Updated: Mar 29, 2021
We are wired to love sugar and thanks to our Palaeolithic ancestors who frequently went long periods without food, our bodies like to hold on to it too. When we eat table sugar (sucrose), our bodies break it down into glucose and fructose. Glucose, which is the primary source of fuel for the brain also stimulates the release of dopamine (our ‘feel good’ hormone). This love of sugar proved to be a very important survival mechanism in our evolutionary history as any excess glucose or fructose would be stored in the liver as fat (glycogen), preserving energy for the next fast. However, food scarcity is not a problem for most of us today. We are instead overfed and undernourished and it is fuelling the rise in chronic disease. (1,2)
Added sugars are consumed unknowingly in popular drinks and convenience foods (such as bread, cereals, condiments, processed meats, low-fat products). As adults, we are told to keep our added sugar intake to no more than 5% of total daily calories (approximately 7 tsps.), but a recent Public Health England’s (PHE) report stated that most adolescents consume more than twice that amount. We are also seeing these effects in the form of rising childhood obesity rates, type 2 diabetes diagnosed in children as young as 5, and even younger children having their milk teeth pulled out due to tooth decay. (3,4,5)
Sugar has proven to be highly addictive by activating pleasure centres in the brain and excess sugar consumption can affect almost every organ in the body, increasing the risk of developing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, neurological disorders (such as Alzheimer’s), and fuelling cancer. Additionally, too much sugar can suppress the activity of white blood cells and the body’s ability to fight infections. (2,6,7)
If too much sugar is a bad thing, how do we decrease our consumption?
Up the protein. When we eat (simple) carbohydrates on their own, we get a sudden spike in blood sugars which inevitably leads to a crash. Pairing carbohydrates with protein (along with healthy fats and fibre) slows down the release of sugars providing a steady energy release. Have the banana, but add in a handful of nuts too.
Don’t drink it. The consumption of liquid sugars (e.g. fruit juice, squash, fizzy drinks and alcohol) is rarely compensated for by reducing our calorie consumption elsewhere and puts us at greater risk of unwanted weight gain and insulin resistance. Try infusing water with fresh fruit and always go for the whole fruit, not the fruit juice.
Less is more. The more sugar we eat, the less we taste it. The same is true for the reverse. When cooking or baking, try halving the suggested amount of sugar (or sweetener option) to see if it is noticeable. I bet it isn’t!
Don’t buy processed foods. Hidden on the back of the label but there is no hiding inside our bodies, and it is usually added to disguise the lack of nutrients.
Go cold turkey! Do a 10-day sugar detox by removing all simple sugars such as bread, pasta, cakes, sweets, biscuits, and lactose from milk. Also limit ‘sweet’ flavours and fruit for this short time. Since sugar is addictive, sometimes the only way to kick the habit is to remove it all together, essentially allowing our brain, along with hunger and satiety hormones, to reset and make space for future healthier habits.
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1. Lieberman, D (2013). The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. Pantheon Books
2. Mooney, A (2013). ‘Addicted to … Food?’. Harvard Medical School. Available at: https://hms.harvard.edu/news/addicted-food-7-3-13
3. Public health England (2015). ‘Sugar reduction: from evidence into action. Gov UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470179/Sugar_reduction_The_evidence_for_action.pdf
4. BBC (2015): ‘Youngest' toddler with type 2 diabetes raises concern’. BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34259221
5. The Telegraph (2017): ‘Rise in removals of rotting milk teeth fuelled by children's sugary diet’. The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/21/rise-removals-rotting-milk-teeth-fuelled-childrens-sugary-diet/
6. Bray, G.A. & Popkin, B.M. (2014). ‘Dietary sugar and body weight: have we reached a crisis in the epidemic of obesity and diabetes: health be damned! Pour on the sugar’. Diabetes Care. 2014 Apr;37(4):950-6. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24652725
7. Myles, A.I (2014). ‘Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity’. Nutra J. 2014: 13-61. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4074336/pdf/1475-2891-13-61.pdf
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