Sugar Addiction

Sugar Addiction

Limiting sweeteners (especially fructose) can reduce chronic disease

Sugar fuels your body and brain. But when overconsumed, it can wreak havoc on your health.

The average American consumes excessive amounts of added sugar — most of it from candy, baked goods and soft drinks, as well as salad dressings, condiments and sweetened dairy products. And the experts are saying it’s way too much.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons (100 calories) of added sugar per day for women, and nine teaspoons (150 calories) of added sugar per day for men.

Many major health organizations, including the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommend limiting sugar to no more than 5 to 10 percent of total daily caloric intake. This is based on evidence linking excessive calories in sugary foods to chronic diseases like obesity, hypertension, coronary heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

A gradual reduction works best, says Cathy Leman, MA, RD, LD, founder of Glen Ellyn-based DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer, a nutrition, fitness and lifestyle resource for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer who want to build physical resilience to better tolerate treatment.

Leman works with clients to implement a stair-step approach to gradually reduce sugar in their diet and reeducate their taste buds to adapt to less sweet foods.

“It’s prudent advice to limit added sugars to reduce the risk of a host of medical conditions,” she says. “Yet, before most people can adopt and consistently implement those recommendations, they need education on what a limit of 5 to 10 percent looks like.”

Can you really be addicted to sugar?

The way added sugars interact with your brain has been shown to have similarities with drug use, such as binge behaviors, cravings, tolerance building, withdrawals and neuro-rewards. The burning desire for a sugary food or beverage — or not being able to stop eating it once you start — can be an addictive behavior.

In both animals and humans, evidence shows parallels and overlaps between drug use and sugar consumption from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry, according to a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Sugar is thought to have a stress-dampening effect in the brain by suppressing the stress hormone cortisol. So people can get hooked on sugar to cope with life’s daily stressors.

The good news is that, unlike many drugs, food cravings are relatively short-lived and subside with abstinence.

Sugar and chronic illness

Limiting simple sugars is showing promise in the management of chronic diseases.

A 2017 review article in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association examined the effects of sugar, specifically fructose, on the body. Researchers found that excessive sugar in the diet leads to an increase in the liver’s conversion of sugar to fat, which can result in fatty liver disease, high triglycerides and insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance — when the body’s cells are less sensitive to insulin — is a key factor in the development of many chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The body requires insulin to regulate glucose. Simple carbohy-drates like sugar cause a surge in insulin. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, contain fiber, vitamins and minerals, which provide higher nutritional value and stabilize blood sugar levels.

“Complex carbohydrates, in general, have a more complicated chemical structure, which allows the body to digest them more slowly,” Leman says. This contributes to steady blood sugar and a slower release of insulin.

Changing your diet

Fortunately, positive changes can happen in a short period of time simply by modifying the quality of the carbohydrates in your diet.

In a study of high-fructose diets, eight healthy men were fed a calorie-controlled diet for 18 days, with half of the days containing a high-fructose diet and the other half containing a diet with similar caloric values but substituting complex carbohydrates for fructose. Researchers found that restricting fructose resulted in lower liver fat concentrations, as well as lower levels of insulin resistance.

Study participants did not overeat and maintained their body weight during the study, which made it more likely that the types of carbohydrates they consumed was a driving force for their health status.

Similar findings were reported in a recent study involving children. The study, which followed 41 obese children, revealed that after nine days of substituting fructose-laden foods and beverages with complex carbohydrates, the children had lower rates of fatty liver as well as improved insulin sensitivity.

To ensure that you stay within the suggested amount of sugar intake, check food labels for added sugars and watch your portions of sugar-sweetened food and beverages. Also, balance meals and snacks with natural sources of sugar, such as whole fruits and vegetables, as well as unsweetened yogurt and milk. Small changes like these can make a major difference in your overall health.

Originally Published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue