In 1822, the average American consumed about 45 grams of sugar every five days — and I’m guessing that he wasn’t getting it from Ding Dongs and Skittles. You want to take a stab at how much sugar the average American consumes today? 765 grams every five days. Or rather, the same amount that ye old American was drinking, but in seven hours instead of five days.
We have taken something that used to be a luxury and made it into an entire food group. Scratch that. We’ve weaved it into all our food groups. If we were to take about 20 teaspoon-sized steps back, what would happen to our bodies and our minds? Let’s talk about you not on sugar. You might just lose that weight!
We couldn’t leave this one out. It’s often the most common and obvious reason to eliminate the white stuff from your life. Celebrities are having success with it — from John Goodman to Adele. Seems pretty straightforward. Stop eating donuts, cronuts, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and stop taking in all of the empty calories that come with them, right?
Well, that’s just part of the story. Remember earlier when we were talking about insulin release and its effects on hormones? Insulin also has some other jobs. One of them is to communicate with our fat cells. When insulin levels are sky-high, it will tell our cells to store fat and avoid burning more. From here, the body can’t access the stored fat. Which it interprets to mean, “I’m hungry!” Another bowl of granola? Don’t mind if I do. And what about that granola? Do you think it’s going to keep you full and satisfied until lunch? Probably not.
A 2013 study served 20 healthy test subjects either a glucose-sweetened drink or a fructose-sweetened drink. (Just a quick reminder that glucose is the body’s preferred energy source, while fructose relies solely on the liver to be metabolized, which doesn’t always go as planned.) The results? The glucose drinkers felt more full and satiated, while the fructose drinkers were left unsatisfied and somewhat hungry.
Interpretation: The more processed sugar you eat, the more processed sugar you want. All the while, your body is storing fat, not burning it, and wondering, “When am I going to get my next meal?” Cut down the sugar, and you might just see your waistline go down too. Couldn’t hurt to try, right?
You could clear the cobwebs
Upon immediate consumption, fructose is a reward for the brain. It gets a temporary high and feels pretty good about itself. But animal research is now suggesting that repeated sugar hits lead to prolonged dopamine signaling, a more rewarded brain, and in turn, a need for more sugar to keep this fantastic high going. As neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis puts it, sugar “hijacks the brain’s reward pathway.”
In another animal study, researchers at UCLA found that a diet high in sugar can affect your ability to learn new things and remember old ones. The gist of their research was this: Rats who ate too much sugar had damaged synaptic activity leading to impaired communication between brain cells.
Last but not least, elevated blood sugar levels can cause inflammation in the body, which can also lead to brain degeneration, and ultimately, diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Addictive tendencies? Check. Learning impairment? Check. Memory loss? Check. Gang’s all here! Before we know it, we’re going to see Rachel Leigh Cook with a frying pan and a donut, shouting “This is your brain on sugar!”
Take the edge off
Sugar and anxiety. They seem to go hand in hand, don’t they? You had a fight with your boyfriend? You eat a pint of ice cream. Nervous the night before a presentation? You eat a pint of ice cream with chocolate chips. Asking for a raise tomorrow? You eat a pint of ice cream with chocolate chips and slather it with peanut butter. What? Too much?
Anyways, according to Psychology Today, it’s not sugar that causes anxiety, but it is a catalyst for making anxiety symptoms worse. For example, for the person who suffers from an anxiety attack, sugar can exacerbate her already heightened sense of impending danger. Blurry vision, fuzzy head, fatigue, shaking — these are all symptoms of a typical panic attack. The worsening symptoms cause more worry and fear, creating a vicious cycle.
What about for those of us that don’t suffer from panic attacks, but maybe your garden variety anxiety pings? Well there’s some rat research that seems to say a little bit more about the general effects of sugar on anxiety. A 2008 study found that rats given an excess of sugar,and then deprived of food showed a dopamine imbalance which resulted in increased anxiety. The following year, another study found that consuming sugar in the long term reduces the ability to fight anxiety. All this talk of anxiety is making us a little nervous. Maybe a nice cup of tea to calm our nerves? Hold the sugar, of course.
A world with no sugar?
Before we go cleaning our cabinets of all things with any sugar content and banning birthday cakes from our kids, let’s keep a little perspective, shall we?
The sugar discussed in this article is largely from processed foods like soda pops, sports drinks, breakfast cereals, and snacks that are marketed to be healthy, like low-fat yogurts and protein bars. That still leaves plenty of room for more natural forms of sugar, like berries, sweet potatoes, dark chocolate, and even homemade baked goods sweetened with things like honey or dates. We need sugar in our diet. It gives us energy. The problem is our approach to eating it.
Take Maddy Moon, for example. The former fitness competitor turned body confidence coach has gone to the extreme with sugar — from overloading herself with it to going months without a drop of it at all. But in neither case did she feel healthy. She now will allow herself wine, beer, fruit, and even cake when she feels like it. “I have absolutely zero judgment towards my food choices when I do decide to have sugar, I just do it with radical responsibility, knowing how it might make me feel,” she says.
I think we can all take a page out of Maddy’s book and approach sugar in the same way. Just like anything else, too much of anything is a bad thing (i.e. 765 grams? C’mon, America!). But just enough can lead to a very sweet life.