Are you addicted to sugar?
1. Do you struggle to walk past a sugary treat without taking ‘just one’?
2. Do you have routines around sugar consumption – for example, always having pudding, or needing a piece of chocolate to relax in front of the television?
3. Are there times when you feel as if you cannot go on without a sugar hit?
4. If you are forced to go without sugar for 24 hours, do you develop headaches and mood swings?
If you answered ‘yes’ to one of the questions above, you are addicted.
Like it or lump it, few of us get through the day without adding sugar to our daily diet. We are a Pavlovian population made up of sugar, treacle and toffee addicts, drawn to the taste of sweetness like bees to honey. So ingrained is our desire that even writing about sugar now is sending my salivary glands into overdrive as my brain reacts to the very thought of it, whizzing neurotransmitters around to prepare my body for some serious glucose action. Perhaps you, while reading this, are reaching – almost unwittingly – for a chocolate?
It seems that our desire to load up with sugar regularly may not be the cheeky reward-cum-energy boost we think it is. Increasingly, experts believe we can be truly addicted to sugar. French scientists in Bordeaux reported that in animal trials, rats chose sugar over cocaine (even when they were addicted to cocaine), and speculated that no mammals’ sweet receptors are naturally adapted to the high concentrations of sweet tastes on offer in modern times. They worried, in a paper published in 2007, that the intense stimulation of these receptors by our typical 21st-century sugar-rich diets must generate a supra-normal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.
So if you feel like you are craving a chocolaty treat, that craving is more than just a figure of speech. You may be one of the world’s most common dependents: a sugar addict.
Why Is Sugar Bad?
One of the most obvious reasons why sugary foods and drinks are bad and can undermine your health is that they tend to be high in calories but not all that filling. That makes it easy to over-consume them, and the excess calories can cause you to gain weight.
Another way that sugar negatively impacts nutrition and health is that it displaces other healthier foods. People often eat sweets instead of other foods that are more nutritious and, as a result, their overall nutrition suffers. Put another way, if you were to replace sweets with nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, you’d greatly improve the nutritional quality of your diet.
How Sugar Harms Your Health
But it’s not just the empty calories that are the problem, or even the excess calories. Because even if you’re getting all the nutrients you need and are only consuming enough calories to maintain a healthy weight, eating a lot of sugar is still bad for you. Here are 5 of the top reasons why sugar is bad:
Sugar suppresses the immune system. When you eat a big dose of sugar, like a bottle of Coke or a candy bar, you temporarily tamp down your immune system’s ability to respond to challenges. The effect lasts for several hours, so if you eat sweets several times a day, your immune system may be perpetually operating at a distinct disadvantage.
Sugar promotes inflammation. Inflammation, which is part of the immune response, is not always a bad thing. But eating sugar foods can fuel excessive, inappropriate inflammation that serves no useful purpose and actually promotes aging and disease. In my show on foods that fight inflammation, I pointed out that cutting back on sugary foods will help you avoid excess inflammation.
If you want to slow down the aging process, do what you can to naturally enhance your body’s production of human growth hormone. Avoiding foods that are high in sugar is a good way to do that.
Sugar suppresses the release of human growth hormone. You know those ads in in-flight magazines that show a super-buff guy, who, thanks to a radical anti-aging program, looks about 50 even though he’s approaching 70? He’s most likely injecting himself with human growth hormone. Of course, he’s also watching his diet, spending a couple of hours a day in the gym, and using lots of self-tanner, but there’s no doubt that the hormone shots have a lot to do with his physique. Although the effects can be dramatic, hormone treatments are expensive and risky, so I don’t personally recommend this course of action. But if you want to slow down the aging process, you definitely want to do what you can to naturally enhance your body’s production of human growth hormone. Avoiding foods that are high in sugar is a good way to do that. Exercising, going longer between meals, and avoiding undue stress also help.
Sugar promotes glycation. Sugar molecules treat your body like a singles bar. Once they get into your bloodstream, they start looking around for things to hook up with, like attractive protein and fat molecules. The hook-up is known as “glycation” and like most hook-ups, the results aren’t pretty. These glycated molecules act like drunken sailors, careening around your body, breaking things and peeing where they shouldn’t. They produce toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products, or, AGEs. That is perhaps the most poetically-just acronym in biology, because AGEs essentially throw the aging process into fast-forward. And much of the damage done by AGEs is irreversible. If that doesn’t motivate you to walk away from the M&Ms, I don’t know what would.
Sugar raises insulin levels. An influx of sugar into your body will have a fairly predictable result: Your blood sugar levels will zoom up. Shortly after, your pancreas will release a bunch of insulin to help clear sugar from your blood into your cells. As blood sugar levels go down, insulin levels return to normal. But when you eat a lot of sugar, you’re constantly calling for insulin, and that can backfire in a couple of ways. Over time, it takes more and more insulin to get the job done. Eventually, your pancreas may just stop responding to the call. Congratulations, you’re now an insulin-dependent diabetic. And along the way, exposing your cells and organs to chronically high insulin levels accelerates the aging process.
In other words: We are not genetically designed to consume the amount of sugar that we are currently eating. For that reason, our brains get that ‘happy feeling’ from sugar and it can override the “I’ve had enough” mechanism.
It’s why your concentration goes to Hell when you eat a chocolate chip cookie and there is an additional plate of them in front of you. Suddenly it’s the only thing you can think about until you’ve eaten them all! Or you eat a Peanut M&M, and suddenly you’ve polished off a family-sized bag.
Do this repeatedly, and like Pavlov’s dog, your brain will start to anticipate this sugar rush and get prepared for it…even when you’re merely thinking about food!
It’s why Cinnabon is usually isolated in malls – away from the food court, it has a better chance of getting its smells into your nostrils from far away…which then triggers that mechanism in your brain if you love sugar: “SUGAR! CINNABON! HUNGRY NOW!” Suddenly you can’t think of anything else.
It’s also why everybody in line for Cinnabon looks so depressed.