Gimme' some shuugaaaaa'. Just kidding - please don't.
The title of this post bluntly gives it away, but just to reiterate, I'm ditching sugar (with my IG girl Jeannette, @sweatysweetpotato) for a couple of weeks. As a vegan, I've never been against carbohydrates - beans, potatoes, fruits, and whole grains make up most of my diet and I feel better than ever since I've incorporated them as the main components of my diet. However, I can't close my ears selectively to all this talk about sugars and carbohydrates and their effects within our bodies from the minute they touch our tongues.
For the past four years, refined sugars (think cane sugar, mainly) have not been welcomed in my diet, except on occasion. Sweeteners like pure maple syrup, dates, and coconut sugar have, thought, and again, still on occasion/only when necessary. And for almost two years, I thought that including those here and there and continuing to feed my body the same amount of unrefined carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, whole grains, beans, and fruits was one of the healthiest things I could do for my body (after two, almost three, years of strictly low carb eating habits). Finding freedom in carbohydrate consumption was my way of breaking one of the heavy chains restricting me during my eating disorder. Hallelujah for freedom (and dates and bread and pasta, right?).
Buuuuuut, like our parents say, lots of freedom can come at a high price (or something along those lines). Mine came with some unwanted bloating + decreased energy levels + skin blemishes + almost-out-of-control cravings for sweets. Aaaaaaannnnnnd I'm tired of it. Quite literally.
For the past few days since my wisdom teeth removal, my diet has looked all too similar to that of an tooth-less elderly individual - mushy this, mushy that. I'm not complaining, though, because all the couch time I've enjoyed has opened up my spring break plans (or lack thereof) for binge-watching The Great British Bakeoff, binge-reading The Secret Life of Fat, and following up on the latter via research surrounding carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
I'm quite the college kid, huh?
Anyway, at this point, you're probably thinking, "Ohhhhh my gosh, Haley, stop talking so much about stuff un-related to sugar and just tell me why you're doing the cleanse." OKAY FINE. Here's why:
Well, you know there's living bacteria in your gut, right? Yup - in your tummy right now, little microbes are working to digest and absorb your food, as well as help protect against any possibly pathogenic invaders. We have two main types of bacteria: prebiotics and probiotics. Both are needed for proper digestion. We also have some not-so-beneficial bacteria roaming around, and those feed on sugar, which can lead to uncomfortable side effects we all know and don't love, like gas, bloating, and even certain diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (1). I can do all I want to feed my gut, but I can't really be sure which bacteria I'm feeding, according to Dave Asprey in an interview with JJ Virgin (the sugar experts, maybe?) (2). Even Dr. Stephen Cabral agrees (quite possible maybe favorite doctor, like, ever) - I recommend this short podcast, during which he shares scientific research stating that rebalancing gut bacteria means identifying and excluding the bad bacteria's fuel, aka sugar.
ENERGY LEVEL (brain and body)
Okay okay - I'm no die-hard Bulletproof diet dude, but I have been indulging in a few of Dave Asprey's podcasts simply because I want to know his scientific support behind the high-fat eating habits he and many others seem to swear by. One of his promises that caught my attention immediately was that regarding an increased energy level when fats replace the majority of sugars in the diet. On a biochemical level, our cells have these little structures inside called "mitochondria", which are the homes of energy production in the form of ATP (3). The body and the brain use ATP for movement and cognition. Glucose has long been suggested as the body's preferred fuel source to produce ATP, but recent research is causing trusted biochemists and doctors to think otherwise: maybe fat is more preferred. When we eat a carb-heavy meal (for me, this might look like oatmeal with fruit and peanut butter, sweet potatoes with beans and greens, or a veggie-based sandwich on whole-grain bread) our bodies digest those carbohydrates and other nutrients and secrete the hormone insulin, which tells our cells to take in those carbohydrates and store them as glycogen in the muscles or, if glycogen storage is full, as fat in adipose tissue (3). When fat is metabolized, our adipose tissue secretes the hormone leptin, which tells our brain we're satiated and no more energy needs to be consumed, leading to decreased appetite and potential weight loss (4).
Bottom line? Insulin, secreted during carbohydrate ingestion, increases glycogen storage and can increase the body's sugar cravings. Leptin, secreted by fat cells, stimulates the brain's feeling of satiation and can promote healthy weight loss.
All of that nerdy information I just spewed at you correlates directly to brain function. Similar to the widely accepted thought that glucose is the body's preferred energy source, it's also been referred to as the brain's go-to energy source. Unnnnntil now. Free radicals roam around, well, quite freely and in high numbers throughout the body, and can cause harmful oxidation, which is basically just damage to cells. Killing off free radicals requires antioxidants, and these little powerhouses are plant compounds that reduce the inflammation free radicals produce (5). Emphasis on plant compounds - in order to reap the benefits of antioxidants, plants must fill the diet! Okay, sorry, I digress. Inflammation from free radicals can block blood flow to the brain, so decreasing inflammation via high antioxidant consumption is key to a well-functioning brain (6). After all, the brain is 60% fat - that number shocked me until I rewound my academic memory to information I learned in biochemistry. That makes sense, because the cells themselves have a membrane made up of fats, and those cells communicate with each other and organs of the body via myelin sheaths, which are structures coated in fatty membranes that allow for transmission of messages (6).
Here's how I've been thinking about it (maybe this is more simple): if carbohydrate digestion forces insulin production, and insulin can cause peaks and dips in blood sugar levels making me crave more sugar, no wonder I'm hungry or "needing a little something sweet" immediately after a meal. No wonder I'm constantly thinking about my next snack, despite how full my last meal left me. if fat secretes leptin, and leptin increases feelings of satiation, why haven't I been adding more healthy fats to every meal? DUH.
So, most of you know me. You know I don't eat store-bought cupcakes and Kit Kat bars and drink sodas and lemonade. I eat tons of bananas and berries and sweet potatoes and whole grains. For months, I've been wondering when I'd find the answer to where the heck the fine line is between those foods, as it seemed to be a battle (with the winner quite obvious): refined sugars vs. complex carbohydrates. Guess what... I found the answer.
A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states "After absorption, the pathways of the different dietary sugars converge and the original dietary source has only minimal effect on metabolism" (7).
BAM. There's my answer.
Okay, so let's wrap this up, yeah? I'm not quitting sugar forever. That commitment (and restriction?) just is not calling my name. Jeannette and I are removing it from our diets temporarily to see and feel the comparative effects of a diet with and one without it. I've noticed several bodily changes over the past few months: 1) I stopped running (my main and favorite form of cardio for years), 2) I stopped burning carbohydrates as efficiently (and began storing them where they didn't feel comfortable), and 3) I began taking challenging classes and piling potentially stressful additions to my schedule and therefore life. I've expected my body and mind to be able to handle all these changes well without understanding the changes it needed, as a result.
Want to join us? Have any questions? Bring it! We're so excited to learn more about our bodies and we hope you're taking the necessary steps to do the same for yours :) follow along on Instagram! @hungryhaley for me and @sweatysweetpotato for Jeannette.