Because of my 30 DAYS NO SUGAR CHALLENGE, I thought it would be fair to educate people about sugar and why it is important to give it up (and the reason for starting the 30 days no sugar challenge). As all aspects of sugar are very detailed, it will not be possible to cover them all in one blog. From what does sugar do to our body to being the root of many causes to affecting the newborn to how much of it is in packaged foods; there are many areas to write about which all require separate blogs. Via this blog I cover only one such aspect-Why do we crave sugar? And why can’t we give it up easily?
In the modern world, about 30 percent of the daily caloric intake comes from sugar(s) (direct or hidden). While it has been established that sugar causes heart problems and cancer, it is also the root cause of yeast infection/candida, obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, insulin resistance, even Alzheimer’s and in many cases, thyroid dysfunction, adrenal fatigue, depression, fatigue, hyperuricemia, hyperlipidemia, fatty liver and inflammation. (1) These cluster of diseases revolving around cardiovascular diseases and diabetes is called metabolic syndrome. So, in very direct ways, sugar causes metabolic syndrome.
At this point, it would be safe to say that even if most people are not aware of all the implications of sugar, they know as a general saying that sugar is ‘bad’ and should be avoided.
Then why is it so difficult to give up? Why can’t we go without sugar EVEN FOR A DAY in our lives full of thousands of days (25,550 for an average 70 years lifespan)? Are we THAT weak that we can’t live without the unnecessary sugar for even a day? What do you call a person who can’t go on without a particular thing for even a day and the consumption of which gives them pleasure? What is a sweet tooth? And most importantly, why do we keep wanting to eat more and more of sugar? And why do we crave it at the first place? Answers to these questions should make for an interesting (and more than slightly disturbing) read.
- Sugar and Dopamine
When we eat sugar, there are certain areas in the brain which get affected. But primarily the nucleus accumbens (you honestly need not worry about the scary sounding name) area which is responsible for pleasure, motivation, reward, and positive reinforcement (all addiction related feelings). In this area of the brain, after eating sugar, the pleasure/reward hormone dopamine gets released and we get the nice, warm, familiar feeling from eating sugar. That’s reason one for eating it. (2)
Food for thought: When people say they love chocolates; do they really love chocolates or is it the dopamine secretion because of eating sugar which makes them happy? Because most commercial chocolates actually have very little percentage of cocoa in them but are heavy on sugar. Dark chocolates with no/little sugar is a different case, but not all people like dark chocolate. However they love regular chocolate. Isn’t the love really for sugar then and NOT the chocolate?
2. Dopamine Down regulation
But what happens the next time we want sugar? Well the dopamine, causing this warm feeling, gets down-regulated (reduced inhibitory signals) after eating sugar. This is because sugar releases MASSIVE amounts of dopamine and gives great pleasure. In layman terms, it means that next time, you would need MORE sugar to get the same level of nice reward like feeling you got from sugar before. Hence you don’t stop after a piece of cake or just a sip of cola. It is not possible. You need more to feel that yes you have eaten dessert (Otherwise what is the point!).
‘This phenomenon is similar to nicotine and cocaine. The same brain centres are at play and people who are exposed to sugar become addicted to it and lose control over the consumption of sugar’ (3)
Food for thought: Historically sugar was reserved for joyous occasions and festivals. From consuming once in three to four months, how did we come to consuming sugar in all our meals? Dopamine down regulation could be one answer (in addition to bad eating habits, globalisation and food availability, and adding sugar to all foods). This is also why some people (especially obese people) need A LOT more sugar (half a cake rather than a piece) to get the same satisfaction than other people who consume little sugar (say, a fit athlete).
3. Behavioural control and sugar
“No one can exert cognitive inhibition, willpower, over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute, of every day, of every year.”
-Dr. Robert Lustig
Dr. Lustig is a professor of pediatrics in the UCSF division of endocrinology and has done phenomenal work in riding a crusade against sugar. His famous documentary Sugar: The Bitter Truth is eye opening towards the overall picture of the deadly impacts of sugar.
