My struggle with sugar

If you asked the 25-year-old me to predict what my 40s would look like, I would have used just one word to describe them: fat.

Fat was my inevitable destiny. I’d grown up as a lonely latchkey kid with a serious sugar addiction; my best friends were the Three Musketeers, and all I knew of the world outside my suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood was French vanilla, English toffee, and Dutch chocolate. When my 200 pounds went into the Navy Reserves after college, I could see the disgust on the faces of the basic-training instructors: Who sent us this leaky old tugboat? And how the heck are we supposed to turn it into a battleship?

The Navy did whip me into shape—morning revelry of burpees and sprints for months on end will do that to you—but when I entered the workforce soon after, the weight began to pile back on. So I started exercising like a fiend, completing the New York City Marathon twice and turning the company gym into an extension of my office. But in a lot of ways, I was just trying to outrun the devil. My father had struggled with severe obesity for most of his own adulthood—he’d be dead from a weight-related stroke by the time he was 52—and there was no reason to believe that destiny wasn’t awaiting me, too. No matter how hard I exercised, nothing could overcome my own desires for sweet, instantly gratifying confections.

As I gained success in my career, first as an editor and author and then as founder of Eat This, Not That!—and later as the editorial director of Men’s Fitness and founder and CEO of Galvanized Media—I learned a ton about eating right. I learned about good fats and bad fats, about the role of protein in helping us burn unwanted flab, about how to time my meals to ensure I was getting the maximum muscle-building benefits of each and every morsel. And as that body of knowledge grew, so too did my ability to help others lose weight and live healthier, happier lives.

But I was still exercising like a fiend because I was still a slave to my sweet tooth. I’d struggle to stay awake during meetings, longing for a cup of coffee and a chocolate-coated energy bar. I figured that sweating through my gym clothes day after day was the only way I’d stay healthy and in shape. And then I came across research that changed everything. And I learned that while I had, indeed, been doing almost everything right, the fact was I was trying too hard.

Weight loss was easier than I ever imagined. And you’ll discover how in Zero Sugar Diet.

The Path to Automatic Weight Loss

In 2015, University of Massachusetts researchers compared two sets of dieters. One set had spent the previous year doing pretty much everything that I did: cut calories, reduced saturated fat, ate lots of fruits and vegetables, took the skin off their chicken, ate low-fat dairy items, cut sodium, ate more fish, reduced trans fats, cut back on sugar, and exercised a minimum of 150 minutes a week. The other group did none of those things. All they did was eat more fiber, at least 30 grams a day.

Yet after a year, both groups showed nearly identical reductions in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and inflammation.

I dove deeper into the research, and as I did, I began adding more fiber, chiefly in the form of fresh vegetables, whole fruit, beans, whole grains, and nuts/seeds, into my own day. I discovered how incredibly easy it was to stop hunger in its tracks and, even better, to put an end to the energy lulls and cravings that had haunted me since my youth.

But more important, I had begun to unravel the mystery of why we’re so much heavier today than we were back in the 1980s and how we could all begin enjoying easy, automatic weight loss without so much desperate effort. As I began to teach others this simple method of nutritional balance, I saw how quickly they could see dramatic results.

Now I’m going to teach this revolutionary new program to you. If you follow it, you will quickly and efficiently bring your body into perfect balance and begin dropping excess pounds at a rapid pace. And in doing so, you’ll discover a new way of walking through the world, one that keeps you safely out of the grasp of weight gain and one of the biggest diseases of our time. And you’ll do it by eating foods you love—yes, even foods from your favorite restaurants and supermarkets; even burgers, bacon, and pasta. You will flatten your belly, improve your health, and look, feel, and live better than ever. And you will set yourself up for a lifetime of effortless success. The Zero Sugar Diet works because it targets the most virulent virus of all: Added sugars.

And it was developed with the cutting-edge recommendations of the world’s most preeminent medical associations in mind.

Sugar and fiber: A bad romance

Our bodies and our brains have always needed a steady supply of sugar. In fact, researchers from The Quarterly Review of Biology recently discovered that our brains use up to 60% of the body’s blood glucose. In terms of evolution, they believe that once prehistoric man learned to cook—unlocking the simple sugars in starches like potatoes and making them more bioavailable—it triggered the changes that, over time, increased the size of our noggins. But this sugar always arrived in relatively small doses, from fiber-rich sources like fruit.

It’s important to understand that nature paired sugar and fiber together. You see, our current relationship with sugar is codependent and a little unhealthy, sort of like a relationship that still has lots of love, but lots of dysfunction as well. Like a bad boyfriend, sugar is toxic, at least when it’s allowed to linger in the bloodstream for too long. So even though we need it to live on, there’s also the ever-present threat that it’s going to do us harm.

That’s why when sugar hits the bloodstream, the pancreas responds by releasing the hormone insulin. Insulin traffic-cops the sugar, helping to convert it into glucose to be stored in the liver and the muscles, and to triglycerides, which are stored in the fat cells.

Back when sugar came with a natural fiber escort, everything was fine. Sugar got released into the bloodstream slowly, thanks to the fiber, and the pancreas could take its measured time doling out the insulin you needed. It was like having your best friend at your back to make sure your lovable but troubled boyfriend didn’t get out of hand.

