Sugar: 10 Ways A High Sugar Diet Is Negatively Impacting your Brain and Overall Health
Sugar, whether from natural sources such as fruit and honey or from processed sources such as high fructose corn syrup or Agave; has always provided pleasure to humans and is correlated with celebrations, treats, and other special occasions. In ancient times humans had less access to sugar. Fruit was available as a seasonal treat and on occasion, our ancestors would stumble upon a source of honey, but human sugar consumption was a fraction of what the average person consumes today.
Our brains react to sugar by stimulating a dopamine response which makes us feel rewarded. Addictive drugs such as cocaine stimulate the same dopamine response in the brain.This was likely an evolutionary development designed to help humans desire a food source that is dense in energy providing our body with fuel for physical activity as well as weight gain for the lean winter months. This can make sugar addictive to some people causing a vicious circle of consumption which causes cravings leading to more consumption.
Today sugar is prevalent in many processed food items and can even be found in foods you don’t expect such as marinara sauce, commercially prepared salad dressing and condiments. Other sources of sugar are more obvious such as sodas, cereal, cookies, juices and pancake syrups made with high fructose corn syrup. Sugar consumption has increased to an average of 94 grams a day which is equal to about 2 ½ cans of regular soda.The recommended amount of daily sugar intake limits it to 25 grams per day for women and 36g per day for men.
Once you start reading food labels, you realize how easy it is to surpass the recommended limits of added sugars if you consume cereals, sweetened yogurts, sweetened beverages and even some lunch meats. Many people are not even aware of all the sources of sugar in their diet. Sugars are often labeled under different names which becomes confusing when reading ingredients on food labels. Marketing of high sugar processed foods have made these foods common in the standard American diet and is especially influencing children who tend to have more preferences for sweets as compared to adults.
We all know too much sugar is bad for our health due to its impact on metabolism and poor nutrient profile. Below is a list of some of the ways a diet high in sugar can affect your body.
How Sugar Can Negatively Impact One’s Health
- A diet high in added sugars can cause weight gain
The global rate of obesity continues to rise because of excess calorie consumption of processed foods low in nutrition. Intake of added sugars such as fructose from high fructose corn syrup have been found to cause increased appetite and desire for more sugar and starchy foods as compared with glucose. Research has shown that people who consume more sugary beverages weigh more than those who do not. High sugar intake can also promote insulin resistance over time making your cells less sensitive to insulin and causing blood sugars to rise increasing risk for metabolic disease as well as increase visceral fat stores around your organs. Foods high in refined sugars are also likely to be low in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are needed for your body to maintain health.
- May increase cardiovascular disease risk
High sugar diets have been shown to increase risk factors for heart disease such as atherosclerosis, elevated blood lipids such as triglycerides and cholesterol, and has been correlated with high blood pressure.
- May increase risk of developing cancer
Dietary sugar will not cause cancer but what it does to our metabolism and waistline can increase our risk of cancer. High sugar intake has been associated with being overweight and with developing insulin resistance which are both risk factors for cancer. Read our blog on insulin resistance to learn more about how this can affect health and how to reverse this condition. High sugar intake also increases inflammation throughout the body. Being overweight, insulin resistance and inflammation are all risk factors for developing cancer. Cancer cells thrive on dietary sugar promoting tumor growth and proliferation and many cancer patients try to avoid excess sugars and carbohydrates for this reason.
- Diets high in added sugars and refined carbohydrates can influence skin health
High refined sugar and carbohydrate intake has been associated with a higher risk of developing acne due to the effects of blood sugar spikes on metabolism and hormone production.
Eating a lot of refined sugars has also been found to increase skin aging by Consuming a diet high in refined carbs and sugar leads to the production of Advanced Glycation End products or AGEs, which may cause your skin to age prematurely by damaging collagen and elastin in the skin.
- Diets high in added sugars from processed foods can increase risk of depression
Consuming a lot of processed foods, including high-sugar products such as cakes and sugary drinks, has been associated with a higher risk of depression. This may be due to the effect of blood sugar fluctuations in the blood and changes in the gut microbes that help produce most of the neurotransmitters needed for brain health.
- A high sugar and refined carbohydrate diet may increase risk of fatty liver
Large amounts of added sugar in the form of fructose overload your liver, leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition characterized by excessive fat buildup in the liver. A high intake of fructose was found in soft drinks and other sweetened food products (especially those that contain high fructose corn syrup) has been associated with fatty liver disease. If fatty liver is not corrected with lifestyle changes, it can develop into more serious liver disease such as cirrhosis.
- A high sugar diet can increase the rate at which the cells in your body age
Chromosomes are thread-like structures situated at the end of DNA strands that contain all our genetic information. Telomeres protect our chromosomes from becoming damaged during cell division. Telomeres are caps at the end of our chromosomes that naturally shorten as we age but certain things such as nutrition, physical activity, stress, exposure to pollutants etc. can influence the rate at which this happens. High sugar diets have been found to decrease telomere length which is associated with the aging process.
- May cause you to feel less energetic
Consuming a high sugar meal or snack causes a large spike in blood sugar which then stimulates the pancreas to release insulin which ushers the sugar into the cells to be burned as energy or stored as fat. The increase in blood sugar and energy is short-lived and often followed by an energy “crash” which can increase sugar cravings. Combining high carbohydrate foods with fiber, protein and or fat can help your body metabolize dietary carbohydrates in a way that does not promote the spikes and crashes in energy associated with eating refined sugars.
