Our Love-Hate Relationship with Sugar
Updated: Jan 1
Everyone has heard that Type 2 diabetes is on the rise due to diets laden with starchy white flour, high fructose corn syrup, and refined sugars (disguised as donuts, chocolate chip cookies, soda, and even more stealthily hidden in soups, spaghetti sauce, and salad dressing). In addition to the fright of developing diabetes, indulging in too many sugary desserts can translate into a few extra pounds, a lot of extra pounds (obesity), heart disease, and tooth decay.
But did you know that the brain’s favorite food is sugar? It makes a certain amount of sense that we feed our bodies sugar because the brain plays some role in controlling and monitoring all of the bodies’ systems that keep you up and running, or in 2020, down and watching old re-runs of your favorite TV series lying on the couch, trying to avoid COVID-19. No matter what you are doing with your body, it requires glucose as fuel.
WebMD explains the critical function of glucose for those of us who aren’t physicians:
Your body is designed to keep the level of glucose in your blood constant. Beta cells in your pancreas monitor your blood sugar level every few seconds. When your blood glucose rises after you eat, the beta cells release insulin into your bloodstream. Insulin acts like a key, unlocking muscle, fat, and liver cells so glucose can get inside them.
Most of the cells in your body use glucose along with amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and fats for energy, but it's the main source of fuel for your brain. Nerve cells and chemical messengers there need it to help them process information. Without it, your brain wouldn't be able to work well.
After your body has used the energy it needs, the leftover glucose is stored in little bundles called glycogen in the liver and muscles.
Insulin, by the way, acts like a key, unlocking muscle, fat, and liver cells so glucose can get inside them. Give me some glucose, then!
Not all sugar forms are champions for us, however. Unless you are a chemist, don’t try to remember the differences among sucrose (found in table sugar but also naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, and grains); fructose (naturally occurring in fruit, honey, agave, and most root vegetables, but also unnaturally added in the form of high fructose corn syrup that helps destroy the liver); and glucose (often added to foods in the form of dextrose, extracted from cornstarch). Wait a minute, do we see an evil conspiracy here developing from those sketchy corn farmers? No, not at all. The point for us to remember is that naturally-occurring sugars in whole fruits, vegetables, and grains generally are the good forms, and added sugars are generally the forms to avoid. So don’t fool yourself that substituting organic raw sugar crystals for high fructose corn syrup (like Karo) is a great move for a healthier you.
Lauren Fleming, a registered dietician, explains very simply why we should choose whole food naturally-occurring sugars over processed sugars:
While the body breaks down all sugar the same way—whether you’re getting your fix from cake or a banana—the process for fruit sugar is much slower because fiber slows down the digestion of sugar, and many fruits are rich in fiber. Another tip to help slow down the absorption of the fruit even more is to pair your fruit with a meal or a protein.
Foods loaded with refined sugar—such as cookies—have little to no fiber, allowing sugar to quickly travel through the bloodstream. This is why you experience a sugar high and then crash after you guzzle down soda or eat a pint of ice cream. On top of throwing our sugar levels out of whack, refined sugary foods also tend to lack other nutritional value and are often considered “empty calories.”
Like any sugar, too much fruit sugar isn’t good for you. But compared to refined sugar, fruit is a much better option for regular consumption. Fruits have a lot of great nutrients in them that are important for our body—vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber. Berries and apples also have flavonoids and antioxidants that can help in cancer and other chronic disease prevention.
Makes as much sense as it can, right? Now, back to how the brain uses glucose to run our lives, er, bodies, no, lives. Neuroscientist Amy Reichelt explains:
When we eat sweet foods the brain's reward system - called the mesolimbic dopamine system - gets activated. Dopamine is a brain chemical released by neurons and can signal that an event was positive. When the reward system fires, it reinforces behaviors - making it more likely for us to carry out these actions again.
Dopamine "hits" from eating sugar promote rapid learning to preferentially find more of these foods.
Scientists are still debating whether humans can become addicted to sugar. It is beyond debate that the brain continuously remodels and rewires itself through a process called neuroplasticity.
