Why sugar is not so sweet
It is 3 o’clock and I am in crisis. Searching the staff room for a piece of candy or crackers- something to relieve the shakes, the nausea, and the headache I am experiencing from this sugar crash. This is becoming a more common experience for me, and I find it frustrating because I feel as though I eat healthy, and I exercise regularly. It is worrisome because I come from a family that has battled and is battling with type 2 diabetes. It is a terrible chronic disease that patients are told is not curable and that will progress and affect many other systems of the body. These patients will likely die of heart disease as it has a direct effect on the arterial and cardiac system. I express my concern to my GP and he tells me that even low blood sugar can be a precursor to diabetes. How could that be? I wasn’t overweight, like the others in my family who have developed this disease and I take good care of myself. As someone who is always curious about my health, I had some genetic testing done that showed I carry the gene for diabetes. What we now know about genetics is that our genes don’t hold our destiny. The new study of epigenetics shows that our genes are just a series of switches that can be turned on and off. Our environment has a much greater effect on whether or not those genes will be expressed. The good news this tells us is that we have the power to override our genetics.
A year or so later, I took part in a 90-day program that was an elimination diet of sorts that brought me back to ancestral eating. One of the first things that was removed from my diet was processed sugar, then fruit, then sweet vegetables. I could not have any sugar if I were to follow the program. This caused me to read labels when grocery shopping, only to discover that sugar was added to everything; tomato sauce, chicken broth, places you would least suspect it. I started eating foods without ingredients lists and making things from scratch, like salad dressings, so that I knew what was in them. I could not believe how good I felt! No more sugar crashes and to my surprise, no more sugar cravings! That was about 5 years ago and I still don’t get those same sugar rollercoaster feelings.
So what really happened here?
Because our ancestors were scavengers, and sugary foods were a good source of energy, our brains were wired to prefer sweet tasting foods, which also helped us avoid unripe, poisonous, or rotten foods which could make us sick. When we eat sweet foods, dopamine is released by our brain’s reward system signaling something positive has occurred- which tells us we should repeat this action. Because sugar is so plentiful today, when we eat it in abundance, we develop a tolerance and are forced to eat more to get the same dopamine reaction. This is what happens with addiction. Not unlike drugs and alcohol when we have this sugar crash, our moods worsen and we feel anxiety, because we are suffering withdrawal of the toxic substance. To prevent feeling this way, we consume more of it, and the vicious cycle begins. Looking back, I now realize that what that 90-day program did to me was put me through a detox and rehab which resembles what those do to rid their drug or alcohol addictions. My cravings went away as I rid my body of the toxic substance. I once read that if you are eating for any reason other than hunger, it is not eating, it is drug use and is being done to put off withdrawal. This is not an easy thing to accomplish and like any other addiction you need support and accountability, which is what led me to health coaching and cofounding Embracing Change- Lasting health change with my husband. It is my goal to help people, like my family, who are prediabetic or suffer from type II diabetes to manage their sugar intake and control their blood sugar and rid their sugar addiction.
It has been shown that increased sugar availability in any country correlates to increased rates of diabetes.
Harvard published a study showing that reducing the sugar in packaged foods could improve the health of millions of people, reduce insurance costs, and reduce health care costs. When processed foods became more prevalent in the 1960’s, there became an increase in health costs. When the same companies that owned big tobacco started buying food companies, they used their same advertising models to create addiction. 56% of food sold in America is ultra-processed food and accounts for 62% of sugar in the American diet and 67% of the sugar in children’s diets. In 1980 high fructose corn syrup came into play, which is the same time we saw obesity rates rise. In the 1990’s type II diabetes was being seen in children. Fructose is not used by the body for energy and is seen by the liver as a toxin, no different than alcohol. Fructose is converted to fat and causes fatty liver, fatty pancreas, and a whole host of health issues. Non- alcoholic fatty liver did not exist 10-15 years ago and now we are seeing the rates go up in adults and in children.
You are not without support
In working with a client who came to me with the desire to lose weight and improve his health, we discovered that he too battled sugar cravings. He would wake up in the middle of the night and eat cookies, unable to handle the normal drop in blood sugar that occurs with nighttime fasting. The first thing we did was remove processed foods and began a journey of eating whole foods. This alone stabilized his blood sugar, reduced his “junk food” cravings, gave him more energy in the morning, and got him off his blood pressure medication. He got down to a healthy BMI and no longer woke up to eat sugar, or any other food. This took a lot of guidance and support which is why having a health coach can be so helpful.
I had another client who struggled with binge eating. In working with her we brought to light that going through a stressful event can leave you with reduced insulin sensitivity. When eating sugar, it took more insulin to be released to cause the sugar uptake. Now this excess insulin in her blood stream created sugar cravings. This was a terrible rollercoaster ride of hormones, weight loss and gain, and lowered self-esteem. Taking the processed foods, and therefore sugar, out of her diet helped her regain control of her blood sugar levels and normalize her insulin sensitivity as well as her binge eating.
