Your Sweet Tooth: Why it isn't So Sweet to You
© 2013 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
That craving you have for sugar might be harmless if it happens once in a blue moon. But more and more health experts are examining America's obsession with sugar, our growing waistlines and our deteriorating health, and are suggesting that we might even be sugar addicts.
Sugar is a naturally occurring substance that provides energy for your body's cells, but it can be dangerous to your health when consumed in high amounts. Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to a variety of health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol, not to mention tooth decay. Today, debate rages over whether sugar is addictive, with some research showing that sugar produces the same brain chemical reactions and behavioral reactions as illicit drugs like heroin.
Sugar Consumption Explosion of the 20th Century
The concerns start with the fact that today Americans consume over 150 pounds of sugar every year. This is a radical change from the way Americans used to eat. In 1700, people consumed only about four pounds of sugar in a year. By 1800 that was up to 18 pounds per year and by 1900 it was up to about 90 pounds of sugar per person, per year. But the greatest shift occurred in the 1950s with the introduction of high fructose corn syrup.
According to the USDA, the introduction of corn sweeteners led to a 39 percent increase in sugar consumption between 1950, at 109.6 pounds per capita per year, to 152.4 pounds per capita per year by the year 2000. High fructose corn syrup replaced natural sugars from the time it was invented and made available in the 1950s until it accounted for 63.8 of those pounds in 2000. So not only are people eating more sugar, but much of the sugar they are eating is manufactured and unnatural.
Why We Eat So Much Sugar
One reason is simple -- sugar tastes good. And it makes us feel good, at least initially. Sugar produces energy rushes and causes the release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine and serotonin in your brain. It can produce an analgesic effect in the body, helping to soothe pain.
Even infants show a preference for sugar, suggesting that we might have been conditioned by evolution to seek out sugar as an indication that fruit was ripe and because sugar indicated a source of energy.
Because we like sugar, manufacturers respond by making products that people will buy. Take the major culprit of the sugar rush in the American diet -- sugary beverages. Carbonated sodas were the sole source of 22 percent of refined and added sugars consumed in 2000.
But part of why we eat as much sugar as we do is that it's not always obvious that we're eating it. Sugar has become the ubiquitous food additive -- it's in almost every type of processed food imaginable now, including meats, crackers, soups, breads and more. Pick up any item on the grocery store shelf and you might not see the word "sugar," but it likely still contains some. Just a few of the ingredient names that disguise sugar on food labels include:
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Fruit-juice concentrate
The Dangers of Sugar for Your Health
The USDA recommends no more than 40 grams, or about 10 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. Given that the average American consumes more than five times that amount, it's no wonder that sugar has become a national health problem. High sugar intake is linked to a multitude of health issues, including the following:
Diabetes: High sugar intake increases blood sugar, making diabetes difficult to control. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to blindness, pain and circulation problems in the extremities, heart disease and high blood pressure
Heart Disease: A higher intake of sugar has been linked to both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
High Cholesterol: A high-sugar diet can lead to increased cholesterol and triglycerides, risk factors for heart disease. In one medical study, people who ate the most sugar had the highest triglyceride levels and the lowest levels of HDL, or beneficial cholesterol.
Obesity: Reducing sugar is a proven way to reduce caloric intake, regulate blood sugar and hunger, and fight obesity, which is a risk factor for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and more. Sugar-added beverages in particular are associated with the growing childhood obesity epidemic.
Sugar and Tooth Decay
In addition to the health problems already mentioned, eating sugar increases your risks of tooth decay. As soon as sugar is consumed, sugar and protein combine to form glycoproteins, which stick to your teeth and begin forming plaque. Then bacteria adhere to the glycoproteins, feeding on the sugar on the teeth to reproduce. As the bacteria digest the sugar, they secrete lactic acid, which increases the acidity in your mouth and begins dissolving your tooth enamel. The resulting cavities can lead to pain and expensive dental interventions to save your teeth.
But tooth decay and associated problems like gum disease can lead to even more health complications -- poor dental and oral health are associated with a variety of health problems such as:
Endocarditis -- an infection of the inner lining of the heart
Cardiovascular disease -- including clogged arteries and stroke
Pregnancy complications -- such as premature birth and low birth weight
Alzheimer's risk -- tooth loss before 35 is a possible risk factor for Alzheimer's disease
Is Sugar Addictive?
