Laura Marion, an Asheville resident and local acupuncturist, recently embarked on a sugar-free diet. She reports experiencing such benefits as a boost to mood and energy levels, healthy weight loss, sharpened cognition and improved digestion. “I started having some digestive issues, so finally I just kind of had this serious talk with myself and was like, ‘OK, it’s time,’” says Marion.
“I feel like the beginning of the month is always a good time to start new things to me. I like to fall into rituals,” she continues. “So, at the beginning of April I just committed and just kind of effortlessly went into it, because I was just tired of how I was feeling. Obviously, our state of health can be a motivating factor, hopefully for most people, not for everyone, though.”
Marion also works as an epigenetics coach at Apeiron Center for Human Potential. “The study of epigenetics looks at the modifiable changes to gene expression coming from the environment,” she explains. “This feedback is coming from our thought patterns and belief systems, the physical activity we engage in, the foods we eat — essentially everything we do. But it doesn’t change the actual genetic coding that is innate within each person. It just allows for certain genetic expression.
“One of the things that was really interesting to me in becoming an epigenetic coach is that there are actually certain genes that are known as sugar addiction genes, so that’s kind of cool, because for people that maybe struggle with this lifelong addiction to sugar, a lot of times they can really come down on themselves, [when] sometimes we have that predisposition to craving sweet flavor more,” she says.
There are two genetic expressions involving sugar consumption, she continues: “One expression would be that they can’t stand sugar, and they have no taste for it, while another expression could be that they can’t get enough. The sweet taste is so subdued that they keep reaching for the cookies in the jar. The feedback system is not functioning properly. Combine any emotional attachments, experiences and stories around the reward system of eating sugar and look out — this is the person who can’t walk away from the box of doughnuts in the break room.”
The way patients frame the change to eating less sugar can be a driving factor for success or failure, which Marion explains as: “I could have this, but I chose not to.” Instead of feeling deprived, consider the change as a gift that you are giving to yourself, she advises.
“I would say if you can give it a try for two weeks, and then just check in and see how you feel, and then if you feel awesome, which you probably will, go for at least three months,” she adds. “Typically, in my line of work, there’s something about that three-month period where your body really starts to create a new habit, whether it is something you’re doing physically, emotionally or nutritionally.”
Having a supportive community that understands your goals can help in any undertaking, and a supportive home environment free of temptations goes a long way toward succeeding, explains Marion.
Her wife, Sirena Squires, also avoids consuming sugar because of problems processing it. The first step of any dietary change must be an increased awareness of what you put in your body, says Squires. “Read ingredient labels. Don’t just read sugar content,” she says.
Because sugar consumption has reached such high levels in the U.S., the American Medical Association enacted a new policy last month to help curb sugar consumption, particularly sugar-sweetened beverages. “Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to some of the nation’s most debilitating diseases, and limiting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages will go a long way toward helping people prevent the onset of these diseases, improve health outcomes and rein in health costs associated with chronic diseases,” AMA board member Dr. William E. Kobler says in a statement.
To limit the consumption of sugary beverages, the AMA adopted a policy that encourages “hospitals and medical facilities to offer healthier beverages, such as water, unflavored milk, coffee and unsweetened tea for purchase in place of SSBs.”
Such steps, which address the irony of sugar-laden products at health establishments, can make a difference, but what else can be done? If people feel sugar is wreaking havoc with their health, author Summer Rayne Oaks suggests they take matters into their own hands. Oaks recently ventured into Asheville on a tour promoting her new book, SugarDetoxMe, which will be available through online retailers and at local bookstore Malaprop’s. The cookbook emerged as an offshoot of her project SugarDetox.Me — an online program that helps guide readers through a 10- or 30-day sugar-detox cleanse.
Oaks’ cookbook contains educational information for those ready to eliminate or reduce sugar in their diets for health reasons or prevention. Tips for preparing one’s kitchen to make whipping up a gut-friendly meal easier are included, as well as simple yet healthy recipes to make in one’s newly prepped space.
“I really do believe that we could solve so much of our issues through good nutrition. It’s just that there’s so much conflicting information out there on purpose, but we could be so empowered as consumers and citizens and people who eat and are able to reverse the trends of a lot of these diseases,” says Oaks.
The book is organized around meal maps – recipes arranged so that the same ingredients can be reused for multiple meals in a row, saving both time and money. “How many times do you end up buying a bunch of asparagus and wondering, ‘What am I going to do with this other half?’ So the book is actually separated into 10 meal maps, so the recipes all kind of build into one another,” says Oaks. “Because at the end of the day, removing sugar is challenging for most people, so you don’t want to offer up any more challenges. You don’t want to overcomplicate recipes at this stage in the game until you’ve built up confidence in the kitchen.”
Oaks stresses that downfalls are to be expected in trying to adopt a sugar-free or minimal-sugar lifestyle. “It’s every way we turn. It’s like a video game that you’re bound to lose sometimes, and you should feel that it’s not all you. So understand that and know that if you have a foundation to come back to, that’s what you should come back to,” she says.
“When you are eating vegetables, try to eat whole vegetables. When you are drinking a smoothie or a juice, eat it with a fibrous meal and drink it slowly throughout the day as opposed to just guzzling it down in one fell swoop,” says Oaks.
She agrees with the AMA finding that beverages are the biggest culprit of excess sugar. “If anybody takes anything away from my book, I think the first thing to understand is to get sugary beverages out of your diet. Half of the sugar intake in America is through sugary beverages. You don’t even recognize that you’re eating anything; it’s just going in and affecting your health. If you do that, that’s half the battle and should feel very empowering to people,” says Oaks.
An additional step, she says, is to lay a good foundation for the day by starting with a savory breakfast instead of a sweet one.
Should removing sugar be an all-or-nothing goal? Oaks says a person’s relationship to sugar is the tell-all. “We’re all very different makeups, and so sometimes sugar is like alcohol to some people. Removing alcohol from your diet is not a diet; you’re removing a toxic substance,” she notes. “For people who feel the same way with sugar, some people can never have it again. If it’s once in a while and you’re the type of person that can handle once in a while, then have it once in a while and enjoy it.”