What is your favorite sugary treat? Everyone has one. It’s probably something that your grandmother gave you when you were feeling bad or something you got for a special treat when you were a good kid. Sugar makes us feel so good. How bad can it possibly be bad? Well, aside from causing cavities. The seemingly innocent, dare I say sweet, ingredient is getting some long overdue just desserts (go ahead and laugh) in the nutrition chatter these days.
Some of sugar’s less than sweet characteristics are starting to become apparent. First of all, you may have noticed that it is addictive. You’re reading a nutrition blog by a card-carrying sugar addict at this very moment. Additionally, sugar is actually to blame for some of the health problems that have historically been blamed on fat, plus a few more. It is in absolutely everything, so what used to be a harmless fix from a cookie here and there is now in nearly everything we consume from spaghetti sauce to salad dressing. Let’s discuss the nefarious qualities of this sticky character.
Sugar is addictive
It isn’t just metaphorical. There are several well-performed studies that have found evidence of profound sugar addiction. In fact, sugar is just as much, maybe even more addictive than cocaine (1). Sugar lights up reward centers in our brains that tell us what we just did was great, then urges us to go do it again. Illustrated by the fact that if I open a sleeve of Thin Mints they are as good as gone. It also sets up a situation in which you need more and more sugar to get the same rewards. This is classic addiction behavior, folks.
Do you feel sad or anxious about giving up your favorite treats? It isn’t just in your head. Taking away sugar may increase depression and anxiety and lower stress tolerance (2). All of these things add up to equal a terribly addictive substance.
I can tell you from experience that sugar is harder to quit than cigarettes. First off, it’s delicious, not stinky. Sugar is socially acceptable and even encouraged, not looked down upon in polite circles. While cigarettes have been known to cause cancer and cardiovascular disease for quite some time, it is just now coming out that sugar is just as nefarious.
“Dr. David Ludwig did a study where he took one group of guys who are overweight and he gave them different milkshakes. One day he gave them a milkshake that was a low glycemic milkshake, meaning it didn’t raise the blood sugar quickly. Another day he gave them a high glycemic milkshake that raised the blood sugar quickly. The milkshakes were identical, same calories, same amount of proteins, same amount of fat, same amount of carbs, same amount of fiber. Everything held exactly the same except they used a different kind of starch, a slowly digestive starch in one of them for the sugar. They didn’t know which one they were eating, ones that had the high glycemic milkshake, they were hungrier, their insulin went higher, their blood sugar went higher and 4 hours later their brain scans looked like they had just take a load of heroine. That’s what happens when you eat foods that are high in sugar.” -Mark Hyman in an interview with David Asprey on Bulletproof Radio, Episode #144.
Sugar and Diseases of Modern Society
Now we’re getting into sticky territory. Sugar is largely responsible for many of the diseases that we have been blaming on fat all these years; most notably cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes (3). The advice to cut down on fat to prevent these diseases came from research done in the 60’s. Another research project that took place in the sixties was performed by the Sugar Research Foundation. It found that sucrose (table sugar) consumption is linked to heart disease and bladder cancer. No one ever heard about it though, because this finding was shoved in the bottom of some executive’s file drawer not to be seen until November 2017 when this gem was published:
In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) secretly funded a review in the New England Journal of Medicine that discounted evidence linking sucrose consumption to blood lipid levels and hence coronary heart disease (CHD). (4)
Sugar consumption is also linked to High Blood Pressure, Thyroid Disease (including Hashimoto’s), Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, Gallbladder Disease, Fatty Liver Disease, PCOS, and many other insidious characters. Wait, what? Fatty Liver Disease is caused by sugar? Yep, specifically fructose. Fructose mainlines to the liver rather than circulating around in the bloodstream causing other problems. For this reason, it doesn’t cause spikes in blood glucose (also because it’s fructose), but it causes a chain reaction that makes our livers look like Fois Gras (5). See my Additional Reading list below for more information.
That donut isn’t looking so sweet now, is it?
Sugar causes brain fog
Specifically, it decreases the ability to create new memories. “Sugar seems to adversely impact the hippocampus and longer-term brain structures that are involved in decision-making and pleasure,” says Professor Richard Stevenson of Macquarie University. The hippocampus deals with memory and seems to be adversely affected by inflammation (6). Since sugar consumption is notorious for instigating inflammatory pathways, as evidenced in many of the diseases listed above, it makes sense that the brain wouldn’t be left out of this party. So the next time you walk into a room and forget why you’re there, blame it on the sugar in your afternoon snack.
