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Eating Right for Moms

Ingredient #7: Zero or Very Little Refined Sugar
Probably the most important ingredient in a mother's recipe for long-term health has been saved for last. Sure, when we're blue or want some comfort, most of us like to have something sweet to eat. Or just to jump-start the day or allow us to finish the laundry after getting the baby to sleep. Initially, refined sugar does bring a blast of energy. But the spike in blood sugar triggers a big surge of insulin in the body's effort to get all that sugar into your cells. The wave of insulin does its job so well that your blood sugar levels quickly plummet. Suddenly you feel hungry, spacey, fatigued, jittery, shaky, short-tempered, or even panicky.

Clearly, these are not the desired effects of a sugar buzz! Even worse, our cells become less sensitive to insulin over time as a self-protective measure. That makes the pancreas pump out extra insulin, which makes our cells even less sensitive. It's a vicious cycle. If this process continues, at some point the pancreas just can't pump out enough insulin to get the cells to take notice, and now a person has Type II diabetes.

The average American today eats over 150 pounds per year of refined sugars - compared to zero pounds during most of human history. High consumption of sugar (and the elevated levels of insulin that come with it) is associated with Type II diabetes, weight gain, bloating, fatigue, arthritis, migraines, lowered immune function, gallstones, obesity, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease. And sugar is depleting - the last thing a mother needs - draining (or disrupting the absorption of) the B vitamins, chromium, calcium, magnesium, and copper that she needs to manage her increased stresses. Rounding out the bitter aftertastes to all that sweetness, sugar force-feeds microbes in the digestive tract, which is already vulnerable to infection due to maternal stress, leading to impaired nutrient absorption, diarrhea, gas, or fatigue.


  • Sugar has an addictive quality: when you have a little, you want more. So for some people, cutting out sugar altogether is the way to go. If that's too radical, we suggest you set a personal goal of eating less than twenty grams of refined sugar a day (about two tablespoons). That's about what the average American are a hundred years ago - and still more than the zero reined sugar our bodies are designed for. If you have any digestive problems, we think you should eat no more than ten grams a day. Food labels will tell you how many grams of refined sugar a serving contains, and it probably doesn't much matter if it's refined or "natural" (like fructose or honey).
  • The easiest way of all to eat less sugar is to cut out soda and juice. Two soft drinks a day adds up to ninety grams of sugar: sixty-five pounds of sugar per year. Besides all that sugar, you'll be adding unwanted weight, since people who drink sugar-sweetened drinks tend to eat just as much as those who drink water. Instead, try carbonated water with a squeeze of lemon or lime, diluted juice, or delicious herbal iced teas. One way or another, you should drink at least eight cups of water or herbal tea a day.
  • Check the labels on packaged foods like breakfast cereal, peanut butter, or spaghetti sauce, and try brands without any sugar.
  • Think twice about extra sugar, like another packet in your coffee, tons of jam on toast, or a second helping of ice cream after dinner.
  • By having fewer sweets around for your kids, it will be easier to avoid them yourself. Try not to let them get started on sugar in the first place, so they can still appreciate a juicy apple, bowl of strawberries, or handful of raisins.
  • Avoid temptation by not having cookies, candy, ice cream, etc., at home. If you want something for your sweet tooth, purchase a single item. And if you do keep dessert around, try to have only one kind, since we eat more if there's a variety.
  • Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has judged aspartame (NutraSweet) to be safe, many people have still reported negative reactions, including headaches and depression; a large fraction of the nondrug complaints to the FDA are for aspartame. (Using artificial sweeteners doesn't seem to help people lose weight, either.) We're naturally cautious about man-made molecules for mothers, and an alternative is an extract of the plant stevia rebaudiana, which tastes intensely sweet in very small amounts, but without any calories. It comes in liquid or powdered form and you can use it just like sugar, including in baking (an advantage over aspartame). Like aspartame, there's an aftertaste, but you'll soon grow accustomed to it.
  • If you are, like Jan, a chocolate addict, try high-quality unsweetened chocolate. Once you get used to it, it tastes very satisfying. You can melt it, add a couple drops of stevia and a handful of nuts, and make your own candy bar.
  • Try to understand the forces that keep you hooked on sugar. For instance, Jan worked with a single mom who ate a huge, double handful of chocolate chips each day. She knew it wasn't healthy, but she said: I know it's not good) but I work hard all day long, and this is about the only thing I do for me. By finding better ways to nurture herself, she was able to cut down on this daily blast of sugar.
  • Sugar is the ultimate comfort food, so it's really important to be nice to yourself while you reduce it. And try to think about all the wonderful things you are doing for your body by nourishing it in healthier ways.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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