As I moved through my 20s and 30s and into my 40s, I have gotten progressively more in tune with how what I eat makes me feel.
I’m a firm believer that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to optimal eating, so I think that ideally each person can come into their own understanding of what works best for them.
I recently co-authored a book called Sugarproof along with Dr. Michael Goran who is a professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital LA. I’m a nutrition educator with a Masters degree in Public Health and a PhD in Health Behavior Research and I worked in Michael’s lab as a nutrition educator for a number of years and have also worked in the community.
The scientific literature is clear that an overly sweet diet isn’t good for anyone, especially children, but that being said, what is interesting to me is how some people seem to be able to tolerate more of it than others, and this concept is backed up in the literature as well. I happen to be someone that is especially sensitive to it and have come to realize that my low-sugar lifestyle is an important aspect of my self-care.
I have PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), as an estimated 10% of women do. While I was experiencing the symptoms of this since I was a late teen, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I was actually diagnosed. One of the symptoms that I suffered from that took me years to learn how to manage was my frequent blood sugar “emergencies.”
PCOS can cause hormonal imbalances that can impact insulin levels and put women who have it at an increased risk for diabetes. As I now know, I have an elevated insulin response to simple carbohydrates and sugar. What this means is that when I eat refined carbohydrates or sweet foods, my body dispatches more insulin in response to the increase in my blood sugar levels. This extra insulin makes my blood sugar levels drop suddenly and I feel shaky, irritable, and hungry shortly afterward.
It took me years to figure out how to manage this, and in hindsight, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I would eat in a way that may have seemed healthy, but was actually aggravating my PCOS symptoms. For example, I would have whole grain cereal with vanilla plant-based milk for breakfast. Though the cereal was whole grain, it had added sugar in, as did the milk, and the overall breakfast was very high in carbohydrates and low in protein. About an hour after breakfast I would have a drop in blood sugar and feel shaky and irritable and would end up reaching for something else that was sweet to recover. This was creating a cycle of blood sugar highs and lows that would last all day. In Sugarproof, we call this the Sugar Roller Coaster, and we give tips for how to avoid boarding it.
I now know that I just can’t handle a breakfast that is high in carbohydrates, and most certainly can’t handle a breakfast that has added sugar in it. While my two kids feel good if they have oatmeal/porridge for breakfast, I just can’t tolerate it, no matter how much I doctor it up with healthy toppings. I feel so much better if I have a high protein, savory breakfast that includes vegetables in it, such as eggs with avocado, cherry tomatoes and arugula.
I do sometimes enjoy sweet things like a piece of dark chocolate or some fruit, but I have found that I need to have those things after I eat something savory, such as after dinner, rather than on an empty stomach as a snack.
Now that I have come into a better understanding of what works best for me, I don’t feel deprived or restricted by following it because my health and overall quality of life have improved. In fact, it has become a very important part of my self-care routine.
Our book Sugarproof takes a similar approach. We do not suggest being restrictive about sugar, but rather we guide parents to help raise kids who can make their own informed decisions about eating, enjoy the tastes of whole foods that are naturally free from added sugars, and enjoy some sweet treats in moderation.
Everyone can benefit from a diet that is lower in added sugar, both in terms of physical and mental health. While there are some general guidelines for limits to follow put out by groups like the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization to give you an idea of “how much is too much,” I believe that it’s also very important to pay attention to your own body and how you feel based on what you eat. I also hope that more children can come to an awareness of this younger in life.
Sugar can be very addictive, so we help families reset palates to a lower level of sweetness. We have two suggested approaches for this: one is a 7 day No Added Sugar Challenge where you take out all added sugar for a week to raise awareness and re-evaluate what you buy. And the other is a 28 Day Challenge where you gradually make changes to arrive at a lower level of sweetness in your diet. This could involve things like gradually watering down juice until you stop buying it and then begin to drink water and eat whole fruit instead (which contains beneficial fiber that is removed in juicing).
One thing that can help is to have some new recipes to try for treats that are simple and delicious and are not full of sugar. I’m sharing one of my favorites here from Sugarproof. These Chocolate Sesame Squares are no-bake and in addition to being free from added sugars, they also happen to be entirely plant-based and gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free as well (for anyone with those needs). I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! You can find more recipes like this on our blog and in our book.
**Thank you for this fantastic guest post, Emily! I'm looking forward to trying out these recipes :) - Alisha **