for informational purposes only. The information contained within will not be updated by dLife and may be outdated. Please consult your doctor before acting on anything described here.

Getting Started

In the following section, we outline the five phases you will use to reduce your sugar intake, each of which has a specific focus on reducing a certain category of food or drinks, an explanation of why, and a discussion of how you can do this. This section provides a bird's-eye view of what your new way of eating will look like. Because the main objective of this chapter is to outline and explain how to work through each phase, we don't talk about your alternative foods options yet, which can be key when reducing your consumption of other staples in your diet. But don't be alarmed; we have provided your substitutes in the following chapter. In fact, the rest of the book is devoted to providing you with the tools and strategies that you will need to successfully implement the Sugar Freedom Plan.

As you begin to eliminate and reduce sugar and other carbohydrates from your diet, you may experience feelings of withdrawal as well as cravings for the foods you are trying to cut out. This is normal—and it's also sometimes challenging to deal with. In Steps 6 and 7, we discuss both of these issues, explaining the science behind them and offering strategies for handling them when they come up.

Let's get started. Following are the five phases of the Sugar Freedom Plan.

Phase 1: Eliminate Sugary Beverages

Time: 1 to 2 weeks

Why: In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of beverages sweetened with sugars both in the US and around the world, and some suggest that this rise in intake is associated with the obesity epidemic. Additionally, the consumption of these beverages has also been shown to alter metabolism and increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions such as gout or dental caries. There are lots of culprits out there: soft drinks, sweetened waters, coffee drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks, and even apple juice. In fact, apple juice can be a combination of apple flavoring and 100 percent sweetener derived from concentrated fructose from the apple so it can be called 100 percent apple juice.

One problem is that the size of these beverages can be very deceiving; they also can be a way in which more sugar and calories can sneak into your diet without your knowledge. A conventional 12-ounce serving of a typical sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage, for example, is approximately 150 calories. But people rarely drink one serving. In fast-food chains, convenience stores, and movie theaters, these beverages are offered in portions that can contain around 300 to 500 calories.

Moreover, while Americans have been drinking more sweetened, calorie-rich drinks, there has not been a simultaneous decrease in the consumption of other foods to compensate for the excess calorie intake. Have you ever downed a can of soda and felt full? Sugar-sweetened beverages can quench your thirst on a hot day and give you a jolt of energy from the caffeine and sugar, but they don't make you feel less hungry. It is almost as if your body doesn't account for calories when they come in liquid form. Not only do people often fail reduce their caloric intake from other sources when drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, but drinking calories may even make you feel less full and lead you to eat more. The end result is that all of those calories obtained from drinking sodas and fruit juices are just being tacked on top of what you are eating anyway.

There is little or no nutritional value in these drinks. They seem to just add calories that turn into excess body weight. Even cutting just one serving per day has been shown to produce a weight loss of 1.1 pounds at six months, and 1.4 pounds at eighteen months. That might not sound like a tremendous amount, but remember that many people are not drinking just one 12-ounce serving per day. Approximately half of Americans drink sugary beverages "on a given day," and within this half, about 25 percent derive 200 or more calories from them. So, you can do the math to figure out how much weight one could lose if the average person cut out all of her sugar-sweetened beverages.

To put things in perspective, in 2009 Americans consumed 13.8 billion gallons of soda; the average person consumes 70,000 calories from sweet drinks each year; and research suggests that 45 gallons are consumed per person per year. The bottom line is that drinking your calories may cause a host of problems that can lead to obesity and weight gain, including passive calorie overconsumption, incomplete energy compensation, and the displacement of more nutritious and filling foods. This said, they seem an obvious first target for elimination. And eliminating sugary beverages is a way to reduce your caloric intake and promote weight loss without even changing your typical food-intake patterns, so it's an especially attractive first step.

How: If you are a big drinker of sugar-sweetened beverages, this can be a tough one. Unlike in the next four phases, going cold turkey is the best option for quitting sugar-sweetened beverages. This is because they are not a part of your new way of eating, and it is not suggested that you allow even small amounts of them into your diet. They have no value, other than giving you pleasure, which you will be getting elsewhere from now on. Make a list of all the sugary beverages you drink and create a plan for substitutes so you don't feel tempted to cheat. Pour the ones you have at home down the sink, take them off of your shopping list, and plan to buy some of the alternative drinks that we will discuss in Step 5 (see page 120).

