Episode 5 | JJ Virgin | Confessions Of A Sugar Addict
Why you should listen –
I want to admit: I was a sugar addict. I loved treats. My after-school ritual as a kid was diving into my mom’s drawer of store-bought chocolate cupcakes and cream-filled snack cakes, which started me on the road to a daily treat. I’ve modified my sugar intake throughout the years, as science has revealed that sugar has many negative effects on the body and the brain. But nothing changed my relationship with sugar more than today’s guest, JJ Virgin. A celebrity nutritionist and New York Times bestselling author, JJ Virgin came into my life at just the right time, and had a huge impact on me with her book The Sugar Impact Diet. Once you read it, you will never again look at sugar the same way. It’s one thing to know that sugar is bad for you, but quite another to discover how to remove the craving for this guilty pleasure while losing a little weight and regaining energy. JJ is also author of the New York Times bestseller The Virgin Diet, which topped the charts for over 30 weeks. Years ago, I caught an episode of a television show that JJ was hosting called Freaky Eaters, about people who ate bizarre things – a woman who smothered everything in maple syrup, for example – and as JJ explains, we all have a bit of a freaky eater within us.
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Kathy Smith: JJ, welcome to the show.
JJ Virgin: Yeah, it’s like, what’s you’re freaky eating? So, we know yours was Twinkies. That was always my big question, Kathy. It was like, well, did you like the Ho Hos or the Ding Dongs better? I must admit Twinkies weren’t my thing. I was a Pop-Tart girl. There you go. We grew up around the same time though. It’s like weren’t we all raised on Pop Tarts and Captain Crunch and Hostess?
Kathy Smith: If the cereal didn’t have some color in it, then it just wasn’t worth eating. I had to have the many shades of green and pink and whatever else. JJ, speaking of breakfast cereals, you’ve always said that you’re a fan of this zero sugar breakfast. Why is it so important to start the day off with a zero-sugar breakfast, and what does that look like to you?
JJ Virgin: You mean as opposed to starting the day off with dessert, which is what most of us do? I mean, you look at it, Kathy, and some of those–I’m going to have a muffin and I’ll have skinny latte, and you look at this muffin and if you take a cupcake and you wipe off the frosting, you’ve got a muffin. That’s what it is.
The challenge is when people start the day with dessert, when they start it with the trifecta of sugar, gluten and dairy, that’s just this opiate hit that gets you into a craving cycle. It also gets you into a blood sugar roller coaster that you never get off of during the day. So, one of the most important things – it’s like, one of those things Mom always said is, “Eat your breakfast.” Unfortunately for me, it was Pop-Tarts, Captain Crunch or literally those big cinnamon rolls, that was usually my breakfast. At about age 12, I started switching over and getting all of the sugar out, and I noticed such a dramatic shift.
Now, my go-to is–I’m really looking for people to start the day off right. Again, it’s so they have good blood sugar control throughout the day. That means fat, fiber and protein. That is the perfect little trifecta for not only great blood sugar control but also reducing your cravings, having great focus, having great energy. What that looks like for me is I start every day with a shake. I use a high-quality protein powder. I put in almond or coconut milk. I add a little avocado, some fiber like chia seeds or my extra fiber and some spinach and usually a little bit of berries. That’s it. I’m good to go with some ice.
Kathy Smith: Well, you know, we’ve evolved the same way, because that’s my go-to also. I know on your website – and we can talk about it later – but you have all sorts of great recipes, and those shakes don’t have to be boring whatsoever. As a matter of fact, they’ve become my treat now because they’re so great tasting, and I love the flavor, I love the texture, I love everything about it. I’m glad you’re bringing up shakes, because I also believe they’re important.
But let’s say you’re not a shake person. Let’s say that’s not the thing. What would be some other suggestions for a good breakfast?
JJ Virgin: Here’s the crazy thing. If you look at it, why did we create a breakfast to literally be like dessert? Pancakes, toast, waffles, cereal. Why don’t we have what we would eat for lunch or dinner for breakfast. So, with my kids growing up, we did not have cereal and milk. It wasn’t in the house. We would have a lot of times, leftovers from the night before – grass fed beef burgers or we would do eggs and chicken breakfast sausage.
