Try The Low-Sugar Challenge

The Low-Sugar Challenge: One of the take-home “personal experiments” I offer to my high school students is to stop eating refined sugars for a week (assuming there are no health conditions that suggest it would be hazardous to a particular student). Perhaps many of you are far beyond this, but over many years of teaching science, I noticed most students found it a new idea. I tell them that my first experience in doing so was to give up sugar for Lent, and after those 40 days the thought of sweets was obnoxious! Those who tried the week all said they learned a tremendous amount about how much sugar they were eating and what foods had very little. Almost all found their cravings for sweets declined even after a few days and their appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables increased. Their success depended greatly on what sorts of foods were available at home.

Are you the sort of person who has to taper off slowly, or do you go cold turkey? I will confess I love carbohydrates and have worked on my intake of them for many years. You should not expect to ditch all sweets overnight. Or you may have grown up without eating very many; the cuisines of countries like Japan and Spain still consider their less-sweet desserts to be preferable to American ones. The most important thing is to make a plan and then keep track of how you feel.

The sugars to look for on food labels include: glucose, fructose, dextrose, sucrose, maltodextrin, corn syrup, cane juice. The presence of the name of the label it means the sweetener was added, rather than naturally-occurring. A chart of the glycemic index of various foods might be fascinating and helpful to you. Fruit is preferable to fruit juice, since fruit still has the fiber and pulp that make it a whole food. At first you will miss and crave the refined sugars but you will experience this less and less as time goes on. Eventually you will find you are eating few foods with sugars listed on the labels, and if you really make progress, you will be eating very few foods that have labels at all.

What should I eat? There are several sources of meal plans and shopping lists, of which I list only two. My current favorite is online, called The Comprehensive Elimination Diet. I discovered it in a search last year when I was struggling to recover from stuffed-up ears following bronchitis. I stayed on it for about six weeks and lost several pounds without really planning to, in addition to clearing my ears. I liked that! There is quite a bit of meat in the plan, so if you are vegetarian or vegan, only about half of the recipes will work for you. Also fermented foods are not included, so be sure to consider how you will obtain probiotics.  This link contains the rationale for an elimination diet, a shopping list, a seven-day meal plan and recipes, and is published by the Institute for Functional Medicine.

The Fat Flush Plan has two weeks of meals for each of three levels, and detailed, thoughtful and thought-provoking explanations for each item in them. There are vegetarian as well as meat-based recipes. Some of the recipes at Level 1, the most strict, were not flavorful enough to make we want to make them again, but I appreciated the creativity and emphasis on fresh vegetables.

Why reduce sugars in the diet: When we eat, our food is digested and depending on the type of food, blood sugar enters our bloodstream from the intestines. As it reaches a certain level in the blood, insulin is released into the bloodstream to reduce the blood sugar. According to Potatoes Not Prozac, alcohol and white sugars and starches raise blood glucose the most. The more sugars we eat, the higher the blood sugar rises and the more insulin is needed to bring it back to a healthy level. The higher the blood sugar rises, the more likely we are to experience a crash (low blood sugar) with resulting cravings and irritability. According to The Fat Flush Plan, the extra sugars are first stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen (a substance similar to starch), and then as fat. There are concerns that the abundance of sugars available to us in our diets may be causing insulin resistance, a situation in which the blood sugar is no longer be managed at a healthy level. People who are not genetically disposed to diabetes may begin to develop it over time.

Too hard-core? Think about a craving: Chocolate? Sodas? Four sugars in your coffee? What if you start there? Choose one to give up for a week. Maybe you’ll get inspired and give up another. Think small steps on the way to a large one. Focus on what you CAN eat. Apply what you would have spent on the chocolate or soda to your favorite fruit.

Tip: to make drinking plain or filtered water more interesting, add a squeeze of lemon to each glass.

Energy Bars Recipe. These are filling, since they contain healthy oils and fiber from nuts and coconut. They can be made more or less sweet depending on your progress. They get their sweetness from the pineapple, which of course contains naturally-occurring sugars. You may be able to enjoy these without the honey, or include it if you substitute less-sweet dried fruit like apricots or cherries. Enjoy! Adapted from “Nutri-Ola” in The Comprehensive Elimination Diet.

In food processor, grind (if not already ground):

  • 1 c raw cashews
  • 1 c macadamia nuts
  • 1  c dried unsweetened pineapple
  • 1/4 c goji berries (these work best if soaked in a small amount of filtered water for a few minutes)

Process in:

  • 3/4 c coconut flour
  • 1/4  c sesame seeds
  • 2 tbs flax seeds, ground


  • 1/3 c sesame, sunflower or coconut oil
  • 1/8 c honey (optional, to taste – try leaving it out)
  • ¼ tsp Himalayan, Real or other pink sea salt

Process until all is mixed and begins to form a ball

Spread in 7″ x 11″ glass baking pan. Bake at 325 degrees F for about 10 minutes to set. Cool, then cut into bars. Makes about 12 bars, 2 ½ x 2 ½ inches in size. When cool, refrigerate. Keeps for about a week.­ Grain-free, gluten-free, egg-free. 




Basic Food Chemistry

Nutrition Chemistry in (VERY) Brief: Have you ever heard this line in a sci-fi film: We are carbon-based life forms! The human body requires six types of nutrients. The term “organic” means that a substance contains the element carbon in a certain relationship to hydrogen (methane, the simplest organic compound, though not edible, is shown above).  This is a different meaning from “organically grown” which means that the farmer is paying careful attention to avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, among other criteria. Three of the six nutrients are organic substances we need for calories: carbohydrate, protein and fats.

Carbohydrates are organic substances with the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio 1:2:1. For example, the important sugar in our blood, glucose, is written C6H12O6. We metabolize the glucose and transform it to energy, CO2 and H2O in a process called cellular respiration. We are always breathing out the CO2 and water produced. The amount that a substance will affect the blood sugar is called the glycemic index, and it is compared to the effect of eating glucose. The more refined and sugar-like a substance is, the greater the effect on the blood sugar, which is why fructose and sucrose have large effects, and proteins and fats have small ones.

File:Amylose 3Dprojection.corrected.png

You can raise your blood sugar almost as quickly with refined starches that are the bulk of white wheat flour, white rice and other grains. These starches are polymers (chains) of glucose molecules, and are converted to blood glucose with just one or a few enzymes. The diagram above shows four glucose molecules (roughly hexagonal) bonded together. The brackets around one of them indicate that this pattern repeats a certain number of times, usually more than a thousand.

A number of diets such as the pH Miracle and Elimination Diets suggest not eating refined starches because they are converted to glucose so quickly. Others, like the Paleo Diet, suggest not eating any grains. Whole foods like vegetables and fruits contain carbohydrate, but the sugars will be present with some fiber and some protein, not to mention vitamins and antioxidants. Grains and legumes, most of which need to be cooked, will be starchier, which is partly why they are more filling. They can be excellent sources of protein, fiber and some fats.

Fats are slowly metabolized to sugars, requiring many enzymes, which is why you rarely hear anyone suggest eating them for quick energy. They are essential for their role in hormones, cell walls and antioxidant production, which is why a fat-free eating plan is dangerous for any length of time. Most people have heard the words “essential fatty acids” and know they are important, but will sometimes be buying fat-free products at the same time. I believe it’s worth spending a little more money to use the healthiest fats available, focusing on whole sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flax seed, walnuts, wild salmon, grass-fed dairy, and eggs from pastured or flax-fed chickens.

Proteins can be converted to sugars but usually are not; this requires many enzymes and thus a lot of energy. Your proteins are converted to blood sugars in the case of very low-carbohydrate diets; this process carries the risks of ketosis and gout, which is why Dr. Robert Atkins advised people to stay on his strict diet for a relatively short period of time. The GAPS introduction diet also needs to be carefully planned to avoid ketosis by including enough vegetables to balance the high protein content.

Vitamins are important organic substances, but provide no calories. Vitamins are needed for cells to convert the other organic substances to energy, often being substances that allow your digestive enzymes to function. This is why you should never consume vitamins without food. The last two nutrients are minerals and water. Minerals provide electrolytes and the materials for bones among other essential roles. Water not only helps carry nutrients around the body but is also taken up and given off in metabolism.