Sugar can be a tricky thing to monitor when it comes to eating healthy. Of course, you could always rely on the "if it tastes sweet, it has sugar" method, but most of us would be surprised - even shocked - by how much sugar we eat each and every day. Even though it's fat free, sugar plays a big role in storing belly fat. The sugar and belly fat connection is more than an eyesore, it's a health threat. Unneeded fat throughout the abdominal region places a lot of stress on all the vital organs.

Sometimes all you need is a little perspective to get you on the right track to eating better. Sugar is a tough habit to kick. Personally, it took me years to figure it out. I always tried to cheat the system by eating foods with lots of artificial sweeteners, or foods that I thought were healthier because they were low fat. Wow! Was I wrong.

Aside from actually doing the work to get healthier (yes, we all have to work at this), knowing what's actually in the foods we're eating helps get us off on the right foot.

Belly Fat and the Sugar You Eat

Sugar is an easy thing to become desensitized to. The more you eat, the less you're likely to experience "sugar shock." I've worked with a lot of people who have eliminated sugar from their diet for as little as four or five days, only to reintroduce it again with a sip of soda or a bite of a cookie. Each and every time these people are surprised by how much sweeter these foods taste than what they experienced a week earlier.

According to the American Heart Association, maximum daily limits for sugar are:

  • 3 teaspoons for kids (or about 12 grams)
  • 6 teaspoons for women (or about 24 grams)
  • 9 teaspoons for men (or about 36 grams)

Spread that over 24 hours, and you'll find it doesn't go very far. A lot of people surpass their limits by breakfast.

Here is a list of foods that might surprise you given the amount of sugar that's in each food.

Keep in mind: this is only added sugar. It doesn't include the additional carbohydrates (that convert to sugar) normally present.

  • Starbucks Vanilla Latte (Grande) contains 35 grams =  ~ 8 teaspoons
  • Dunkin' Donuts Hot Caramel Macchiato (Medium) contains 47 grams  = ~ 12 teaspoons
  • Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino (Grande) contains 66 grams = ~ 16 teaspoons
  • Yoplait Original (99% fat free) contains 25 grams = ~ 6 teaspoons
  • Entenmann's Little Bites Fudge Brownie contains 23 grams = ~ 6 teaspoons
  • Strawberry Pop Tart contains 15 grams = ~ 4 teaspoons
  • Vanilla Almond Milk contains 15 grams = ~ 3.5 teaspoons
  • Chocolate Brownie CLIF Bar contains 17 grams = ~ 4 teaspoons
  • Jamba Juice Banana Berry Smoothie (original) contains 82 grams = ~ 19.5 teaspoons
  • Simply Apple Apple Juice contains 28 grams = 6.5 teaspoons
  • Skinny Cow Low Fat Chocolate Fudge Ice Cream Cone contains 19 grams = ~ 4.5 teaspoons
  • Raisins* contain 70 grams = ~ 16.5 teaspoons
  • Skittles candy contain 72 grams = ~ 17 teaspoons 
  • Grapes* contain 18 grams = ~ 4 teaspoons
  • Smuckers Strawberry Jam contains 12 grams = ~3 teaspoons
  • Special K Chocolate Rich Chocolate Protein Shake contains 18 grams = ~ 4 teaspoons
  • Bananas* contain 16.5 grams = ~ 4 teaspoons

Note:

  • 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams. The food mentioned above are approximations, and have been rounded to the closest half teaspoon. 
  • Raisins, grapes and bananas contain fructose, a form of sugar. While this type of food is much, much better that eat than its processed counterpart, your body simply translates sugar as sugar. And yes, fructose can and does cause belly fat if you eat too much. 
  • Don't shoot the messenger. This amount of sugar is absolutely allowed in our foods. It's up to you not to consume it. I hope you choose in favor of your body's health!