- A high sugar diet can negatively impact brain health
The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease continues to rise with 6.5 million people living with this type of dementia. It is estimated that the amount of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple by the year 2060. Alzheimer’s disease has been called “Type 3 diabetes” since it was discovered that changes in glucose metabolism and insulin resistance were associated with cognitive decline. Research regarding how diet and lifestyle contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s is currently underway to determine ways to reduce the incidence of cognitive decline and avoid a public health crisis in the future.
- Consuming a high percentage of calories as added sugar may impact gut health
Our guts contain microbes that help digest the fiber we eat to produce byproducts such a certain vitamins and fatty acids that keep us healthy. When we eat a diet high in sugar, the health-promoting or “good” bacteria do not thrive and other inflammatory microbes that ferment sugar proliferate which may lead to a whole slew of health conditions from IBS to depression.
Tips for Managing Sugar Intake
The first step to ensuring you are not overconsuming sugar is to become aware of the sources of sugar in your diet. Some sources are obvious like that morning Frappuccino and muffin habit or the chocolate you keep in your desk drawer at work. Other sources of sugar can be “hidden” in the ingredient list of some of your favorite products. Many people do not realize that certain food products are loaded with added sugars listed by unfamiliar names. Below is a list of ingredients that are common forms of sugar added to processed foods.
Added Sugars in Processed Food Items
Cane juice crystals
Evaporated cane juice
Fruit juice concentrate
High fructose corn syrup
|Organic raw sugar|
Rice bran syrup
Transitioning to a Low Sugar Diet
People often question their ability to reduce their sugar intake if they are used to relying on processed and convenience food items and may struggle with cravings when they reduce their sugar intake. The good news is that these cravings are usually temporary while the body adjusts to a diet lower in sugar. My clients find that after avoiding sugar for a few weeks, the cravings are either greatly reduced or even non-existent. After detoxing from your high sugar diet for several months, you may find that sweet desserts and candy are not as tempting and you may even be satisfied with just a taste or you may find fresh fruit satisfies your sweet tooth the same way candy would.
One of the easiest ways to avoid added sugars is to eat mostly whole-natural foods. The added sugars listed in the table above are usually found in common foods like cereals, packaged sweets, and even in savory foods like pasta sauce or salad dressing. Sometimes foods considered “healthy” like yogurt can contain a significant amount of added sugars.
Becoming more aware of how much sugar we are consuming is the first step we can take in reeling in our sugar habit but there are other easy changes you can make to your diet to ensure that you stay within a healthy range of sugar consumption. Keeping a food diary is an excellent way of becoming more aware of the main sources of sugar in your diet and some people find that keeping track of other markers such as stress, emotions or other triggers can help them break their sugar habit.
Healthy Changes to Reduce Sugar Intake While Increasing Nutrition
- Lower your intake of sodas, energy drinks, juices and sweetened teas by swapping them out with water, unsweetened tea or unsweetened seltzer.
- Consume whole fruits instead of sugar-sweetened fruit smoothies or juices
- Flavor plain yogurt with fruit, Stevia or Monk fruit. Consider adding cinnamon, vanilla or other naturally sugar-free flavors
- Drink your coffee black or use Stevia or Monk Fruit for a zero-calorie, natural sweetener.
- Replace candy with a homemade trail mix of fruit, nuts and a few dark chocolate chips.
- Use olive oil and vinegar in place of commercially prepared sweet salad dressings like raspberry vinaigrette or honey mustard.
- Choose marinades, nut butters, ketchup and marinara sauce with zero added sugars. Read the ingredient list to sleuth out added sugars.
- Look for cereals, granola and granola bars with under 4 grams of sugar per serving.
- Swap your morning cereal for a bowl of rolled oats topped with nut butter and fresh berries, or an omelet made with fresh greens and other veggies.
- Instead of jelly, slice fresh bananas onto your peanut butter sandwich.
- Use natural nut butters in place of sweet spreads like Nutella.
- Use sugar-free mixers such as soda or tonic water in alcoholic beverages. Avoid alcoholic beverages that are sweetened with soda, juice, honey, sugar or agave.
- The best way to limit your added sugar intake is to prepare your own healthy meals at home and avoid buying foods and drinks that are high in added sugar. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, focusing on fresh, whole ingredients. No complicated ingredient lists to navigate and you get more vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting substances.
Get your chocolate dessert fix with this chocolate pudding recipe that contains functional superfoods providing fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is gluten-free, dairy-free and commercially prepared puddings can’t compete with the nutritional bounty this recipe provides.
• 2 ripe Haas avocados, pitted and peeled
• 1/3 C dairy-free, semi-sweet chocolate chips
• 6-8 Medjool dates, pitted
• ½ C unsweetened organic cocoa powder
- Berries and/or chopped nuts of choice for topping (optional)
1. Soak dates for at least one hour before using them.
2. Add the avocados and cocoa powder to a blender.
3. Melt chocolate chips over hot water. Add to the blender.
4. Add dates after soaking and blend until smooth.
5. Top with your favorite berry and serve cold.
For more information on detoxing your body from sugars and finding alternatives to a healthier lifestyle by removing sugar from your diet, please contact Rezilir’s Registered Dietitian, Jannell Baez
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