The Impact of Sugar Consumption on Your Health and Ways to Reduce it
Sugar. We have such a complicated relationship with this substance. We love it. We hate it. We crave it. We try to avoid it. It tastes amazing. We know it isn’t good for us. There is so much information circulating about sugar, yet everyone I know struggles with how much they are consuming. It is confusing!
So, let’s start with the basics and take it from there.
What is sugar and Why Is it Essential for Your Body?
Sugar is a carbohydrate with a sweet taste. There are different types of sugar, but the one most commonly known is sucrose, which is actually made up of glucose and fructose (two other forms of sugar). Glucose is the form of sugar that our cells, muscles, and especially our brains, love. We need glucose to live - it enters the bloodstream and is the fuel for our cells and neurons. But, we need a certain balance of glucose in our systems - too much or too little causes problems. To maintain this balance, our bodies produce insulin to regulate the glucose and keep it at optimal levels. People with Type 1 diabetes are not able to produce their own insulin and so must monitor their glucose levels carefully and inject insulin when needed. Fructose is the sugar that occurs naturally in fruit. Because our cells prefer glucose, the liver actually turns fructose into glucose so we can use it more efficiently.
How Much Sugar Does Your Body Need and How Much Is Too Much?
Now that we know what sugar is and why it’s essential, let’s talk about how much sugar we need. It is recommended that we consume no more than 25-30g of added sugar per day. That’s about six teaspoons. The truth is, most people are consuming about 90g of added sugars per day! And that is because it tastes good, we crave it, and it is in so many of the foods we eat.In fact, food manufacturers are adding sugar to foods we would never even consider sweet! Our bodies are programmed to seek out sweets and the manufacturers capitalize on that fact to keep us buying their foods.
Hidden Sources of Added Sugars
Sugars are added to lots of condiments, pasta sauces, cereals, energy drinks, yogurts, and granola bars, even salty chips to just name a few tricky places you’ll find it. To keep us confused, these sugars are often called different things. When looking at labels, be on the lookout for anything that ends in “ose”, has the word “syrup”, or lists fruit concentrates, honey, agave, or molasses. Also, be sure to check the “added sugars” and serving sizes on the nutrition labels when shopping. Some pasta sauces can have as much as 12g of sugar in ½ cup! That’s more than a cookie!
Sugar and weight gain
We have already established how much sugar is too much, so let’s talk about why we should avoid consuming too much sugar. Remember when we said that glucose (sugar) in our system stimulates the release of insulin to regulate the amount of glucose in our blood? Well, when we repeatedly eat too much sugar, we hyperstimulate the insulin release and, after doing this repeatedly, we become insulin resistant. This means that our cells no longer respond well to insulin and stop taking glucose in from the blood which then makes it so the glucose stays in our blood too long. This causes all sorts of problems down the road, including Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and systemic inflammation. Additionally, consuming too much sugar messes with our hormones, particularly ghrelin and leptin, which are the hormones that tell us we are hungry and satiated. As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of confusion about what our own body is telling us and how much we can trust it’s signals! When these signals are thrown off, we tend to overeat which inevitably leads to weight gain. In fact, studies show that consuming highly concentrated liquid fructose (like soda and fruit juices) eventually leads to leptin resistance and excess visceral fat (the dangerous belly fat that surrounds our organs).
Why is it so hard for us to stop eating sugar?
You might think it’s just willpower, but there is so much more to it. We are biologically programmed to crave sugar. Before we were able to create sugar and put it in everything, sweet-tasting foods meant foods that were filled with nutrients and energy. These qualities were super important to our survival when our ancestors were hunting and foraging for food. Remember, our cells, organs, and brain need glucose to function, so when we hit upon a food that was filled with glucose, we were programmed to consume as much as possible. What this looks like in a physiological sense is that our pleasure/pain circuit gets activated. When we eat something sweet, dopamine is released which drives us to seek out more sweets. As the dopamine levels decrease, we can start to feel uncomfortable so we crave another hit of sugar to bring back the pleasure of dopamine. However, if we eat that second helping of cake, the dopamine hit isn’t as strong as when we ate the first one, which can drive us to eat more as we search for that first rush. Interestingly, this dopamine release not only happens from the sweet taste but also from the neurons in our gut that respond to the sugar. So, even if we can’t taste the sweet, we get the dopamine hit and the subsequent drive to eat more. Here, again, food manufacturers are a step ahead of us. They will add sugars to food and then cover up the sweet taste with salt so we consume more than we should. (Now you know why it's so hard to stop eating chips!)
Tips for reducing sugar cravings
Now that we better understand why we have these strong sugar cravings, let’s think about what we can do to diminish them. It seems pretty clear that the cravings come stem from the dopamine hits, at least in part. So, if we can diminish the intensity of the dopamine signal, we can decrease the cravings. There are several ways to do this. First, we can consume some fiber or good fats with the sugar. Fiber (berries, avocado, oats) is actually a little bit better, but good fats (nuts, avocado, dark chocolate) will help as well. This will decrease the glycemic impact by either diminishing the rise in blood glucose or creating a more gradual rise. Both impacts will decrease the dopamine signal and blunt sugar cravings.
Another bio-hack to reduce sugar cravings is to ingest foods that adjust the neurological response to sweets after you eat something sugary. Typically, sour foods will do this. For example, if you drink two tablespoons of lemon or lime juice (mixed with water) after a sugary treat or high-carbohydrate meal, the glucose response will be decreased. Additionally, pure cinnamon will show the rate that glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream. If you are adding cinnamon to foods, however, be careful to not consume more than 1.5 teaspoons per day.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Good or Bad for You?
As a health coach (and wife of a Diet Coke addict!) I get asked all the time about artificial sweeteners. And, to be honest, the research is mixed on the impact of artificial sweeteners on our health. What we do know is that sucralose (Splenda) has been proven to disrupt the microbiome in animals. While it hasn’t been studied in humans, that is enough for me to stay away from it. We also know that humans can be conditioned to have an insulin response even when there is no glucose ingested. Do you know how your mouth can start watering when you just think about a food that you love? That is your body’s way of getting ready to digest the food, even if you never eat it. So, it makes sense that our bodies release insulin in anticipation of glucose when we consume something sweet even if there is no actual sugar in the food or drink. But, again, there is not consensus about the health impact of artificial sweeteners. For me, plant-based artificial sweeteners (Stevia, monkfruit, honey, agave, coconut sugar) seem to be the best choice for now, until we have more information.
Sugar moderation for Your Overall Well-Being
Okay, even with all of this information on sugar, I still really like a good brownie every once in a while. But, that is the key - eating foods that are high in processed sugar should be something that is done every once in a while. What that means for each person is different. Personally, I find that sugar is a slippery slope. I can go a month without eating much and then, once I start eating it, I crave it more. Which makes sense given all we just learned about it! It is addictive. So, be mindful. Avoid sodas and juices. Eat cake on your birthday. Opt for fruit at the buffet. And, if you absolutely need something sweet, have some dark chocolate. It’s not only delicious but it’s packed with flavanols and antioxidants for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.