Regardless of our need for food to power our bodies, many people experience food cravings, particularly when stressed, hungry or just faced with an alluring display of cakes in a coffee shop.
To resist cravings, we need to inhibit our natural response to indulge in these tasty foods. A network of inhibitory neurons is critical for controlling behavior. These neurons are concentrated in the prefrontal cortex - a key area of the brain involved in decision-making, impulse control and delaying gratification.
Inhibitory neurons are like the brain's brakes and release the chemical GABA. Research in rats has shown that eating high-sugar diets can alter the inhibitory neurons. The sugar-fed rats were also less able to control their behavior and make decisions.
Another brain area affected by high sugar diets is the hippocampus - a key memory center.
Research shows that rats eating high-sugar diets were less able to remember whether they had previously seen objects in specific locations before.
Yikes! What I think I hear Dr. Amy saying is that the more sugar we eat, the more that crazy voice in our heads takes over our will to resist eating more sugar. (Perhaps the crazy voice is in conspiracy with the corn producers, if the idea of a sugar conspiracy is stewing in the back of your mind now.)
So, let me give you the bad news first, or the good news, depending upon how much you like donuts. “How much sugar do you eat? You may be surprised,” a super-informative publication from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, reports that, compared to the year 1820, when the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar per year, in 2020 we each consumed almost 152 pounds of sugar. That works out to 3 pounds or 6 cups of sugar every week.
In contrast, current United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)/United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines advise people to limit sugar to less than 10% of their daily calorie intake. For a person eating 2,000 calories per day, that equals 50 grams of sugar, or about 12 teaspoons, or a little more than one can of Coke. But the current average is more like 42 teaspoons of sugar per day!
The HHS/USDA dietary guidelines presuppose that you are healthy, lean, and active. If you admittedly classify yourself as carrying a bit of fluff around the middle and having the active lifestyle of a couch potato, then even less added sugar is better. Indeed, the HHS/USDA (which revises and issues the dietary guidelines every five years) most recently declined to adopt scientists’ recommendation that everyone, including those in optimum health, should limit their added sugar intake to 6% of calories. The World Health Organization (WHO) likewise suggests 25 grams/6 teaspoons of sugar per day, rather than 50 grams/12 teaspoons currently recommended by the Cap’n Crunch-lovin’ HHS/USDA.
However, despite its reluctance to raise the bar for adults, the HHS/USDA has announced groundbreaking news that babies and tots should have no added sugar in their diets until they reach the age of two. (It makes you wonder whether BurgerMeister-MeisterBurger is one of their lobbyists.) No birthday cakes, no candy canes, no added sugar in any form.
Lest you continue to fall victim to the conglomerate sugar conspiracy, you should know that added sugar can masquerade under many names, including but not limited to the following, providing you with calories but little or no nutritional value (known as “empty calories”): • Agave syrup • Brown sugar • Coconut sugar • Corn syrup • Dextrose • High-fructose corn syrup • Galactose (a favorite on the Death Star) • Glucose • Fructose • Fruit juice concentrate • Corn sweetener • Honey • Invert sugar • Lactose • Maltose • Molasses • Palm sugar • Sucrose • Sorghum syrup • Sorbitol • Syrup.
In 2021, vow to take back control of your brain, instead of letting your brain keep controlling your eating behaviors without your authorization. Here are some suggestions to get started:
· Try a few raisins and cinnamon in oatmeal instead of a sugary morning cereal.
· Try a sprinkle of cinnamon and a spritz of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spray to liven up your whole-grain toast, instead of using sugary jam and fatty butter.
· Invest in canned pineapple, which tastes sugary enough to tickle your sweet tooth when you are craving a donut or cookie. Watch out for fruit packed in sugar syrup instead of natural fruit juice.
· Buy plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt, and add your own fresh strawberries and a pinch of Splenda or Truvia. Some of the “healthy” brands of yogurt, like Dannon low-fat fruit-on-the bottom, Brown Cow whole milk, and Stonyfield whole milk have about 20 grams of sugar per serving.
