Sweet Deception: Is Sugar A Tempting Friend Or Toxic Foe?


Winter is a season of celebration and we associate fun with sugary drinks and foods. Sugar is one of the most unexpected contributors of most inflammatory diseases including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's. Just how dangerous is sugar? What kind of sugars contribute to diseases and how do we keep our relationships with sugar healthy? We'll go over the effects sugar produces on the brain and how that then affects our emotions. Then we'll work through some ideas and solutions to help you on your journey!

Love at First Bite: How We Became Sugar Enamored

From the beginning of time we've had a strong relationship with sugar. Our brain and body coverts glucose to energy. Because of this we've depended on sugar since primal times to provide us with the energy we needed to build, hunt, gather and provide for our offspring. Sugar has been a regular part of the human diet but has changed over time. As the graph shows from Smithsonian Magazine, human's sugar consumption was somewhat humble at first as our access to sugar was limited in America. Over time sugar refineries were created in America and the invention of the mason jar increased the amount of canning which used fruit and sugar to preserve jam and jellies. During prohibition sugar intake as a whole increased as a response to the cravings for alcohol. During 1942 sugar was used to make everything from antiseptics to explosives. Sugar was rationed out during this time and sugar consumption was limited. Following the war, sugar continued increasing until the 1970s when artificial sweeteners were introduced. This made sugar consumption go down a little before plummeting from the 1980s to the 2000s. The rise of concern for obesity correlates with the climbing increase of sugar consumption.





The Sugary State of The Union

"According to a 2013 Gallup poll, Americans earning less than $30,000 a year are more than twice as likely to drink regular soda than those earning more than $75,000." Shoppers who don’t have access to fresh produce end up consuming caloric sweeteners in everything from cereal to pasta sauce. In a reversal from colonial Maryland, avoiding sugar has never cost more."

With the convenience of access to sufficient food we now find ourselves with an abundance of sugar and it's ubiquity has contributed to the obesity epidemic in the the US. According to a 2019 study The US population still consumes more than 300% of the recommended daily amount of added sugar. Sugar went from a sweet treat to a sickly staple of the SAD (Standard American Diet). As food became more processed in 2000s and beyond, high-fructose corn syrup was used as a cost effective way to sweeten foods. High-fructose corn syrup lacks the fiber of natural sugars from fruits and therefor has a disastrous affect on blood sugar.

Sugar has proven to be just as addicting as drugs like cocaine and affects the dopamine receptors in our bodies. Sugar is added to most processed foods to make it more "palatable". Despite the addictive quality of sugar it is not prohibited and banned and is often given to children. Our culture often accepts rewarding children with sugary snacks and drinks. Lollipops are given to children at schools, banks and most institutions and children become hooked to these foods at a very young age; sending them down a life-long track of sugar addiction and vulnerability to obesity.


What Too Much Sugar Does To Our Body, Brain and Moods

While moderate amounts of natural sugars from fruit can be a great way to supply energy, too much sugar can have the opposite effect especially for those who are vulnerable to diabetes. The blood-sugar spikes associated with high-sugar consumption can create dips in energy and mood levels (more on that later).

Sugar has an effect on our microbiome and gut as well. According to a 2002 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

"Consumption of a diet high in sugar leads to gut microbiota dysbiosis, gut inflammation, and impaired gut function.In addition to microbiota dysbiosis, consumption of high sugar diets leads to reorganization of the gut-brain vagal communication system. In humans, high-glycemic foods have been found to activate regions of the brain associated with the reward response and provoke more intense feelings of hunger compared to low-glycemic foods. Foods that cause a higher elevation in blood glucose produce a greater addictive drive in the brain."

We have connections in our gut that reach our brain and our gut and brain actually have a lot of conversations. Think of the idea of having a "gut feeling" about something which actually has some truth to it. Our gut intuition is related to our connection between our gut and our brain which helps us understand and process possible friends and foes in our guts.

High-glucose and fructose foods also can trigger more cravings in our bodies which leads to over eating. High-sugar foods may provide energy but our bodies naturally store more fat and go into forging mode where we are more likely to crave more foods.