Phase 2: Eliminate Junk Foods

Time: 2 to 3 weeks

Why: Junk foods are convenient foods that we tend to grab when we're hungry and need to feel satisfaction fast; however, they often contain high amounts of fat and sugar. You'll most likely find these foods in vending machines, at sporting events, and at fast-food restaurants. However, you'll also likely find them lining the shelves of your pantry. Grocery stores have aisles of junk foods for us to purchase, and we tend to buy them as staples. We've discussed in previous chapters that these foods primarily consist of highly processed ingredients, which have little or no nutritional benefits. In fact, they are most likely fueling your addiction. It's important to identify the sources of unnecessary sugars in your diet and cut them out. As you can probably imagine, this means that you'll need to cut out sweet foods like cakes, cookies, candy bars, and ice cream as well as savory and salty foods like chips, popcorn, and pretzels, all of which are classic examples of junk food. This even includes seemingly healthy items like most granola bars, energy bars, fruit bars, caramel-laced rice cakes, and buttery crackers. The junk foods out there are seemingly endless, and they're usually sold in the middle aisles of the grocery store. You know junk food when you see it, and if you're in doubt, it's most likely junk food.

How: To eliminate junk foods from your diet, we recommend that you take a modified cold-turkey approach. These types of foods have no place in your diet, and you should work to get rid of them all. Much like sugar-sweetened beverages, they are very likely fueling the vicious cycle of your dependence on them. Some people can vow to eat no more junk food at this phase and be fine, but you might need to taper down your intake more slowly and eliminate these items one by one.

If you tend to eat a lot of junk food, make a list of the items that you really tend to overeat, and then use the Sugar Equivalency Table (see the appendix) to figure out which ones are highest in sugars and other carbohydrates. You can then prioritize which ones should be eliminated first. For example, if you regularly eat high-sugar-equivalency items such as coffee cake and candy bars and have a pair of prepackaged cupcakes for dessert every night, phase these out first. Once you're confident that you've moved past them, target other items on your list and cut them out next. Work your way down your list of common junk foods until you have eliminated them all. We allowed two to three weeks for this phase, but you might need less or more time depending on how much of these foods you eat.

The key to cutting out junk foods is replacing them with healthy alternatives (not substituting them with other junk foods). In the next chapter, we'll help you identify some substitutions for these and the other types of foods that are being reduced so you'll be prepared and less apt to regress to old eating habits. However, it may take some experimenting on your part to figure out which types of foods work for you to keep you full without compromising on taste. Also, we will discuss how to manage and mitigate withdrawal symptoms that may emerge when you begin to cut out a large portion of your sugar intake.

Phase 3: Drastically Reduce Carbs

Time: 3 to 4 weeks

Why: When you reach this point, pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself! You have eliminated the sugar-rich, empty calories from your diet. At this point, you should start to see and feel a change: you have fewer withdrawal symptoms and more energy, and there is a noticeable difference in the way that you look and feel about yourself. Not only have your disrupted the cycle of dependence, but you have also proven to yourself that you can be in control of what you eat. However, the work does not end here. While you have reached a milestone, it is important to continue on and lessen your dependence on other types of carbohydrates that are often overconsumed.

Simple and complex carbohydrates were described in Step 2. While you have already reduced your intake of simple carbohydrates, like sugars from beverages, you still have to tackle complex carbohydrates, like breads, pastas, and rice. Recall that both simple and complex carbohydrates affect your blood sugar in ways that can detract from your weight loss. If you eat them in excess, you will soon be craving other foods, often those that are high in sugar or largely consist of other carbohydrates. Eating too many carbohydrates is like putting yourself on a roller coaster; your blood sugar zooms up shortly after you eat, then goes crashing down after a short time. Before you know it, you're hungry because your body quickly digested the food; you're craving more, and so the ups and downs continue. There is a way to get off of the roller-coaster ride and take control: reduce your intake of any carbohydrates that you abuse, and by abuse, we mean eating them not necessarily because you need them due to hunger, but because you want them to feel normal and to avoid the awful feelings associated with the withdrawal syndrome.

How: The process of cutting back on bread, pasta, rice, and so on will probably take more time than the previous two stages. This is largely because many people are heavily dependent on these types of complex carbohydrates as the primary constituents in many meals. Instead of having toast for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch, you will need to come up with alternatives. Instead, you may opt for eggs and fruit for breakfast, and a large green salad with chicken on top (hold the croutons and the sugar-laced dressings) for lunch. Thinking of whipping up some mac and cheese for the family for dinner when you get home from work? Think again—you will need to find a healthy, low-carbohydrate alternative. Maybe you can broil a nice piece of fish and serve it with a side of microwave-steamed vegetables (the preparation time for the mac and cheese and the fish and vegetable dinner are probably comparable).

