Sugarcane was domesticated some 10,000 years ago. People would pick sugarcane and eat it raw, chewing a stem until the taste hit their tongue like a starburst. It was a kind of potion – a cure for every ailment, an answer for every mood and it spread slowly from island to island. Today we hear the phrase “sweet tooth.” I am sure most of you can even remember the rush of positive emotions that you felt when your grandmother opened the cookie jar and handed you three of the most perfectly fresh-baked cookies and said, “Here… have another, for your sweet tooth.” Well, new research has begun to show that sugar is addictive and stimulates the brain’s reward centers. So, next time you can tell grandma that it may be more than just a “sweet tooth” after all.
What is happening in our in bodies when we eat sugar?
To begin to understand new research around sugar addiction, we must first start with a quick overview of what happens inside our bodies when we indulge in the sweet stuff. Sucrose, or table sugar, is composed of equal amounts of glucose and fructose. Fructose is processed primarily by the liver. If we eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, our livers break down the fructose and produce fats called triglycerides. Some of these fats will stay in the liver and overtime, can turn fatty and dysfunctional.
But, most of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood. Over time, this causes blood pressure to rise and the tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin to try to keep things in check. Eventually, if the pancreas tires out, it can lead to type 2 diabetes. Newer research is beginning to show that there is also a process going on within our brains as well. It is now recognized that highly palatable foods – such as foods containing high amounts of sugar – activate a reward center circuit within our brain by the release of dopamine as well as other neurotransmitters and hormones like endogenous opiates. This is what makes us feel good and what triggers the addictive properties.
Are you maybe addicted to sugar?
- Do you often consume certain foods even if you are not hungry because of cravings?
- Do you often worry about cutting down on certain foods?
- Do you feel often sluggish or fatigued from overeating?
- Do you have health or social problems affecting school/work because of food issues, and yet, keep eating the way you do despite negative consequences?
- Do you feel you need more and more of the foods you crave to experience any pleasure or reduce negative emotions?
If you answered yes to some or most of these questions, you may be becoming a victim of sugar addiction… and you aren’t the only one!
Guidelines for sugar intake
More than 70% of Americans eat at least 22 tsp of added sugar daily. The average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar each year! How can this be true? Is it because we don’t realize how much sugar is actually in our everyday diet, or is it because we don’t do a good job in healthcare of reinforcing what is recommended and how to interpret food labels correctly?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar to 6 teaspoons daily for females and 9 teaspoons daily for males. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating no more than 5% of your total calories as added sugar, which is equal to 6 teaspoons in a 2000 calorie diet. What about our children? Children LOVE sugar, and for some reason we love to feed it to them too! Well, both groups agree that the amount of added sugar that a child should consume on a daily basis depends on the child’s age and caloric intake. Most preschoolers should be limited to 4 teaspoons daily, children age 4- 8 years old should be limited to 3 teaspoons daily, and pre-teens and teens should be limited to 5 – 8 teaspoons daily.
Now that we have the recommendations, let’s go back to interpreting food labels. …Wait a minute – all of my labels indicate sugar in terms of grams rather than teaspoon! Okay, so who’s good at math? Well, 1 teaspoon = 4 grams. I challenge you now to open up your pantry and start looking at the food labels on some of your most common and favorite foods and drinks. I think you may be surprised to find how much sugar you are consuming on a daily basis!
Sure, the food industry can attempt to hijack certain parts of our brain, taste buds, and hormones, but it is not too late to fight back! Sugar has been controlling you for too long. Here are a few quick tips I recommend to get started on your fight back against sugar:
- Start reading those food labels. Companies are required to publish these food labels and much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets.
- Clean your house and be prepared. When temptation is staring at you straight in the face when you open the pantry, you are bound to fail. Clean your pantry and replace what you toss with foods that have less sugar and more nutrients. Be prepared by creating easy-to-grab healthy snacks and bring them along with you so you aren’t tempted by that convenience store and its Little Debbie snacks.
- Strategize to manage your stress better. What…is this lady for real? Give up sugar and manage my stress?! It’s true that stress can make cortisol levels rise and when cortisol levels rise, it’s complex natural alarm system communicates with regions of our brains that control mood, motivation and fear. This may make you more likely to grab for…that’s right sugar. To help better manage stress, start by increasing exercise and improving sleep quality. Learn relaxation techniques, foster healthy friendships, have a sense of humor, and seek professional counseling when needed.
- Get your ZZZZ’s. We have always been told that it is important to get adequate rest for many reasons that benefit our health. But, did you know that getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night can actually increase the amount of ghrelin – a hunger hormone – in your body? This hormone actually makes you feel hungry… Even when you’re not!
- Ditch the artificial sugar. Artificial sugars can cause a decrease in dopamine levels and actually leave you craving more real sugar. Artificial sweeteners are the ones found most in diet sodas.
- Make a transition to more fresh, whole foods. When you are at the grocery store, start adding more protein (fresh chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds) and skip the cookie and cake aisle. Check out the fresh produce to substitute more fresh fruits and vegetables to get your carbs from non-starchy foods.
Remember, this is just a start to a lifestyle change that can help you to slowly break the cycle of sugar addiction. You may fail and fall off the wagon, as this is common, but don’t beat yourself up! Just pick up where you left off, and next time, grab a friend to bring along for support. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts” – Winston Churchill