While experts in the nutrition world may disagree on topics such as meat, dairy, and fat, I think we can all agree that too much sugar, particularly processed sugar, has a negative impact on health.
Have you heard the phrase, “sugar addiction” thrown around out there? Maybe in an article headline or as part of a detox diet? Sugar addiction started gaining recognition decades ago, however, in the past 10-20 years, countless researchers have taken on the challenge of documenting and proving, in a controlled manner, the actual effects of sugar on the body. The results are…not good.
I, personally, think it is important to understand how sugar can negatively impact your health and why sugar can derail your personal health goals. Once you understand the how and why, it becomes easier to implement change in your diet. This article may be a little bit more detailed than you’d like, but bear with me! I’d like to start by reviewing what sugar is, where we find it, and what it does in your body.
Before we dive into what sugar does to your body, first, let’s talk about what sugar is. “Sugar,” in layman’s terms, actually encompasses several different types of molecules in the biochemistry world. Sugar falls under a broader category of carbohydrates and can be categorized as the following:
What IS Sugar?
You can see above that simple sugars are usually referring to monosaccharides and disaccharides. Some of these are found naturally in fruits and natural sweeteners, however, most of the sugar in a typical American diet comes from eating packaged and processed foods that have sugar added to them to improve taste.
Complex sugars, or carbohydrates, on the other hand, are longer chains of glucose that are found in starchy foods like root vegetables, beans, and grains.
Let’s take one step back before moving forward. In simple terms, food is made up of three different types of components (i.e. macronutrients) that provide energy (i.e. calories) to your diet: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Most foods are combinations of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, however, some are primarily just one or two of the three macronutrients.
For example, you may think of meat as just protein, but it is usually a combination of both protein and fat. Similarly, dairy products like milk and yogurt are a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates, whereas cheese is mostly just protein and fat.
Carbohydrates are found in WHOLE FOODS (foods found in nature that are not processed or man-made,) like fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and honey. However, the food industry adds simple sugars and starches to packaged foods to make them consistently look and taste the same and last a long time.
What are obvious and hidden sources of sugar?
What happens in your body when you eat sugar?
All forms of sugar, whether it be simple or complex, break down to glucose in your body. Glucose then enters your blood stream and is either stored away for a rainy day (as fat or as complex chains of glucose called glycogen –found in your liver and muscles,) OR it is immediately used for energy by our cells.
Simple sugars are very easy for your digestive system to pass into your blood stream. When you eat high amounts of simple sugars, your blood glucose quickly spikes, oftentimes higher than it should be. The high level of blood glucose tells your pancreas to release something called insulin which helps get the glucose out of the blood and into your cells to be either used as energy or stored as fat.
The problem, however, is that oftentimes your body overshoots the insulin leaving you with LOW blood sugar shortly after your spike. Your body then releases glucagon (along with stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and growth hormone,) telling your body to release more glucose into the bloodstream. This explains why when you eat something high in simple sugars, like an afternoon trip to the office candy drawer, you may go through a rollercoaster of quick energy → afternoon slump → hungry shortly after. The release of stress hormones also explains the connection between mental health and sugar addiction.
Over time, this process puts undo strain onto your pancreas and the insulin receptors at your cells, which can predispose you to insulin resistance (at the cell level) and ultimately decreased function of the pancreas and it’s ability to pump out insulin leading to diabetes. But that is a different topic for another time.
What happens to your brain when you eat sugar?
Studies have proven that eating high amounts of simple sugars can release dopamine in the brain, telling us that we just had a positive experience. When we do this frequently, our body becomes dependent on the dopamine rush and we may even start eating more sugar to keep the feel-good hormones high.
Over time, this dopamine experience creates a dependence on sugar and can create a withdrawal effect when we go without sugar. A study from 2009 labeled the stages of sugar dependency as “bingeing,” “withdrawal,” “craving,” and “cross-sensitization.” They determined that eating sugar leads to the desire to eat even more sugar and sugar-bingeing habits to satisfy our reward center. Discontinuing sugar then leads to classic “withdrawal” symptoms including anxiety, depression, headache, fatigue, dizziness, and brain fog, among others.
Next, we have “cravings” for sugar, oftentimes in higher amounts than were being previously consumed. In this stage, if given the opportunity to eat sugar, most subjects will binge and eat more than they did before, upregulating their sugar intake. Finally, any addiction, whether it be sugar or cocaine, can lead to other cravings and addictions through “cross-sensitization.” Discontinuing sugar may lead to attempts to find other ways to satisfy your need for a dopamine rush.
How do we safely kick the sugar addiction?
So now that we know that sugar is everywhere, can lead to diabetes (among other chronic health conditions), is highly addictive, and hard to quit cold turkey…what are we to do?