"Recent studies have shown that the reason fructose intake is strongly associated with development of metabolic syndrome is that fructose intake activates an evolutionary-based survival pathway that stimulates foraging behavior and the storage of energy as fat. While modest intake may aid animals that would like to store fat as a protective response from food shortage or starvation, we propose that high intake of sugar and HFCS causes a hyperactive foraging response that stimulates craving, impulsivity, risk taking and aggression that increases the risk for ADHD, bipolar disease and aggressive behavior. " -Evolution and Human Behavior Academic Journal

Additional research shows that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a brain chemical essential for new memory formation and learning.10 Lower levels of BDNF are also linked to dementia and Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in the journal Diabetologia

Sugar can affect our brain cognition, memory and function as the inflammation that occurs impedes our ability to sort, process and store information. An animal study concluded that "high-fat, high-sugar or high in both adversely affected performance related to spatial learning and memory." While a larger human study showed that high-sugar intake was associated with lower cognitive function. So why are sugar laden foods and drinks passed out at day cares, classrooms and in the home? This does not assist the education of our children and if anything could be a considerable impediment to their success.

Finally sugar can not only affect our brains and bodies but our moods too! An article from GreenMedInfo.com writes:

"Modest fructose consumption may help animals with their fat storage needs, particularly during times of food shortage or starvation. High intake of sugar and HFCS, however, may cause a hyperactive foraging response, which then triggers craving, impulsivity, risk taking and aggression that may increase the risk for ADHD, bipolar disorder and further aggressive behaviors,"


As we put together the information from all these studies and reseach we begin to see that sugar in excess can seriously disrupt our bodies equilibrium and that disruption seems to cause systematic failures that resound throughout our bodies' emotional, cognitive, and digestive systems. This makes sugar an unlikely foe when we are eating too much of it.

So is sugar all bad? Of course not! Sugar does have a role but we must find ways to coexist with it without overdoing it. Sugar's addictive qualities can make it a tempting friend to our body. Sugar can appear to be a friend that seems harmless at first but can actually create a lot of damage over time. As they say too much of a good thing can eventually become a bad thing. So what can we do to maintain a healthy relationship with sugar?


5 Ways to Prevent Sugar Addiction and Over Consumption

Addicted to sugar? Most people are, sugar unlike illegal drugs, is seen as harmless and is readily available which makes it easy to abuse. Here are some tips and tricks to keeping your consumption under control!

1)Be more mindful of sugar consumption.

By taking more awareness of the dietary choices we make on a daily basis we begin to understand our habits and behaviors around addictive foods like sugar. There are often triggers that are emotional or physical which can lead us to grab a cookie over a piece of fruit, or candy or carrots. It's important that we understand our own unique triggers so that we can begin to break the cycle. Try creating a food journal where you track what your eating, particularly your sugar intake. Also make note of any things going on in your life like stressors or emotional triggers. For example some women may be more vulnerable to sugar cravings around their menstrual cycle given the shift in hormones. The next time you find yourself in a sugar binge, trace it back to what was happening in your life before you made that decision and you should get some clues into your triggers. By tracking your sugar intake you can see when and how often your sugar intake increases. By tracking your thoughts, feelings or events you can begin to see how those things affect your dietary choices.


2) Try eating more protein and more fat

Protein and fat have both been shown to provide satiation and energy respectively. Protein can help the body fight off cravings and can help build and store muscle. Fat can be burned as energy much like sugar except without the blood-sugar spikes. Keto diets have become popular for this reason. Those with vulnerabilities to hyperglycemia will benefit from high-protein, high-fat low-carb diets. Carbs convert to sugar especially refined carbs. While slow-carbs can take longer to break down they will still convert to sugar and may still cause some blood-sugar spikes. By eating more fat and fewer carbs the body may go into ketosis a stage at which the body begins burning fat for energy rather than sugar. Using fat and protein as a main energy source can help fight cravings.

3)Try cutting out sugars one by one

Hearing all these adverse effects from sugar may make you want to cut sugar out cold-turkey but that may back-fire. Like most drugs, quitting cold-turkey could send you into serious withdrawal which can lead to relapse and more binges. Instead, try making a slow and consistent effort to reduce types of sugars one by one. The most addictive form of sugar high-fructose corn syrup is a good place to start. This is the most harmful form of sugar and by cutting it out first you can still find ways to satisfy you sweet tooth using natural sugars. Then eventually overtime you can start to focus away from sugar all together by eating less and less of it. You can decrease your ratio of sugar to fat and protein until the majority of your foods are protein and fat based and sugar and carbs are a smaller part of your diet. It's important to pay attention to how your body feels as you reduce sugar. You may find after going through withdrawal that you start to feel clear-headed, chirpy and have more consistent energy throughout the day.

4)Find replacement therapies to get your needs met

Some people eat sugar for energy, others eat it to cure their boredom, or reach for the cookie jar out of stress and anxiety. Whatever your reason is, get to the bottom of what sugar is appearing to do for you. For example, if you eat sugary foods when you are sad and depressed, looking to risk-free alternatives like exercises, music and other fun activities can be a great place to start! There are many natural herbs and flowers that can effectively help with mental health symptoms of depression and anxiety. Omega 3 fatty acids can help with brain function and mood disorders. Sometimes spending time with family, friends or doing self-care activities can create healthier, longer-lasting effects than the short-term satisfaction we get from sweets. Find what is important to you, or what you are passionate about and make sure you make time to do it often!

It's never easy to change our eating habits but with consistency and care we can optimize our bodies for success. By taking a closer look at our sugar habits and learning new ways to take care of ourselves we can begin to live longer, smarter and healthier in the new year!

References:

Elliott SS, Keim NL, Stern JS, Teff K, Havel PJ. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Nov;76(5):911-22. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/76.5.911. PMID: 12399260.

Faruque, Samir et al. “The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States - a Review.” Polish journal of food and nutrition sciences vol. 69,3 (2019): 219-233. doi:10.31883/pjfns/110735

Crane, Paul K., Et Al., Author AffiliationsFrom the Departments of Medicine (P.K.C., F. P. Polack and Others, R. S. Baric, and D. A. Berlin and Others. "Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia: NEJM." New England Journal of Medicine. November 07, 2013. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1215740.

Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. "The Unsavory History of Sugar, the Insatiable American Craving." Smithsonian.com. May 01, 2017. Accessed December 24, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unsavory-history-sugar-american-craving-180962766/.

Joel Fuhrman, MD. "Understanding What Sugar Really Does to Your Brain." Verywell Mind. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-sugar-affects-the-brain-4065218.

Posted by Kathryn VanderWoude, and Kathryn VanderWoude. "What No One Tells You About Sugar Health Effects (And How to Stop Sugar Cravings Fast!) ⋆ Mu Mu Muesli." Mu Mu Muesli. December 03, 2019. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://mumumuesli.com/your-brain-and-belly-on-sugar/.

Sommerfield, Andrew J., Ian J. Deary, and Brian M. Frier. "Acute Hyperglycemia Alters Mood State and Impairs Cognitive Performance in People With Type 2 Diabetes." Diabetes Care. October 01, 2004. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/10/2335.

"Too Much Sugar Linked to Aggression, ADHD and Bipolar Disorder." GreenMedInfo. July 03, 2015. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/too-much-sugar-linked-aggression-adhd-and-bipolar-disorder.

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Elliott SS, Keim NL, Stern JS, Teff K, Havel PJ. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Nov;76(5):911-22. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/76.5.911. PMID: 12399260.

Faruque, Samir et al. “The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States - a Review.” Polish journal of food and nutrition sciences vol. 69,3 (2019): 219-233. doi:10.31883/pjfns/110735

Crane, Paul K., Et Al., Author AffiliationsFrom the Departments of Medicine (P.K.C., F. P. Polack and Others, R. S. Baric, and D. A. Berlin and Others. "Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia: NEJM." New England Journal of Medicine. November 07, 2013. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1215740.

Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. "The Unsavory History of Sugar, the Insatiable American Craving." Smithsonian.com. May 01, 2017. Accessed December 24, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unsavory-history-sugar-american-craving-180962766/.

Joel Fuhrman, MD. "Understanding What Sugar Really Does to Your Brain." Verywell Mind. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-sugar-affects-the-brain-4065218.

Posted by Kathryn VanderWoude, and Kathryn VanderWoude. "What No One Tells You About Sugar Health Effects (And How to Stop Sugar Cravings Fast!) ⋆ Mu Mu Muesli." Mu Mu Muesli. December 03, 2019. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://mumumuesli.com/your-brain-and-belly-on-sugar/.

Sommerfield, Andrew J., Ian J. Deary, and Brian M. Frier. "Acute Hyperglycemia Alters Mood State and Impairs Cognitive Performance in People With Type 2 Diabetes." Diabetes Care. October 01, 2004. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/10/2335.

"Too Much Sugar Linked to Aggression, ADHD and Bipolar Disorder." GreenMedInfo. July 03, 2015. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/too-much-sugar-linked-aggression-adhd-and-bipolar-disorder.