We are learning more and more about the health impacts of sugar, especially refined sugars. And we eat A LOT of sugar, often without realizing it. Dietary guidelines recommend getting no more than 10% of calories from added sugar (sugar added to a food during processing). This is approximately 3-6 teaspoons for children, 6 teaspoons for women, and 9 teaspoons for men. Ideally, we would have NO added sugar in our diet.
In this 2-part blog, we will look at the concept of added sugar and what we can do to reduce our intake. In Part I, we will explore what foods provide sugar, how sugar is processed in the body, and the impact of sugar on our health. In part II we offer suggestions on what we (as parents and individuals) can do to reduce our sugar intake.
Where does sugar come from
All carbohydrates break down into sugar. What foods contain carbohydrates? Vegetables, fruits, grains, breads, chips, cookies, French fries. Some of these foods have complex carbohydrates and starches that are broken down into simple sugars by the body. Some have natural sugars in the food. Some have sugar that is added to enhance the flavor and have us eat more of it!
For this blog we are focusing on added sugars. 80% of processed foods have added sugar, particularly those described as low-fat. Sugar is abundant in our food supply and it is making us very sick, fat, and hungry.
How sugar is processed in the body
Anytime we eat a food that contains carbohydrates or protein (or a combination of the two), our body releases insulin. Insulin is a hormone released by an organ called the pancreas. Insulin is like a gate-keeper that allow the cells to use the glucose and amino acids (from protein) that are now floating in the blood stream. Insulin activates the gate that allows glucose and amino acids into the cells, especially muscle cells.
When there is more glucose in the blood than the cells can use, insulin activates the liver to store it as starch and fat. When there is no space in the liver to store the extra fat, it then is transported and stored in fat cells around the abdominal organs, then other areas of the body (hips, butt, and breasts). This is a genetic survival mechanism that was created when food was scarce and we may go long periods without food. Now we have an abundance of food, especially foods containing carbohydrates.
The Roller Coaster Ride of Sugar
So this is how it goes! You eat a meal with refined carbohydrates or sugar that tastes sweet → Your glucose skyrockets →The pancreas releases a large amount of insulin → Your blood sugar plummets → You get hungry and you crave sugar → Cycle Repeats
Sugar is addictive
Our brains LOVE sugar! Our brains use a large amount of glucose. We have evolved to crave sugar, which was relatively rare in nature. In order to make sure we eat sugar, our brains evolved to reward us when it is consumed. When we eat sugar, dopamine is released in the body. Dopamine is a chemical in the body that is associated with reward and pleasure, and ultimately addictions! The image above shows the dopamine response in the brain when exposed to sugar and cocaine! More dopamine is released with sugar than cocaine!
Having an over-abundance of sugar can lead to addictive qualities. The more you eat, the more you want. Some people can even experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop eating sugar quickly. These symptoms may include body aches, headaches, weakness, fatigue. Begin to pay attention to how you feel after consuming foods that contain sugar (or even processed carbohydrates). Begin to ask your kids how they feel after eating foods with sugar. The more aware you are the more you will want to make changes to reduce sugar.
Health Impacts of Sugar
When blood sugar levels “crash”, cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) is released to support the body in raising the blood sugar again. The cycle of high blood sugar followed by the low blood sugar may result in fatigue, brain fog, difficulty sleeping, appetite dysregulation, hormonal imbalances, and irritability.
Over time, with an abundance of sugar floating in the system, our bodies become resistant to insulin. The pancreas releases more and more insulin, and the body becomes more and more resistant to insulin. We begin to store even more sugar as fat. This becomes a vicious cycle that, if continued, will result in Metabolic Syndrome and Type II diabetes (even if you are not overweight). These diseases used to be adulthood diseases, but now they are becoming more common in children. Left unchecked, type II diabetes can then lead to heart disease and heart attacks. High sugar intake can even increase risk for cancer. Cancer cells love sugar and feed on it as a rapid source of energy.
Other health impacts for sugar (especially for kids):
- Dental Caries (Cavities) – bacteria in the mouth over grow and produce acids leading to cavities
- Hyperactivity, behavior changes – see “crash” above
- Depressed immunity – white blood cells have reduced ability to engulf (eat) harmful bacteria, viruses, etc.
- Decreased learning performance
- Reduced sensitivity to the hormones that signal fullness, leading to overeating.
- For pregnant women, intake of sugary foods may influence the child’s weight in childhood.
In part II of this blog, we will discuss some simple ways to reduce added sugars in your diet. You will be surprised at the simple ways you can reduce your sugar intake! Knowledge and awareness are power!
Here are some other resources about this topic: