Not all sugars are created equal, and they’re hidden in most of today’s processed foods. Nutritionist, fitness trainer, and author JJ Virgin has written a new book that helps open your eyes to the way sugars are hidden.
The book also provides practical tips on how to wean yourself from this pernicious ingredient that will decimate your health.
In The Sugar Impact Diet: Drop 7 Sugars to Lose Up to 10 Pounds in Just 2 Weeks, she tackles the confusion surrounding sugar. Many health-conscious people are still under the mistaken belief that as long as the sugar is all-natural, it’s fine to eat.
Not so. Agave, natural fruit juice, raw cane sugar, and any number of other natural sugars will still wreak havoc on your health.
“[S]ugar is really public enemy number one,” she says. “That’s why I chose to focus on it. I don’t think added sugar is really the problem; I think it’s what’s in a lot of our food that we don’t recognize [as sugar].
Whether it’s having apple juice (which is worse for you than a soda), or having a yogurt sweetened with fruit juice concentrate, or whether you’re just thinking that fruits are free for all, these are all creating problems.
I wanted to create a structured program that could help someone break free of those sugar cravings, drop the weight forever, and then let them go back and [do a food] challenge… in order to connect the dots between what happens when they drink one of those big fruit smoothies that are supposed to be so healthy.”
To End Sugar Cravings, Your Body Needs to Burn Fat as Its Primary Fuel
As JJ notes, whether the sugar comes in the form of a muffin, a fruit juice-sweetened yogurt, or a smoothie, it’s all the same thing to your body. “Food is information,” she says. And she’s right.
Once you break free from your body’s constant need for yet another sugar fix (remember, sugar is more addictive than cocaine!), you’ll experience great levels of newfound energy and clarity of mind. But in order to get there, you need to retrain your body to burn fat as its primary form of fuel instead of sugar.
This can be a real challenge for many. JJ’s book specifically addresses the gradual process of getting from burning sugar to burning fat as your body’s primary fuel, in order to maximize your chances for success.
“There’s got to be a transition period, where you go from sugar burner to getting your body to be able to start to burn fat again,” she explains.
“You have to taper down from where your starting point is, which is what I call a Sneaky Sugar Inventory, of things you would never think about (like sundried tomatoes and marinara sauce) that we’re just using like crazy not realizing how much sugar this is actually adding into our food.”
The Sugar Impact Scales: A New Way of Looking at Sugar
As an initial step, you’ll want to weigh yourself and measure your waist-to-hip ratio, to determine your starting point. Next, you do an initial inventory of all the hidden sugars in your diet.
This means reading the labels on all the foods you eat, including items you might never expect to contain sugar, such as that jar of pickles, condiments, sauces, and marinades, and so on. JJ lists all the sneaky places sugars hide in your diet in her book, and by creating what she calls Sugar Impact Scales, she’s created a new way of looking at sugar.
“It looks at fructose grams, glycemic load, nutrient density, and fiber. Bad are fructose and glycemic load; good are nutrient density and fiber,” she explains.
“Depending on where the food falls, it can either be low, medium, or high-sugar impact. The reason this was so important to me is I keep looking at programs out there, and they either focus on fructose… glycemic index, or glycemic load.
That can be very confusing because it makes things like agave sweetener look great. It makes milk look great… People go, ‘We should have fructose because fructose is low on the glycemic index.’
The difference between fructose and glucose is fructose doesn’t trigger the whole insulin response. Because of that, it doesn’t trigger insulin, leptin, or ghrelin, so it doesn’t tell your body you ate anything. Instead, it just goes to the liver. If there’s no room for it to become glycogen… it starts becoming fat.
You look at that and you go, ‘Okay, food is information. What does fructose say?’ It says, ‘Hey, make fat but don’t tell us we ate. Stay hungry.’ What a nightmare!”
So what are the basic symptoms of having high-sugar impact? Gas and bloating are common, as sugar feeds yeast, fungi, and detrimental bacteria in your gut. Other symptoms include joint pain, headaches, fatigue, inability to lose weight or weight loss resistance, and sugar cravings.
By grading yourself on those and other symptoms, while tracking your waist, hip, and weight, you’ll get a clearer picture of how sugar impacts your body, and your progress in terms of retraining your body to burn fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel.
The Three Cycles of the Sugar Impact Diet
The first cycle is a one to two-week long taper cycle, in which you switch from high sugar impact foods to medium sugar impact foods. As an example, if you typically eat regular pasta, you’d switch over to quinoa pasta.
She also recommends scheduling your meals to where you’re not eating every two hours; rather you stretch the time between meals to prevent insulin spikes. This is one form of intermittent fasting. At the end of this taper-down period of one or two weeks, you retest yourself on the sugar impact quiz, to see how you’ve done.
If all is going as planned, you should notice a reduction in your symptoms. At that point, you move on to cycle two, in which you’re really resetting your taste buds and reclaiming your sugar sensitivity, meaning your ability to taste how sweet a food really is.
“What I’m doing is I’m getting rid of all of the fructose. We’re getting down to five grams or less [per day], just as low as possible because you don’t want your body to be good at processing fructose. One thing we know is that the more fructose you eat, the better you get at handling fructose, which means the faster it goes to your liver, the faster you start making fat, and the more fat you make.
If someone’s used to eating fruit, they eat more fruit, they eat more fruit, and they can handle it. If you never eat any fruit, and you ate a bunch of fruit, you’d be bloated, you’d be gassy, and it’d be horrible. I take fruit out altogether except for things like lemons, limes, avocado, tomato, and olives. And we go down to all low-sugar impact foods. But you’re still eating great stuff. You’re eating wild salmon, grass-fed beef, kale, avocado, nuts and seeds, a little quinoa, legumes, and lentils.”
Most people can make the shift from burning sugar to burning fat as primary fuel in this second cycle of the program in a couple of weeks, although it may take longer if you’re seriously insulin/leptin resistant. “The reason it can happen so fast is number one, you’ve got to do that initial one-week [taper] period,” she explains. “Whenever you look at a program, you want to jump right into the most intense part, but you can’t because you’ll fail.”
In the third cycle of the program, you start to challenge yourself by reintroducing some of the medium or even high sugar impact foods. Most people will now find that they’re overwhelmed by the sweetness, or they’ll feel bloated or downright ill by the high-sugar food. As a result, the psychological grip of sweet foods lessen, as you simply do not want to go back to feeling horrible once you’re feeling really great. Interestingly, sour taste, such as that from cultured vegetables, helps to reduce sweet cravings, too.
This is a doubly-beneficial thing, as fermented vegetables also promote gut health. “It’s a sweet tooth strategy,” JJ says. “One of the things that I do in these books is I try to keep it simple and give people simple strategies. But I’m always thinking, “How am I healing their gut with this? How am I improving their gut flora? How are we reducing inflammation?”
Healthy Snack Alternatives
Nuts, which are one of my favorite snack foods, are also great for satisfying the occasional hunger pang. Typically, when I’m at home, I only have one meal a day, a very large salad. But I will snack on nuts, specifically macadamia nuts and occasionally pecans, because of two criteria:
1. They’re very high in fat – the good fat, oleic acid, which is similar to olive oil, and
2. They’re low in protein, so you won’t run the risk of eating a whole day’s worth of protein in a few handfuls of nuts (which could be the case if you eat a lot of almonds)
That said, as JJ warns, be aware of your food triggers, and if you cannot keep a jar of nuts in your house without polishing off the whole thing in one sitting, you just turned a good thing into something bad. While nuts do contain healthy fats, they also tend to be high in calories, so moderation is in order.
“If you know something’s your trigger, don’t bring it into the house. It doesn’t matter if it’s healthy or unhealthy. But I think if you put them into little serving baggies, that’s a perfect way to go with it. I also like that because most people aren’t home all day long, so I say, ‘Put one in your car. Put it in your purse. Put it in your office so that you have them scattered around if you ever get in trouble.’
