You may have noticed that sugar has been getting increasingly bad press. Sugar has gone from being a treat, even a luxury, to now being seen by many as Public Health Enemy Number 1.
Most of us have grown up in a time where sugar has symbolized affection (think of boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day), been given as a reward (self-comfort after a bad day, given to children for taking their medicine a la Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar) to a mid-afternoon energy boost. Sweet treats are the star attraction in all sorts of celebrations from birthday cakes to wedding cakes, hot cross buns to cotton candy. Sugar has become a cultural shorthand for love.
And even when separated from emotional overtones, sugar has become so pervasive that it is hard to find a snack or food that doesn’t contain it in some form.
So, what exactly is wrong with sugar? Put simply, it’s terrible for your health whether it’s rotting your teeth or affecting the circulation in your feet. And it’s not easy to take an attitude of ‘all things in moderation’ because sugar is everywhere in the Western diet, from snacks to sushi.
You might think you don’t eat that much sugar. Perhaps you don’t eat candy or add sugar to your coffee.
But here is a sobering fact: in the last 100 years, the average person has increased their sugar consumption exponentially. In 1915, the American national average sugar consumption was 15-20 pounds per person. Today the average person consumes their own body weight in sugar plus more than twenty pounds of corn syrup.
This increase in sugar has been driven in part by the increase in convenience and fast foods. In the mid-20th century, increasingly poor men and women utilized more of these foods to juggle the demands of work and family.
Sugar and Your Health
The significantly increased sugar load in the Western diet is leading to a crisis in public health. Apart from the fact that all that sugar takes up room, crowding out more nutritious foods, all the latest scientific evidence links sugar consumption with a range of health issues. The body struggles to process excess sugar and that puts a strain on all the body’s systems leading to:
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Tooth decay
- Insulin resistance
- Type II Diabetes
- Leaky gut
- Cancers of the esophagus, colon, breast, and small intestine
- Negative cognitive function, including impaired memory and learning
- Faster aging
- Eye problems, such as macular degeneration and cataracts
- Skin diseases, such as eczema and acne
- Hormonal imbalances leading to increased estrogen in men, polycystic ovarian syndrome in women, erectile dysfunction, and fertility problems
Your gut bacteria are badly affected by sugar and can become unbalanced causing chronic low-grade inflammation and damage the intestinal wall, increasing intestinal permeability. This can also contribute to obesity and a range of chronic metabolic diseases.
Sugar also contributes to body inflammation, which is a prime driver of circulatory and heart disease and metabolic syndrome.
Sugar, Not Fat, is Bad for Your Heart
For decades, the standard health advice was to avoid fat. Fat was seen as the cause of heart disease, obesity, and high cholesterol.
But new studies show that fat is not to blame. Sugar is. Especially fructose, which affects the risk factors for:
- Heart disease
- LDL cholesterol
- Blood glucose and insulin
- Abdominal obesity
Fructose is probably the most abundant form of sugar in the Western diet. It’s found in everything from candy bars to ketchup and is often added to all sorts of foods you would never dream contained sugar. It is a simple sugar that is processed by the liver and immediately is turned into fat.
Added sugars like sucrose and high fructose corn syrup are high in calories but have no nutritional value. The prevalence of calorific sugars has driven the obesity epidemic. The modern Western diet has left us overfed and undernourished. Sugar doesn’t trip your satiety switch in your brain – it’s possible to eat much more sweet food without feeling full.
Many people find sugar addictive and as difficult to give up as any of the illegal addictions. Sugar activates the pleasure centers of the brain, triggering a rush of dopamine (the feel-good hormone). Put simply, sugar makes you feel good. How many of us find comfort in a candy bar or treat ourselves to dessert ‘because we deserve it?’
And because modern processed foods have many times the amount of sugar found naturally occurring in food, our sugar baseline is much higher than in previous generations, meaning it takes more and more sugar to get that pleasure rush.
The good news is that there is a much greater awareness of the dangers of sugar consumption. So, more manufacturers are providing tasty, easy, low sugar food and meals.
Apps to Help You Cut Sugar
Besides continuing to educate yourself by reading my blog, there are many apps to help you track and minimize your sugar consumption and choose healthier options. Some are straight sugar counters (such as That Sugar App, Sugar Smart, and FoodSwitch). Others take a strategic or challenge-based approach to help you make lifestyle changes and reduce or eliminate your sugar intake (Sugar-Free Detox App, I Quit Sugar App, No Sugar Challenge App, and Sugar Stop Challenge).
My Personal Favorite Books That Help You Kick the Sugar Habit
Good Reasons to Avoid Sugar Substitutes
You might think that you can just swap sugar with artificial substitutes, even ‘healthier’ options like Stevia or honey. But, if you are really trying to have a diet that is lower in sugar, you need to re-educate your taste buds so that you prefer food that doesn’t taste as sweet.
You are trying to break an addiction to the sweet taste that pervades so much of our food. Using substitutes can undermine all your efforts by confusing your brain. There is evidence that sugar (especially sugar-heavy drinks) has a similar effect on your sense of taste as smoking.
How to Minimize Your Sugar Intake
- Substitute low for high sugar options – Rye bread instead of white, wholemeal pasta and rice for regular.
- Include more protein and fat in your diet. They take longer to digest, keeping you feeling satisfied for longer and have much greater nutritional value than sweet options. They also even out your blood sugar.
- Stay well hydrated. Dehydration can make you think you’re hungry, so keep drinking water and herbal teas. Add flavor with slices of lemon or lime.
- Keep carbohydrates to a minimum. All carbohydrates are processed into sugars in the digestive system and white carbs are processed quickly into a massive sugar hit.
- Read the labels of soups, sauces, ketchups, mustards and salad dressings for hidden sugar. Anything ending in –ose or syrup means sugar. Beware of a build-up of hidden sugars – malt extract, honey, fructose, dextrose, lactose, cane extract, agave, fruit concentrate, and cane crystal are all sugars!
- Don’t buy prepared meals, ‘energy,’ or sports drinks or breakfast drinks.
- Think of other ways of rewarding yourself than candy bars, cake, or chocolate.
- Enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit and vegetables. Once you re-educate your palate, they will taste sweeter.
- Carry low or no sugar snacks with you to avoid giving into temptation.
- Track your sugar consumption using one of the suggested apps.
- Make your own peanut butter, muesli, salad dressings, smoothies, etc., leaving out the sugar.
As a rule of thumb keep food and drinks as simple and unprocessed as possible. Take control over what you put into your body and make sure it’s the best you can find.