But once we began refining sugar—starting with that first boiled yam—we started delivering sugar more rapidly into our bloodstream. As our craving for sugars grew, so too did our technologies; we went from boiled roots to root beer and started creating foods that dosed us with more rapid-fire sugar than our bodies were designed to handle. These sugars are called “free sugars,” meaning anything added to foods by a manufacturer, cook, or consumer, plus sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices.

Now worried that this bullying boyfriend called blood sugar is rushing through your system, the pancreas can overreact, releasing too much insulin and sucking too much sugar out of our blood. That’s called hypoglycemia, essentially a sugar crash: that shaky, famished feeling that’s different from your standard belly-rumbling hunger. Because our bodies overreacted and stored all that sugar as fat, we suddenly need more sugar, and we need it fast.

So, first and foremost, you gain weight. But then almost every health fear you’ve ever stayed up at night worrying about can be linked to this vicious cycle.

In a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at 37 different studies on the effects of high-sugar, low-fiber diets and concluded that “higher postprandial glycemia is a universal mechanism for disease progression.” In English, that means that “meals that raise your blood sugar will kill you.” And not just in one way. If you’re susceptible to heart disease, elevated blood sugar will raise your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure. If diabetes runs in your family, it will boost your chances of developing insulin resistance. If obesity is a risk for you, this is the gateway. In fact, this review found links between high-sugar, low-fiber meals and type-2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, and gallbladder disease.

“It’s time to reduce our exposure to processed sugar,” Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells me. “We don’t need any more research on this.”

But here's why avoiding sugar is hard as hell

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration announced  approval of a new Nutrition Facts label, which includes a separate line for added sugars, forcing companies to list what’s added and what’s natural for the first time. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association have all come out vociferously against added sugar: For men, the AHA recommends no more than 150 calories per day from added sugars, or nine teaspoons.

That sounds like a lot, but here’s the thing: You don’t have to be slugging Cokes all day to far exceed those guidelines. Here are some seemingly healthy foods that put you over your daily limit with just one serving: Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Cherry Yogurt (24g of sugar), Quaker Natural Granola Oats & Honey (26g), PowerBar Performance Energy Vanilla Crisp (26g), and Tazo Organic Iced Green Tea (30g).

The problem is, even if you’re vigilant, the numbers add up because sugar is in everything—especially foods it doesn’t belong in, like bread, peanut butter, pasta sauce, salad dressing, and oatmeal. In the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), it even coats the outside of your Advil caplets! Ultimately, these added sugars can be worse for your blood pressure than salt and can cause your skin to sag (glucose and fructose link to amino acids in your collagen and elastin and wreak havoc on your skin’s support system), and people who get 25% or more of their calories from added sugar are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who eat less than 10 percent, according to a study in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. One out of 10 of us falls into that category.

But here’s what you’re going to do about it.

Find your "sweet spot" right now

Zero Sugar Diet begins with a two-week Phase 1.

For the first 14 days, your goal is to avoid all added sugars— period. Then, after that, make sure your foods have less sugar than fiber. That’s the “Sweet Spot,” a dietary safety zone that will protect you from all of the damage that sugar can do. When you’re in the sweet spot, you’re getting the carbohydrates you need to run your body and your brain, and the fiber you need to keep those carbohydrates moving through your body slowly, ensuring that there’s no sugar rush that sends your body into a frenzy of fat storage.

I’ve provided an extensive grocery list to help you effectuate this plan in Zero Sugar Diet (Ballantine Books), a sampling of which you’ll find here, but the ingredients will include whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole, unprocessed grains. To balance out your meals, I’ll have you add in Power Proteins—lean, healthy, satisfying, sugar-free foods like eggs, turkey, chicken, and fish—and Flat Belly Fats (like sugar-free salad dressings and guacamole), which will help to heal your body and keep you satiated as your body quickly detoxes.

Once you cut out added sugars and add fiber, you dramatically reduce the impact of food on your liver, relieving that beleaguered organ of its fat-storing duties and allowing it to do what it does best: manage your cholesterol levels. You’ll start burning fat because reducing your intake of calorie-dense sugar carbs automatically reduces the amount of calories you’re consuming on a daily basis, which forces your body to burn fat stored around your midsection for energy, rather than the sugars it takes from carbohydrates. You’ll feel less hungry as your body detects that you’ve started to lose weight. By slowing the progress of carbohydrates through your body, fiber helps give you a continuous, steady dose of energy, so you never get the “I’m empty” signal.

You’ll find that your belly will begin to flatten out within days and you’ll feel more energized and fit. In one of the most stunning studies of recent years, scientists have linked refined sugar to a condition called sarcopenia—basically, age-related loss of muscle mass. It happens because added sugar actually blocks the body’s ability to synthesize protein into muscle. By reducing the impact of sugar, this plan will keep your muscles younger and stronger—protecting you from injury and helping you to burn fat faster and more efficiently. And by slowing your body’s absorption of carbohydrates, you’ll keep your body and your brain more fully fueled all the time, beating both general physical fatigue and the brain fog that can often accompany it. You’ll no longer need to make poor food choices as a way of getting quick energy, and you won’t be dragging through those afternoon hours.

When your first two weeks are up, you’ll begin Phase 2: The Zero Sacrifice for Life. For this, you’ll follow many of the guidelines above but allow yourself a couple of cheat days, including a few alcoholic drinks and the occasional sweet. Because when you find your Sweet Spot, there are more benefits than you ever imagined.