Updated: Dec 14, 2021
How can something that tastes so good cause so many problems for our health from sugar cravings to Type 2 Diabetes, Obesity and Heart disease? We can take a look at evolution to help us understand the instinctual nature of sugar cravings.
In prehistoric times, when our ancestors had to hunt for food, they would seek out sweet foods like berries and fruit because sugar implied calories which gave them instant energy to continue to survive so that they can hunt and gather other sources of food such as animal protein or nuts and seeds which last much longer in their bodies.
Most scientists agree that babies are born with an instinctive preference for sweets, due to this evolutionary adaptation from when food was scarce. However, we don't live in those times anymore. In fact, many Americans live in an overabundance of available food, especially sugar.
With the introduction of food processing and manufacturing in the early 1900's, sugars were added to foods to increase palatability and used as a preservative to increase shelf-life. Over time, the concentration of sugar added into processed foods increased and new and cheaper forms were created such as high-fructose corn syrup and today, sugar and its derivatives can be found in almost all packaged foods from bread and crackers to flavored yogurts and processed meats.
In this article you will learn how to identify all the different forms of added sugar that are hidden in the foods we eat, understand the psychology of sugar cravings and addiction and learn a few strategies on how to develop a healthy relationship with sugar in time for the holiday season so you can still enjoy the treats that come out during the holidays without going overboard.
Sugar and What Our Bodies Need it For
Our bodies actually NEED sugar to survive. Sugar in its most simplest from is glucose which is the source of energy our bodies use for all our metabolic processes at a cellular level.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the biochemistry of glucose metabolism, all we need to know is that glucose is broken down in our cells through a process called Glycolysis to provide our cells with a usable form of energy called Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP so that all of our bodily functions from breathing, muscle contraction, digestion and thinking can happen. So it is essential to our survival, but how much glucose does our body actually need to function?
How Much Sugar Does Our Body Really Need?
Imagine measuring out 20 teaspoons of pure table sugar and eating it, every 24 hrs. That sounds sickeningly sweet doesn't it? The fact of the matter is the average American consumes almost 20 teaspoons of added sugar in the form of sweeteners added during food processing or preparation every single day. That's almost a 5 pound bag every month! And the average teenager consumes way more than that!
There is no nutritional need for added sugar in a typical American diet, therefore there is no daily recommended value by the FDA. The American Heart Association states that men should consume no more than 36gm of sugar (9 teaspoons, 150 calories), women should consume no more than 25gm of sugar (6 teaspoons) and children should consume no more than 3-4 teaspoons of sugar (about the amount found in 1 granola bar) in a day.
In an ideal world, we would aim for no added sugar in our diets because if we are eating a whole food diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grain high fiber carbohydrates we will get plenty of natural sugar from these foods and carbohydrates for energy.
But let's be realistic, we live in a world where food is consumed not just for the basic human need of sustenance but food is also a source of pleasure, connection and is associated with important life experiences and every day rituals.
Therefore instead of condemning sugar and fighting a battle that will never be won with the food industry, a more productive approach would be to learn the skills that can help you develop a healthy relationship with sugar so that you don't feel like sugar has control over you but you have control over your relationship with sugar.
The Difference Between Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar
Natural sugars are found in whole unprocessed foods such as the fructose in apples and bananas or the lactose in milk and yogurt. The natural sugars found in whole foods are always paired with other organic compounds of beneficial nutritional value such as the fiber and vitamins found in fruits and the protein, calcium and vitamins found in milk and yogurt. When eating whole foods you are never getting just pure sugar you are getting the nutrients that come with the foods as well.
A processed food is when you take a naturally occurring food in nature and add sugar, emulsifiers, starches, oils, salt and preservatives to turn it into a food that is a completely different form than the original whole food. For example, taking wheat, grinding it down into flour, adding sugar and oil, frying it and calling it a donut.
Added sugar can be found in even the most seemingly benign foods such as bread, crackers, granola and yogurt. And of course are overtly obvious in foods such as sodas, ice cream, cookies etc. It is these sources of added sugar that we as a society need to become more aware of, pay more attention and change our habits and the habits of our children if we want to live longer healthier lives.
Can You Still Overdo it on Natural Sugars?
Eating too much of anything even "healthy" foods is not good for anyone. Our bodies need a certain amount of calories each day in order to maintain its metabolic functions depending on our activity level. When the amount of food we consume more or less balances out with the amount of energy we expend we are able to maintain a stable weight.
However, when we consume more food than our bodies actually need to sustain ourselves, the extra calories gets stored in our bodies as fat and over time can build up. Add on the natural process of aging and the slowing down of our metabolism and it's very easy to see the pounds creep on over the years.
That said even the natural sugars found in fruits and starchy and root vegetables can cause weight gain if eaten in excess of what the body actually needs to function. So yes, you can certainly overdo it on natural sugars.
However, if you are having a craving for something sweet say after the end of a meal, a piece of fruit or a piece of dried fruit will be a better choice any day over a cookie or a brownie, so if there is a choice to be made go for the natural sugar choice.
