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Sugar and Mental Health

June 29, 2017
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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.

What has sugar in it?

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!

How Much Sugar Do We Eat?

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.

The Science of Sugar on the Brain

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.

Tips for Kicking the Addiction:

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:

  • Learn to identify sugar in labels: Click here for an extensive list of all the names for sugar, so you know what to avoid in the supermarket.
  • Shop the outside of the supermarket: This is where the real food like fruits and vegetables live.
  • Win the battle at the grocery store! Sugar cravings usually come and go quickly, so if you didn’t buy it, you won’t have access to it when the cravings hit. The key here is to eat a healthy meal before going shopping; this will make it a lot easier to resist sweet foods at the store. Shop the outside of the supermarket, where the real foods live. All the produce, meat, eggs and dairy products are against the walls while the sugar added foods lurk at eye level in the middle of the store.
  • Eliminate Trigger Foods: Most people have a trigger food, whether it’s chocolate, Oreos, or a bowl of sweetened cereal, that they can’t stop eating. You might tell yourself that you’re only having one and suddenly you’ve eaten all the cookies. Get those foods out of your pantry and off the shopping list.
  • Eat frequent, nutritious meals. It takes some time for your taste buds and your brain to adjust to eating less sugar, so make sure you have an alternative to go to when your cravings kick in. When you wait until you are super hungry, you will have less willpower and are more likely to eat anything and everything.
  • Eat whole fruits. Try adding  a nut butter for some fat and protein to keep you full longer.
  • Chew fennel seeds. They are an excellent digestive aid and reduce cravings and appetite.
  • Eat a savory breakfast. Eating sugary cereal or some Eggo waffles will set you up for cravings later in the day. Eating a savory breakfast like eggs and toast, or cheesy grits will set you up for a successful day.
  • Prepare food from scratch as much as possible. Cooking your own food lets you control how much sugar goes into it. If you want to bake cookies, go ahead. At least you can choose to add less sugar to the recipe. Just the act of preparing food changes your relationship to it and gives you more control over what you are putting in your body.

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.

Further Reading:

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