Sugar is sugar is sugar, right?
Well, yes and no.
“I thought The Virgin Diet was a no-sugar diet,” people write me, “so why does your All-in-One protein powder have 5 grams of sugar?”
In The Virgin Diet, my rule is that a protein powder or other packaged food can have no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving. I realized this created some confusion, so I’d like to more fully explain sugar rules for The Virgin Diet here.
Why The Virgin Diet is a low-sugar (not no-sugar) diet
Save for momentary gratification, nothing good comes from eating sugar. It wreaks your immune system, crashes your blood sugar to create fatigue and bloating, stores as fat, and sets the stage for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
But unless you eat an all-meat diet (something I don’t recommend), you’re going to get some sugar in your diet. Even though they aren’t necessarily sweet, even green non-starchy veggies and raw nuts contain a little sugar. In fact, 2 cups of broccoli contains about 5 grams of sugar!
The important thing is how quickly that sugar raises your blood sugar levels. Rather than being a no-sugar diet, The Virgin Diet is a low-glycemic diet.
In other words, the foods you eat on my diet create a slow, steady rise in blood sugar. You don’t get a giant insulin surge that subsequently causes your blood sugar to crash and creates fatigue, inflammation, and fat gain.
On the other hand, let’s say you eat a hot fudge sundae, which you won’t find recommended anywhere in The Virgin Diet.
You’re going to get a rapid blood sugar spike. Insulin swoops in to pull that blood sugar down, but what happens too often is insulin over-compensates and pulls your blood sugar down too low, leaving you fatigued and oddly craving another hot fudge sundae even though you just ate one 2 hours ago.
You’d have to eat a heck of a lot of broccoli or raw almonds to raise your blood sugar even a little bit. Besides having trivial amounts of sugar to begin with, fiber in these foods further buffers out that minute sugar load.
Even legumes and other starchy carbs, which are a little higher in sugar, offer beneficial amounts of fiber to balance blood sugar levels. I recommend them in small amounts on The Virgin Diet because they offer nutrients and steady sustained energy.
Bottom line: it’s not just the sugar in these foods that creates problems. It’s the food’s overall glycemic impact on your bloodstream. In other words, too much sugar and devoid of fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
Sugar in fruit
Because some varieties are higher in sugar, fruit is a little more complex than vegetables and other foods on The Virgin Diet.
Higher-glycemic fruits like bananas and grapes can raise blood sugar pretty quickly because they have more sugar but also less fiber than, say, raspberries. They aren’t “bad” foods, but neither are they unlimited as some diet plans will have you believe. Trust me: if you eat a big bowl of red grapes, you will raise your blood sugar.
Berries, on the other hand, are lower on the glycemic index, which means they provide a slow, steady rise in blood sugar that won’t trigger a dramatic insulin response. Berries are my preferred fruit in The Virgin Diet, followed by apples and other lower-glycemic fruits.
Occasionally someone will ask why I recommend something like blueberries, considering a cup of them contains 15 grams of sugar. Doesn’t that violate my 5-grams-or-less per serving sugar rule?
Well, nature packaged blueberries (and other fruits, for that matter) with nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and all kinds of other compounds that cumulatively reduce that sugar load.
Like I mentioned before, the fiber and nutrients in blueberries create a relatively low glycemic index. In fact, studies show blueberries can help normalize blood sugar levels and reduce your risk for diabetes.
On the other hand, dumping 15 grams of sugar into processed foods like a protein bar has a completely different effect on your blood sugar levels. Even if you get a little fiber, you’re not getting all those nutrients and antioxidants to buffer out sugar’s effects. Processed food will never be able to compete with Mother Nature!
What about fructose in fruit?
If you follow my blog or read The Virgin Diet, you know fructose is nasty stuff. It raises triglycerides that store as fat, stresses your liver, and triggers inflammation.
There’s more. Fructose raises your cholesterol, increases glycosylated hemoglobin, spikes your blood pressure, and sets you up for insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes.
Doctors are seeing more non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD) than ever before, and a huge culprit is the increased amount of high-fructose corn syrup and even “healthy” sweeteners like agave.
“But wait,” people say, “an apple has fructose. So why do you tell people to eat apples?”
Remember how I said blueberries came wrapped up with fiber and nutrients that buffer out some of their sugar? Same deal with apples.