What NOT to do:
1. Avoid eating large amounts of simple sugars all at one – Eating large amounts of simple sugars in one sitting will result in the quick rise and fall of blood glucose (leaving you hungry and tired a few hours later) and perpetuate the addiction via sudden rush of dopamine.
2. Avoid short-term very low carb diets – Short-term low carb diets will most likely lead to increased cravings and binge eating sugar unless you have incredible willpower! It’s not an all or nothing mentality – kicking the sugar craving takes time and a change to your LONG-term diet. We need to move away from the quick-fix mentality.
3. Don’t just sub simple sugars for complex sugars – Cutting out the Coca-Cola and Starbursts is a GREAT first step, but don’t fall into the trap of subbing it out for honey nut cheerios and a bagel. At the end of the day they’re all easily digestible carbs that will spike your blood sugar and feed your addiction.
4. Don’t sub artificial sugar for the real deal – Artificial sugars are significantly sweeter in taste than natural sugars, may perpetuate your cravings for sugar, and might even upregulate your taste buds to want sweeter foods.
What you SHOULD do:
1. Pair carbohydrates with fiber, healthy fats, or protein – Fiber, fat, and protein all help slow the digestion of food, decreasing gastric emptying into the intestines and allowing for a slow and steady absorption of glucose rather than a huge spike all at once.
- Eat a banana with peanut butter for healthy fat and a little protein
- Put avocado on your bread for healthy fat and fiber
- Add protein powder to your smoothie for slower absorption of any fruit sugars
- Eat crackers with a few pieces of cheese to add in fat and protein
- Eat a handful of nuts with your orange to add in fat and protein
- Add veggies to all of your meals for extra fiber (and TONS of healthy micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants)
- Add beans to your meal to add protein and fiber
2. Make sure you’re getting enough protein – Protein promotes satiety, or the feeling of being full. Your individual protein recommendations are based on your activity level, height, weight, gender, and health history, but make sure to always have one good source of protein at meals and snacks.
3. Get > 25 grams of fiber a day – This one can be hard if you’re not used to eating fiber. PLEASE do not go from 0 grams to 25 grams of fiber in one day. That is a recipe for digestive distress. Over time, work up to 25 grams of fiber via nuts, beans, bran, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
4. Start the day off right – Your very first meal should be low in sugar. When we start the day with sugary cereal we’re telling our taste buds and brain to expect sugar at every meal. Instead, start with eggs and veggies, avocado toast, plain Greek yogurt with berries, or oatmeal with flax seed.
5. Retrain your taste buds to enjoy foods with less sugar – Initially, lower sugar food many taste unpalatable to you. You may be tempted to load on extra salt and fat to satisfy your taste buds. I promise that over the period of a few weeks, your taste buds will naturally start tasting the subtle sweetness of foods without having to add extra sugar to them. While you’re waiting for your taste buds to adjust, add extra spices and herbs to foods to make them more interesting.
6. Drink lots of water – Sometimes our hunger is a que that we need more fluids. Make sure to load up on water throughout the day!
7. Get 5 or more servings of vegetables a day – White potatoes and corn do not count on this one. Try for at least 3 different colored vegetables a day and start eating them as early as possible in the day!
8. Throw the candy, sweet drinks, and sweets out – Or give them away to a neighbor. If you know you’re going to reach for them, get them out of the house.
9. Have quick go-to snacks for when you’re craving carbs – Have a game plan for when your mind tells you its carb-o-clock. Maybe you have a bowl of plain bran cereal (each cup has 7 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein,) an apple with a peanut butter, hardboiled egg with fruit, or a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit.
10. Fake it ‘til you make it for ONE day – Yes, I said one day. Sometimes, we get stuck in a slump of only eating junk and high carb foods, oftentimes in periods of high stress. The thought of preparing baby carrots with hummus makes us gag, the idea that we can snap out of our unhealthy habits seems insurmountable and the thought that one healthy meal can undo days (or weeks or months) of unhealthy eating seems laughable. While it’s true that healthy eating is a lifestyle, not a single meal, it always starts with one snack or one meal. Take it day by day and promise yourself one day of healthy eating (I did not say a crash diet) to reset your mind and intentions.
11. Avoid after dinner snacking – I’ve yet to meet someone that routinely snacks on vegetables after dinner. If that is you, please go on snacking. For the rest of you, either decide not to eat after dinner, or have a game plan of 2-3 post-dinner snacks that offer some fiber and/or protein. A few cups of popcorn, for instance, can be a great after dinner snack.
12. Address your mental health –Anxiety, stress, and depression are incredibly linked with our diets. Poor mental health can lead to binge eating and cravings for carbohydrates in attempts to release more dopamine. High levels of stress can also deprioritize your health as your mind is preoccupied with more pressing matters. On the flip side, poor diet can also effect negatively your mental health!
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