Whether or not you can become truly addicted to sugar is still under debate. It's true that sugar causes the release of "feel-good" chemicals in your brain, similar to heroin or other drugs, and that people will overindulge to experience those feelings. Yet sugar doesn't cause the same level of severity of withdrawal symptoms when people stop it, leading some scientists to be hesitant to call it an "addictive" substance. But others argue that sugar is addictive, since it causes addictive behavior similar to that of someone hooked on an illicit drug or alcohol.
Some of the symptoms of addictive behavior related to sugar include:
Eating excessive amounts of sugar despite knowing it is bad for you
Losing control and eating more sugary foods than you intended
Withdrawal symptoms or low blood sugar symptoms such as anxiety, jitteriness, or cold sweats
Eating even when you’re not hungry in order to get a sugar fix
Repeatedly eating sugar during the day each time your blood sugar drops
Why Sugar Detox?
A sugar detox refers to eliminating all sugar, or at least all added sugar, from your diet. A period of sugar detox is an effective way of breaking your addictive behavior toward sugar by stopping the constant cycle of eating sugar to get the blood sugar rush, only to crash and need more sugar to get back to a normal energy level.
But a sugar detox also gives you the chance to teach yourself to make better choices and to limit the amount of sugar in your diet so that you don't face all of the health complications of sugar addiction. In fact, research shows that people can "retrain" their taste buds so that even a small amount of sugar can satisfy the craving for something sweet. Health professionals can provide guidance about how to safely detox from sugar, but most agree that the best way to do so is naturally, using behavior modification and other natural tools to help you kick your sugar habit.
Natural Ways to Tame Your Sweet Tooth
To successfully detox from sugar, some suggestions are behavioral. These include:
Slowly eliminate sugar from your diet by eliminating one sugary food at a time so that you don't go into withdrawal.
When you crave something sweet, choose natural sources of sweetness, such as whole fruit, milk or unsweetened yogurt.
Reduce the amount of processed foods you eat, many of which contain hidden sugars. Replace processed foods with whole foods.
Add more protein and fiber-rich foods to your diet, which will keep you feeling full for longer.
Exercise more. People who exercise regularly are more likely to stick with other healthy habits, like eating less sugar.
Set small goals so you feel accomplished, which will help keep you motivated through the sugar withdrawal symptoms.
There are also natural supplements and products that can help you kick your sugar habit. Ask at your next appointment about natural supplements that may curb your dependence on sugar and support your sugar detox.
It's important to note that mineral insufficiencies can be an underlying cause of sugar cravings as well. An outright deficiency in the trace mineral chromium can not only spur cravings for sugar and starches but it can make losing weight quite difficult. Chromium and vanadium supplements, in particular, have been proven to help normalize blood sugar.
Of note, there are certain foods that, while tasting sweet, can actually help to stabilize blood sugar levels, helping to both tame your sweet tooth and offer health benefits. For instance, swapping out your white potatoes for a sweet potato is a great move, waist-wise, as animal studies suggest that sweet potatoes help to stabilize your blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance, which can help you fight fat. Also, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers have found that eating one-quarter to one teaspoon of cinnamon with food can boost your metabolism 20-fold, by making your fat cells more responsive to insulin.
So instead of sugar, sprinkle cinnamon in your apple cider, on your whole-grain toast or in a bowl of oatmeal ... it’s also tasty in coffee and yogurt.
A combination of behavioral changes and supportive, whole-food nutritional supplements will help you break the hold sugar has on you, helping you improve your blood sugar levels, maintain a healthy weight, and prevent many of the dangers associated with the American sugar-rich diet. Once brain chemicals and/or mineral insufficiencies are corrected, maintain blood sugar levels and promote endocrine health on a regular basis, by habitually choosing a diet of antioxidant-rich vegetables and low sugar fruits as well as high quality protein and good fats. Stay well-hydrated and continue to encourage a healthy endocrine system with prescribed multi-vitamin/mineral supplements.
American Diabetes Association. Living with Diabetes: Complications.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Healthy Eating Research. The Negative Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages on Children's Health. November, 2009.
Howard, Barbara V., PhD, Wylie-Rosett, Judith, Rd, EdD. AHA Scientific Statement: Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease. American Heart Association.
Mayo Clinic. Adult Health: Oral Health : A Window to Your Overall Health.
Elmhurst College. Ophart, Charles E. Virtual Chembook: Sugar and Tooth Decay.
United States Department of Agriculture. Factbook. Chapter 2: "Profiling Food Consumption in America."
WebMD. Slideshow: The Truth about Sugar Addiction.
WebMD. The Truth about Sugar.
WebMD. What Role Does Sugar Play in Our Diet?