We all know that excessive consumption of refined sugar is bad for our health – but you may also have heard that sugar itself is actually addictive, making a dependency on tempting sweet treats difficult to avoid. But is sugar really as addictive as recreational drugs – and how can we tackle those intense cravings and break the habit of overindulging in the sweet stuff? Today we’re taking a look at the science of sugar – and the real impact sugar consumption can have on our health and wellbeing.
Why is sugar bad for our health?
Eating too much sugar can affect our physical and mental health in a number of ways. These include:
*Increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver
*Weight gain leading to obesity and related health issues
*Greater risk of depression in high sugar diets compared to those lower in sugars *Damage to oral health due to increased risk of bacteria overgrowth and cavities
*Hormone issues, imbalances and infertility, including exacerbated symptoms of PCOS and endometriosis
To understand fully why eating too much sugar is harmful to health (and how much of it we should be eating) it’s useful to consider how our ancestors might have eaten. Although they’d consume fruits and small amounts of honey, early humans wouldn’t be eating large amounts of sweet foods on a regular basis. That’s because sugar (or more accurately, sugar in its refined form) only became commercially available in the 1800s. Initially it was reserved for the wealthiest in the population – more expensive than gold. But now sugar is widely available and abundant in many different foods – with average American adults consuming nearly three times the recommended daily amount and over 1.5 deaths attributed to type 2 diabetes. It’s not just candies, cakes and sodas to watch out for – sugar is often added to everyday and savory foods, including sauces, beverages and baked goods.
How much sugar should we be eating?
Most people know that too much sugar is bad for them – but they aren’t aware of how little constitutes too much. The AHA recommends an added sugar intake of no more than 150 calories per day (9 teaspoons or 36 grams) for the average adult male and 100 calories per day (6 teaspoons or 24 grams) for the average adult female. Meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than 25 grams of sugar per day for males and females. Despite this, statistics show that the average American eats around 270 calories or 17 teaspoons per day – a number that isn’t difficult to reach considering the large amounts of sugar in many everyday foods. A single can of coke contains 44 grams, whilst one low-fat yogurt brand contains 33 grams of sugar per 8oz serving.
Sugar can be tricky to avoid – because it’s not always easy to spot on labels. Glucose syrup, fructose, cane sugar, corn syrup and dextrose are all names for different types of added sugar – so keeping track of your intake can be confusing.
Is sugar really addictive – and how?
There’s a lot of healthy debate in medical and wellness circles about whether sugar is actually addictive or not – and the jury’s still out. That’s because studies have produced inconclusive results on whether sugar can officially be labeled as ‘addictive’ as other substances are – but one thing experts agree on is that the habit of eating sugar is detrimental to health and can be difficult to break.
To understand the science behind this, we need to take a look at how sugar consumption affects the brain. When we consume sugar, it leads to a short-term spike of energy in the body which we naturally begin to crave. Sugar also interacts with ‘happy’ hormones including endorphins and dopamine and activates opioid receptors, encouraging us over time to eat more to chase an artificial ‘high’. Dopamine is responsible for our ‘reward circuit’, which is associated with addictive behavior. Whenever we experience an excessive release of dopamine we experience this ‘high’ which we want to experience again, so we repeat the behavior that triggered it. This over time can become an addiction or at least, a habit that’s hard to break.
Are all sugars ‘bad’?
The sugars we refer to when discussing harmful health implications are specifically refined sugars and added sugars. Not all sugars have the same effect on the body – which is important to be aware of when you’re looking to eat a more balanced, healthy diet.
Although all types of sugar should be consumed in moderation, sugars from sources such as whole fruits, dairy products and dried fruits contain added vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. Rather than being a source of empty calories or incredibly high amounts of energy, these sugars are released more slowly into the bloodstream and are accompanied by nutrients and minerals which make these foods beneficial for the body. These are the types of sugars that can be safely consumed on a daily basis.
It’s important to note here that it’s never helpful to demonize certain foods. Instead of looking at them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s better to be aware of which foods nourish us and should be part of our daily diet, and which are treats better suited to being enjoyed in moderation. Focusing too much on what we ‘shouldn’t’ eat can actually cause us to crave those foods even more.
Breaking the habit of sugar overconsumption
If you feel as though you’re addicted to sugar or are consuming too many sweetened foods on a regular basis, it can feel daunting to cut back. But looking at sugar consumption as an unhealthy habit can help you to reduce your intake. Tips to help you curb sugar cravings and minimize your daily sugar consumption include:
Reducing reliance on processed foods: Processed foods are one of the most abundant sources of added sugar. Cutting down on processed and refined foods as much as possible should naturally reduce your sugar intake.
Cutting down on added sugar: Although the sugar you manually add to your diet often accounts for a smaller portion of your overall intake, it’s still good to be mindful of how much you supplement drinks such as tea and coffee.
Making smart sugar swaps: If you’re indulging in sugary foods on a regular basis, at first it can be helpful to swap your favorite sweet treats so that you don’t miss them as much. Combining whole foods with sweetness such as dried fruits and nuts can reduce sugar cravings whilst helping you to feel fuller for longer.
Drinking smart: Many beverages contain added sugar – from fruit juices and coffees to teas and sodas. Opt for water and unsweetened drinks wherever possible to cut down on additional empty calories from sugar and watch out for pre-sweetened drinks from the store or when eating out.
Like any lifestyle change, these habits can take a while to implement and you may find ups and downs along the way. Be kind to yourself and stick at it – the health benefits in the long-term will massively outweigh the short-term discomfort.