So, we did really basic stuff, and I always made sure they got some great protein and some healthy fats in at breakfast so that they would have really, again, steady control throughout the day with some kind of fiber. That could mean some berries, it could mean some sliced tomatoes, it could mean some–they’ll do a little bit of oatmeal. I find if I do oatmeal, it crashes my blood sugar, so I can’t do it. But I focus so much more in the morning on healthy fats and protein. That could be simply–like, for a while there I was into chicken, avocado and beans for breakfast.
So, I think we really have to reframe, get off the idea of breakfast foods and get on the idea of food for breakfast. It does not have to be traditional breakfast foods which are all desserts.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, I was just in Nashville and all of us went to the Loveless Cafe, which is kind of a classic place in Nashville. You’re right. You’re sitting down and it’s the waffles and it’s the grits, and as I travel around the country as I know you do, you see that this is the way Mom did it, this is the way Grandma did it, this is the way we’ve been raised. Sometimes it’s just hard to break the pattern.
So, give us a few tips because I know that’s what, honestly, as much as I love everything you talk about with sugar, what I love the best is how you help people break through and first of all, take responsibility for their meals. But also, how do you start breaking the sugar addiction?
JJ Virgin: Yeah, that’s such a big one. What happened was, I write the Virgin Diet and the biggest question I got asked was about sugar. Because I had dropped seven foods. Really, it was about foods you’re intolerant to. The key ones were gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, peanuts. Of course, I had to include sugar because sugar messes up your gut microbiome and it can make you more intolerant. It’s just bad. I realized when I did this, people were just like, “Well, can I have honey? What about artificial sweeteners?”
I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” This really is a whole different level, and it seemed people were either confused or they were controlled and a lot of times both. So, I went, first of all, we’ve been looking at sugar all wrong because it’s not just about eating no sugar. It’s about knowing which to use and which to lose.
The other challenge is we’ve been approaching getting off of it and breaking that cycle all wrong. Because we’re, “Ok, no more sugar,” and if you’re used to starting in the morning and having that muffin and latte. Then, maybe at lunch, you think, “I’ll be good and I’ll have a salad.” So, you have a salad, but you have glazed walnuts and dried fruit, maybe some glazed chicken and, then, you’ll have a raspberry vinaigrette. Well, you’ve just had a sundae. Then, in the afternoon, your energy crashes, so you have one of those yogurts. The fruit sweetened yogurts have more sugar than the same amount of ice cream. Then dinner, maybe you’ll be a vegetarian so you have a little bit of marinara which has more sugar than a couple of Oreo cookies and another salad with balsamic vinaigrette which is just syrup.
So, you see how this thing happens and if you just go, “Alright. I’m pulling all of that out,” – the big challenge, of course, is all the sugar sneaking in – your energy crashes because you’ve trained your body to be a sugar burner, to wait for sugar every couple of hours so that it uses that for steady energy.
So, the biggest thing, Kathy, is to identify where all the sugar’s sneaking in. It’s really not that we’re sitting down eating table sugar. It’s the challenges that’s being added to so many of the foods that we eat. We don’t realize it and we start to dull our sweet tooth, so we want more and more sweet. You have to taper down. That’s the key to really breaking free from sugar. It’s not just going cold turkey, because that’s going to send your energy crashing and you racing for a cookie.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, and I think your point about how it all sneaks in, that’s why it’s so important to read food labels. I even know for myself, and I’m on top of this stuff, but I was at Whole Foods yesterday and I picked up–I was in a hurry. They didn’t have the brand of kombucha that I usually buy, and I picked up kombuchas, I’m running out and I drink it down. Later, after I drank two servings by the way, because it’s not one serving but the two servings in the bottle, there was 25 grams of sugar.
It was just literally out of being in a hurry, careless. That’s why it’s so important, especially when you start changing foods around and until you get comfortable with this concept of where sugar’s hiding, just start reading your labels.
JJ Virgin: It’s so hard, because you made an assumption so many people do. You walked into Whole Foods so you already felt like, “Everything is nice here. I’m amongst friends.” Then, you bought kombucha. It sounds great. It’s just like you can go into Whole Foods and you can buy a certain green drink in there, and if you get that green drink and drink it – 16 oz. is actually two servings – but in that 16 oz. is 44 grams of sugar because the green drink is actually fruit juice, and fruit juice is really like a soda.
So, that’s the challenge is we think we’re safe in certain places and, really, we’re not. Again, it’s not the cookies or the ice cream. We all know there’s sugar there. It’s the salad dressings. It’s those green drinks or smoothies or skinny lattes, things like that that you just think are fine because of where you’re buying them or what they’re called. Those are the ones that are challenging.
The other side, Kathy, is not just about–all carbohydrates turn to sugar except for fiber, so you’ve really got to take everything into account. Because it’s not about just sugar, it’s looking at carbohydrates in general and making sure that you’re really focusing on slow carbohydrates, because what you want to do is you want to teach your body to take food in and slowly make sugar from it to keep nice, stable blood sugar. So, that would be the difference between, say, eating white rice and wild rice. Wild rice, your body’s going to have to work a lot harder to turn that into slow blood sugar. It’s the difference between a white potato and, say, pumpkin which is one of the best things out there that we hardly ever eat – or butternut squash.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, I know. It is this education and the learning over a period of time. It’s not a one day learn everything about sugar, because it’s also just seeing for myself how your body reacts to certain things.
For instance, you mentioned oatmeal. Now, I happen to like a little oatmeal throughout the week, every once in a while, with some walnuts, with some almond milk, maybe with some chia seeds. It really will depend on what kind of workout I’m having that day also. I know, for my body, if I’m just going to be jumping on a podcast, going and sitting for the next five hours, I won’t go to that fuel source. Do you agree, that just understanding how your particular body and what kind of energy you’re going to be expending over the next four to five hours, is that part of the equation?
JJ Virgin: You said something super important at the very beginning of the show that feeds into this and that was about taking responsibility for what you’re eating, which to a bigger level is taking the responsibility for your health. That’s one of my big core missions out there. Part of that is doing exactly what you’re talking about, is going through a process.
Both in The Virgin Diet and the Sugar Impact Diet, I have you do this. You go through a personal discovery process where you basically go through kind of like a detox or a reset to see how you really feel. So many of us haven’t connected the dots like you just talked about where you now know, “Hey, in a day that I’m doing less, I actually feel better with lower carbohydrates, and days I’m more active, I’m going to need more of them.” So, you really learn, “How do I feel best? When do I need to eat in terms of when I’m going to work out? When do I feel best after a workout,” so you know exactly what to do. I agree.
I know that if I’m more active during the day, I eat a little bit more of slow low carbs. If I’m less active, I eat less of them. After a workout is when I do make sure that I’m getting in something that’s got some protein and carbs, because it’s going to help me get a better workout in the next day.
Kathy Smith: Ok. So, everybody likes to go out to eat. I know you’re on the road more than most people, but let’s do a rapid-fire question. I’m just going to ask you if JJ Virgin walked into a restaurant and different types of restaurants and just whatever comes to your mind, but what would you order. Let’s start. Mexican.
JJ Virgin: That’s my favorite food to eat. I think it’s the easiest way to eat healthy. I get, basically, a salad with fajita vegetables. I either get chicken or carnitas or shrimp and, then, salsa, guacamole and black beans. Honestly, I just came back from a week in Mexico. It’s the easiest place to eat healthy. I just load up. I just hog out on guacamole.
Kathy Smith: I love it. Let’s go, maybe, a little harder. Italian. How would you go Italian?
JJ Virgin: Italian, to me, I’m still good because my favorite thing to eat at an Italian restaurant is cioppino. So, I just do cioppino, and I don’t let them put pepperette in it. That is my favorite, or eating a lemon caper salmon. That’s one I get a lot there too or something like a ratatouille. I just don’t do the pasta. I still don’t find it to be an issue, because so many of the meats and the fish and the chicken are awesome at Italian restaurants. So, I just get the pasta out and the veggies in.
You know, you can sub your sides. That’s a little technique to do at restaurants is look at what they have all over the menu and, then, assemble your meal accordingly.
Kathy Smith: Yeah. Such good advice. Let’s go Chinese.
JJ Virgin: I think Chinese is more difficult, because I’m gluten free and Chinese–here’s where you’re going to get in trouble. Asian food tends to throw a lot of sugar in. That’s why I like to go eat Japanese food more than Chinese food, because I will do my own special skinny hand rolls with wild salmon and some avocado and cucumbers. That’s my most favorite thing to do. At Chinese restaurants, I will tend to do the chicken lettuce wraps without using that sauce that’s just loaded with sugar. I actually don’t like sugar sweet sauces, so I’m kind of lucky there. Then, I will usually do, like, a Buddhist feast vegetable or some kind of a curry.
You do have to be careful with some of the curries. I love Thai food and I love the coconut milk curry chicken soup. Some of the curries you have to be more careful with. You’re usually better with green curry, not a red or phanaeng in terms of sugar content.
Kathy Smith: Does JJ Virgin ever do fast food? Do you ever end up at McDonald’s?
JJ Virgin: I don’t do those ones, but I do go to either Rubio’s, Chipotle or Baja Fresh and order exactly what I just said. I guess those are pseudo fast foods, because you really can’t drive through them, but that’s my favorite thing.
Oh, I do have one other place that’s sort of my go-to, and I call it chicken crack. I do not know what Pollo Loco puts in their chicken, and I’m sure and I probably shouldn’t know, but whatever they’re marinating that chicken with, it is serious chicken crack. That is the other one that if I do have to drive through for some reason, I will go get a chicken breast over at Pollo Loco, but they also let you modify a lot of different things now on their menu. So, that’s my go-to drive through place.
Kathy Smith: Let me ask you. I went through a loss this week. My sister had a heart attack and passed away earlier in the week, and it’s been a really tough week for obvious reasons. I know you’ve suffered different things in your life with your son, and we all go through these challenging times.
What I find is that for me I go to sugar. I noticed that when I was in Hawaii and having to go through maybe not sleeping as well, grieving, just emotion in general. It doesn’t have to be grief. It can be issues job, issues with relationships, issues with not feeling good enough about yourself, but it seems to me, especially with women–I don’t know if men have the same issue, but with women, it seems like, “The chocolate’s going to make me feel so much better.” How do you help people with emotional sugar eating?
JJ Virgin: It was interesting, Kathy. Because we did this survey of our community, and we found out that the biggest issue that people battled with that really was the determination of whether they were going to really go for it, and their program was a feeling of self-worth and were they worthy enough.
Going through this thing with my son where he nearly died and I had to completely show up for him, and I couldn’t be sick because he was in the ICU for months, it made me realize that we have to realize practicing self-care is probably the best thing that we can do for our family and for our loved ones. I think for so many of us, instead of practicing self-care because we feel guilty doing it, like we’re not worth it, we look for quick fixes. So, chocolate, that’s going to help them boost serotonin, which is going to make you temporarily feel good, is a quick fix for something else that you’re probably craving which is connection. When my son got hit, it was very interesting because one of my friends said, “Oh, my gosh. Take care of yourself. Call up and get a pizza.”
And I’m thinking, “A, I don’t have any margin for error in getting sick and, B, what I really crave is connection.” I went out and I asked for help. I reached out and people were there at that hospital with me all the time. That’s how I pulled through it was the energy of everybody else. If you reach out and get connection from someone when you’re hurting, that’s what you’re really craving, not the chocolate.
So, I think it’s really backing up. One of my best girlfriends, Cynthia Biscuola, her big, whole thing is, “What are you really hungry for?” Because it’s probably not the chocolate. The chocolate’s a stop gap.
Kathy Smith: Um-hum, except when you are hungry for chocolate.
JJ Virgin: There are times when you’re hungry for chocolate. Here’s the best part about it is that some dark chocolate’s a great thing. That’s not the problem. It’s when you’re eating a whole chocolate cake that’s a whole other story. So, it’s also getting clear as, “Am I self-medicating with this or I’m having a little bit of sweet at the end of a meal? What is really going on here with this. Is this me using food as a crutch or a drug or is this just part of my healthy eating routine and I know I feel good when I do this? And I don’t feel drugged when I do this.”
Kathy Smith: Yeah, and I’ve been wanting to ask you this when we talk about cakes and things. Because I know on Facebook, you’re engaged and you’ve got this great–by the way, fantastic looking couple.
JJ Virgin: He’s so hot.
Kathy Smith: I know, so hot. But I’m thinking that there’s going to be–you know, when the wedding comes, the question is, is there going to be a wedding cake and if so, what kind?
JJ Virgin: That’s funny. I actually don’t like cake. I really am one of those people who does not have a sweet tooth. I’d rather eat a big piece of grass-fed ribeye. A steak is just so crazy, but however, we are absolutely having a cake. But in San Diego where we’re getting married – and not for a year plus, Kathy. It’s a ways out.
However, there is a bakery here called Too Good to Be and they make gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, low-sugar cakes that are amazing. So, I am absolutely having that cake. This isn’t about never having cake again. Here’s the thing. This isn’t about not having cake, not having ice cream. We have So Delicious dairy-free ice cream in our freezer – the one gram of sugar ice cream and we Lily’s dark chocolate chips that are stevia sweetened, so that’s our little treat at night if we want one. It’s not about not eating sugar, it’s making it really darn worth it when you do have it. I don’t do well with gluten or dairy, so I keep those out. This bakery is amazing.
So, we’re absolutely having cake. Are you kidding? Heck, yeah. I want to have a dark chocolate fountain too, so stay tuned.
Kathy Smith: It’s good to hear that there’s kind of a sweet spot between not having any and overindulging. That’s something I always get questions about, but you mentioned about stevia and artificial sweeteners. What is your take on artificial sweeteners? Which ones do you like and which are avoided at all cost?
JJ Virgin: I think that’s a real important point that you just hit. This is not about no sugar or not about–those people that live like, that very rigid, ostare life, forget it. They go off the rails the other way. So, it’s really finding, when you go through your process, you figure out where’s your sweet spot and how much can you really get in and how does it make you feel? When you connect the dots like you talked about before, you go, “Well, I know I can have a little dark chocolate. I feel great. But if I eat this dark chocolate cake, I feel crappy so I’ll pick the chocolate.”
Now, in terms of sweeteners, one of the things I take people through in the Sugar Impact Diet is being able to really reclaim their sweet sensitivity and not want sweeter and sweeter and sweeter food that we do when we eat a lot of artificially sweetened or fructose sweetened foods.
The artificial sweeteners, I can’t stand any of them. I think they are the most detrimental thing. You’re better off having sugar than you are having artificial sweeteners. So, on the top of the “no” list are any artificial sweeteners. They impact your gut microbiome and make it more glucose intolerant and set you up for diabetes. They don’t work for what we wanted them to do, which is to be able to have diabetics eat sweet food and not get hurt. They can make you diabetic over time, they can make you gain weight, they make you crave more sweet, they make you overeat, they’re neuroexcitatory, they’re just bad news.
Now, stevia, monk fruit or erythritol, xylitol are not artificial sweeteners. Stevia and monk fruit are herbs. Xylitol and erythritol are sugar alcohols. Those are my go-tos, but with a caveat. Don’t go be a piggy with these things. Use these if you need a little sweet. One of my favorite things to do is in my NutriBullet I throw in ice cubes and either lemons or limes and a little bit of an erythritol/stevia blend that I’ve made, and I make a really amazing shaved lemon or shaved lime ice. I use as little sweetener as possible, because I want people to get back into natural sweetness of foods and start to use things like cinnamon and vanilla. They actually have health benefits. I love stevia and monk fruit because they actually do have health benefits. So does xylitol.
Then, in the regular sugars–I mean, all sugar is sugar. So, this idea that honey is a health food is silly. A little local of organic honey, like half a teaspoon during allergy season, possibly good. If you’re squirting a bunch of the Honey Bear in your coffee because you think it’s ok for you, you’re wrong. The worst of all the regular sugars of course is fructose, and either agave or crystalline fructose or apple juice concentrate that they can put in products and say “No sugar added” because it’s fruit juice concentrate which is so wrong, those are the worst of all, because fructose is the most damaging sugar we have out there.