What does this quote mean– It means that it is literally impossible for a person to conquer their behavioural patterns all the time. Once we are addicted to a substance like sugar, we can try resisting the craving, or trying to not consume. But it is literally not possible to do that all the time and sooner or later, we will get back to it. Just like with drugs, dose tampering does not work and hence we need to completely avoid it, especially if we are trying to get healthier or lose weight. (Would you recommend two drinks a day or ‘a little bit’ to a recovering alcoholic?)
Food for thought: The reason why it is difficult to eat less and lose weight is because people who are hooked up on sugar cannot just give it up. If it was that easy, everybody would have done it and gotten thinner and/or fitter. It is just not that easy. Hence it is time to be supportive to people trying to lose weight (which is a cause of dietary sugar, not dietary fats) or who are unhealthy because of sugar based diseases.
4. Sugar and Withdrawal:
Like with other drugs, sugar withdrawal symptoms are also very real. It has been established in various studies in mice that when the fructose solution of sugar dependent mice is taken away, they show withdrawal like symptoms (twitching, restlessness, floating in water rather than swimming indicating helplessness and more). (4) That’s why when even in the past when we have tried to remove sugar from our diet, we failed. That is also why ‘dose control’ or thinking ‘a teaspoon’ wouldn’t hurt. Think about it. Do you really need that measly teaspoon of sugar? Of course no! But they why can’t you stop? Because the addiction is real and so are the withdrawal symptoms.
Food for thought: We give sugar to kids! Most of the times in unregulated quantities. We are making them dependent on this highly processed drug from childhood and there are no regulations on this from government, parents or society.
5. Sugar and hunger:
Another reason why we crave sugar is because sugar makes us hungrier. Anytime we eat foods high in sugar, they raise the glucose too much. As a result there is a huge insulin spike which regulates the blood sugar at a faster rate to make it lower than how much it should be. As a result, we feel instant energy crash and get hungry. And because the energy crash demands instant energy, chances are we will eat sugary foods again and this cycle continues. (5)
Food for thought: Many health professionals recommend five or six meals a day to diabetics and people with high blood sugar issues. Will eating so many carbs (as they also recommend carbs) so many times not also stimulate their hunger? As a result they would eat more sugar. How is this helping the cause? If it were, the epidemic of diabetes would not have turned into a pandemic. This is worsening the situation.
6. Stress and sugar:
In times of stress, the body goes into a mode where it feels it needs immediate, instant energy. This makes us crave foods which would convert to glucose the quickest in the bloodstream, and before we realise, we crave for sugary foods or processed foods (like chips or wafers) which many times are added with fructose (a kind of sugar).
Food for thought: Chronic stress will lead to eating more sugar and because of all the above points, this could be very dangerous. So managing your stress has more benefits for you than you can comprehend at this moment. This also explains why people eat wrong foods during stress (projects, exams, travel etc) and why stress eating needs to be addressed.
Summary and discussion points:
Looking at the points above it is clear that sugar is a highly addictive substance with similar withdrawal symptoms. The addiction and withdrawal symptoms are said to be similar to cocaine; just the drug we ingest is different. It also affects our behaviour, could cause depression, make us hungry and fat. Low doses and dose tapering doesn’t work either because it is extremely difficult to control the urge to not eat more of it all the time. Sugar makes us crave for more sugar and is extremely difficult to give up. Even small amounts. Even the ‘good sugars’. Hence the only solution for anyone trying to get healthier and lose weight is give up everything that has sugar in it. Though the initial days are known to have drug withdrawal like symptoms, once we get over this, the journey becomes easier. Using apple cider vinegar will help as it will make the sugar in body available to cells; providing sustainable energy and reducing the physical cravings; if not psychological. Using alternative natural sweeteners like stevia and sweeteners like erythritol are also good strategies to keep the sweet tooth satisfied while not consuming any sugar. You can read about which sweeteners to use and avoid here.
It also means we need to regulate sugar in the products we use and the government should come into play. However, that day might be far, far away and hence we need to have a clear distinction of which products contain sugar. Always read the labels before buying. Sugar goes by over 50 names which I will cover in a separate blog (and patch that link here). It is also important to give only little, limited quantities of sugar foods to kids. While the discussion on sugar could literally go on for days, I believe awareness is the first step and these are good starting points.
Being aware is being empowered.