There is a drawer next to our Psychiatric Social Worker in the Emergency Department that is labeled “mental health drawer.” Is it full of brochures? Stress balls? Lavender essential oils? No! It is full of chocolates and candy! Every shift, around 4 pm when I’m starving for dinner but it’s not yet my break time, or around 10 pm when fatigue has made me crave a quick, sweet energy burst, I meander to that drawer, look left and right so no one will notice me breaking my own healthy standards, and sneak a mini-Snickers bar or Hershey Kiss into my scrub pocket. Then I retreat to a corner behind a computer where I can eat my sugar secretly and then feel guilty for giving in to my cravings.
Does this sound like you? Desperately raiding your snack shelf for sweets when hunger, stress, or fatigue hits you? And then feeling guilty (or just fat) after you indulge? Well, I was tired of my apparent lack of control over my sugar intake, and so were many of my co-workers who also frequented the “mental health” drawer on a regular basis. I wanted to quit my habit and get my fellow healthcare workers to do it with me.
As one of the Wellness Ambassadors for my Emergency Department, I decided to launch a “sugar-free” challenge for our department. Those who signed up for the challenge donated $5, got a lucky shamrock to put on our Wellness board, and were entered to win an Amazon gift card at the end of the month for the total amount of the participant donations. Within 24 hours, we had 18 people signed up, enthusiastic about the challenge, and creative in their plans to change their habits.
I thought this challenge would be torture. After all, I had been snacking on chocolates, cookies, and whatever goodies someone brought to work on a regular basis. At home, my husband and I often had “dessert” in front of a movie after our toddler went to bed. So needless to say, I expected to be miserable, hungry, and irritable without my daily sugar fix.
But surprisingly, after the first day of cravings, I realized I had more self-control than I thought. I ate some almonds with dried cherries instead of raiding the “mental health” drawer at work. I put fresh blueberries in my unsweetened cashew-milk yogurt instead of granola and candied ginger… and it still tasted great! I tried a nectarine for desert instead of a cookie, and the natural sweetness was satiating and uplifting. I went through my days guilt-free, and even noticed a few pounds slowly melting off over the month as I stopped eating the fatty foods often laden with sugar. My month-long sugar free challenge is still in progress, but I am proud to say that I finally feel free of the need for a daily sugary treat, and am enjoying the lack of sugar crashes that used to follow my indulgences.
We are just finishing up with several sugar-heavy holidays: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. This is the perfect time to make a sugar change! Have you ever wondered what your life would be like with less sugar? I’m not talking about fruit sugar, or the sugar your body creates as it breaks down carbohydrates. I’m talking about added sugar, the kind that sweetens cookies, cakes, cereal, coffees, muffins, chocolate, candies, sauces… the list goes on. It’s surprising how sugar lurks secretly in the ingredient list of some of our common foods. It also masquerades as healthy-sounding coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave, rice syrup, date syrup, corn syrup, sucrose, and honey. For your sugar-free challenge, you can choose how strict you want to be. Maybe you are just going to avoid obvious treats (sodas, pastries, candy, ice cream). Or maybe you also want to cut out “healthy” foods with sugar added, like breakfast cereals and protein bars. You decide where your biggest sugar contribution comes from, and cut it out for a month… or maybe for good? There will always be special event exceptions, but imagine how you might feel without a daily dose of processed sugar? And in answer to my fellow nurses’ concerns (and maybe yours) … yes, you can still have your glass of wine!
When I created the sugar-free challenge, I needed some science-backed motivation to prove to myself and my team that sugar was BAD for your health. These are a few major reasons to cut back on or quit sugar intake:
1) SUGAR IS INFLAMMATORY. This increases your risk of chronic disease, including autoimmune and cardiovascular disease. When your body is constantly dealing with inflammatory chemicals, the immune system may go into overdrive and attack its own tissues. Platelet aggregation (clot formation) is also increased with chronic inflammation, leading to endothelial dysfunction (high blood pressure) and blood clots in the veins, brain, heart, or lungs.
2). SUGAR IS A HIGH-GLYCEMIC INDEX FOOD. This means it rapidly raises your blood sugar and as a result, your insulin levels. Excess insulin secretion tells the body to store calories as fat, and also increases levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) that has been implicated in cancer development and tumor growth. High insulin surges induce fat deposition in the cells of organs and tissues, leading to insulin resistance over time, and even type II diabetes.
3) SUGAR IMPAIRS YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM. This makes you more likely to develop infections and cancers. Sugar slows down immune cells like neutrophils, and decreases gut microbiome diversity. Both are crucial to a healthy immune system and inflammatory response.
4) SUGAR IS USUALLY FOUND IN HIGH FAT FOODS. Something about sugar and fat mixed together is just delicious. Unfortunately, that means that sugar intake often includes fat intake (think pastries, cookies, cake, chocolate, ice cream). High fat diets are a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, especially saturated fat. Also, fat contains more calories per gram than proteins or carbohydrates, so high fat foods add extra calories to your diet and weight to your body.
You may be wondering what you will eat instead to beat the craving for something sweet. I discovered that a small glass of pure fruit juice, a fruit smoothie, dried fruit (with no sugar added), and even kombucha helped me feel better when the craving for sugar hit me. Whole fruits were also helpful, even simple apples with peanut butter, or bananas. I have enjoyed using Monk Fruit Extract (xylitol or erythritol) as a replacement for sugar in baked goods. I usually cut the amount in half when baking, so 1 cup of sugar is replaced by 1/2 cup or less of monk fruit extract. Sodas with stevia or xylitol are also good replacements for sugary drinks, since they are not artificial sweeteners.
Try this recipe for Banana Pudding that has just the right amount of natural sweetness and fat to satisfy.
5-SPICE BANANA PUDDING (serves 1)
1 ripe banana, mashed
1 Tbs. canned full-fat coconut milk
1/4 tsp Chinese 5 Spice powder OR cinnamon
Whisk the ingredients together with a fork until smooth, and eat warm or cold.
Good luck with your own sugar-free challenge! Remember that every step you take to take care of your health, however small, can improve your quality of life for years to come.