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Sugar tastes amazing and is in so many products that most people aren’t even aware how much they are consuming daily. Most people are aware that sugar isn’t a health food, but may not realize how detrimental sugar is to your overall health. More recent research is showing a strong link between mental health and diet, suggesting that there is a two-way street between our bellies and our brains.
When people talk about sugar, the first thing that comes to mind is the white, granulated stuff that the Brits pour in their tea. However, there are many forms of sugar that all have similar effects on the body and brain including brown sugar, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, and juice.
The primary way that people consume sugar is through sweetened beverages such as Pepsi and in many processed foods. Most pre-packaged foods have large quantities of sugar in them. Breakfast cereals, energy bars, flavored yogurt, and even bread all have some form of sugar in them. 74% of all packaged food at supermarkets contains some version of sugar, making it hard to avoid the stuff. When you look at all the sugar containing food you eat in a day it adds up, even before dessert is even considered!
The World Health Association recommends limiting sugar to 5% of your daily caloric intake, which works out to around 6-9 teaspoons a day. The average US American consumes 22 teaspoons per day, and the average child has 32 teaspoons a day. That means most of us are consuming 2-6 times more sugar than recommended. Many nutritionists advise eating less than 6 teaspoons a day and advise not eating anything that has added sugar in any form. While this might seem extreme, the effects that sugar has on our bodies and our brains may cause some to reconsider their current eating habits.
Sugar is contained in so many foods for a variety of reasons. Sugar improves taste and is a natural preservative. What people do not typically know is that sugar is also highly addictive. Research shows that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. It causes a release of hormones in the brain, including dopamine, creating the same effect as addictive drugs. A brief “sugar high” is followed by a crash of low energy and mood, leading people to want to consume more sugar to get that good feeling again. Like any addictive substance, the more sugar we eat, the more we crave it. Furthermore, eating a high-sugar diet for a prolonged period can fundamentally alter our brain chemistry. Sugar addiction resides in the neural pathways for reward-seeking behavior, which can make other addictive substances harder to resist. So as silly as it may sound, sugars are among the most readily available gateway drug.
Sugar has also been linked mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and decreased cognitive abilities. An interesting study on the connection between diet and mental health found that an increase in refined sugar consumption correlated to more depression and worse schizophrenia. The same study found that eating more seafood and fish reduced the prevalence of depression. Eating more starchy root vegetables was also connected to lower incidence of depression.
Many other studies and anecdotes continue to emerge, connecting diet to mood and mental health. The trend seems to be increasingly damning of sugar in all its disguises.
You’ve probably already considered eating less sugar, but chances are your efforts haven’t stuck yet. I know from personal experience how hard it is to give up or limit sugar intake. Despite my best intentions I continue to eat more sweets than I know is good for me. Here are some recommendations for successfully and sustainably cutting down on sugar:
The internet is full of cleanses, diets and tips for reducing or eliminating sugar from your diet. Michael Pollan, the author of several books on food, has the most simple dietary recommendation I have come across: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He qualifies “food” as something that our great grandparents would recognize (meaning not canned or highly processed).
Eating food is such a basic element of survival, yet it has become such a struggle to find and eat the food that sustains our bodies and minds. However, if you start to form habits around healthy eating, it will pay off quickly and for a long time to come.