My sisters and I were rarely allowed sugary foods as children. My dad declared war on dessert—although plain doughnuts for breakfast were encouraged for some reason—and we hardly ever had candy except on birthdays, Halloween and Christmas. And yet, sugar crept in over the years and became a beloved part of my adult diet. I find that appalling, especially since I now have Type 2 diabetes.
“Americans over-consume sugar,” says Ginger Hultin, registered dietitian nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some estimates, she says, show that we consume approximately three times the recommended limit, or about 77 grams of sugar a day, per person. That’s more than 60 pounds a year. And it has serious consequences for our health.
Too much sugar in our bodies can trigger multiple problems. It can cause inflammation, high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease, increasing our risk for heart attack and stroke. In our brains, it can trigger irritability, anxiety, or depression. High glucose levels in the brain have also been linked to cognitive changes. In 2013, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that higher glucose levels may be a risk factor for dementia, even among people who do not have diabetes.
We run on sugar. When we eat, our bodies break down food into glucose (sugar), which our cells use for energy, and our brains use to process information. The process works well when we’re eating whole, healthy foods.
“This is critically important,” says Hultin. High fiber whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, tofu, and even proteins like meat and fish raise blood glucose as we digest them, which they’re supposed to do. “In that digestion and breakdown,” she explains, “you get a lot of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and also energy for your body. These are important foods.”
The problem—and it’s a big one—is added sugar. It hits our bodies all at once, like a bomb. “Often I describe it as a rollercoaster,” explains Hultin. “These added sugars don’t come with nutritional benefits, and they will raise the blood sugar high and fast. Blood sugar climbs high then drops low. You want more sugar to get the blood sugar back up and then it crashes back down.”
That rush of sugar sends a strong message to the brain, triggering a release of dopamine into the blood, and that makes us feel good. It makes us want more. Over time, we have to have even more sugar to get the same effect, similar to addictive drugs. When sugar levels go low, cravings go high. Everything about this cycle is bad for our health.
Added sugars include anything that isn’t naturally part of our food.
These can be white or brown sugar, corn sweetener or syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, or anything ending in “ose,” such as dextrose, fructose, or sucrose. Most processed foods include them, and of course, we add them when we bake sweet foods such as cake or cookies. We also pour a lot of added sugar down our throats in soft drinks and fruit drinks.
Many of us consume far beyond the recommended guidelines for added sugars, which should be less than 25 grams per day for women and 36 grams for men. The long-term health consequences are clear, but it can be a rough path to cutting back. Reducing sugar intake levels may give you headaches, make you feel tired, and cause mood swings or anxiety. These effects are temporary, but it takes a bit of determination to resist the urge to relieve them by eating a candy bar.
Once you successfully reduce added sugar intake, your brain will readapt, and your cravings will decrease. You’ll begin to feel better, you’ll be healthier, and eventually, you won’t even enjoy highly sweetened food. The key to success, though, is to take action and stick to it—and there are resources to help you do it.
Here are some things you can do on your own:
Learn to read labels. Avoid packaged foods containing added sugars, or choose varieties that have lower amounts.
Cut back on sugar you add when preparing food. Try using spices or extracts instead.
Cut out soft drinks. Or, if that’s too difficult, switch to diet drinks.
Eat whole foods whenever possible.
Making sustained changes can be difficult. Professional options to consider include:
A weight-loss program such as WW (formerly Weight Watchers) that offers peer support. while working with you to change your eating habits.
A registered dietitian nutritionist who will help you make permanent changes to your diet in a balanced way.
A behavioral specialist who can help address underlying issues, other than physical cravings, that may lead to stress eating, and sugar bingeing.
Insurance will often cover the cost of a nutritionist or behavioral specialist. The impetus to change has to come from you. The results will be worth it.
Priscilla Charlie Hinckley has been a writer and producer in Seattle television and video for 35 years, with a primary interest in stories covering health and medicine, women’s and children’s issues, social justice, and education. She enjoys taking a lighthearted approach to serious topics.