Unless you’ve been living in a cave or on a desert island for the past 15 years, you know sugar is bad for you. You know that it packs on the pounds and that, when consumed in excess, it increases your risk of deadly diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
You may not know exactly how this addictive, white, powdery substance—something many of us connect to our fondest memories (birthday cake!) and look to for comfort on a daily basis (mid-workday Starbucks Frappucino!)—has these effects. We’ll get to that in a moment.
But before we dive deep into what your future could look like if you don’t kick your sugar habit, first let’s look at sugar’s past. Did you know that the modern abundance of refined sugar was only made possible by crimes against humanity? How’s that for irony?
Sometime in the mid-17th century, sugar went from being a luxury commodity only available to the wealthy to being a worldwide staple. This shift was enabled by the transport of about five and a half million slaves from Africa to islands like Barbados, Puerto Rico and Trinidad, which were clear-cut and planted from stem to stern with sugar cane. About half the slaves shipped overseas were put to work on sugar plantations. Sugarcane farming exacted a terrible cost in human lives and human suffering.
Fast-forward to modern America, where sugar cane is still a common source of sugar. (Other sources include high-fructose corn syrup, sugar beets, date palm, sugar maple, and sorghum.) We eat about 77 pounds per year of sugar per person—that amounts to 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That’s almost 20 times what we consumed in the 1700s.
In fact, this concentrated hit of refined sugar is unprecedented in human history. Our bodies did not evolve to handle it. Sugar is absorbed very rapidly into the body, sending blood sugar levels spiking. The pancreas has to produce massive amounts of insulin to clear that influx of sugar from circulating blood and move it into the cells. Day after day of repeated sugar bombs, the flooding of the system with insulin, and the accompanying surge of fight-or-flight energy that wells up with each wax and wane of sugar takes its toll. Fatigue, mood swings, and weight gain are the usual initial consequences. Excess sugars also spur glycation, a process of protein binding to sugars that prematurely ages both skin and internal organs.
In many middle-aged people, the cells stop “listening” to insulin, and that hormone ceases to be effective at moving sugars from the bloodstream into the cells. This is a state known as insulin resistance. Blood sugars stay high and the pancreas produces more insulin in an effort to overcome the resistance. High triglycerides (directly linked to excess consumption of fructose), high cholesterol and high blood pressure often coexist with insulin resistance. This unfortunate set of physical changes is known as metabolic syndrome, which often leads to full-blown type 2 diabetes. This is where the pancreas more or less gives up and insulin injections or medications are required to prevent serious debility or death. In those with metabolic syndrome, risk of heart disease, diabetes, eye damage and kidney damage skyrocket, as does risk of certain cancers.
A third of the adult U.S. population is somewhere along this spectrum of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
In the 1960s, some scientists got hot on the trail of sugar as the culprit in the spike in type 2 diabetes and obesity. They were distracted by the medical mainstream’s focus on saturated fats and cholesterol as the main problems. Cue the low-fat revolution, which only made us fatter and sicker as a population—especially since the best way to make a low-fat food taste palatable is to add sugars.
Today, we know better, or we should. This addictive white stuff that activates the same brain regions stimulated by heroin and cocaine is turning out to be a serious threat to our health. If there is one food to avoid like the plague, it’s sugar—in every form. Going cold turkey is the best way.
After three days of cravings, you won’t miss it. Eat fruit if you really need something sweet. Use Stevia (an herbal sweetener) if you need it for coffee or tea, but do so in moderation to allow your taste buds to adjust to not being constantly bombarded by the intense sweetness of refined sugar.
Knock off the sweets, like sodas and candy. Then start avoiding highly refined flour products like white bread, white pasta and breakfast cereal (which is usually very high in sugar).
I promise you, it’s worth it. Everything else you eat will taste better as a result.
Sugar is addictive, and what you experience when quitting sugar will feel like withdrawal—because that’s exactly what it is. Know this going in, and recognize where you’ve been using sugar to self-soothe, improve mood, or have something to look forward to. Create other rewards, mood-boosters and self-soothing techniques to replace your old standbys. Instead of gobbling down a cookie, sip a cup of tea that contains sweet herbs like licorice (Aveda’s Comforting Tea is great); take a stroll or a yoga session instead of a mid-afternoon Frappucino; or try a nap instead of a boost in sugary form. Be creative!
Not kicking sugar while engaging in an integrative metabolic medicine (IMM) program to best manage the aging process is like painting a house before its foundation is complete. Few steps will make as big a difference in how you look and feel. Removing sugar from your diet will build a solid foundation for your health.
Rich Cohen, “Sugar Love: A Not So Sweet Story,” National Geographic
Photo credit: Indulgy.com