Although sugar isn't an addictive drug, many people have a hard time giving up the spoonfuls they add to their cereal and coffee. Now, though, some are advocating a full-blown sugar detox.
The idea comes from a new book, "The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet," by Massachusetts physician Mark Hyman, who's gained some recent fame as a health adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton. It suggests a brief but intense low-sugar diet. Even grains and dairy products are forbidden to give the body a break from sugar and let people see how that feels.
But whether a sugar detox is needed -- or even possible for a typical person -- is a matter of debate.
Lucille Hughes, a registered nurse and director of diabetes services for Catholic Health Services of Long Island, doesn't think dieters need to go as far as eliminating sugar. "Ninety percent of people are not going to do sugar detoxing, whether it's 10 days or seven days or even an hour," she said.
But, she said, there's plenty people can learn about the huge amount of sugar they consume each day and the ways they can shrink their consumption to healthier levels. Hughes, who works at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage, holds classes for diabetics and regularly shows them a bottle of soda. "I've emptied it and filled it with the sugar that's in that size of bottle -- about a half-inch on the bottom," she said. "There's not one person whose jaw doesn't drop." A 20-ounce bottle of soda contains 17 teaspoons of sugar.
Added sugar is in countless products beyond sweetened soft drinks, however. It's found in various forms in yogurt (including the popular Greek style), breakfast cereals, ketchup and pasta sauce. It also lurks in breads, sauces, salad dressing and snack food, said Nancy Copperman, a registered dietitian and director of public health initiatives with the North Shore-LIJ Health System.
To make things more complicated, added sugar isn't always identified as "sugar" on food labels. Sugary sweeteners include agave nectar, brown rice syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, glucose, malt syrup, molasses and sucrose, Copperman said.
Sweetened foods also have become more common in recent years as manufacturers have worked to reduce fat and saturated fat in their products.
"To lower the fat in many of the high-fat foods while keeping them tasty for consumers, food manufacturers replaced the fat -- especially in baked goods -- with simple sugars," Copperman said.
WE NEED CARBS
However, sugar isn't purely a nutritional villain. In fact, it's necessary to keep people alive.
"After digestion, all carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, such as glucose," Copperman said. "Therefore, in order to eliminate all sugars, a person would have to completely eliminate all carbohydrates, and the body needs a minimal amount of carbohydrates for brain function."
Still, too much sugar contributes to obesity and disrupts blood sugar levels, making people get hungrier more quickly.
To lower sugar intake without a drastic diet, Copperman suggests starting at the grocery store.
"One way of finding foods with less sugar is to shop the perimeter of the supermarket, where you can find more whole foods that are not processed," she said. "You can also start reading the nutrition facts label for sugars and fiber. Try looking for less than 4 grams of sugar per serving and 2 or more grams of fiber per serving."
Hughes said she focuses on encouraging people to change how they eat step-by-step and with an eye toward the limitations they have.
Not everyone has time to eliminate sugar in store-bought products by cooking their own food, for example. But, she said, anyone can drink water instead of soda, replace a crumb cake with a piece of fruit, or put strawberries on plain Greek yogurt instead of buying the strawberry-flavored type that has sugar added.
"We'll never promote eating something that you don't enjoy," she said. "We're looking to promote life changes, something they'll be able to continue throughout their lifetime to make them happy and healthy."