 

sugar and belly fat

 

THIS IS IMPORTANT: Please don't look at the list and think "Oh, Skinny Cow has so much less sugar than Skittles. I'll just eat that instead." That's not the point. Skinny Cow's 4.5 teaspoons is still quite a lot and should be considered a treat. I just wanted to give you an idea of just how much sugar is in commonly eaten food.

How Does Sugar Create Belly Fat

Insulin, when it works properly, does a great job managing blood sugar levels that rise after we eat. Blood sugar levels go up no matter what we eat, but in a nutshell, the more refined or crappy we eat, the higher they rise and the more insulin is needed to pull those levels back down.

Insulin, Sugar and Belly Fat

If you eat a big bowl of cereal in the morning along with some skim milk for breakfast, your body is going to have to manage all that sugar (because cereal + skim milk is mostly sugar, after all).

Step 1: You eat something sugary (like cereal + skim milk)

Step 2: Blood sugar levels start to rise

Step 3: Insulin gets the message that it needs to pull down the high blood sugar levels

Step 4: Because the cereal and skim milk convert to a lot of sugar, insulin needs to do double duty and jump extra high to pull it down.

Step 5: Insulin grabs onto the high sugar levels in your blood and yanks them down hard...and usually crashes somewhere below the point where they started.

Step 6: Now that your blood sugar levels crashed down, you're hungry again! Really hungry.

Step 7: You grab for something the will naturally give your body a boost - which is usually something sugary.

Step 8: REPEAT steps 1 through 7

This isn't so far off from what actually happens in the body of someone with insulin that operates properly. But when insulin starts to get tired, for lack of a better word, blood sugar levels stay too high for too long. This leads to pre-diabetes and diabetes. 

The connection between belly fat and sugar in this scenario is through insulin's urgent reaction to pull blood sugar levels back down to normal, leading you to eat again.

It's really important you understand this.

 

Cortisol and Belly Fat

Once insulin is thrown off, it starts to affect other hormones, like cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Cortisol sends messages that say "Help me, I'm in trouble." From a physiological perspective, the best way to protect your body is to store fat through the belly area because that's where all your vital organs are.

Cortisol receives major "help" signals from your body when blood sugar levels go up too high and insulin is working too hard.

Cortisol can go up from any type of stress, but let's not forget that we create a really stressful situation in our body when we eat poorly. This is the type of stress we may not even be conscious of.

However, there are a few telltale signs that your body is not happy with what you've eaten if you've ever:

  • Become suddenly hungry again shortly after eating (usually within 90 minutes of eating)
  • Wanted to fall asleep shortly after eating lunch (AKA the food coma)
  • Regularly become shaky or jittery shortly after eating something - almost always with too much sugar

 

Fructose and Belly Fat

You already know that donuts for breakfast are bad. Sitting down and eating a half gallon of chocolate ice cream certainly won't help you either! But too much fructose can be the kiss of death to a healthy diet if it goes overboard.

And yes, I'm talking about the fructose that's commonly found in fruits and juices, as well as a lot of processed foods.

You'll notice I had healthy foods, like *raisins, *grapes and *bananas on the list. Fruits are very good for us, don't get me wrong. They're loaded with nutrients our body needs. The type of sugar they contain, however, is called fructose. 

Fructose doesn't get metabolized in the same way other sugars do. Eating a banana or a handful of grapes is just fine, as long as you don't have too much food in your belly.

Here's why.

Think of your liver as a gas tank. When we eat a meal, our "tank" is full. We don't need any more fuel. But when we eat a little extra, particularly in the form of fructose, our body's reserve mechanism is to store fructose as triglyceride, and ultimately as fat unless it gets burned off before the next meal.

This is simply how our body works. So not only have you stored a little extra fat, but it's also possible that you've elevated your triglycerides.

Bottom line on fruit: if you have belly fat. Eat a little, not a lot.

Keep in mind that most packaged foods contain some sort of fructose (often as high fructose corn syrup). Fruit is not the only food that has the potential to store fat, all high sugar foods do.

