By Susan Bianchi
Our love affair with sugar in all its forms may be creating many more serious issues than a simple sweet tooth. America’s insatiable appetite for sweets has us consuming about 90 pounds of added sugar per person, per year. Some recent health reports on the matter have gone so far as to label the table staple “toxic,” saying the effects of processed sugar along with its addictive properties make it a lethal combination that requires further examination.
Think all you have to worry about is that spare tire? The truth is, increased sugar in the average diet can have a multitude of serious and unexpected consequences aside from weight gain, including conditions that negatively affect both heart and liver function. Sugar in excess can be toxic on the liver, as it is metabolized similarly to alcohol. This increases the risk of chronic conditions and can cause liver damage with or without weight gain.
The Journal of the American Heart Association published a study in 2013 that showed excess sugar can increase the overall risk of heart disease, affecting the pumping mechanism of the heart and increasing the risk of heart failure.
While childhood obesity is at epidemic levels, a recent study showed fructose (often found in sweetened beverages) caused visceral fat cells to mature in children. Accumulation of fat particularly in the abdominal region is a strong precursor for increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Additionally, excess fructose can create leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone that tells the body when it has had enough food. With leptin turned off, the brain doesn’t receive the signal to stop eating, which can lead to overconsumption, weight gain and obesity. Diets high in sugar and starch negatively impact survival rates in breast cancer and colon cancer patients, while particular sugars in the intestines have been found to trigger a protein that can increase the cells’ susceptibility to cancer formation.
With a host of health consequences, why do we continue to consume sugar in excess? A reason it is hard to say “no” to sugar is that we have been hardwired to like sweet tastes as part of our primal survival mechanism. The limbic system in the brain rewards behavior that supports survival by releasing dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that gives the feeling of pleasure, the “feel good” chemical in the brain.
The survival mechanism was designed for identifying sweetness in foods like fruits and vegetables. It would signify that they were ripe and at an ideal time to eat for their maximum nutritional benefit. Along with that sweetness of the fruits and vegetables came fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that the body needed, thereby increasing the chance of survival. When the body ate a sweet, ripe fruit, the brain would therefore reward the behavior with dopamine: receiving the feeling of pleasure would trigger repeat behavior.
That mechanism was not designed for today’s added-sugar society. Food and beverages are laden with refined sugars, supplanting essential nutrients with empty calories and simultaneously triggering the brain to want more of the same.
Sugar is similar to other addictive substances in that it can cause the brain to release high levels of dopamine. These abnormally high levels of dopamine force the brain to struggle to regain balance, producing withdrawals or a hangover effect.
Repeated overstimulation causes the brain to reduce the amount of dopamine receptors so less pleasure is perceived and therefore increased amounts are required just to get back to feeling normal. One boxed chocolate becomes two, then three, and so on. A Princeton University study found rats that overate a sugar solution had changes in the brain that were consistent with the effects of drugs on the brain. The continual bombardment of added sugars in the diet keep the brain wanting more.
The average American consumes 22 added teaspoons of sugar per day. That is 350 extra empty calories each and every day. While sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals and bars are big offenders, added sugars have made their way into most every type of processed food, as well.
So why would the food industry put added sugar into everything from frozen dinners to pasta sauces? Taking into account the addictive nature of sugar, it is no surprise that sugars are added to help create what are called hyper-palatable foods.
Hyper-palatable foods are foods deliberately designed with higher levels of sugar, fat, flavors and additives to surpass the natural reward levels of unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables. This overstimulation creates the “rush” of pleasure. But it also creates a vicious cycle: as the “rush” effect diminishes, greater volume or even sweeter, more intense flavors are required to achieve the same feeling.
This is good for food industry sales but bad for American waistlines. The National Institute of Health adds, “If hyper-palatable foods have a fraction of the effects of addictive drugs, the public health significance could be substantial because of the widespread access and exposure to highly marketed, low-cost, nutrient-poor and calorie-dense products.”
One of the first steps in getting sugar under control is being able to identify added sugars in the diet. Sugars come in a variety of names. One good way to I.D. them is to look for words with an “-ose” at the end. If an ingredient ends in an “-ose” you are most likely looking at a sugar or a derivative of sugar.
The most familiar is sucrose, or more commonly known as table sugar. It is made up of two sugar molecules, glucose and fructose. Glucose is a main source of fuel and can be metabolized by all the organs in the body, however fructose, can only be metabolized in the liver. Thus fructose can be more problematic and taxing on the body.
Other examples of sugars include dextrose, maltose, galactose and lactose. Some not so obvious names include evaporated cane juice, agave (85 percent fructose), crystalline fructose, corn sweetener, honey, fruit juice concentrate, fruit juice, high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin.
The next step is to determine how much sugar is in the foods you typically purchase. Simply divide the number of grams of sugar listed in a serving size by four to determine how many teaspoons of sugar you are consuming per serving.
That vitamin water may seem innocuous with only 50 calories per serving, but the 13 grams of sugar it contains is the equivalent of three teaspoons. A less obvious source on the shelf may be a favorite barbeque sauce. At 12 grams of added sugar in only two tablespoons, that would be the equivalent of dumping two teaspoons of sugar on a chicken breast before eating it.
It is one thing to identify sugars, and yet another to eliminate them.
To reduce sugar consumption and curb cravings it is important to first understand the addictive nature of sugar and treat it accordingly. The brain can become wired to crave it so keeping sugar and sugary foods out of the house is essential to reduce the temptation. If you have been indulging in sugar regularly, understand the brain and body will need to recover and recalibrate what it identifies as sweet (fruit and sweet vegetables rather than sugary drinks and hyper-palatable foods). Avoid sugar-free or artificially sweetened foods. Not only are the artificial sweeteners unhealthy, they are 2,000-3,000 times the sweetness of sugar, desensitizing the brain to normal sweetness.
Eating whole foods and regular balanced meals containing protein, vegetables and healthy fats helps keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. This will keep energy levels stable and avoid the need for an energy lift, a.k.a., a sugar fix.
Juices may seem nutritious, but they are dense with sugar. In order to get an eight-ounce glass of orange juice you would need to squeeze four to six oranges. One would hardly think of sitting and eating four oranges at one time in addition to a meal. Skip the juice and enjoy whole fruit instead.
When shopping, search for alternatives that don’t have sugars on their label. If no choice exists, use the item very sparingly.
Making conscious choices with your dollars will speak volumes to the food industry and can help create change.
Dehydration can be falsely interpreted as hunger, so stay adequately hydrated with water.
In addition, quality sleep and regular exercise are keys to help curb the cravings.
Finally, if you do overindulge in sugar, acknowledge it and then release any guilt or self berating. Get back on track quickly and be kind to yourself. Missteps will happen, but what is most important is returning to nourishing the body with healthy foods. It is a practice of self love, self acceptance and good health.