Few edible additives has been at the center of research and media reports in recent years as much as sugar. This white substance that we often take for granted is no known to be associated with a host of health risks that can lead to diseases, some of which are fatal. There is also evidence that sugar use may be linked to an addiction to it and withdrawal symptoms may arise when discontinuing it. Unfortunately there are widespread misconceptions and ignorance regarding sugar and its dangers.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a short-chain carbohydrate that is commonly available as a crystalline substance. It is derived from different sources, mainly plants such as sugar beet and sugarcane. Sugar is used for sweetening foods and drinks and its taste it is generally favored by most people across the globe. The term sugar can refer to a number of sweet tasting short-chain carbohydrates. Most of the time it refers to sucrose, or regular table sugar, but it may also refer to fruit sugar like fructose which is another naturally occurring sugar.
Due to the refining process, sucrose can be quickly broken down into simpler components within the body. These simpler components like glucose can be used as a rapid energy source. While carbohydrates are an essential part of the human diet, sugar is not necessary. There are many other sources of carbohydrates. However, the widespread use of sugar has now made it a daily part of the human diet. Its overuse has also contributed to health risks and may contribute to some of the deadliest diseases afflicting mankind.
Health Risks of Sugar
Small amounts of sugar consumed infrequently is not unhealthy for most people. However, in the modern diet sugar is used excessively on a daily basis. It is rapidly absorbed from the gut and enters the bloodstream where it quickly raises the blood glucose levels. Insulin is then secreted from the pancreas to stabilize the glucose levels. The glucose is then converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and other cells. Excess is then stored as fat. A high body fat percentage is associated with a number of health risks.
Furthermore people who may consume large quantities of sugar may not always eat a balanced diet. This is commonplace in the modern world where diets high in refined carbohydrates are often more affordable, easily accessible and overall convenient. The lack of other nutrients can further contribute to health risks. Similarly a sedentary lifestyle coupled with high sugar intake which are common contributors to obesity may play an additional role.
Addiction to Sugar
Most of the time we associate addictions with substances like illicit drugs, alcohol and prescription medication as well as certain compulsive behaviors such as gambling. Sugar is almost never considered to be an addictive substance. However, it can have a similar effect to substance use and compulsive behavior by stimulating the reward center in the brain. By frequently consuming sugar the brain becomes accustomed to this stimulation and will therefore crave sugar if it is not administered regularly.
Sugar Highs and Lows
Cravings are just one component of an addiction. A person will usually act on these cravings to seek out the substance and consume it. This is similar to the behavior that some people display when they have not consumed sugar for a period of time. They will need to find and consume a sugary drink, food or candy to satisfy their cravings. Consuming sugar can give “highs” and without it there are “lows” similar to substance addiction. These “lows” may present with symptoms that could be considered in a similar light to withdrawal symptoms.
Diseases Associated With Sugar
Sugar is often thought be the cause of some diseases like diabetes, hence the term sugar diabetes. However, the link is not usually direct. Instead sugar contributes to obesity and high levels of fats in the blood which in turn cause or increase the risk of various diseases. Some of these diseases include:
- Diabetes mellitus (type 2)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Coronary artery disease and other heart diseases
- Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
- Gallbladder disease
- Sleep apnea
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Gynecological conditions
- Erectile dysfunction
The constant media focus on sugar has raised awareness about its potentially adverse health effects in large quantities. Unfortunately the modern diet is laden with sugar, from breakfast cereals to sodas, candies and confectionaries among other foods and beverages. Reducing sugar intake therefore requires a concerted effort on the part of consumers. For the more health conscious, the focus may be on quitting sugar altogether although this is not always possible with modern dietary habits.
Find Alternative Sweet Sources
The sweet taste can be derived from other foods and drinks apart from those containing sugar (sucrose). Sweet fruits and vegetables are a good option, like berries and carrots. By including more of these foods and beverages in the daily diet to help supplement the reduction in sugar intake by cutting back on sweet foods and drinks.
Increase Protein Intake
Protein is known to stimulate the satiety centers in brain for longer that sugar. It does not causes the same spikes and dips like sugar. Overall protein helps to reduce sugar cravings. The added benefits is that usually has less calories ounce for ounce than refined carbohydrates which helps to minimize daily calorie intake and subsequent weight gain.
More Fiber in the Diet
Fiber has similar effects to protein but for different reasons. The bulk provided by fiber can reduce food intake and helps keep a person feeling fuller for longer. Fiber can also slow down the absorption of refined carbohydrates which minimizes the sugar “highs” and “lows”. While more fiber is healthy it should not be used as a means of continuing excessive sugar intake.
Deprogram the Taste Buds
We have individual tastes and tolerances for sugar. Often our desire for sugar increases over time. The taste buds first have to be ‘deprogrammed’ by reducing sugar intake. Try to cut back the sugar in coffee and tea if these are daily beverages. Switch to sugar-free gum and soda or intersperse it with the same items containing sugar for a period of time. Gradually wean off the sugar.