Sugar: A Recipe for Addiction by Amy Scholten, MPH – I gazed at a photo I took in 1979 of Magic Kingdom at Disney World. About a dozen people had walked in front of my camera as I clicked the picture – they were all slender, what we would consider “skinny” by today’s standards. If I had taken that same photo today, more than two thirds of those people would be overweight or obese, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overweight and obesity have become the new norm. One major culprit (along with sedentary lifestyles, larger portions and more junk foods) is high sugar consumption.
Sugar consumption in the U.S. increased by 30 percent over three decades in the U.S. between 1977 and 2010. The average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) of sugar every day. That comes to about 66 pounds of added sugar consumed each year, per person, according to the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The problem with sugar isn’t simply extra calories. A review of scientific literature on sugar suggests that it’s more addictive than hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. The brain sees sugar as a reward – the more we eat it, the more we tend to crave it. Food companies are aware of this fact, adding sugar to many foods to get us to eat and buy more.
Consume some candy, a sugary drink, a pastry or any number of high sugar foods and your blood sugar initially spikes, creating a brief “high.” Your body then responds by increasing levels of a hormone called insulin to reduce those blood glucose levels. This causes a sharp drop, making you feel tired, shaky, or even moody and depressed and looking for another sugar hit. This creates a cycle of sugar addiction and poor eating. White rice as well as breads, pastas, pretzels, crackers and pastries made with white, refined flour can also contribute to blood sugar fluctuations.
Be realistic. You don’t have to pass up cake on your birthday or an ice cream cone once a month. All-or-nothing rarely works. A more realistic goal is to cut back on your daily sugar consumption. Gradually retrain your taste buds and brain to expect less sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men.
Beware of hidden sugar. There’s a lot of hidden sugar in commercially prepared foods. Examples include granola bars, flavored yogurts, instant oatmeal, breakfast cereals, ketchup, barbecue sauce, pasta sauce, energy drinks, canned or packaged fruit, coleslaw, certain bottled teas, reduced-fat salad dressings, bread, baked beans, and some flavored coffees.
Read food labels. Watch out for food items that list any form of sugar in the first few ingredients, or have more than 4 total grams of sugar. Also, look for different types of sugar in the ingredient list: sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, glucose, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, and honey. Some sugars are marketed as more “healthy” but they’re still sugar.
Choose simple, whole foods high in fiber and protein. Commercially prepared (packaged, canned, frozen) foods are often high in sugar. You can significantly reduce sugar consumption by switching to more whole foods—fresh meats, beans, vegetables and fruit—and adding herbs and spices for flavoring.
Don’t rely too much on artificial sweeteners. “People who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable.” says Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital.
Exercise and get a nature fix. High sugar consumption and sedentary lifestyles are a dangerous duo. Choose positive addictions like exercise and enjoying quality time outdoors to reduce stress and fuel your healthy lifestyle.
Amy Scholten is a medical writer and owner of SunCare Wellness Advocacy, a companion service for seniors. She can be reached at 941-445-7144.