How to Recognize Added Sugars in Food
Becoming familiar with reading food labels and incorporating that practice into your shopping habits is a great way to become more aware of hidden sugars in common packaged foods like bread, crackers, granola, protein bars, cereals, snacks and sugar sweetened beverages. Below is a food label for a common brand of a granola found at the supermarket.
Take a look at the list of the ingredients, we can see that cane sugar is the second ingredient on the list and that the total amount of sugar in 1 serving of the granola is 11 grams with 10 of those grams being added sugar. When we take a closer look at the ingredients, we can see that molasses is also added which is another form of sugar and there is also sugar in the spice blend that is used. Thats 3 different sources of added sugar in this granola, giving you 21% of your daily recommended amount of sugar in just 1 serving which is ½ cup.
A product us considered high in sugar if it has more than 15 grams per 100 grams of the product. In this example, 1 serving is 53 grams (let's just round it to 50 grams) which has 10 grams of added sugar. In 100 grams of this product there would be 20 grams of added sugar, making this is high sugar product.
A product is considered low in sugar if it contains less than or equal to 5 grams of sugar per 100 grams of the product. "Healthy" foods such a dried fruit and whole grains may be considered high in sugar but the natural sugar comes in a nutrient dense form along with, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and protein and can be incorporated into a healthy balanced diet.
Aim to consume as little added sugar as possible, you will get plenty from natural sources. The first step in becoming aware of hidden sugars in our food supply is recognizing the many different names and form sugars can take. Below is a chart showing the possible forms sugar can show up as in packaged and processed foods. If any of these forms of sugar show up in the first 3 ingredients on the food label, put it back on the shelf!
What Happens When We Have Too Much Sugar?
By now you might be wondering "Why is sugar bad for you?" There has been plenty of research that consuming too much sugar increases individuals risk of diabetes and heart disease. In addition to these health problems overconsumption of sugar can lead to weight gain, which when out of control can lead to developing fatty liver, whose only treatment is weight loss.
Perhaps less well known information is that too much sugar may also increase the risk of developing neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and even Multiple Sclerosis. This is due to inflammation of the central nervous system caused by an overload of glucose in the brain. All of these health problems are related to each other as it has been long known that people who have Type 2 Diabetes have twice the risk of Alzheimer's than the general population.
Consuming too much sugar on a regular basis can lead to chronic inflammation, which is an overactivity of the body's disease-fighting immune system. Extra sugar that is not used for metabolism floating around in the bloodstream can attach itself to proteins and fats, causing them to change shape in potentially harmful ways and increasing the body's production of pro-inflammatory mediators such as Cytokines and free radicals.
Studies have shown that overconsumption of sugar increases the likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and increases the risk for certain cancers such as endometrial and colorectal cancers.
You don't have to completely eliminate sugar from your diet, enjoying sugary foods now and again is not going to throw you into a health crisis. The situation that is more likely happening is that people who tend to over consume sugar may also have other unhealthy habits such as not exercising, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight and not conscious of their health and wellness, which when added together with the over consumption of sugar can certainly be a recipe for a health disaster.
Why Is Sugar So Addictive?
Recent scientific literature has found that "addiction" to sugar, though not exactly the same physiological mechanisms as addiction to drugs or alcohol, have many striking similarities. The common pathway that sugar activates that is similar to what happens when one consumes alcohol or drugs is the activation of Mesolimbic dopamine system.
This has been shown in studies where animals were fed a high sugar diet which caused neurochemical changes in the brain that releases dopamine and activates the reward center producing feelings of satisfaction, happiness and euphoria, which causes repetition of the behavior to illicit the same reaction and create dependance. There is evidence that animals can become dependent on sugar, experience binging, withdrawal and cravings, all behaviors that characterize addiction.
This is harder to study in humans because we rarely eat sugar in isolation. Sugar in human diets typically comes with fat, protein and other nutrients in foods; not the case in rats, who are willing to eat nothing but straight-up sugar, making it easier for researchers to pinpoint the effects. Still, those addictive-like behaviors in animal studies should not be discounted when examining how sugar "highs" and "lows" in humans are likely the result of sugar dependency.
If a human body gets accustomed to being fueled with a high level of sugar, and then when you consume less, you can feel out of sorts, almost like a malaise with is actually a symptom to withdrawal - which can cause you to crave more sugar and can lead to binges. Interestingly and alarmingly this is the same pattern that is displayed in individuals who are addicted to other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, heroin and cocaine.
In his book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he lays out the research that shows that it is not actually the moment that one consumes sugar that causes the biggest release of dopamine, but it is actually the actions leading up to the moment of consumption that causes the most release of dopamine. It's the thinking about what sugary treat you are going to have, it's the search for it, it the happiness when you have found it or have made a decision, it's the anticipation. Psychologically, it is the same thought process as dependance and addiction to drugs or alcohol, which is scary to say the least.
What About Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Substitutes?
