Sugar may be more prevalent in our lives at this time of year. We are approaching Christmas with all its associated sugary treats, and winter is snapping at our heels when sweet foods can often be used to comfort. Sugar is everywhere! Not only in the obvious bowl sitting next to our coffee cup, in honey drizzled on pancakes, or in cakes, biscuits and desserts; but also in the majority of processed food. However, to have optimum health and manage our weight we need to understand what sugar does in our bodies and how it can disrupt our thinking, our emotions and our eating patterns.
Stabilising your blood sugar will help your mood, your willpower, your productivity and relationships. It reduces procrastination and anxiety too. And it's definitely worth a shift in how much you eat.
In this blog I talk about what happens when we eat sugar, how it messes with our brains and how you can start to reduce it. Let's look at a few topics under the big banner SUGAR!
The consumption of added or ‘free’ sugar (a misnoma in my view) has increased in the UK steadily over the past few decades. On average in Britain we consume almost a pound of white sugar per person. And we eat twice as much as that when you count all the sugars added to processed foods and energy drinks etc..
Sugar and the treat culture
Sweet foods are often an important part of the food reward mechanism which we have either created for ourselves or we were given in our childhood. Both my grandmothers had boxes in their pantries bursting with sweets and chocolate which was used regularly to reward, treat, compensate or console their grandchildren. For Granma is was an expression of love, but later in life, growing up with sweets as a constant response to emotional need can be unhelpful, and can contribute to issues food or weight. Of course, satisfying emotions with something sweet and lovely is sometimes what we really need, but if we turn to it too often then it can become a problem for weight gain. By substituting reward through other self-care activities we can break the cycle. How else can you reward yourself or compensate for a bad feeling? Make a list and next time take a breath and choose something else other than food. You can quickly create a new habit of thinking before you decide what to do.
Sugar and obesity
Free sugar promotes obesity. Adding sugar to foods makes it easier for us to eat too much - partly because our taste buds have been trained to crave sugary foods and sweet foods are usually low in fibre so they don’t fill you up very much. Eating regular amounts of sugar creates a dependency in our body which can be simply explained below.
Sugar and the bloodstream
When sugar is broken down, glucose is very quickly created in the bloodstream. But not only sugar as we know it, simple carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, crisps, white pasta etc.) also have the same effect. Every time this happens we get a release of feelgood dopamine. We experience a 'high'. So although we are not addicted to sugar in itself, we can become dependent on that biochemical response in our body. Its an opioid type reaction. The more 'sugar sensitive' we are (a genetic factor) the more amazing this 'hit' will feel. Ask yourself: "When I eat something sweet do I instantly feel absolutely amazing, happy, relieved, devoid of the stress I had before I ate it?" If you do, then you are probably sugar sensitive. This means that you are even more prone to the negative impact of sugar and should avoid it as much as possible.
Sugar and the craving
The high I refer to above is quickly followed by a dramatic low because sustained high blood sugar is very harmful. Our pancreas releases insulin to compensate and bring it back to normal. The more sugar sensitive you are, the more dramatic this low will feel.
But we don't understand what's going on in our bodies and simply react to the loss of the positive feeling. We crave and eat more and more sugar and so it becomes a cycle of dependency. It can go on for days, weeks, months or a lifetime - until we begin to understand and make the conscious decision to break it. Our body may at some point cry out for something more nutritious to break the cycle, but it can take a long time, or not happen at all.
Take Christmas for example. The tin of Quality Street gets bought mid-December which leads to the purchase of more and more sweet stuff which gets eaten right through until the beginning of January when it's all gone.
Sugar makes you feel low
So it makes sense then, that if your feel-good chemicals are up and down, it's impossible to continually fuel the need for the high and we begin to feel low, a lot of the time. This happens because the chemicals serotonin and beta-endorphin (pain dulling chemical) become unnaturally low. Stabilising blood sugar will really help how you feel about yourself and life in general.
Sugar and your powers of concentration
This chemical imbalance plays havoc with the brain and affects our concentration, focus and positivity. This impacts lots of other areas of how we live and interact with others. If you're struggling to cope with life and relationships a positive change in the amount of sugar you consume could have a dramatic affect on how you feel.
Sugar and your teeth!
Sugar promotes tooth decay, especially when you have sugary snacks and drinks frequently throughout the day. The bacteria it attracts causes caries and gum disease. Have you ever noticed how much more plaque is on your teeth at the end of the day when your diet has been high in sugar?
Alcohol and blood sugar
Alcohol creates an initial sugar spike that makes your body process sugar at a higher rate. It gives you a big high! Then a craving-inducing drop in blood sugar follows. This happens because alcohol makes your blood sugar levels drop by inhibiting the liver's ability to release glucose. We often get what I call 'the munchies' when we're drinking, this is because of the drop in blood-sugar caused by alcohol. Therefore, reducing alcohol is an important step to stabilising blood sugar to manage or lose weight. (You will also reduce your calorie intake which will help with weight loss.)
Sugar and gut health
Research exists to confirm that gut health impacts many of the essential systems in our bodies including our immune response and our mental health. It is also proven that a diet high in added sugar can eliminate the beneficial bacteria in the human gut. A little like the sugar cycle mentioned above, a gut health imbalance can increase cravings for sugar, which further damage the gut. An unhealthy amount of unrefined sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup, leads to inflammation in the body which can exacerbates conditions such as cancer, heart disease, asthma, ezcema and dementia.
Sugar and long-term health
If sugary food forms a large part of our daily diet we are missing out on other nutrients. Added sugar gives you ‘empty calories’ - food with little nutritional value apart from calories for immediate energy: no vitamins, no minerals, no fibre, no protein. There are only so many calories we can consume in a day, so we should look to eat as healthy a balance of food as possible to make the most of what we need. You can make this change gradually starting now and you will reap the rewards into later life.
It's easy to eat whatever we want when we're young, we're less prone to gaining weight and we can be carefree about our health. But as we get older, the impact of a high sugar diet can become a painful reality. With diabetes on the increase, healthcare professionals are promoting greater education at a younger age to stop the tide of medical complications in later age. If you have children, one the best things you can do is to ensure that they have the best nutrition possible and they learn to enjoy fruits and vegetables as snacks, in addition to the occasional taste of chocolate.
So what can we do about it?!
Here are some simple steps to redress the balance of sugar in your diet and your body:
Eat regular meals, focussing on wholefoods. For many people little and often works better than three meals a day. Experiment what feels best, we are all different.
Treat yourself with activities and self-care experiences, rather than food, in response to emotions
Try drinking your tea or coffee without sugar. You might find it easier to cut down a little at a time
Eat more protein - good quality lean protein, 50% plant based
Choose un-sweetened fruit juices, diluted with water instead of sugary drinks
Choose lower GI fruits such as berries rather than grapes, mangoes etc.
Try halving the sugar in your recipes (except jam and meringues) or using a plant substitute instead
Start your day with a protein-based breakfast and avoid breakfast cereals with added sugar - see my Bosting Breakfasts book HERE
For snacks try raw vegetables, natural yoghurt, roasted chickpeas or unsalted nuts, oatcakes and hummus; always including some protein
Avoid cakes, confectionary and biscuits. You really don't need them! :)
Make some tweaks to your sugar intake and you'll definitely reap the rewards.