In nature, sugar is rarely found without the presence of fiber.
We have now extracted fiber out of our processed foods and are consuming pure sugar only recently in our human history, and it is wreaking havoc on our livers and our brains. When you consume these high amounts of sugar, such as drinking a soda, insulin levels go up. When your insulin levels are chronically high, you develop insulin resistance, but you also become leptin resistant. Leptin tells your brain when you are full, so now you eat more than you need to.
The food industry makes it difficult to track our sugar intake. There are over 200 names for sugar, and food companies use several different types of sugar in the same product to hide it and make it look like less by being able to push it down the ingredients list. Companies hire food scientists to make food that lasts on the shelves and still taste good. There are many preservatives and chemicals added that don’t taste good, so sugar is added to mask the taste. They have done many experiments and studies to see how much sugar and salt can be added to foods before they become unpalatable, and they look for that perfect sweet spot.
The faster a substance reaches the brain, the more addictive it is.
Sugar reaches the brain in half a second, compared to cocaine which does in 10 seconds and alcohol which might be 20 minutes. In studies with rats, they will choose sugar, or even an artificial sweetener, over cocaine or heroin all day long. Fighting sugar and food addictions is challenging. You don’t NEED to smoke another cigarette, you don’t NEED to have alcohol in your house, but you need to eat every day, 2-3 times. Every time we feel hungry, every time we have to eat, we are forced to make choices. This is why it is important to change our palates. We need to remove these addictive things from our diets. We need to identify as a person who eats real foods and makes healthy choices. Tracking your food and writing down what you eat can be a valuable exercise, because it makes you aware of the food you are putting in your mouth and can be the first step in habit change.
Because we have these processed foods so readily available, we now have two types of hunger. Nutritional hunger, where we search for food because our body needs the calories or the nutrients and hedonistic hunger, where we are looking for food for pleasure. We eat to get that pleasure response and the problem is there is no satiation. We never have enough pleasure. No one has ever said “ok, that’s enough pleasure for me”. The American Psychiatric Association has put together criteria that needs to be met for someone to be diagnosed with having a substance abuse disorder. These criteria are tolerance, withdrawal, using more than intended, trying to cut back and not being able to, missing important activities due to use, persisted behavior despite the fact you know it is causing you harm or consequence. So, when you really think about this, sugar rich, highly processed foods can meet these criteria just like drugs and alcohol.
We need to get away from eating for the pleasure response and start to think about the long-term impact of what we are eating.
Eliminating sugar isn’t easy but if you can stick with it for 10 days, you will be amazed how much better you feel. That is about how long it takes for your body to detox from the processed sugars and start regulating insulin and blood sugar. Once you do this you start appreciating the taste of food more. You recognize sweetness where you never noticed it before. I remember when I first detoxed from sugar, I ate a green pepper and couldn’t believe how sweet it tasted. We all need to get back to the place where real foods like fruits and vegetables are delicious, sweet, and pleasurable and less dependent on processed foods to bring us joy. As a society, we like to look for the magic pill and the instant fix, but 10 days is really fast to be well on your way to health and wellness and can improve your quality of life for the rest of your life in a way that that pill never will.
As Jim Kleer states in his book, Atomic Habits, “Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits”. As a health coach, I work closely with clients to analyze their habits and work to create lasting habit change. We discover the triggers, or cues, that cause certain behaviors. Often these cues are related to stress, and I educate them in stress management. Together we observe what cravings occur from these triggers and what responses they lead to. Everything we do is for the reward it brings. In the case of sugar addiction, the cue could be stress, or boredom, or sadness. This can lead to a craving to feel better, which causes us to eat sugar for the dopamine release which rewards us with pleasure. This repeated behavior leads to some bad habits. Together we look at these stages of habit formation and make changes to lead them to more positive and less destructive habits. I work with my clients to remove these toxic substances from their kitchen and most importantly provide accountability until this habit change occurs.
So why does our healthcare system tell us there is no cure?
Physicians deal with patients that struggle with these addictions on many levels. They see how the foods people eat can lead them toward a life of chronic diseases such as Diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and auto immune diseases. The problem is that patients rarely make the correlation between the foods they eat and their diagnosis. Our health care system doesn’t allow for the attention a patient needs to make these changes and especially fight these addictions. Becoming a health coach was what I did to close that gap. It is my goal to take a diagnosis and work with a patient through their struggles. My goal is to work in tandem with their healthcare providers to make sure that pre diabetic patient never experiences the ramifications of that disease. These diseases are chronic because of our lifestyle and dietary choices. We can’t expect a different result from continuing to do the same things. The only way we can make changes to our food industry is to educate people about these practices, help them to overcome their addictions, and fight these companies by not purchasing their products.