Breakfast in America is a real sweet treat, usually. Think about how you start your day, or what you ate for breakfast as a child. Sugary lattes, doughnuts, pastries like scones and muffins, which are basically glorified mini cakes, store-bought cereals, frozen waffles, pancakes, Poptarts, Toaster Strudels, etc.
Let’s look at the top rated sugary cereal by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) – Honey Smacks. According to EWG, this “food” is made up of 55.6 percent sugar, and you know it’s bad when “sugar” is the first ingredient listed on the nutrition label. This is almost void of any nutritional value, however because it’s been fortified with “vitamins” companies can claim that “X cereal is a good source of X vitamin.” I’ve highlighted some of the other questionable/unhealthy ingredients like corn syrup, soybean oil and soy lecithin.
Let’s look at another popular breakfast cereal, especially for kids – Lucky Charms. As is to be expected, the “marshmallow bits” are almost entirely made out of some form of processed sugars and artificial flavors. Then, on top of that, there’s more sugar in the actual cereal.
Things that are even marketed to us as healthy, such as those “on-the-go” breakfast bars like Special K or Kashi are full of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars.
Let’s look at the ingredients for Special K Pastry Crisps. I highlighted all of the various added sugars in GREEN and other suspect processed ingredients, chemicals and additives in YELLOW. It might only be “100 calories,” but look at how much of the ingredients aren’t actually real foods. And I was conservative with the highlighting.
Quick note: See BHT at the end of the list? BHT (short for butylated hydroxytoluene) is a lab-made chemical commonly used to preserve foods and cosmetics to slow down the autoxidation rate of an ingredient. It’s a derivative of phenol, which is an acidic toxic white crystalline solid obtained from coal tar and used in chemical manufacturing and as a disinfectant. Actually, General Mills pledged to remove BHT from its cereals in 2015, which is a step in the right direction for sure.
We have a sugar obsession in America because the food industry has put it in almost everything. In fact, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports we consume about 129 lbs of sugar per person per year. In 1999, that number was 150 lbs, with 79 lbs being high fructose corn syrup, a highly processed, nutritionally void processed sweetener made from corn starch, typically genetically modified (GMO). If you’ve ever watched the Netflix documentary Hungry for Change, they share that stat during the piece. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 6 to 8 teaspoons of sugar per day (1 teaspoon equals 4 grams). For reference, 6 teaspoons of sugar is 25 grams.
That’s actually still quite high for added sugars – I am not talking about naturally occurring sugars in fruits or grains/root veggies like sweet potatoes. If you are eating a “stereotypical” American breakfast like a glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal or toast with jam for breakfast, that puts you well over that daily recommendation, and it’s only your first meal of the day. Also, consider that one 12 oz can of conventional soda contains about 39 grams (or 9 1/3 teaspoons) of added sugars. Yowza!
Most average adult Americans consume 22 teaspoons a day. Double yowza!
First, let’s look at the pervasiveness of sugar, and the different monikers it likes to hide behind. I wrote a previous blog on “How to Eat Keto and Vegan the Right Way” where I shared that there are 56 different names for sugar. Some of those include maltose, dextrose, dextrin, maltodextrin, glucose, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, ethyl maltol, and so on. Good rule of thumb: if it ends in “-ose,” it’s most likely a sugar.
I even resurrected the sugar word cloud I made just for you all.
Food manufactures love to put sugar in everything, including pasta sauce, condiments, salad dressings, and salt. Yep, that’s right. In Morton’s iodized salt (or any brand), there is dextrose, which is — you guessed it — an added sugar. Conventional table salt that is iodized contains sugar to keep the potassium iodide from oxidizing and going away. Granted, it’s a very small amount ( .04 percent), but it’s in there nonetheless.
Quick side tangent: Ever wonder what is iodized salt and why am I eating it? Me too, although I don’t eat iodized salt, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering. Iodine is one of the body’s vital nutrients, responsible for regulating thyroid function, supporting a healthy metabolism, balancing hormones, aiding in growth and development, and preventing certain chronic diseases like cancer. And most adults suffer from an iodine deficiency. So, someone, somewhere along the way decided it was a good idea to add it to our table salt. The problem with that is that conventional table salt undergoes a lot of processing and some seriously bad chemicals are added throughout that process, making that version of salt not good for you. It’s also easier to overdose on iodine if you use iodized salts regularly.
Instead, I recommend consuming real salt, like sea salt or Himalayan sea salt because they contain over 60 trace minerals, and incorporating iodine-rich foods into your diet like organic eggs, sea veggies like seaweed (kelp and other varieties) and algae, and wild caught fish.