That’s far different, in other words, than getting fructose in a candy bar. Whether it goes by high-fructose corn syrup or agave, added fructose in packaged foods comes heavily processed, typically from corn (a no-no on The Virgin Diet), with little or no fiber and other nutrients to buffer its negative effects.
Apples and other fruit contain a combination of glucose and fructose as sweeteners. Unlike glucose, fructose does not impact your insulin levels but instead goes to your liver to process.
Your liver can handle about 15 grams of fructose. Any more than that and your liver gets overwhelmed, leading to inflammation, fat gain, and other problems. That’s why I tell you in The Virgin Diet to limit fruit to 1 – 2 servings a day.
To further buffer that sugar load, I like to combine fruit with protein and fat. Smear almond butter, for instance, on apple slices, and add blueberries into The Virgin Diet Shake.
One last thing about fruit and sugar: I like to add frozen (rather than fresh) berries to The Virgin Diet Shake for better texture and taste. Always read your label when you buy frozen fruit, since some varieties contain added sugar.
What about no-sugar-added foods?
Manufacturers realize you know sugary foods are bad, so they’ve cleverly developed “guilt-free” versions of your favorites. Craving chocolate toffee or butter pecan ice cream? No worries: now you can “legally” enjoy a sugar-free version.
Manufacturers originally created these processed foods for people with type 2 diabetes, but dieters quickly caught on, believing they could literally have their cake and eat it too.
Let’s take a look at 2 of these disclaimers to see how they can become confusing:
- “No sugar added” – just because a manufacturer hasn’t added sugar doesn’t mean the food or drink doesn’t contain sugar. For instance, a no-sugar-added ice cream might still contain 10 grams of sugar per serving, depending on what other sugar-containing ingredients they’ve used. In other words, “no sugar added” does not mean that food is sugar free.
- “Sugar free” – again, you’re not off the hook here. That food or drink may indeed have no sugar, but it frequently contains artificial sweeteners and/ or sugar alcohols. Artificial sweeteners are off-limits on The Virgin Diet. Excessive amounts of sugar alcohols (particularly maltitol) in processed foods can cause unpleasant gastric effects (better be near a bathroom!), and experts aren’t sure their impact on insulin secretion.
In other words, these aren’t the guilt-free indulgences manufacturers would have you believe. They often have as many calories as their sugar-filled version, they’re trigger foods, they create a halo effect, and they can seriously stall fast fat loss.
You won’t find a “sugar free” or “no sugar added” label on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and other whole unprocessed foods. They may contain small amounts of sugar, but that sugar is a far cry from the heavily processed high-fructose corn syrup in packaged foods.
Indulging on The Virgin Diet
I get it: everyone likes to indulge sometimes. The Virgin Diet is about eating sensibly, not deprivation, and I’m not going to have you forgo the occasional dark chocolate or almond butter.
But the 5-grams-or-less sugar rule still applies, and use it sparingly! Dark chocolate lovers rejoice: you can find many higher-cacao bars that meet that quota. Just remember my per serving rule, since many dark chocolate bars contain several servings.
I also like the sweetener Lo Han (monk fruit), which So Delicious uses in their no-sugar-added coconut milk ice cream. Lo Han offers health benefits and does not raise blood sugar like sucrose (table sugar). When you’ve reached cycle 3 of The Virgin Diet, you can enjoy these and other treats from So Delicious. Learn more about what natural sweeteners I recommend here.
You can even occasionally incorporate their unsweetened coconut or almond milk yogurts, which are slightly higher in sugar, into The Virgin Diet once you’ve reached cycle 3.
Whether you do dark chocolate or So Delicious unsweetened coconut yogurt, remember portion is key when you indulge. If you take a few bites of dark chocolate and lose control, break off 1 serving and step away from the chocolate!
© 2012 JJ Virgin & Associates, Inc. Celebrity Nutrition & Fitness Expert JJ Virgin helps clients lose weight fast by breaking free from food allergies. She is the bestselling author of Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy, a Huffington Post blogger, creator of the 4X4 Burst Training Workout & co-star of TLC’s Freaky Eaters. Her latest book, New York Times Bestseller The Virgin Diet: Drop 7 Foods, Lose 7 Pounds, Just 7 Days, is out now. Learn more at www.thevirgindiet.com.