The debate about artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can be controversial and there are differing opinions. However, if you come from the philosophy and lifestyle of eating a WHOLE foods, unprocessed, nutrient dense diet, almost everyone practicing this type of eating style will agree that there is no place for artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes in this type of eating practice.
There is plenty of medically reviewed research supporting the position that artificial sweeteners have a large potential for negative health outcomes, such as increased caloric intake throughout the day and increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners are chemically concocted products that provide zero calories and zero actual glucose and can be up to 700 times sweeter than sugar. Using artificial sweeteners regularly, alters your tastebuds and makes them less sensitive to the natural sweetness of natural sugars found in fruits, vegetables, starch vegetables and whole grain carbohydrates. They "trick" your brain into thinking it is getting glucose, but when it is not actually getting the glucose it thinks it was going to get, the brain sends signals saying that it wants more glucose and can cause cravings for more sugar.
Sugar substitutes like Stevia or Monk Fruit extract while technically derived from a natural source is still a processed product. Stevia is 200-350 times as sweet as table sugar and Monk Fruit is 150-200 times as sweet as table sugar and will distort your natural sense of taste the same way artificial sweeteners do. Not only that, artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes disturb the body's ability to recognize calories properly, increasing the desire for sugar and cause weight gain by disrupting normal hormone signaling.
In addition to all of the above, artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can damage the beneficial microbiota in the gut. They change the microflora and pH balance in the gut, altering the natural ecosystem of the stomach and intestines and put cells at risk for infiltration by harmful bacteria which increases conditions such as leaky gut and risks of gastrointestinal infections.
How to Develop a Healthy Relationship With Sugar
Developing a healthy relationship with anything that we struggle with, be it sugar, overeating, alcohol consumption, TV watching, whatever it may be, is a journey and can take a long time, if not a lifetime to overcome and feel like you truly have a handle on it.
Step 1 - Create Awareness
Whatever the challenge may be, the first step is always awareness. Becoming aware of how much sugar you are actually consuming in a typical day or a given week can be quite shocking. A good way to just become aware of your sugar intake is to write down what you are eating in a food journal. The act of writing things down connects you with the experience of eating and in turn makes you more aware of what it is you are actually eating.
All that is happening in this first step is witnessing the action. In this first step, we are not making any drastic changes nor are we making any judgements or criticisms, we are just noticing. After witnessing, if you feel like you are consuming too much sugar in your diet and want to do something about it, you can move onto step 2.
Step 2 - Identify Your Triggers
Next you can take a look at the triggers that cause you to beeline for the cookies, candy, chocolate and sweet treats. For example, does stress, fatigue, boredom or social situations cause you to act out eating behaviors that you know are not benefitting you like, having drink after drink after drink or overeating or indulging in the goodies.
Once you identify the trigger, examine what exactly is happening in your environment, in your body and in your mind in the moments leading up to the trigger. For example, if you gravitate towards sweets when you feel stressed out, what exactly is happening in your environment to cause you to feel stressed out? Is it because you are swamped at work? Is it because you are sitting in bumper to bumper traffic and tired?
Step 3 - Make a Shift
Once you have identified the triggers that cause you to reach for the sugary drinks or sugary foods and examined the situations that are causing the trigger, the next step is to explore and think of what shifts you can make in your external environment or internal environment to make heading for the sugary less easy, less desirable.
It could be as simple as not having those types of food readily accessible, or changing your environment to make it so that they are harder to get to. Rearranging or cleaning out your kitchen, pantry and cupboards is an example of a shift in your external environment.
Shifting your internal environment can be harder and this is where sometimes it can be helpful to have a guide like a nutrition coach help you uncover the reasons for your unhealthy eating behaviors and do the work to help you move past them.
Step 4 - Have a Plan
Having a plan of what to do when these triggers and situations show up in your life will get you started on the path of creating new habits and thought processes around these unwanted behaviors. Instead of acting on auto-pilot and repeating the same behaviors over and over again, having a plan to execute will help you feel more confident and in control to be able to make a different choice.
Alternative food choices to sugary foods can be really helpful, so that the desire or craving for something sweet is still satisfied but the choice could be more healthy, such as dark chocolate, dried fruit, or using spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves on fresh fruit.
It is also good to have a plan that does not involve food, especially if you are actively trying to lose weight, such as brushing your teeth, having flavored sparkling water, going for a walk or doing some stretching.
Step 5 - Be Kind to Yourself
Cravings are real and if cravings are approached from the perspective of "diet culture" where restriction and willpower to abstain from the cravings are what is being taught, that creates over desire for the craving and will eventually lead to binging or "giving in" to the craving. That is why diets just don't work for long term habit change and weight management. Sure, diets may work for the short term, quick and fast results, but without addressing the underlying reasons for the cravings, many people will fall into a pattern of "yo-yo dieting" that will repeat itself over and over again.
Even with the best of intentions and careful planning sometimes you will fall short and that's OK. Habit and behavior change takes time, patience and lots of practice. If you find that you "fell off the wagon", try not to criticize, judge or go down the spiral of shame or guilt, it will happen and happens to the best of us. Be kind to yourself and try and try again.