Sugar - Toxic? Addicting? Fattening?

How Fat became Sugar or Where’s the Sugar?

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For the past few decades, fat was the food villain, but sugar is muscling in to take its place.  As rates of sugar-related disorders such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease climb, many experts believe that when Americans reduced their intake of fat, they simply replaced it with sugar. 

Since the 1980’s, manufacturers have taken to replacing the fats in foods with sugar to make them equally, if not more palatable – often disguising the sugar under one or more of the 50 names by which the combination of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup might be found. 

Sugar has become an ingredient in prepared and packaged foods so well hidden it can only be avoided with a determined effort.  There is sugar not just in the obvious sweet foods – cookies, ice creams, chocolates, sodas, sports and energy drinks, sweetened iced tea, jams, jellies and breakfast cereals – but also in peanut butter, salad dressing, ketchup, barbecue sauces, canned soups, processed meats, bacon, hot dogs, roasted peanuts, pasta sauce, tinned tomatoes and breads.  Sugar is even added to cigarettes to give them a milder taste as compared to cigars.  

The Effects of Sugar

 Research involving humans and laboratory rats suggests consumption of sugar and sweets can trigger reward and craving states in your brain similar to addictive drugs.  Not only can sugar and sweets substitute for drugs like cocaine, in terms of how your brain reacts to them, they can even be more rewarding.

As with any addictive substance, when more and more sugar is consumed over time, withdrawal symptoms are experienced when it is removed (headaches, low energy, mood swings), and finally strong cravings often lead to relapse.  Regardless of the fact that it has been referred to as the “white plague” and rivals cocaine in its addictive strength, sugar remains a socially acceptable product to sell, eat, or use to celebrate and lavish on children. 

Sugar’s addictive power is three-fold.  First, we have a natural affinity to sugar.  It tastes yummy and gives our body fuel.  While stumbling upon a beehive or ripe wild berries was quite useful to our foraging ancestors in their quest to obtain enough calories, our situation is quite different today.  In our world of easy access, this added fuel has become over-available, over-processed and over-consumed.   Second, sugar increases pleasure-yielding opioids in the brain, similar to morphine and heroin, making one’s sugar cravings often too strong to ignore. Third, sugar begets more sugar.  Eating sugar clearly throws one’s body chemistry and gut health into a tailspin.  Tag on poor sleep habits, adrenal fatigue, and an overload of stress, intense cravings for sugar (or other substances like alcohol or drugs) can easily develop.  Insulin imbalances and a lack of the happy-brain chemical called serotonin are often underlying culprits.  Essentially, the sugar being consumed perpetuates the vicious cycle of more intense sugar cravings.  

When it comes to the gut, excess sugar consumption causes systems to go out of balance.  Probiotics in our gut feed on prebiotics, which are plant-based fibers from whole foods like apples, onions, garlic and bananas.  The bad bacteria like to eat sugar, so when we eat a high sugar diet, the undesirable bacteria thrive and start to grow out of control, while our beneficial bacteria dwindle in numbers.

Is eating a little bit of sugar ok?

 When it comes to consumption and the effects of sugar, you often hear things like:

  • All things in moderation…

  • A little bit won’t hurt…

  • It’s fuel for the brain…

People often use the justification for consuming sugar that it is ok in moderation and that you shouldn’t deprive yourself or eliminate any food groups.  Well, here’s the thing, sugar isn’t a food.  It’s just empty calories. Sugar is a pure chemical, extracted from plant sources, purer than cocaine which it resembles in many ways. 

Sugar contains:

  • No nutrients

  • No protein

  • No healthy fats

  • No enzymes

Sugar is just empty and quickly digested calories that pull minerals from the body during digestion.  It creates a hormone cascade when consumed that starts a positive feedback loop in the body to encourage more consumption.

One of the problems with the how-little-is-too much question is that we only know we are consuming too much sugar when we’re getting fatter or manifesting other symptoms of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome ties together a host of disorders that the medical community typically thought of an unrelated, or at least having separate and distinct causes – including obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and inflammation – as products of insulin resistance and high circulating insulin levels.  Regulatory systems throughout the body begin to misbehave, with slow, chronic, pathological consequences everywhere. 

What Besides Sugar Can Cause Sugar Cravings?

 While sugar cravings can be caused by consuming sugar, other scenarios besides consuming sugar can cause sugar cravings. 

Low protein and fat intake can trigger a longing for sugary foods.  Protein and fats slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, when you don’t consume enough of them your blood sugar can rise and fall at an abnormal rate.  The result is that your body craves energy from sugar. 

This is the same reason you crave sugar on a high carbohydrate diet.  Simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream fast, raising blood sugar, then subsequently raise the hormone insulin.  Without fiber, protein, or fat in your food, simple carbohydrates alone won’t leave you full or satisfied, and soon you’ll be wanting more. 

Once your system learns to fuel itself without carbs and by adding more protein, fat and fiber,  the craving dissipates. 

Artificial sweeteners aren’t helpful either.  Artificial sweeteners were invented to take the place of sugar for a lower-calorie option, but research suggests you will experience the same cravings, or even eat more food and total calories, when consuming this alternative, ultimately leaving you feeling guilty either way. 

Poor sleep habits can promote food cravings.  Research has shown that even one night of poor sleep can decrease the upper brain function of the cerebrum – the part of the brain responsible for complex judgements and decisions – resulting in next-day-junk food cravings. 

Stress affects your cortisol levels, a hormone that when elevated will alter your circulating levels of glucose and insulin.  Stress affects hunger and cravings in people differently, but your body will quickly use its energy stores while in overdrive.

What to do?

Consider these quick tips for success while you plan long-term behavior changes to minimize cravings. 

1)      Recognize your bad habits.  Have an alternative the moment you get a craving.  It could be an exercise, or a glass of water or herbal tea. If I’m craving something sweet I find something like cinnamon-orange tea will hit the spot.

2)      Incorporate more proteins and fats into your diet.  Avoid snacks/meals that are made up of all carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates.  Eliminate artificial sweeteners and foods with added sugar. 

3)      Get sufficient, better quality, and consistent sleep.  Be diligent bout going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. 

4)      Seek serotonin from other sources.  Try green tea, walnuts, eggs, cheese (if you can eat dairy), or increasing your exercise routine to boost your serotonin levels.  

5)      Work on eliminating processed foods wherever possible and make your own REAL food.  It doesn’t have to be complicated and you will be rewarded with good health, energy and sleep.

6)      JUST SAY NO.  Commit to a sugar free month and reflect on how you feel.  It won’t be easy, and you may have some weak moments, but overall you will consume less sugar and will feel better. Over time you won’t crave the sugar and it when you do it, it won’t taste as good as you remembered it.   

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Linda Bishop