Another healthy snack that is much harder to overdo is dehydrated kale chips. I’m in the process of planting six dozen kale plants on my property to create a surplus for this very reason. That way I can have kale chips year-round. Roasted Brussels sprouts are another alternative that you can’t really “overdose” on.
Last But Not Least—The Maintenance Phase
It’s quite rare to find someone who’s not burning sugar as their primary fuel these days. To check yourself, simply observe how frequently you feel hungry. If you’re hungry every two hours or so, you’re burning sugar. You’re craving food because sugar is fast burning, and your hunger is an indication that your body wants to be refueled. Once you’re burning fat as your primary fuel, you can easily go five to six hours or longer without feeling hungry, as fat is a far slower-burning fuel. Sugar cravings are also virtually eliminated once you’re burning fat rather than sugar.
Most everyone watching this would benefit from applying a program such as the one JJ has put together. The question is, once you’ve successfully made the switch, how long do you have to continue eating this way? What does maintenance look like?
“The maintenance phase is different from the weight loss phase,” JJ explains. “It’s like dating and marriage. Totally different beasts, right? During the maintenance phase—for weight loss—it’s about setting new goals and doing different fitness activities. The biggest thing that I want someone to do is to connect the dots between what they’re eating and how they feel. It’s to lose that sweet tooth that they had and reclaim their sugar sensitivity so they really say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s how sweet a blueberry really is.’
[In the maintenance phase] you’ve got to mix up your exercise; you’ve got to mix up your food… [F]ood is information. You want your food to tell your body to burn fat not sugar, keep steady energy, great focus, and reduce inflammation. It’s the same with exercise. Exercise can be therapeutic or destructive. I do no endurance training at all. I do not believe in endurance training. I did so much endurance training [when I was younger, yet] I was always slightly overweight. I was never lean.”
JJ recommends high intensity interval-type exercises over endurance training, and for good reason. Endurance training is actually among the least effective forms of exercise when it comes to weight loss, and research has shown that the benefits of high intensity exercise are not necessarily related to calories burned. Rather, it creates beneficial metabolic changes that promote health and muscle growth while boosting fat burning.
These metabolic changes, which include boosting human growth hormone (HGH), do not occur when you’re doing endurance training such as long-distance running.
She’s also a big proponent of exercising in a fasted state, as this actually helps repair, restore, and rejuvenate your muscle tissues. A conflicting approach calls for loading up on carbs and protein before and after exercise, to boost performance and muscle building. So which one should you follow? It may be worth taking JJ’s advice, and experiment to determine what works best for you, depending on your fitness and weight loss goals:
“I kind of play with both of them. Because if you eat a little bit before you work out, you can generally work out harder. If you’re doing resistance training, a lot of times you’re better off having a little bit [of food] before. If you’re doing burst training, ideally here’s what you would do: on burst-training days, do it first thing in the morning. It doesn’t take long anyway. It’s 15 minutes at the most. Ideally, do that a couple of mornings a week, two or three mornings a week. You do your resistance training two times a week, have a little bit of food before; have something really good afterwards, and you’re set.”
If you’ve tried cutting calories while still eating foods like gluten, pasteurized dairy, and processed fructose, yet failed to lose weight, the problem lies not in insufficient calorie restriction. Rather, you were still eating the wrong foods, albeit in smaller amounts. Once you start viewing food as information, you can begin to appreciate how certain foods, fructose in particular, instructs your body to store fat and not let any of it go…
What you eat makes all the difference, and when it comes to successfully losing weight, a major key is switching your body from burning sugar to burning fat as its primary fuel. In order to do this, you need to cut down on the fructose-laden foods that tell your body to:
-Store the sugar as fat
-Eat more (as fructose doesn’t trigger insulin, leptin, or ghrelin to the same degree as glucose, which means it doesn’t tell your body you just consumed a whole bunch of calories)
The take-home message here is that you CAN “reset” your body to burn fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel, at which point sugar cravings will disappear.