· Make some date balls (hint: regular chopped dates work just as well as expensive, hard-to-find Medjool dates; another hint: if you use Medjool dates for the first time, realize that they are sold with pits intact, and so remove them before putting the dates in the food processor if you don’t want dates’n’wood-chips—nobody I know has made this mistake, by the way). Process equal amounts of walnuts and dates (add a few teaspoons of water to the dates), then form into balls and refrigerate. That’s it! Add cocoa for chocolatey date balls. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and orange extract for orange gingerbread date balls. Be creative with your mix-ins, because, folks, they’re not Snickers bars.
· Looking for a low-fat, low-sugar alternative to ice cream? Try making instant sugar-free pudding with almond milk and a teaspoon of psyllium powder for thickening, loading it with whipped cream from the can (which is mostly air—compared to whipped heavy cream from the carton, which is mostly fat that must be mixed with sugar to sweeten it up), and few jimmies (sugared but small) or toasted almonds. Or slice a bowl of berries and heap on the canned whipped cream. Switch from Fat Boys to fruit juice pops. Build yourself an ice-cold fruit smoothie instead of a shake (keep frozen ripe bananas on hand to add sweetness). Or just whip up frozen ripe bananas and a touch of any kind of milk in the food processor for a delicious faux ice cream (first be sure to discard the ends of the bananas and the stringy parts—which tend to be bitter).
· Be aware that dried fruit isn’t always your friend. Check dried fruit for added sugars, and steer clear of it. Have you ever eaten a handful of fresh cranberries? I didn’t think so. No one ever has, because they are sour enough to make your puckering lips turn inside out. The dried version—“craisins”—are popular in salads and vegetable dishes. But craisins have 26 grams of added sugar, per 1/3 cup. The cousins of Craisins, raisins, have 47 grams of sugar per 1/2 cup, but it is naturally-occurring sugar. The bottom line is that you would never sit down and eat a whole pineapple in one sitting, but you could sit down and eat its equivalent in dried pineapple out of a package. Nutritionists say you can feel good about eating dried fruit with no added sugar, but do so in moderation. Remember those tiny boxes of raisins that your mother used to give you when you were three? Yep, start buying those again to help you measure an appropriate quantity for a snack, rather than eating straight out of the big bag or box.
· Try baking with dates and ultra-ripe (aka almost-rotten) bananas as substitutes for sugars and unsweetened applesauce as a substitute for oil and butter. Substitute whole wheat flour, with a touch more baking powder to account for its heaviness, for regular white flour in your cookies and sweet breads.
· Instead of spending $4.43 a day on Starbucks or Dutch Bros, buy yourself a fancy coffee or latte machine and make your own hot drink in the morning, taking care to use only a little sweetener but feel free to use loads of canned whipped cream. Get yourself a few washable lidded coffee mugs to use on your drive to work, which helps keep the landfill factor low.
· Make your own soda from 100% fruit juiced mixed with seltzer (but don’t rot your teeth by adding too much lemon juice). Drink diet soda if you must, but check out the sodium content on diet soda and flavored waters!
· Dry, unsweetened cereal is another low-sugar snack (doesn’t sound really appetizing, but focus on retraining your brain).
· Become a popcorn connoisseur—another one of those air-filled delights like canned whipped cream. Look for many innovative oil-less microwave poppers on today’s market. Pop your corn, spritz a fine layer of water on the fluffy deliciousness, and sprinkle any one of a variety of flavored mix-ins to satisfy your cravings for sweet and savory unhealthy snacks.
· Finally, know that foods rich in omega-3 fats (found in fish oil, nuts, and seeds) are also neuroprotective and can boost brain chemicals needed to form new neurons. Let’s encourage new neuron pathways and reprogram that brain. (But go easy on the nuts and seeds if you are trying to lose weight. Better to go with the air-popped popcorn. It's always something, isn't it?)
Good luck! No, it’s not about luck, it’s about determination and grit (I don’t mean that sugarless cereal you are not eating in place of candy, but your willpower to forge a more healthy you). Put down that bag of snack-sized candy bars leftover from the holidays, and research it here yourself:
Watch: TEDxSydney 2016 talk This is your brain on sugar at https://tedxsydney.com/talk/this-is-your-brain-on-sugar-amy-reichelt/
How Much Sugar Do You Eat? You May Be Surprised! at