Back to sugar. So how does it affect your brain? Basically, it lights up those pleasure centers like a Christmas tree. Whenever you consume sugar, you activate your taste receptors, which send signals to your brain that start stimulating your dopamine pathway (aka the feel good/happy sensor). And then, much like a drug, your body craves sugar because it wants to keep feeling good.
How sugar affects our brain is similar to how cocaine, or other drugs, stimulate our pathways and that can lead to addiction. Yes, sugar addiction is real. And that’s why if you’ve ever tried to quit sugar cold turkey ( I have before), you experience very real withdrawal symptoms like intense cravings, mood swings, brain fog, body fatigue, crankiness, intense migraines and more.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Sugar is sugar is sugar, in any form. The biggest difference between raw honey, pure maple syrup or even coconut sugar and processed sugars is that the processed stuff is void of any vitamins, minerals or nutrients. But having raw honey is still sugar, and it will still affect your body and brain and emit the same neuropathic responses.
That’s why I try to only have sugar on occasion and try to keep my consumption on the low side. Sugar really affects me. It causes deep cravings, weight gain and irritability if I have too much. I’ve cut sugar quite a few times in my life, and I feel so great not eating it, but I am human and sometimes I want some maple syrup or honey with my pancakes or in some Paleo friendly baked treats.
The good news is that there is such a thing as good sugar and bad sugar (as stated above), and our bodies do need — and crave — the good sugar, which is naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables. Why? Because our body burns glucose (sugar) for energy.
Whenever you eat a meal, that food usually consists of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and some of that is converted into glucose for energy. You can also burn fat for fuel, or ketones, which is an alternative to glucose, and might sound familiar if you know anything about the keto diet or ketosis. But, glucose is a crucial part of cell function and when deprived of that for too long, you can start experiencing serious side effects, and your cells will eventually begin to die off.
Sugar may be sweet, but it’s not kind to our bodies. In addition to the obvious negative effect — weight gain/obesity — sugar consumption has been associated with inflammation, heart disease, ADHD and hyperactivity, increased triglycerides, lower HDL, and higher LDL cholesterol, and it feeds cancer cells. Too much sugar even negatively impacts basic cognitive functions like our memory and ability to learn (the hippocampal function of our brains). In fact, one study found that increased sugar intake caused rats to have difficulty finding food within a maze.
Also, because sugar is highly addictive, it can cause severe anxiety and depression. If we keep consuming sugar regularly, we become desensitized to it, and just like a drug, we need more and more of it to feed our reward pathways. When we don’t get it, we are cranky and our dopamine levels drop. We become dependent on it for “happiness” and for everyday functioning. Not to mention sugar can cause us to break out regularly and have a poor complexion, and it can also mess with our energy levels – aka a sugar crash.
There are some plant-derived alternative sweeteners like stevia (the full leaf, not the extract) and monk fruit sugar/extract, which are generally recognized as healthy/safe to consume in moderation by many doctors and professionals in the holistic health community. These are very popular on the keto diet because they are considered a natural sugar, derived from plants, and contain zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero sodium and zero fat, meaning they don’t affect our blood sugar (or insulin) levels. They are also much much sweeter than regular sugar and so you only need a tiny amount. However, there are still ongoing debates around negative side/health effects of stevia and monk fruit.
Allulose is another popular sweetener/sugar alternative that is absorbed by the body, but not metabolized. It’s a monosaccharide also known as psicose, and is still pretty rare and new to the market. It’s found naturally in dried fruits like jackfruit, figs and raisins.
But again, if we are running to these alternatives to “cure us of our sugar addiction” or as a regular sugar replacement, we should think twice. We should not replace sugar with a sugar alternative — no matter how healthy — because it still doesn’t break the addiction pattern or habit.
Instead, we should focus on eating whole foods, fruits, veggies (yes, mostly plants), as well as good carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, squashes, ancient grains, etc., grass-fed organic meats/poultry, and limit all kinds of sugar to special occasions.
If you want to quit sugar, I highly recommend you reading the book by Sarah Wilson, I Quit Sugar, that has a pretty comprehensive eight week sugar detox program, or find an available program online to help you ween yourself off. I’ve quit cold turkey before and it’s not advisable, especially if you have to go to work full time and be productive and mentally clear/aware. Another option is to simply try reducing your amount of sugar inake and replacing processed sugars with high grade maple syrup or raw honey, which has amino acids, electrolytes, antioxidants, and antimicrobial compounds.
I had to break this post up into two sections, so if you’re looking for some healthy breakfast alternatives to help you kick your sugar habit and avoid a sugar and carb crash, then check it out here!