Kathy Smith: I know. Even though we’re running out of time, could we just spend just a little bit of time on the fructose message, because I agree. I was raised on fruit galore. By the way, through all of my years of being in the business of course, there was the fit-for-life fad which was you’d get up in the morning–
JJ Virgin: Yeah, an apple for breakfast. As much as you want.
Kathy Smith: Yeah, nothing but fruit until noon. So, it was fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit. By the way, speaking of Whole Foods – it’s not a diss to Whole Foods because I love Whole Foods. But you walk in and you walk by the berries and the nectarines and the pineapple and the mango. That’s the good section except. Give us the exception on why fructose and fruit has to be eaten in moderation.
JJ Virgin: I’m so glad you brought it up. Fruit is not free food. I just had one of my Facebook clients the other day that said, “Yeah, I’ve been told that I’m supposed to eat fruit by itself, and if you eat fruit by itself, it just magically goes through your body and doesn’t do anything.”
I’m like, “Really?” Who says this stuff? It’s not air. So, fruit is made up of sucrose, fructose and glucose. Basically, all sugar except for fructose is going to raise your blood sugar, raise insulin, all that. That’s not a great thing. However, it does trigger all your satiety signals so that you knew that you ate.
Now, fructose is different because the only organ that can metabolize fructose is the liver, and it turns out, Kathy, the more fructose you eat, the better your body gets at taking fructose to the liver and turning it into fat and storing it that way. That is why we’re now seeing children with fatty liver disease. We have this new fatty liver disease that we never used to have (because it used to be something that alcoholics had) called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Fructose is the most damaging sugar of all. It pokes holes in the small intestine which can lead to food intolerance. It’s also glycate seven times more than any other sugar. That’s aging. It’s like the crust on bread. It’s protein and sugar getting together and cross-linking that makes you age faster. It’s the brown spots. It’s the wrinkles. It’s not what we want. It is the most aging thing you can do, and it’s super sweet, so the more fructose you eat, the more you want.
So, of course, it’s in high fructose corn syrup along with glucose. Agave is 90 plus percent fructose. Crystalline fructose is all fructose. It’s also in fruit. The thing with fruit is you also get fiber and phytonutrients, but fruit is not free food. In fact, during the Sugar Impact Diet when I’m having people reset their sugar sensitivity, for two weeks, I take them off all fructose, because it’s amazing how quickly you can reclaim your sweet tooth and get better at burning fat when you get fructose out.
There’s just this idea out here that you can have as much fruit as you want, and that is crazy. Also, fruit juice, you might as well be drinking a soda. You’re getting all the fiber pulled out and just a massive fructose hit because you’re having four to six pieces of fruit. Dried fruit, to me, is just like candy. We have to be very mindful of the fruit especially during the summer months when you walk in and it’s, like, oh, there it is looking so fabulous.
I think back 10,000 years ago, we had long days during the summer, you were more insulin resistant because you were not sleeping as much – longer days. You had all this fruit so you could store a bunch of fat to make it through the winter. So, fruit will help you store fat. Just be aware of that next time you’re reaching for the big old pineapple.
Kathy Smith: Oh, my gosh. JJ, it’s so much fun talking to you. You’re so obviously knowledgeable, but just the way that you make it so accessible to everybody. I love it. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show. I’m such a big fan. I’m sure you have so many more new fans now.
Where do we find you? Where is the best place to find your products, your books and all your other products? At your website?
JJ Virgin: At my website: JJVirgin.com. It’s simple.
Kathy Smith: Ok, we’ll check it out. Thant’s again, JJ. Love you to death. Thanks for being here.
JJ Virgin: Thank you too, hon.
Kathy Smith: It was so much fun having JJ on the show today. She’s such a wealth of knowledge. So, what was my number one take away today? There’s so many of them, but I think the thing I really want to take away this week is where and how to spot those hidden sugar bombs that are hiding and sneaking their way into everything from pasta sauce to yogurt. What else? Barbecue sauce, dried fruit.
As innocent as it may seem, even a fruit yogurt, which sounds like it should be so good for you can have 19 grams of sugar. It’s actually one of the biggest sugar bombs out there. So, if you only remember one thing from this episode, remember the golden rule at the grocery store. If it’s packaged, it’s probably packed with sugar. So, don’t forget to read the label. See you next time.