Why It's REALLY Worth Weaning Yourself Away From Sugar

Today's 650-word post could save you tens of thousands of empty calories per year.

My lovely wife Laura is training for her first marathon, so she's carefully evaluating what she eats with an eye toward eliminating some of the lower-quality inputs into her diet.

It led her to a truly shocking discovery. She discovered she was eating more sugar than she realized. A lot more. And it was all just hiding there in a couple of innocuous daily beverages she hardly even thought about.

First of all, every morning she'd have one or two cups of half-coffee/half-milk, each with two spoonfuls of sugar. And then, on most evenings, she'd have a big mug of hot cocoa--with another two spoonfuls of sugar.

Hey, she's got a sweet tooth, and that's okay. I'm a black coffee guy and I've always thought sweetened coffee was kind of girly, but hey, that's just me. Vive la différence.

Of course, logically, Laura could easily see that the idea of pouring five or six spoonfuls of sugar down her throat every day wasn't exactly healthy (especially when you phrase it that way).

So the first thing she did was mentally reclassify her evening hot cocoa as an infrequent "special treat" rather than a less-than-special daily habit. Then, she cut back to just one cup of coffee per day. Then, she (actually me, since I fix her coffee most mornings) weaned herself away from so much sugar in her daily coffee.

How? Simple: I just gradually cut down on the sugar I added to her coffee. I worked down from two rounded spoonfuls to a spoonful plus a little. She never even noticed. Then I worked down to just a spoonful. She still never noticed. Then a little less than a spoonful.

Well, at this point, she noticed. But within a few days she got used to it.

Now, after a short couple of weeks, she's happily drinking her coffee with less than a full rounded spoonful of sugar. She likes it exactly the same as before, and she's experiencing no feelings of deprivation whatsoever.

And yet she's eliminated more than four rounded spoonfuls of sugar a day from her diet.

What we found was that your palate can be conditioned away from sugar just like it can be conditioned away from salt. Given time, you can teach your mind and your taste buds to not want quite so much sugar.

Okay. Here's the important part. Laura knew that it would be a good idea to cut this incremental sugar out of her diet. But then we did the caloric math. This is where it got disturbing.

Geek that I am, I actually weighed the amount of sugar in a "rounded spoonful" of the spoons in our kitchen, using my trusty EatSmart Precision Pro Digital Kitchen Scale. We have typical, medium-sized spoons in our kitchen--not baby-sized, but not ginormous IKEA spoons either. And a "rounded spoonful" of sugar worked out to exactly 8 grams.

So here's the (mortifying) math: at 8 grams per spoonful, Laura's daily coffee/hot cocoa habit added up to 32 grams of unnecessary sugar per day. That's 960 grams (or 2.1 pounds) of sugar a month. Or an astonishing 25 pounds of sugar a year.

Expressed in caloric terms, the math is even more astonishing. Start with the fact that a gram of table sugar contains about four calories. Doesn't sound too bad, right? Until you realize that eating 960 grams of sugar per month works out to 3,840 calories. Nearly two full day's worth of excess calories every month, assuming an average woman's 2,000 daily caloric intake.

Just wait. 32 grams a day x 365 days works out to 11,680 grams. Which means this annual excess sugar intake works out to 46,720 calories per year.

Forty-six thousand seven hundred and twenty incremental and largely unnecessary calories per year. That's nearly twenty-four days' worth of unnecessary calories.*

All in the form of a couple of easily forgettable daily beverages.

Readers, where do you think your empty calories hide? Share your thoughts below!

* A quick footnote: As I was working through the caloric math in this post, I simply couldn't believe the total sums I was arriving at. It didn't seem possible that I could come up with over 46,000 excess calories from what seemed like such a small, innocuous daily habit.

I checked and rechecked (and even had Laura check) the math, and I even reduced some of the assumptions too (e.g.: Laura actually cut more like five rounded spoonfuls a day out of her diet, not four, but I used four spoonfuls in the calculations above to be more conservative, and because the evening hot cocoa was a nearly-every-day habit, not an every-day-without-fail habit).

But I guess the conclusion here is that the little things really add up. I mean really add up. And if you have a daily soda, frappuccino or other sweetened beverage habit, you may be ingesting way, way more pointless calories than you realize over the course of months and years.

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Owlhaven said...

Wow, that's amazing how the math stacks up. I recently switched from sugar to honey in my coffee (not sure if it is truly healthier) AND decreased the sweetness level as well, hoping to have a similar effect in my own diet. It is interesting how you can gradually adapt to changes.

chacha1 said...

Beverages are silent but deadly when it comes to dietary sugars. I have never been a big soda drinker; in the last ten years I've probably had *maybe* one soda a year on average. I had to step myself down from a high-sugar coffee habit, though.

I used to drink four cups a day, each with sugar. First I cut down on the number of cups. Then on the amount of sugar. I now drink coffee without any sugar, just half & half.

Also: yogurt. There is a SHOCKING amount of sugar in commercial yogurt. I had to step myself down from "custard style" to fruit-on-the-bottom to vanilla and finally to plain (now plain Greek).

Commercial bakery goods are basically nothing but the worst kind of fat, starch, and sugar. Life is too short to live without *ever* having a donut, but my former daily "treat" is now more like a monthly one. I just stay out of coffee shops, and make do with what the office provides.

Since learning to cook, I have found that certain seasonings read as "sweet" to me. So I tend to use a lot of herbs (chervil, tarragon) and spices (cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, ancho) in my cooking. It's a way to get satisfying flavor without adding sugar or salt.

Melissa said...

I don't have issues with drinking my sugar nor do I eat a lot of canned or packaged foods in which it is a concern (except the yogurt chacha mentioned... and that is not leaving my diet).

However, coincidentally, just yesterday on my blog I mentioned that it is another Day One in my life because I am giving up sugar. I went on to clarify that I meant donuts, ice cream, cakes, cookies, cupcakes, candy bars. Sugar will still exist in my food intake: I use it in my baked oatmeal recipe each week, I put a tablespoon in some of my stir fries and curries, things like that.

No more desserts or baked goods, though. Sugar is far too addictive for me and the calorie count is starting to take its toll. I will go two weeks, three if I'm lucky, without a problem and then I will spend 5 days straight gorging on sweets. I'm talking 3000-6000 calories extra in that 5 days. It's horrifying what sugar does to my mind and body and I must stop it, even if it means another all or nothing game for me.

Anyway, not entirely the same, but still, I had to laugh when I saw the title of your post today. Weaning away, indeed.

Good luck to Laura! I don't start officially training until September. She's a champ for training during the summer. I bet she's going to be fantastic. :)

María said...

Very interesting! Wonder why some children ask what math is good for or why parents don't have an answer.

@Owlhaven: I thought I was the only person in the world drinking coffee with honey (and milk, like café con leche with honey instead of sugar)!! Or otherwise: why do people look at me _that_ way??? ;-)

Marcia said...

Baked goods and coffee. I use Stevia most days though.

On vacation, I was sweltering in 95 degrees and 90% humidity...drank a LOT of soda because it was the only thing cold in the house. Yikes.

I'm recommitting to lose the 2nd baby weight, so these days I'm very careful.

Emmy said...

That is a CRAZY amount of calories! Kudos to you and Laura for sussing this out and addressing it, and bringing it to our attention.

My MIL just inspired me to reduce my sugar intake, and I'm really leery about "fake sugar" so we avoid the splendas and stevias. It's almost scary how much sugar is in just normal foods, like peanut butter. It's really eye opening, but in a good way - we've been cooking more and eating whole foods.

Wish Laura the best from us on her journey to 26.2!

KitschenBitsch said...

I used to drink two pots of coffee per day with cream and sugar. I'm now down to 4-6 cups with half and half. I must say, I enjoy my coffee with just the half and half, but I do find myself often craving a sweet to go with it. It's probably not coincidental that I was most successful with weight loss after I cut out that pile of sugar!

I first realized what sugar was doing to me when I did the idiotic Special K thing about 7 years ago. I almost passed out in the shower one afternoon. I was sugar crashing.

I still do eat more sugar than I should, but it certainly isn't the habit it used to be. It's a hard one to break! (But lord have mercy, DON'T TAKE MY COFFEE.)