Sugar. Deliciously sweet, dangerously addictive, unsurprisingly toxic.
By now, we all realize that our bodies don’t need sugar for survival. Instead of having a recommended daily amount, like many other foods, sugar intake should actually be restricted. In today’s world of processed foods and crafty labeling though, it’s easy to accidentally go over that limit. It is vitally important to keep tabs on the amount of sugar we (and our children!) are eating – in fact, it would be a much easier situation to just cut sugar altogether. This is because sugar truly offers no benefits, but rather threatens the health and integrity of your entire body.
What is Sugar?
This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s important to cover the basics before going in-depth on the true dangers of sugar. The American Heart Association recognizes a distinct difference between two different types of sugar: natural sugars, and added sugars. Natural sugars are just that – natural. They occur naturally in many types of foods; for example, natural sugars make strawberries so delectable, and give dates that irresistible flavor. They’re also responsible for the slight sweet taste to cow’s milk. Added sugars, on the other hand, are far from natural – these are the sugars that you really want to be careful with. The most common forms of added sugar are white and brown sugars, and in more recent times, high-fructose corn syrup.
Added sugars could, arguably, be the most unhealthy staple in the American diet. That’s right, I said staple. That’s because added sugars make up about 10-25% of the calories the average American eats in a day. The reason this whopping amount of sugar is so easily passed through the mouths of Americans is because of the sharp increase in availability of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are foods that are created by industrial formulations, and contain “substances not used in culinary preparations.” Options like sodas, cereal, frozen dinners, and cookies fall into this category. For most Americans, 90% of their sugar intake stems from these types of foods – which isn’t really so hard to believe when you realize that these ultra-processed foods make up 60% of the standard American diet.
Sugar: The New Cocaine
No parent in their right mind would ever hand their 2-year-old a bag of cocaine because that’s just crazy, right? But, how crazy is it to hand your toddler an Oreo? With the diet of the average American child under deep scrutiny it would seem it’s not that crazy. In fact, in children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19, 16% of their daily caloric intake comes from added sugars. Why is this comparison worth mentioning? Well, cutting back on sugar may not be as easy as once previously believed. In 2013, researchers conducted an experiment examining the incredibly addictive properties of sugar. When comparing brain activity between mice eating Oreo cookies and those injected with cocaine or heroin, the scientists were amazed to find that significantly more neurons were activated in the brains of the mice eating sugar.
In another study, sugar was actually found to be even stronger an addiction than cocaine. Both drug-naive rats, and rats already addicted to cocaine, were presented with two options, and given the opportunity to choose only one: cocaine or sweet water. The water was sweetened with saccharin, a product commonly found in foods available to humans -diet sodas, and canned fruit in “light syrup” often contain the ingredient. 94% of the time, the animals chose the sweet water over cocaine, even when the saccharin was replaced with sucrose, or ‘table sugar.’ It doesn’t stop there though, even in the case of the cocaine-addicted mice, the desire for sweetened water over cocaine could not be overcome when the doses of cocaine were increased. With these results, researchers began to speculate that the addictive potential stems from a mammal’s inborn hypersensitivity to sweet. “In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants.”
One of the most notable characteristics among drug addicts is the need for more, and more, and more to get their fix. This phenomenon, scientifically known as escalation of intake, was once associated as trait among cocaine and heroin addicts because of the drug’s ability to desensitize certain receptors in the brain. Science is now revealing that excessive sugar intake also desensitizes these same receptors, making the addict require more and more sugar to get their ‘fix.' Functional MRI scans have shown that when humans ingest sugar, the brain releases a wave of opiods and dopamine, neurotransmitters that were traditionally associated with the rewarding effects of drug abuse. Even more alarming, rats who were given excessive amounts of sugar, and then deprived of it, began “displaying behavioral and neurochemical changes that resemble those observed in animal models of drug dependence.”
So is sugar actually physically addicting? Studies are definitely pointing in that direction. One study examined male rats who were offered a diet of 25% glucose, and then either deprived of food for 12 hours, or given a drug that blocks the effects of sugar in the brain. When withdrawal was induced, the lab rats began displaying very concerning symptoms: teeth chattering, forepaw tremor, and head shakes. The levels of anxiety and chemical imbalances that were able to be measured “were qualitatively similar to withdrawal from morphine.”
The Price Your Body Pays
Nearly 20% of all American children are now considered obese, but this really is no surprise considering over 36% of American adults have received that same diagnosis[9, 10]. To put things into perspective, only 12% of the US population was considered obese in 1990 – not even 3 decades ago. Not coincidentally, in that same time period the consumption of sugar by American adults has jumped over 30%. Much of this increase also coincides with insidious labeling, and the sneaking of added sugars into unexpected products, like children’s fruit juice, ketchup, and pasta sauces. One study discovered that if the amount of added sugar allowed by manufacturers was capped by only 1% per year, we could expect “to reduce the prevalence of obesity by 1.7 percentage points, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 21.7 cases per 100,000 people over 20 years, averting approximately $9.7 billion in healthcare spending. So, if the overconsumption of sugar is costing this nation so much, financially, what is the toll on our bodies?
