It’s no secret that we collectively have a sugar problem. That hankering for something chocolate after meals, say. But while dessert may be the obvious issue, it’s not necessarily the primary one: For many people, the bulk of their sugar intake comes from hidden sources—items that don’t seem indulgent but are packed with sugar.
Trainer and nutritionist Harley Pasternak, MSc, is a cofounder of Sweetkick, a brand helping people curb their sweet tooth. (He also happens to be GP’s go-to for a killer gym workout, our voice of reason on diet and exercise, and an authority on smart and efficient muscle-building.) What’s so refreshing about Pasternak is that he gets it: People love birthday cake. And Girl Scout cookie season. And a cone of rocky road ice cream on a warm afternoon. He doesn’t believe in sugar prohibitions. Instead, he works with people to identify the biggest sources of hidden sugars in their diets, help them achieve a healthy relationship with sweetness, and help them establish sugar habits that are sustainable long-term.
A Q&A with Harley Pasternak, MSc
What does a healthy relationship with sugar look like?
When we’re talking about sugar, balance means indulging with purpose. Rather than blindly and consistently having sugar as a habit—say, drinking sweetened coffee or choosing a fat-free something that has lots of sugar in it—we achieve a healthy balance when we’re having sugar and celebrating indulgence when appropriate times arise.
For example, I was in Paris a few weeks ago, and I went to this place that has world-famous hot chocolate. I know hot chocolate, especially this hot chocolate, is heavy on sugar. I didn’t feel a drop of guilt. And in a moment like that one, you shouldn’t. This was a special experience, a special food, a special time. If it’s someone’s birthday, have a piece of cake. If it’s Saturday night and you’re having some dessert on date night, then don’t feel bad. You don’t need to miss out on meaningful moments and special experiences.
How do you know if you have a sugar problem?
When we get into habits where we need to have things sweet, that’s one tip-off that sugar may be a problem. If you find that you need something sweet every day, after every meal or in every cup of coffee or tea, this might be you. The American Heart Association sets recommended limits at twenty-five grams of added sugar a day if you’re a woman and thirty-six grams of added sugar a day if you’re a man.
If you hide sugar and if that behavior is fueled by feelings of shame, that’s another sign that you might have a sugar problem. What I used to do is put the Nutella container behind the bottles of condiments on the top shelf of the fridge, or the Oreos behind the canned food in the cabinet, so that I wouldn’t see them and eat them. But I wasn’t fooling anybody. I knew where they were, and I would just reach over whatever I had put in front of them to grab them. I was both trying to fool myself and also trying to hide my habit from the rest of my family. I’m this health guru, here I was doing things that I wasn’t proud of, and I didn’t want other people to know about it. A lot of people tend to do this—hide cookies or treats or chocolates behind other things in the kitchen, in their drawer at work, in their purse, in the glove compartment or center console of their car, or in their nightstand.
Why makes cutting back on sugar so challenging?
It happens all the time that people cut out dessert and soft drinks and think, Okay, I’ve got this sugar thing solved. But then all day they’re eating things that have what we call hidden sugars. These are things that aren’t dessert and don’t always immediately seem sweet but can be packed with added sugars. Don’t just blindly accept foods because they seem healthy or natural or are attached to wellness-y buzzwords. (Fat-free and gluten-free foods are common culprits, because food producers make up for the change in taste by adding sugar.) Education is important here—know which foods to look out for and read labels before you buy.
There are countless words that would indicate added processed sugar, and there are dozens and dozens of different forms of sweeteners that are added to foods, including sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, and brown rice syrup.
Here are some of the main culprits: Cereals and energy drinks are absolutely crammed with sugar. Dried fruits are a source many people don’t suspect either. Certain salads, like coleslaws and most cucumber salads, are loaded with it, too. Cereal, granola, granola bars, and instant oatmeal packets are just crazy. Soups, jerky, pasta sauces, BBQ sauces, and salad dressings—astounding. Even things like French fries and sushi rice, which most of us would never expect to have sugar.
And coffees. Some of them are decadent and obvious—mocha frappuccinos or gingerbread lattes and the like. On the other hand, you could be ordering a regular coffee with an alternative milk, and it’s not guaranteed that it’s the unsweetened kind. You usually don’t have any information available to you on how much sugar is in whatever your coffee shop is using. (If you’re buying an alt milk at the store, go for the unsweetened kind. Otherwise, you’re often better off, sugar-wise, with regular milk.)
The first thing to know is why we crave sugar. Sugar is the body’s preferred form of energy and the main form of energy crosses the blood-brain barrier. (The other is ketones.) When we eat sugar, our brain releases chemical rewards, like the neurotransmitter dopamine. That is why sometimes people feel like they are addicted to sugar.
What that means is that cutting down on sugar can be really hard. Here are some first steps that have worked in my experience:
Identify sugars in your diet. I created Sweetkick, a mint containing an herbal extract called Gymnema sylvestre—usually just called gymnema—that blocks our sense of sweetness, to help us manage sugar cravings we’re aware of and help us discover the sugar in our diets that we’re unaware of. All it does is block your sugar sensors. When you have a Sweetkick before that delicious granola bar or breakfast cereal you love, you taste everything else—just not the sugar.
If what you’re eating tastes significantly different, that’s a signal that it’s full of sugar. I use it as a litmus test to let me know where the hidden sugars are in my diet.
Do a food journal and log sugar. For some people, keeping a food log is really helpful. I use the Fitbit food log, and it breaks down what I’m eating and lets me know how much sugar I’m having over the course of the day.
People should also be mindful of the difference between a low-sugar lifestyle and a low-carb lifestyle. I don’t think radical low-carb diets are necessary or helpful for the average person.
Remove trigger foods from your house. If you’ve built an understanding of which foods are really, really high in sugar and also truly irresistible to you, don’t make them convenient. I love chocolate chip cookies. I don’t allow them in my house. If I want a cookie, I have to walk several blocks to get it. That means if I really want that cookie, I’ll get it. But if it’s too much of a hassle to put on my shoes, go outside, and walk in the dark and cold, maybe I just won’t have a cookie. I create a barrier to access so that I have to evaluate whether it’s worth the effort.
The end goal is for us to be more sensitive to sweetness so that we don’t need so much of it to be satisfied. I work with some people who are putting three Splendas in an iced tea. Those people have desensitized themselves to sweetness. I work with them slowly over time to resensitize their palates. Maybe we’ll start with a two-week Sweetkick sugar reset. (If you’re interested in purchasing, you can use the code GOOP for 10 percent off at check-out.) I’m not saying you’re not going to want sugar after doing that; I’m saying when you do have something sweet, you will perceive it as being really sweet. That resensitization dials down your desire for sweetness and, with that, your craving for sugar. It’s a small adjustment that’s a big step toward overall health.
Harley Pasternak, MSc, is a trainer and a nutritionist. He has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and nutritional sciences from the University of Toronto, an honors degree in kinesiology from the University of Western Ontario, and certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. He has written several books on diet and fitness.