By Emily Dickerson, ND
Halloween is on the horizon, and before you dress up as ghastly ghouls and fill pillowcases full of candy, let’s talk sugar.
If I were to make one health recommendation for a change that you could make today to improve your health and vitality immensely, what would it be? Eliminate sugar.
Sugar is hidden throughout our daily life, most notably in packaged foods. Sugar is an extremely simple carbohydrate, meaning that it is broken down quickly, creating a quick spike in blood sugar and putting stress on your insulin (blood sugar response hormone) system. This impact on blood sugar is what defines sugar as a very high glycemic index food. Packaged foods often contain hidden added sugars. Read the label on any of your packaged foods. In general, the sweeter the food tastes, the higher the sugar it contains, and the higher the carbohydrate content will be.
Sugar feeds into our “Reward Center” in our brain, meaning that it follows the same pathway that many of our recreational drugs do. It stimulates secretion of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good, and when it is gone, we want more. And more. Every time we eat sugar we fuel this reward pathway and feed our addiction. When we are tired we crave sugar because the body wants instant energy. When we are stressed we crave sugar because the body craves the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, and also because stress causes elevated cortisol levels which impact our blood glucose regulation.
Sugar Health Risks:
Diseases that eating sugar puts you at risk for include obesity, Diabetes (Type II), cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Excess sugar triggers inflammatory cascades within the body, meaning that it causes the body to release inflammatory and pain signaling chemicals throughout the body. The body does this because it sees excess sugar as a physiologic stress on the body.
The best way to quit sugar? Cold turkey. When eliminating sugar, many people report symptoms of withdrawal, such as cravings, headaches, irritability, and fatigue. You may experience strong symptoms for the first 3-5 days, but it will get easier the longer you are away from sugar. If you don’t quit sugar altogether, you may continue to have sugar cravings. Processed foods contain lots of hidden sugars, not to mention added preservatives. Eliminating processed foods and focusing on eating “real foods” is a great way to cut your sugar intake.
In my Athlete Health and Nutrition course I talk about how we can use sugar (carbohydrates) to fuel our workouts. However, if excess sugar is taken in and not utilized as a fuel source, it negatively impacts the body in many ways, including getting stored as fat.
There are many good books available regarding this topic.The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes is a new book on exactly this topic. It is mentioned in Dr. Mercola’s informative, and sometimes scary, article.