Back in 2016, I posted about how osteoporosis connects to high blood sugar. Since then, research has continued to come in showing that excessive intake of sugar in the diet is really bad for bones. One recent review pointed to accumulated evidence suggesting that consuming lots of sugary foods strips the body of essential bone nutrients like calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and it may even prevent the body from metabolizing vitamin D. And that’s in addition to the known effects it has on insulin metabolism, inflammation, acid-base balance, and so many other systems that impact bones.
So all of this adds up to one thing: Sugar in your diet is bad for your bones as well as your whole body. But the real question is, how do you get rid of it?
The growing realization that sugar can be addictive is starting to be backed by science showing it affects similar brain pathways to opioid medications. Getting rid of excess dietary sugar requires a lot more than “just say no” for most people, first because it hides in so many places in our food, and second because so many of us are used to using it as a “reward” or the centerpiece of a celebration.
How to support your bones and break the sugar habit
Here are some ways that you can dial back your sugar intake and free yourself of sugar addiction:
Exercise. Yes, it’s true: the healthy habit that is so very good for bones is also helpful when it comes to avoiding sugar, because the same pathways that sugar lights up in the brain respond to exercise, too. The drawback is that it takes a lot more exercise to get a positive jolt to the brain than sugar gives immediately — which is one reason sugar is so hard to quit. But if you approach your exercise regimen mindfully, rather than looking at it as a time-centered chore to “get through” each day, in time it may give you the same pleasant feeling that you get from eating something sweet.
Follow my six steps for blood sugar regulation to avoid sugar cravings. For most people, avoiding sugar is easy enough until mid afternoon, when that well-known energy slump hits and you reach for something sugary or caffeinated (or both) as a pick-me-up. This 3 p.m. crash can undo all your best intentions — so taking steps to prevent it can help. If you consistently crash at the same time each day, that might be a good time to go for a walk to revive yourself — as long as you’re not walking to Starbucks! Also, an afternoon protein snack of nuts or cheese can help a lot.
Manage cravings. It’s been my experience that most people go through two to three weeks of significant sugar cravings when they quit “cold turkey.” The moment cravings hit is another good time to get outside and exercise — you may get through the craving by being active, stimulating your brain, and “changing the channel” to take your mind off it. If that doesn’t work, try to select something that’s naturally sweet, such as a piece of dark chocolate or a bowl of fresh pineapple chunks, to satisfy the craving with something of better value to bones. Finally, be sure your multivitamin has at least 200 micrograms of chromium; this mineral helps stabilize blood sugar and eliminate sugar cravings. (Our Better Bones Builder contains 300 mcg of chromium.)
Explore sugar alternatives. I was never a fan of the chemical sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose, but there are some sugar substitutes that are actually good for you. One is xylitol, which is derived from wood alcohol, and another, stevia, is made from the tropical plant of the same name. Both have no impact on blood sugar (they’re great for diabetics), and they work well in beverages and baked goods—which means you don’t have to go without birthday cake or lemonade on a hot day. As an added benefit, xylitol suppresses the bacteria that cause dental caries, so keeping some xylitol-sweetened gum handy to stop cravings for sweets can literally prevent a “sweet tooth”!
Be prepared to try again… and again. Like any addictive substance, eliminating sugar from your life is hard. And just as quitting smoking can take multiple attempts, so does quitting sugar — so persevere. If your efforts to manage your cravings are unsuccessful and you splurge on cookies or ice cream, don’t beat yourself up; refresh yourself with some cool water or a cup of hot tea, remind yourself that there are good reasons why you’re doing this, and start over tomorrow — because sooner or later, you’ll find yourself looking back and realizing you’ve been without sugar (and no longer miss it) for weeks, if not months.
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DiNicolantonio J, Mehta V, Bin Zaman S, O’Keefe J. Not salt but sugar as aetiological in osteoporosis: A Review. Missouri Med. 2018;115:247–252.
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I’m Dr. Susan Brown. I am a nutritionist, medical anthropologist, writer, and speaker. Get my free weekly newsletter here.