Sugar is really addictive, so the first few days of going sugar free can be tough. Most people have strong cravings that can feel unavoidable. But after you get over the hump of cravings, you'll be on easy street.

 

What You Can Do To Eat Less Sugar

 

Drink lemon juice in the morning

This tart juice has an amazing effect on our blood by making it more alkaline. It's true that lemon juice is acidic in nature, but pushes our blood's pH in the opposite direction, making it more alkaline. When we eat foods that are more alkalizing, we can control our blood sugar levels better. This means fewer cravings for sugar!
TIP: start the morning off with 12 ounces of water + a few tablespoons of lemon juice. If you're on the go, keep a bottle filled with lemon water at your side so you can sip throughout the day.

 

Go sugar free, especially in the morning

Even though you may not go out of your way to eat sugar in the morning, you might be surprised by how many unsuspecting breakfast foods contain this sweet stuff. Foods and drinks including low fat yogurts, specialty coffee beverages and cereal bars are often loaded with several teaspoons of sugar. The more sugar we eat in the morning, the more it fuels our addiction. What's more, once you start on an unpredictable sugar roller coaster, it becomes very difficult to control appetite later in the day.
TIP: eat a breakfast that has a healthy balance of protein, fat and carbs, such as
  • old-fashioned oats + nut butter + cinnamon
  • hard boiled eggs + fresh berries
  • homemade (plain) yogurt smoothie with protein powder + berries

 

Cut back on caffeine

If you start your day off with caffeine, you could be fueling cravings for sugar…even if you drink coffee black! Caffeine elevates cortisol levels, which can throw off our insulin levels. After this chain of hormonal events starts happening, it can be really hard to get it under control again.
TIP: If you're hooked on caffeine and want to try to get off, start by drinking green tea. I personally love this match green tea. You'll get a healthy dose of antioxidants and prevent caffeine withdrawal symptoms at the same time.

 

Watch out for calorie-free sweeteners

This doesn't apply to everyone, but non-nutritive sweeteners, including aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium (ace-K) can all decrease insulin sensitivity in people who already have a rough time managing their blood sugar levels, from hypoglycemics to diabetics.
In other words, these calorie-free sweeteners can have the same type of reaction in your body as sugar. Everyone should avoid artificial non-nutritive sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose or acesulfame potassium) because they're quite unhealthy. Stevia is a natural sweetener that really only presents problems to people who may already have trouble managing their blood sugar levels.
TIP: If you really want something sweet, try a couple squares of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) or a cup of berries instead.

 

Limit starchy carbohydrates to one meal a day

Starchy carbs, including breads, potatoes, pastas, rice and quinoa are commonly added to most meals - morning, noon and night. Cereals, sandwiches, wraps, pizzas, burger and burritos are a few examples of meals containing a lot of starchy carbohydrates. These carbs are calorically dense and can convert to sugar in our blood quickly, creating unsteady blood sugar levels. Cutting back is a good way to get this habit under control. Add starches to part of one meal a day, then forgo these foods for the remainder of the day.

 

Here are a few other tips you should keep in mind:

  • Put cinnamon in as many foods as possible. Cinnamon works like a charm when it comes to controlling blood sugar levels.
  • Instead of a fat free breakfast, lunch or dinner, add healthy fat to slow down the breakdown of carbohydrates that ultimately turn to sugar in your body.
  • Don't forget about lean protein. They're just as important as healthy fats in getting blood sugar levels under control.
  • Drink water like it's your job! A lot of people confuse thirst as hunger. Make water your quick fix before you reach for anything else.
  • Be mindful of what you eat. Keep a food journal, read labels and know how much sugar you're taking in.
  • If you haven't already, buy The Belly Burn Plan. It's my book and quite possibly the easiest way to both kick a sugar addiction and lose some belly fat, too.

 

 

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