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ASK THE NUTRITIONIST: Is cold turkey the best way to quit sugar?

In this week's column, Nonie De Long says there's a 'healthy hack' for almost every food you like to help you ease into healthier eating habits
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Dear readers, this week’s question comes from Barb in Newmarket. Barb wants to know if cold turkey is the best way to quit bad eating habits. Barb wants to quit coffee and sugar this year and wants to know the best approach. What a great question!

I don’t think cold turkey is the way to go with nutrition because willpower can only last so long. At some point we know we’ll have a bad day or a busy day or a stressful day and we can easily fall into old habits. “Just for today,” we tell ourselves. At that point it’s very common to slip back into the habit as if we never stopped. So no, cold turkey is not the best way to make dietary changes, in my opinion.

I prefer the substitution method. Essentially, with this method we substitute a healthier replacement for the unhealthy food or beverage. The benefit of this is that in a pinch or a stressful situation we are prepared and have something to turn to, rather than just trying to avoid the thing we don’t want to consume with no plan for how to address cravings or situations that may arise.

Let’s say it’s sugar we’re trying to quit. And honestly, I recommend starting here with health goals. There is zero benefit for our health in consuming sugar! None! Zero! Zip! It damages the teeth, the bones, the arteries, the digestive system, the nervous system, metabolic health, brain health, reproductive health, longevity, and our sleep! The only thing it has going for it is taste and a high before we crash, but sugar is no different than any other addiction. We get a buzz and destroy our health in the process. The problem with limiting sugar to just a little bit or once a week is how addicting it is, especially when we first stop it or if we have developed insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. We can struggle all week to cut it out successfully, but once we get a little bit of it - boom! The cravings are back like we never stopped! Rather than ditching sugar cold turkey, I suggest finding a healthier substitute for sugary foods. Some examples of this are:

  • Zevia soda instead of regular or diet soda. Avoid artificial sweeteners, as they cause their own health woes. (I find it at Superstore)
  • Homemade air popped popcorn with butter, monk fruit and cinnamon instead of sweet snack foods. (I find the sweeteners at Superstore, Healthy Planet, or Amazon)
  • Stevia or whole earth or raw honey for coffee/tea, rather than sugar.
  • Homemade baked goods with xylitol or monk fruit or raw honey instead of sugar.
  • Chocolate bars sweetened with monk fruit, stevia, xylitol, or palm sugar. I avoid those with malitol because they create explosive gastrointestinal issues in many people. (I find these bars at Shoppers Drug Mart)
  • Homemade sweet nut spread instead of Nutella. You can use almond butter or hazelnut. I call mine Almond Butter Bliss. Find the recipe here. It’s delish on celery sticks or low carb / high protein bread.
  • Homemade honey roasted nuts. Essentially get any quality nuts and toss them in melted honey with a bit of coconut oil and sea salt. Roast on parchment paper in a 350-degree oven until they just begin to brown. Then remove and let cool.
  • Homemade high protein, grain-free granola cereal using honey or healthy sweeteners instead of store boxed sweet granola or cereal. Find my recipe here
  • Homemade BBQ sauce instead of sugary store-bought BBQ sauce. Find a great recipe here.
  • Homemade ketchup instead of the high sugar store bought one. Find a great recipe here.
  • Homemade ice caps instead of store-bought super sweet ones, which have about 47 grams of sugar in a single serving! Here you can find awesome low carb versions for all your iced coffee cravings!

The point is to be prepared with another food to replace the one you want to quit. The replacement should be nutritionally superior, made with quality ingredients, and you should have it on hand. Then swapping it when the cravings hit is much easier. This requires planning, but any dietary changes require planning. There is really no way around this.

You may also notice that homemade is almost always superior! Why? Because you have full control over the ingredients you use. Omitting sugar is easy when you make something yourself. And you can control for the quality of fat and other ingredients used. Let’s look at some other healthy recipes to substitute store bought foods that aren’t good for our health:

Essentially, if you have a food you like and it’s unwholesome, you can find a superior version homemade or made by a specialty company. For these foods I suggest shopping at your local health food store, farmers market, or at specialty shops like Low Carb Canada.

Alternatively, you can find a nutritionist or home cook in your area that makes the healthy foods you want. Yes, the cost is higher for these foods, but the savings in health care and time off for health issues make it an investment. The cost of food is not only calculated by our wallets, but by our health, our longevity, and our quality of life. Hiring someone to prepare meals for us has other benefits, as well. It benefits a small business owner who may be struggling, or a stay-at-home mom. And we know the big stores are not going to stop stocking their shelves with hyper processed, unhealthy foods until we stop buying them! Upping our expectations is only going to transform the food industry for the better. The more we seek out healthy substitutes the more the industry will produce them. It’s really win-win-win!

Let’s explore a few hacks as substitutes for other unhealthy cravings we might have. I know a lot of people love pizza. In our home we purchase a frozen pizza my son likes the crust on. We then chop / prep our own toppings to make it healthier. Think garden fresh roasted veg, quality sausage or bacon, fresh herbs and garlic, and fresh grated cheese. It only takes 20 minutes and the results are far tastier and healthier! I don’t like the crust, so I do oven roasted chorizo bites with sauce, veg, herbs, and cheese on top. They’re like mini pizza bites. It’s super easy and I guarantee you none of the flavour is lost!

My craving is a fish sandwich. For this I do air fried fish filets with a pork rind crust on lettuce boats with a dill and lemon tartar sauce and sweet pepper rings, using the one-minute mayo recipe above. It’s delish and I don’t miss the takeaway version at all.

Almost every food you like can be hacked to be healthier:

But yes, you’re going to have to cook it - or hire someone else to. There are a ton of home chefs that create healthy meals to go for busy families. Maybe you can’t take the time to do all the meal prep yourself. When both parents are working it’s incredibly difficult to do healthy meal prep at the end of the day! Homemaking is a full-time job in itself and those who are retired are often tired of cooking big meals, but someone out there specializes in just that! Money spent on takeout and convenience foods could just as easily be spent supporting these local entrepreneurs. I’m not sure who they are in your community, but I’ve found Facebook Marketplace a good place for finding these home cooks and entrepreneurs. I encourage you to put a priority on cooking or sourcing homemade foods to improve your health.

Thank you, Barb, for the great question. I hope readers have found some inspiration to make a healthy change in their lives. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them! Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website.

Nonie Nutritionista