This week is Sugar Awareness Week. It's important to get clued-up on sugar - from knowing what it's doing to your body to what it can eventually lead to and why we just can't get enough of it.
The UK is consuming an alarming amount of the sweet stuff - four times the recommended intake. Sugar-related illnesses are skyrocketing; heart disease, diabetes, cancer. We know sugar is bad. We just can't stop eating. It's not simply a matter of self-control. Sugar is incredibly addictive and the Western world is completely and utterly hooked.
Now there's a reason for that. Research shows that sweet foods may be as addictive as the hardest-to-quit drugs.
Sugar causes a surge of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, part of the brain's reward centre. Repeated spikes can desensitise that centre, resulting in a reduction in the release of dopamine, meaning more and more sugar is needed for that rush.
When scientists scanned the brains of subjects who'd just eaten a high-sugar treat, everyone's nucleus accumbens - the part of the brains that comes alive when a person takes a recreational drug - lit up. In contrast, the group that swallowed a low-sugar alternative had no nucleus accumbens activity.
What happens to the rest of body when sugar enters the body. Let's take a look...
So the dopamine has been released by your brain's reward system. Meanwhile, in your stomach, the sugar you swallowed has arrived and is diluted by digestive juices and shuttled into your small intestines. Enzymes begin breaking it down into two types of molecules: glucose and fructose. Most added sugar comes from sugar cane and is equal parts glucose and fructose; high-fructose corn syrup, however, often has more processed fructose than glucose. Eaten repeatedly, these molecules can hit your body...big time.
Seeping through the walls of your small intestine, it triggers your pancreas to secrete insulin, a hormone that takes glucose from your blood and delivers it to your cells to use as energy. Most sweet treats are packed with so much glucose that your body is flooded with it, resulting in a 'high'. Your brain counters that by releasing serotonin, a sleep regulating hormone. So what happens to us? An almighty sugar crash.
Insulin also blocks production of leptin, the "hunger hormone" that tells your brain that you're full. The higher your insulin levels, the hungrier you will feel. Your brain now tells your body to start storing glucose as belly fat.
Insulin is also surging in your brain, a phenomenon that could eventually lead to Alzheimer's disease. Feeling out of sorts, your brain produces less dopamine, opening the door for cravings and addiction-like neurochemistry.
Your pancreas has pumped out so much insulin that your cells have become resistant to the stuff; all that glucose is left floating in your bloodstream, causing prediabetes or, eventually, full-force diabetes.
This, too, seeps through your small intestine into the bloodstream, which delivers fructose straight to your liver.
Your liver works to metabolize fructose (turn it into something your body can use). But the organ is easily overwhelmed, especially if you have an extremely sweet tooth. Over time, excess fructose can prompt globules of fat to grow throughout the liver, a process called lipogenesis, the precursor to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Too much fructose also lowers HDL, or "good" cholesterol, and spurs the production of triglycerides, a type of fat that can migrate from the liver to the arteries, raising your risk for heart attack or stroke.
Your liver sends an S.O.S. for extra insulin (yep, the multitasker also aids liver function). Overwhelmed, your pancreas is now in overdrive, which can result in total-body inflammation that, in turn, puts you at even higher risk for obesity and diabetes.
We were all told growing up that eating too many sweets will rot our teeth, right? But we're not just talking cavities anymore. As we can see above, when eaten in such vast quantities, sugar can wreak havoc on the body.
Now that you understand the negative effects of sugar on your body and mind, it’s time to be more careful when choosing foods. The first step is getting educated about how to find added sugars. When it comes to convenience and packaged foods, let the ingredients label be your guide—you’d be surprised how many low carb or “diet” foods contain added sugar. There are over 50 different names for sugar, including: maltose, cane juice, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose, glucose...the list goes on.
More than a quarter of children are now overweight or obese. Obesity costs the NHS more than £5 billion every year, with indirect costs at an estimated £22 billion. If obesity rates were to continue unchecked, it is estimated that 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women, and 25% of children in the UK could be obese by 2050. The McKinsey group recently estimated that the total annual economic cost of obesity globally is £1 trillion and £47 billion in the UK.
The NHS recommends we don't consume more than 30g of sugar per day. Some seemingly healthy fruit yogurts contain more than that in one single pot. It’s not about cutting it out entirely but reducing where and when you can.
How? Here are some simple tips!
🍭Eat protein with every meal and snack as it helps stabilise blood sugar levels and helps with cravings. Chickpeas, edamame and nuts are some of my favourites! 🍭If you keep high-sugar foods in the house then you're more likely to eat them. Temptation is all around us when we're out and about so try to keep your home environment a healthy one! 🍭Reduce those sugar-laden desserts. Instead try fresh fruit which is naturally sweet, baked fruit with cinnamon and nutmeg, dark chocolate or a date with nut butter. Swapping those desserts for fruit not only reduces your sugar intake but increases antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals in your diet. 🍭Swap white refined foods like bread and pasta for the wholegrain options. The white refined stuff acts like sugar in the body and wreaks havoc on blood sugar. Go for wholegrain pasta, wholewheat bread, brown rice etc. 🍭Opt for whole foods wherever possible. Reduce foods that have a long list of ingredients and focus on foods that are the ingredients! 🍭Children often consume half their recommend sugar intake before they even get to school in the mornings.
Breakfast cereals are among the worst culprit for added sugar. In a recent study, a popular breakfast cereal contained over 12 tsps per serving, making it 88% sugar by weight. Try porridge or chia puddings!
Most importantly, remember that moderation is key. Life isn't meant to be boring and rigid and neither is eating! I like to use maple syrup, coconut sugar and date syrup in my baking sometimes and they're all free sugars. They contain a few vitamins and minerals in there that refined sugar doesn't but I wouldn't class them as a health food. In summary, we should see sugar as a treat. It's not something I exclude entirely from my diet but I choose to have it in very occasionally and enjoy it when I do!