Topping out at 350 pounds (lbs), mom-of-three Lisa Fantocone says her persistent headaches, joint pain, acid reflux, and fatigue weren’t enough to compel her to lose weight. Neither was a family history of type 2 diabetes, or her doctor’s warning that she was at risk of developing the precursor of the chronic condition, prediabetes.
Fantocone, 39 years old and now 170 lbs, says it was at her third child’s first birthday party about four years ago when she finally decided she needed to make a change and take her weight loss seriously.
“I was cleaning up the kitchen, and as I looked at the leftover cake, cookies, and candy, I realized this was my normal, not a special occasion,” says Fantocone, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, California, a suburb about 42 miles east of Los Angeles. “I even disliked how I looked in the photos with my son, so I deleted them, which was devastating.
“I was done living that way,” she adds, “and I knew I needed to be able to lose weight so I could be healthy and keep up with my son. From that day forward, I made myself more of a priority.”
How Cutting Back on Added Sugar Helped Her Drop the Unwanted Weight
To lose weight, Fantocone decided to home in on a specific problem area of her diet: added sugar, an ingredient commonly found in American fare and one that features in the nearly 60 percent of calories that come from Americans’ ultra-processed food consumption, according to a study published in November 2015 in the journal BMJ Open.
“Primarily for me, [it] definitely is true that sugar is probably one of the most addictive things that you can possibly put into your body,” Fantocone says. “Even to this day, if I eat sugar consistently or a couple of times throughout a week, I’ll notice that I’ll want more again. I had to build that awareness in myself that was what was happening.”
Fantocone started to read ingredient labels, pay attention to the amount of sugar in foods, and make smart substitutions, such as olive oil and fresh vegetables instead of packaged pasta sauce, which commonly contains added sugar.
She focused on getting enough protein from foods like eggs, turkey, and yogurt, plus plenty of vegetables and a moderate amount of healthy fats, like avocado, to help keep sugar cravings at bay.
For snacks, Fantocone ate berries or a handful of nuts and she made it a point to drink 100 ounces of water every day. She planted a vegetable garden in her backyard and cooked all of her meals ahead of time to make sure she always had healthy fare on hand. “The pressure cooker is a lifesaver,” she says.
Can Cutting Sugar Lead To Weight Loss? What the Science Suggests
Registered dietitians and public health officials alike agree sugar consumption is a major cause of weight gain and obesity in the United States, but the link between sugar and weight gain is complex.
While natural sugars found in fruits and dairy are healthy as part of a whole food, the problem, experts say, is the sugar that’s added to our packaged, processed foods. In addition to containing added sugars, which offer no nutritional value, these foods are usually high in calories and unhealthy fat.
“Added sugars are added calories without the nutrition, so it adds energy to your overall diet without really increasing the diet quality,” says Angela Lemond, RDN, owner of Lemond Nutrition in Plano, Texas.
According to a meta-analysis published in January 2013 in the journal BMJ, decreasing intake of “free sugars” that are added to foods, and naturally occurring sugars in honey, syrups, and fruit juices, is associated with a small amount of weight loss, and increasing sugar intake is associated with a small amount of weight gain.
Studies also show that the type of carbohydrate matters. In fact, a review published in 2012 in the journal Food and Nutrition Research found a diet high in refined (white) grains — which the body processes similarly to sugar — was associated with weight gain, while a diet rich in whole grains was linked to weight loss. “Refined grains remove the bran out of the whole grain, which removes a lot of the vitamins and most — if not all — the fiber,” Lemond says.
Unlike whole grains that have fiber, which takes up more space in the stomach and takes longer to digest, refined grains are broken down more easily and don’t stave off hunger as long, which can lead to eating more and weight gain.
For example, white rice doesn’t have any added sugar, but it’s quickly converted to glucose (a type of sugar) in the body and mimics the effects of added sugars.
Sugar, even when it’s naturally occurring, can be sneaky. For example, honey or agave nectar is natural, but once it’s isolated and added to a food as a sweetener, it’s an added sugar that can contribute to weight gain, Lemond says.
Artificial sweeteners may also be a weight gain culprit. According to a meta-analysis published in July 2017 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, people who drink one or more artificially sweetened beverages a day were more like to gain weight.
How to Cut Sugar From Your Diet to Help With Weight Loss
It seems that no matter how much awareness there is about the links between sugar, weight gain, and other health problems, Americans are still eating too much. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans consume about 130 lbs of caloric sweeteners per person each year.
Employ the following tips to help reduce your intake:
Read Nutrition Facts Labels
To cut sugar from your diet, reading ingredients labels on your food is key.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, as there are more than 50 names of sugar, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. When you read the ingredients list on your food packaging, you might not even see the word sugar! But ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), cane sugar, corn syrup, and brown rice syrup are indeed the sweet thing you’re looking to limit, the organization points out.
There’s also the challenge of believing foods that seem innocent based on claims like “all-natural” and “healthy” on their packaging (think: cereal, tomato sauce, and dips) don’t contain added sugar, when in reality, there’s a good chance they do if they come in a wrapper or a box. The fact of the matter is you won’t know what you’re putting into your body for sure unless you look at the label.
The good news is that in 2016, the Food and Drug Administration announced an updated Nutrition Facts label, which includes a line for added sugars, to make spotting the sweet stuff easier. While some manufacturers have already rolled out the new labels, U.S. companies have until 2020 to do so.
In the meantime, don’t let foods with added sugar dupe you into thinking they’re sugar free. “Know what’s in your food,” Lemond says.
Avoid Packaged Foods and Reach for More Whole Foods
One of the best ways to cut sugar from your diet is to focus on noshing whole foods instead of packaged, processed foods, like cookies, cake, candy, granola bars, and cereals. Whole foods include fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Although your body may by now be primed to crave sugar, the more whole foods you eat, the more you’ll come to enjoy them. “Your taste buds will adapt,” Lemond says.
Don’t Stress Over Natural Sugars in Dairy and Most Fruits
For most people, natural sugars found in whole foods aren’t something to worry about. Dairy products contain lactose, a natural sugar, but you also get essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D (when added), potassium, and magnesium. Likewise, fruit is loaded with vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and phytonutrients and are high in fiber and water, which promotes satiety, keeps you feeling fuller longer, and helping prevent weight gain. “If it’s naturally occurring, you shouldn’t stress about the natural sugars that are included it in, because you’re getting other nutrition with it,” Lemond says.
Still, it is important to recognize that some fruits, like papaya, pineapple, and mango, are higher in natural sugars than other types of fruit. That’s not an issue for most people, but those with type 2 diabetes should be mindful of portion size with these kinds of fruits, due to their potential to spike blood sugar. Fruits like raspberries, apples, and oranges have a relatively lower risk of throwing blood sugar levels out of whack.
Be Mindful of Your Entire Plate
Although fruit is part of a balanced diet, you shouldn’t overdo it either. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume 2 cups of fruit a day. If you have insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes, though, be sure to should speak with your healthcare team about how much — and which types — of fruit you should consume, along with your overall diet.
At each meal, focus on building a healthy plate that includes quality, lean protein, like poultry and fish, a moderate amount of healthy fats, like avocado and olive oil, and foods that have naturally occurring fiber, like green, leafy vegetables and whole grains. Aim for foods that have 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. “All of that helps slow down the rate at which your body breaks down [carbs] and uses it for energy,” Lemond explains. “Focus on what to put on your plate instead of what to leave off your plate.”
Following a Sustainable Low-Sugar Diet by Indulging Occasionally
Once the weight started to come off, Lisa embarked on an exercise plan. She started slow — first riding the stationary bike and then running up to 8 miles a day, five times a week, and she hired a trainer to keep her accountable. “Knowing that somebody was going to be checking in on me was an accountability that I hadn’t had before,” she says.
Lisa realized she also had to quit using food to deal with stress and instead find a new way to cope. “Thankfully, at this point I have been able to make exercise my stress reliever. If I go three days without going to work out in some form or fashion, I feel anxious,” she explains.
Although she would like to get down to 150 lbs and put on more lean muscle mass, Lisa says balance is key, so she’ll make room for a few bites of cake at birthday parties here and there. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you’re far more capable of things in life than you give yourself credit for,” she says. “I have so much confidence in myself, I feel I could do anything.”