As with junk foods, a good strategy is to list the carbohydrates that you tend to overeat most, and then cut them out one by one. Make it a rule of thumb that once you cut something out, you cut it out for good. If you follow that strategy, you'll gradually chip away at that list of foods that you want to eat less of. We recommend that you phase out breads and pastas first, then move on to cereals (unless you are eating lots of highly sweetened cereals, in which case you should cut those out first, as they are loaded with added sugars). Next, phase out rices and other starches. Take it one step at a time. Remember, this is a process, and you are phasing these foods out of your life while, at the same time, replacing them with others. For example, instead of having two cups of spaghetti for dinner, try having one cup and topping it with some lean meat to complete your meal. Eventually, you could replace the pasta with a vegetable—squash is a great substitute. Or have a hot dog but without the bun (and add an extra helping of vegetables on the side or as an appetizer). By making small changes as you feel ready and continuing to keep track of what you're eating, you'll find yourself transitioning to a new way of eating with ease.

Phase 4: Reduce Hidden Sugars

Time: 1 to 2 weeks

Why: Dressings, sauces, and condiments may seem to merely add some flavor to your food, but they often add sugars that can work against your weight-loss goals. A small amount of some condiments can add whole grams of sugar to your meal. Furthermore, we usually don't use only one packet of sweet-and-sour sauce or ketchup; instead, we douse our food in these sugar-rich add-ons. Consequently, you might think that you're doing all you can to reduce the amount of sugars you're consuming, but that might not be the case if you continue to eat foods with hidden sugars.

Note that there are many foods that appear to be "diet" foods that actually might be bad to eat for your new eating plan. Many foods labeled as "diet," "low-fat," or "no-fat" replace the fat content with more carbohydrates. We tend to see "low-fat" and think this is a healthy option, but if "low-fat" is a synonym for "high-sugar," then it is clearly a no-no.

There are also products on the market now that are labeled "sugar-free," which appeal to people who are either diabetic or trying to restrict their sugar intake. Proceed cautiously with these products as well. While these products may indeed be sugar-free, they may still contain a lot of fast-metabolizing carbohydrates. Sugar-free cookies are the best example of this. You might think that according to this diet plan, you could eat an entire box of sugar-free cookies and feel guilt-free. Nothing could be further from the truth. The good news is that if you did eat a box of sugar-free cookies, you would have avoided consuming the 100 to 200 grams of sugar that might be in a box of regular cookies. The bad news is that you may have consumed as much as 400 or 500 grams of carbohydrates. In other words, you didn't consume any sugar, but you might as well have! While implementing this plan and researching the foods that you like to eat, you'll be shocked to find that many foods and condiments that you never suspected, including ketchup and barbecue sauce, contain sugar.

How: You may find, as you progress from one phase to the next, that reducing hidden or lesser-known sugars goes more smoothly than previous phases. This is because you'll already have established healthy eating habits and be used to making substitutions for the foods that you used to overeat. The goal here is to use your knowledge of nutrition labels to identify the foods that you eat which contain hidden sugars and to identify sensible replacements for them, like the ones we suggest in the next chapter.

Phase 5: Maintain Your New Way of Eating

Time: The rest of your life

Why: As we mentioned in the introduction, the Sugar Freedom Plan is a way of eating, not a temporary diet. That means once you cut out these sugary, carb-rich foods, you'll continue eating this way for the rest of your life. If you only eat this way temporarily and eventually go back to your old ways of eating, you can be certain that the addiction will rope you back in pretty quickly. The four phases just described lay the foundation for a healthy eating style that you can maintain forever. The key to achieving your goals lies in your knowledge of where sugars exist and what you can replace them with, and the consistent desire and dedication to follow what you know

How: As we mentioned at the beginning of this section, each phase takes time. Follow the allotted time guidelines—as a minimum. Be patient with yourself. If you find that one phase takes longer than what is listed or than you expected, that's fine! The important point is to achieve the goal of that phase, not how quickly you do it. Try to identify why certain phases are more difficult than others. This may help you to troubleshoot and figure out ways to transition through that phase that are specific to your needs. Invest the time you need; it will be well worth it in the long run.

Last Modified Date: April 22, 2014

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