Sugar: The Sweet Enemy
Picture this. It’s the Stone Age. You’ve spent your day hunting and gathering food whilst protecting yourself from wild animals. In this era, physical stress was high and energy stores were quickly depleted. As you return to the safety of your home every night, stress levels fall and you eat to replenish the energy stores depleted that day.
Fast forward to life in the 1600’s. The lack of electricity and automobiles requires heavy labor. Each day leaves common people extinguished, eager for dinner each night to refuel themselves.
Now jump to the present day. Most of your day is spent at a desk, in a car, or on a couch. There’s a fast food restaurant on every corner, vending machines in every store, and processed foods with longer shelf lives. In today’s world, it is unlikely the average worker has physical stress and a depleted energy storage by the end of the working day. Yet, as we return home, or maybe before we can even make it that far, we indulge in some sort of treat. Maybe we treat ourselves to an ice-cold soda, a chewy chocolate chip cookie, or even a bag of salty potato chips. Why do we engage in this type of behavior, fully knowing it isn’t healthy for us?
Evolutionarily, our body would compensate for energy depletion after physical stress by consuming food. Today, our body mistakes mental stress for physical stress, eliciting the same response. Our brain tells us we need a spike in blood sugar for survival. The only problem with the method we use today is that instead of eating a nutritious wholesome meal, we are satisfying the demand with one of the most harmful foods to the body when over consumed: sugar.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Simple sugars include both glucose and fructose (known as monosaccharides), while complex sugars include sucrose and lactose (known as disaccharides).
Most of these sugars are broken down into glucose, the principal molecule used for energy production in the body. When too much sugar is consumed at once, blood sugar levels rise and elicit an insulin response to bring levels back to normal. Foods with a high glycemic index, raise blood sugar levels too quickly, leading to sudden crashes. These crashes, in turn, urge an increased sugar intake to once again reach the original sugar high. Our bodies amazing ability to adapt leads to our downfall when it comes to these blood sugar fluctuations. As our bodies adapt to a new blood glucose level homeostasis, we require even more sugar to reach that same sugar high we originally encountered. The effect of increased sugar on the body acts as a positive feedback system. As the amount of sugar increases, the amount of insulin released increases too. This can lead to serious health complications.
As soon as sugar enters the oral cavity, sweet taste receptors on the tongue activate the cerebral cortex, initiating the brains reward system. The result is the release of the infamous feel-good hormone, dopamine. No wonder chocolate cakes can make us feel so warm inside. As blood sugar levels fall, so does the brains dopamine, leaving us in a withdraw when we stop consuming sugar. Over time, we are conditioned to eat when we want to feel good. This system is similar to the reaction drugs have on the reward system, leaving us craving more, birthing a new addiction.
The brains response to sugar consumption changes chemicals released in the brain. One study found that diets high in sugar reduced the production of an important chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF. BDNF is important in the production of memories, linking high sugar consumption to poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression, and an increased risk of developing dementia. As BDNF levels decreased in the brain, sugar metabolism dropped, leading to high blood sugar levels; a precursor to pre-diabetic and diabetic states.
As the chemicals in the brain change due to the overconsumption of sugar, the bodily functions are interrupted. The over consumption of sugar has a negative effect on both the inward and outward appearance of your body. The chemicals found in sugar can rot teeth by eating away tooth enamel, leading to cavities and root canals. The proteins that keep your skin looking young, such as collagen and elastin, are damaged by the consumption of sugar, leading to increased aging. The increased insulin release from sugar encourages fat storage in visceral areas of the body. Visceral fat is one of the most dangerous types of fat because it surrounds your central organs, impairing their function. If too much sugar is consumed over a long period of time, the body can become insulin resistant and therefore diabetic. This can lead to stress on the heart, risks of stroke, kidney damage, and even limb loss.
Many of sugars harmful effects go unnoticed until it becomes too late. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of sugar per day for women and no more than 36 grams per day for men. To put this into better perspective, the average 6 oz. soda contains about 45 grams of sugar – double the recommended value per day. Furthermore, one study found that people with increased sugar intakes gained 1.7 pounds in less than 2 months.
Obesity has become an epidemic thanks to our sweet enemy, sugar. It’s never too late to get back on track to a healthy lifestyle though. Your body has the amazing ability heal to itself if given the proper nutrition. Foods with a high glycemic index are important to stay away from because they raise blood sugar levels too quickly, leading to the crashes that send us straight into the sugar addiction cycle. High glycemic foods include white bread, baked potatoes, refined breakfast cereals, cakes, and other simple carbohydrates. Foods with low glycemic indexes, such as whole oats, brown rice, and foods with high fiber content, are your friend. They prompt a more gradual rise in blood sugar, preventing sudden crashes. These low glycemic foods have also been found to help control type 2 diabetes and improve weight loss.
The key to a healthy body and weight loss comes from eliminating high glycemic foods. Next time you find yourself at the supermarket, read food labels and be conscious to choose foods with little to no added sugars. Choose foods with a high fiber and low carbohydrate ratio rather those with little fiber. Furthermore, high protein intake is important in maintaining and losing weight. A diet high in protein and healthy fats can help sustain muscle mass while decreasing body fat. The simple switch from soft beverages and juices to water can help curve sugar cravings and aid in weight loss as well.
Although sugar is dangerous to our health, it is safe to eat in moderation. Indulging yourself to a treat after sticking to a healthy diet is perfectly fine. Be careful though, because too much too often, can push you back into that addicting cycle. Just think, decreasing your sugar intake can increase brain clarity, aid weight loss, and maybe even save your life.
B.S. Biochemistry, Exercise Physiology
University of Miami
A good guide to good carbs: The glycemic index. Harvard Medical School.
DiSalvo, David. (2012). What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuronarrative/201204/what-eating-too-much-sugar-does-your-brain
Hughes, Locke. (2017). How Does Too Much Sugar Affect Your Body? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/how-sugar-affects-your-body
Migliore, Lauren. (2018). A Bittersweet Truth: The Neuroscience of Sugar and Addiction. Brain World Magazine. Retrieved from https://brainworldmagazine.com/a-bittersweet-truth-the-neuroscience-of-sugar-and-addiction/
Molteni, R, Barnard, RJ, Ying, Z, Roberts, CK, Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2002). A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12088740
The Nutrition Source. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/
Volkow, Nora, Wang, Gene-Jack, Baler, Ruben. (2010). Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: complications for obesity. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124340/