By now most everyone has heard about the diabetes epidemic, in 2014 over 29 million people in this country had the disease, but many do not really know what it is. Every time a person consumes sugar, their pancreas responds by producing insulin to convert it into energy. A proper amount of the hormone is necessary to prevent the blood sugar from getting too high (or low). In a person with diabetes, their pancreas is unable to keep up with converting the sugar to a useable form of energy, so the body metabolizes it abnormally resulting in dangerous blood sugar levels. Sometimes this happens because a person eats such high amounts of sugar, that the body stops responding appropriately to the insulin hormone – this is known as insulin resistance, or pre-diabetes, a disease which affects 1 in 3 American adults. The more sugar a person eats the harder the pancreas works, and this long-term wear often results in the pancreas aging more quickly than it should. This continuous abuse of the pancreas can have devastating effects. One study determined that high-sugar foods increased ones risk of developing pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer that carries a low 7% survival chance.
In light of emerging health issues, and their likelihood to be associated with sugar intake, in 2015 the World Health Organization recommended that both adults and children reduce their daily added sugar intake to less than 5%, or just 6 teaspoons. For context purposes, it’s important to realize that one can of soda contains nearly 10 tsp of sugar. One study, published by The JAMA Network found that those who consumed about 10% of their calories from sugar, or less than 2 cans of soda a day, increased their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by about 38%. According to the American Heart Association, most Americans consume about 22 tsp of added sugars per day – or nearly 20% of their daily calories. The reason heart disease often follows excessive sugar intake, is because sugar decreases the function of the heart muscle. Researchers working with test animals and human heart tissue samples discovered that sugar even has the potential to cause structural remodeling of the heart. And, while many people suffering from high blood pressure and heart disease have been told to steer clear of high sodium, sugar has remained ignored. One medical journal urged that “while naturally occurring sugars in the form of whole foods like fruit are of no concern, epidemiological and experimental evidence suggest that added sugars (particularly those engineered to be high in fructose) are a problem and should be targeted more explicitly in dietary guidelines to support cardiometabolic and general health.” and “added sugars probably matter more than dietary sodium for hypertension…”
Important brain-related functions such as cognition, memory, and the ability to learn are extremely closely related with sugar levels in the brain. Because the brain relies on glucose (the useable form of sugar that insulin helps produce) for fuel, it is necessary to have this ingredient in our bodies. But, what happens when there is too much sugar? One study found that excessive amounts of glucose in the body could be linked to memory impairment and cognitive deficiencies. Long-term diabetes, both Type 1 and 2, has been linked with the loss of brain matter and, quite literally, causes the brain to shrink. Type 2 diabetes has also shown and ability to increase brain-aging and can actually spark dementia. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine determined that, in the 5 years preceding the onset of dementia, continuous higher-than-average levels of glucose in the brain could be found in both those with and without diabetes.
Reducing Sugar Intake
So, we get it, sugar is scary and dangerous. But, before you run into your fridge and start chucking everything out the door – it’s important to educate yourself. Veggies and fruits, even those deliciously sweet ones, are definitely on the safer side. One, because the sugar is natural and two, because these foods contain high levels of healthy fats and fibers to match the sugar making your body metabolize them differently. Avoid as many processed foods as you can, and read those labels. Of course, sugar goes by many different aliases, so being familiar with the different names of sugar will come in handy. Also, when shopping around the ultra-processed foods, choose the unsweetened versions. Your taste buds may scream in agony at the beginning (remember, sugar IS addicting), but your body will adapt – and thank you. Stay healthy.
Until next time,
1. American Heart Association Sugar 101
2. Harvard Medical School Eating Too Much Added Sugar Increases Risk of Dying with Heart Disease
3. BMJ Ultra-Processed Foods and Added Sugars in the US Diet: Evidence from a Nationally Representative Cross-Sectional Study
4. CDC Consumption of Added Sugar Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2005-2008
5. Connecticut College Student-Faculty Research Suggests Oreos can be Compared to Drugs of Abuse in Lab Rats
6. NCBI Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward
7. NCBI Excessive Sugar Intake Alters Binding to Dopamine and Mu-Opiod Receptors in the Brain
8. Wiley Online Library Evidence that Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake Causes Endogenous Opioid Dependence
9. CDC Childhood Obesity Facts
10. CDC Adult Obesity Facts
11. ScienceDaily U.S. Adult Consumption of Added Sugars Increased by More Than 30% Over Three Decades
12. USA Today Want to Know Which Foods are Healthy? So Does the FDA
13. American Public Health Association Reducing Added Sugars in the Food Supply Through a Cap-and-Trade Approach
14. CDC National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2014
15. Oxford Academic Consumption of Sugar and Sugar-Sweetened Foods and the Risk of Pancreatic Cancer in a Prospective Study
16. World Health Organization WHO Calls on Countries to Reduce Sugars Intake Among Adults and Children
17. JAMA Network Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality Among US Adults
18. American Heart Association Added Sugars
19. NCBI Glucose Regulation of Load-Induced mTOR Signaling and ER Stress in Mammalian Heart
20. Harvard Medical School Sugar and the Brain
21. The New England Journal of Medicine Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia