Sugar: The Joy and Harm It Can Cause
Sugar has been a key part of the human diet from the moment our primitive ancestors first consumed it.
Our prehistoric ancestors learned to identify sweet tasting foods, like various types of fruit as a way to survive. The riper and sweeter the fruit, the more energy it provided. That fruit sugar (fructose) offered immediate energy, but was also stored as fat quite easily, which was necessary for our ancestors to survive during times when food was scarce. In other words, anything that made our paleolithic ancestors more likely to eat sugar would also make them more likely to survive and pass along their genes.
However, the most popular sources of sugar in modern times do not play such a beneficial role in our survival. Unlike sources of natural sugar, such as those that energized our ancestors (fruits, veggies and whole grains), the majority of humans today subsist on added sugars found in a plethora of processed foods, sweets, sports drinks, condiments and many more foods.
These man-made options are often well-marketed, easily accessible and inexpensive.This has created an unhealthy cycle for many of us in which added, processed sugar plays a dangerously large role in our diet and serves as a main source of energy on a daily basis.
So how do we break this cycle? Lets start by understanding how sugar affects our brain and body. The sweet side of sugar may not be as enticing once we are more aware of its effects, making choosing natural sources and reducing our consumption of processed sugars will be easier.
Effects of Added Sugar on Babies and Children
Added sugar tastes great on the tongue, but what happens when it actually enters the body?
From birth through adulthood, sugar consumption has a profound effect on brain chemistry. Natural sugars, like those found in some of your favorite fruits, can help your brain and gut develop a positive, mutually beneficial relationship.
Naturally occurring sugars trigger your brain to fuel you with energy and also release dopamine, one of the ‘feel good’ chemicals in the body.
The consumption of too much added/processed sugars, on the other hand, can have a detrimental effect - no matter your age.
Studies on childhood development and obesity have revealed that sugar consumption in babies can form a dangerous and unhealthy cycle that continues into the later stages of childhood.
By feeding babies and young children a diet high in refined, added sugar, parents expose them to a number of worrisome outcomes including:
- Higher risk for decreased immunity leading to a higher rate of infection
- Higher risk of developing heart disease later in life
- Early stages of tooth decay
- Higher propensity for lower concentration levels
- Early onset sugar dependency
These risks have led scientists and doctors to strongly suggest that parents greatly limit consumption of refined sugars for children under 12 months, and instead focus on incorporating natural sugars from foods like fruit into their child’s diet.
Effects of Added Sugar on The Adult Brain
Just because the brains of adults are more developed, it doesn’t mean that they are any less susceptible to the negative effects of a diet high in added sugars.
Just like babies, adult brains are flooded with energy and a rush of dopamine each time an added sugar is consumed. This accounts for the infamous “sugar rush,” and goes a long way toward explaining why added sugars can so quickly and easily become addictive.
Each time an adult chooses to consume processed/added/refined sugar, the dopamine release triggers the brain’s reward system. This rewires the brain, causing it to seek more sugar (often in larger quantities) to receive a similar rush of dopamine.
Biologically, our brain is treating sugar no different than that of our ancestors. The main difference, of course, is that we’re consuming an excessive quantity of highly processed sugars regularly, which can lead to dependence, tolerance and further alteration of brain chemistry.
While scientists debate the difference between dependence and true addiction to highly palatable, sugar laden foods, the science is absolute when it comes to the potential, negative effects of sugar on the brain:
- Higher Risk of Depression
- Memory Impairment and Accelerated Cognitive Decline
Another example of sugar's powerful impact on brain chemistry was revealed in a 2013 study that showed that rats found Oreos to be as addicting as cocaine, one of the world’s most destructive and addictive substances.
Effects of Sugar on The Adult Body
As if the negative effects of sugar on the brain were not enough, the potential, negative effects on the body can be even more destructive and often longer-lasting:
- Weight Gain: sugary foods and drinks are most often high in calories, yet low in nutrients. As a result they rarely curb hunger or thirst, making it easy to consume excessive quantities. Enjoying moderate amounts of processed sugar on occasion is not likely to cause weight gain but regular consumption leads to chronic blood sugar elevation. This results in elevated insulin levels, also known as the fat storage hormone.
- Higher Risk of Heart Disease: A diet high in sugar can lead to obesity, inflammation, chronic elevated blood sugar and blood pressure levels, all contributing factors to heart disease - the world’s leading cause of death.
- Weakened Immune System: Consuming processed sugar regularly can suppress our immune system and compromise our body’s defenses against illness and disease. Sugar consumption affects your body’s ability to fight off viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. One way it does this is by making it harder for your white blood cells, aka ‘Killer T-cells’ to function properly.
- Type 2 Diabetes: A litany of research reveals high-sugar diets can be a major contributing factor in the development of this type of diabetes. According to the CDC type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90 to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes in adults. Although it is an increasingly prevalent disease, it is also largely preventable.
- Higher Risk of Acne and Advanced Aging in Skin: Diets high in processed carbs and sugars can contribute to skin problems such as acne, rosacea, dermatitis, psoriasis, as well as trigger accelerated aging of our skin, causing wrinkles and fine lines. This is because excess consumption of highly processed sugars and carbohydrates lead to increased inflammation, oil build-up and can impair collagen and elastin production.
- Higher Risk of Liver and Kidney Problems: High-sugar diets, particularly regular consumption of high fructose corn syrup, place immense stress on the liver and can cause non-alcohol fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Recommended Sugar Intake and Healthy Sources
So, now that we know the negative effects of a high processed sugar diet, what are some healthy, proactive ways to reduce added sugars and incorporate more natural sugars into our diet?
First, we need to know the maximum amount of sugar we should consume on a daily basis.
According to the World Health Organization, the average adult should consume around 20-40g of added sugar per day. For context, the average American currently consumes a whopping 77g of sugar per day. Unfortunately our Standard American Diet (SAD) makes it way too easy for us to over consume added sugars.
To help reduce our daily consumption of added sugar, let’s talk about some of our favorite options for healthier, natural sugars:
Fruits & Other Naturally Sweet Alternatives
Fruits are one of the world’s favorite sources of naturally occurring sugars. They work great as a snack in between meals or as an excellent companion to breakfast or a nice dessert when paired with a drizzle of honey or a dollop of whipped cream.
Here are a few of our favorite fruits plus some low sugar recipes to try:
- All Berries
- Kiwis -> Kiwi Banana Smoothie (no added sugar)
- Dates & Figs
- Apples -> Sugar-free Baked Apple Slices
- Pears -> Baked Pears with Walnuts
Chocolate is made from the cacao beans, which has been prized since ancient times for its delicious flavour and remarkable health benefits. Cacao powder is the purest, most natural form of chocolate and naturally contains virtually no sugar. If you’re a chocolate lover but want to be mindful of your added sugar intake, choose dark chocolate. The higher the cocoa content, the lower the added sugar. I recommend choosing an organic chocolate with 70% cacao or higher. Here’s one of my favorites: Theo pure 85%.
Neither a nut nor a fruit, coconuts are one of nature’s most versatile plants. It’s tasty and naturally sweet flesh and liquid (coconut water) can be enjoyed fresh or made into coconut butter, milk, yogurt or dried into flakes.