Speaking of sugary afternoon snacks, do you get an afternoon slump? And what’s the deal with waking up at two in the morning? Try trading out your sugary breakfast for one with quality protein and healthy fats and pile on the veggies for lunch (watch the dressing, because it’s likely loaded with sugar). I think you will find your afternoon slump to be much more tolerable. If your energy doesn’t take a nosedive in the afternoon, you will be much less likely to resort to junk food and caffeine and will sleep better. Give it a try. It’s just that easy.
Give sugar the boot
With all of this information starting to reach the mainstream health news and blowing the minds of cardiologists worldwide, how can you stay ahead of the curve and kick sugar to the curb? The recommendations for healthy diets have been low-fat centric since the 70’s and 80’s. Low-fat has been synonymous with healthy so long it is hard to change gears. Believe me, when I first started down this road I was very dubious of the amount of fat that my nutritionist was recommending. If you’re health-conscious like me, it may take some time to process this information. Similarly, if you have never thought it was a big deal to pound back a Coke and a plate of sweet and sour chicken, you may want to take some baby steps.
Below I have broken down how you go from ground zero to sugar-free. You might already be a fairly health conscious person that doesn’t need to start at the very beginning. Maybe you can use some of these tips to clean up your diet a little more, then take the big leap to being completely sugar-free.
3 Steps to kicking the sugar habit
Step 1: Awareness
Sugar is in everything. I was just writing the paragraph below about simple swaps for high sugar foods and I had to pause and change my answer a few times for clarity. Sherlock every label. Understand that honey and maple syrup count as sugar. So do fruits, to a certain degree, but for baby step one let’s concentrate on processed foods. Nut butter is a good choice, but most brands contain loads of sugar. Think all natural granola bars are a good choice? You will be lucky to find a variety with less than 8 grams of sugar. Same with instant oatmeal, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, forget about juice, cereal or granola! Even the stuff you find at health food stores might be loaded with sugar (cane sugar is still sugar, agave syrup is basically fructose in a bottle, dried fruit is disproportionately higher in sugar than regular fruit, so are juices of all kinds).
Sherlock the labels! How much sugar is okay? It depends where you are. I personally don’t count grams. I just avoid processed food and am aware of the things that have a high sugar content. Start by reading labels and you will get a good feel for how much you are consuming now and how much you can give up.
Baby Step #2: Ditch processed food
My definition of a processed food is anything that comes in a package, box, can, jar, or bag that has more than one ingredient and has a nutrition label. Yes, apples come in a bag, but they have one ingredient and don’t have a nutrition label.
Why does this matter? Can’t I just watch the carb count on the label? If you are coming from a diet that includes nothing but processed food maybe watching the grams of sugar is where you are at on your journey. So, okay, do that. Understand that the next step is cutting out anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce or that sound sciencey. If it was created in a lab it isn’t food. Then move on to whole foods–those that still look like what they looked like when they were still growing.
Baby Step #3: Replace bad food with good
This step can happen simultaneously with step #2. Crowd out the fake food with good for you choices from the produce department, meat counter, and maybe dairy in moderation if you can handle it. Resist the urge to pick up packaged food that says “sugar-free” on the label. They replace the sugar with chemicals that are worse than the sugar every thought about being. The idea is to make swaps that are reasonable for you to deal with. Depending on where you are on your journey, this may be replacing soda with sparkling water or replacing Fruit Loops with sprouted wheat toast and avocado. Start where you are now and take your first step from there.
If sugar is the road to hell, fake sugar is the shortcut. -this came out of my head, but someone may have said it before me
Start slow and increase your speed when you feel ready. Maybe replace your morning donut with scrambled eggs and avocado this week, replace dessert with a square of dark chocolate next week, then give up sugary soda (don’t replace it with diet soda, if sugar is the road to hell, fake sugar is the shortcut). Load up on veggies. You actually can’t eat too many non-starchy vegetables. See some of the Additional Reading Resources below for some good food swap advice.
It is important to watch your sugar intake. At least being aware of it will help. Knowing that it is sugar, not fat, that has been causing many of these diseases and symptoms for so long should be a wake-up call to many people. I did not have the room to mention everything about this topic. If you would like to know more, please visit the sites listed below for more information.
If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!
The Toxic Truth About Sugar (you need access to the Nature journal’s website to read it, but I thought I would give it to you anyway)