The deadly sweet truth about sugar

White, powdery and addictive. I might as well be writing about cocaine, but the actual topic is even scarier because it's legal and it's everywhere - sugar. There was a time in the 1990s when children, including myself, was unknowingly consuming dangerously high levels of sugar on a daily basis. Parents and consumers didn't know that the food industry was adding high doses of sugar in their products to make them more appealing and addictive. Thankfully, governments around the world have been tackling the issue of high sugar diets by introducing sugar taxes and educating the masses about the serious effects of sugar. In this article, I explain the history of sugar, what makes sugar addictive and the consequences of sugar on our health.

Sugar is a relatively new food group

About 300,000 years ago, our cavemen ancestors ate a variety of lean meat and fish, fruits, and vegetables. From at least 11,000 years ago, humans started to collect and consume wild grains, including wheat, einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax. Sugarcane extract only began about 10,000 years ago, and the development of high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners developed roughly 300 years ago. The refined sugar that we are familiar with was made in 1957.

There have been theories suggesting that the food our ancestors consumed dictate the presence or absence of microbiome in our digestive system. Seeing as how relatively new sugar is in our diet, our digestive system is yet to play catch up in being able to tolerate high amounts, which explains why diabetes and obesity is a side effect of too much sugar. This theory led to the development of various diet trends including the Paleo diet, the raw food diet, and the I Quit Sugar diet. Interestingly, the common denominator between these diets is that refined sugar and carbs are eliminated (for those of you unaware, simple and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, converts into glucose quickly, and can play havoc on your blood glucose levels).

There's sugar, and then there's "sugar."

We all know what packaged sugar looks like, but being able to identify sugar in a product can be a bit more tricky, especially when food companies try to conceal it. Luckily, by Australian law, all food labels must have a nutritional table, making it easier for us consumers to make a healthier decision.

In the 1990s, it was a lot harder to make smarter decisions. A lot of products come to mind (but I won't specifically name them), including those that claimed to have a low GI (Glycaemic Index) content, sports drinks that have a questionably high sugar content, and muesli bars that contained so-called natural sugar. These companies will try to defend their product when they say that it's made of "natural sugar", but let your weight scales be the judge of that when you eat these foods every day for a year.

What makes sugar so addictive?

When we eat sugar, our dopamine levels increase and has an immediate effect on the reward pathway. Coincidentally, this is the same reward pathway that is triggered when people do cocaine, win money at the pokies, or get a "like" on social media. Similarly to addictive behaviours, the high quickly wears off, and our tolerance to sugar declines, causing us to crave sugar at higher doses (think back to the movie, Wolf of Wall Street, where the bankers needed to consistently take higher doses of illicit drugs to have a euphoric effect).

The consequence of being unable to manage sugar intake can have psychological and physiological effects: weight gain, sluggishness, poor concentration and fatigue (plus a really traumatising visit to the dentist to get your cavities checked). As a result of sugar's addictiveness, some food companies added a little bit too much sugar in their products to be more palatable and addictive. The worst part of this all is that children were also victims of sugar, not that parents wanted to dose their children with sugar willingly.

Why do we need sugar?

For us to perform any task, including breathing, requires energy. We acquire this energy from oxygen and fuel sources, specifically carbohydrates, proteins and fats from our diet. In basic terms, these fuel sources are required for different functions:

  • Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose to supply energy to cells,

  • Protein is broken down into amino acids for muscle development, and

  • Fats are broken down into fatty acids to make hormones

There are two types of carbohydrates: refined (unhealthy) and non-refined (healthy). Since sugar is a form of unhealthy carbohydrates, think about what kind of other unhealthy carbs you may be eating on a day to day basis - rice, bread, pasta, pizza, noodles (i.e. anything white!). Recall earlier that our ancestors ate healthier carbohydrates, such as wild grains, which is what our digestive system can tolerate. Now the scarier part is the advice we were given up to ten years ago in the form of the food pyramid, where grains and carbohydrates made up a vast portion of this [side note: this food pyramid has now been sensibly replaced, and instead the new recommendation suggests a considerable part of our diet is fresh produce]. Considering all of this, we've been overloading our body with too many unhealthy carbohydrates, and ultimately, sugar. It's no wonder that diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity have been on the rise.

Did you know that sugar has more severe impacts than just diabetes and obesity?

In fact, sugar is also associated with heart disease and high cholesterol. This theory was first introduced in the 1940s by John Yudkin, who was UK's then leading nutritionist. When Yudkin looked at the data on heart disease, he observed a correlation between heart disease and consumption of sugar. Many animals and human experiments conducted by Yudkin showed that sugar is processed in the liver, where it turns into fat before entering the bloodstream, which explains why sugar was overlooked as a culprit for so many years.

Fast forward to 1955 when US President Eisenhower suffered from a heart attack. Combined with a rising trend of heart-related diseases and the president's health scare, a campaign towards preventing heart disease launched in the form of stop smoking and reducing fat and cholesterol intake. The last part of this advice was taken from research conducted by a nutritionist named Ancel Keys, who held influential positions on the boards of the American Heart Association and the National Institute of Health.

From 1958 to 1964, Keys and his fellow researchers conducted what is now called the Seven Countries Study. Big data was collected on the diets, lifestyles and health of 12,770 middle-aged men from seven countries: Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Finland, Netherlands, Japan and the United States. The findings were published in 1970, and as a result of confirmation bias, Key's thought his hypothesis was proven, as it showed a correlation between the intake of saturated fats and deaths from heart disease. Despite there being a correlation, the researchers did not exclude the possibility that heart disease was being caused by something else. Years later, one of the researchers went back to the original data and found that the food that correlated most closely with deaths from heart disease was not saturated fat, but sugar. Since then, repeated attempts to prove a correlation between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol failed. For example, eating two or three, or 25 eggs a day, does not significantly raise cholesterol levels. So, consider reducing your daily sugar intake if you have elevated cholesterol levels or at risk of heart disease.

What are the benefits of being sugar-free?

Rather than me writing the benefits of being sugar-free, why don't you experience this for yourself? I challenge you to be sugar-free for four weeks (the supposed magic number of days to kick a habit is 21, so for you to really enjoy the benefits, 28 days is ideal) and see if you feel or look, any different.

The first couple of weeks of being sugar-free can be hard because after all, you're quitting a behaviour that is just as addictive as cocaine. Being sugar-free involves eliminating foods that contain refined or processed sugar including cookies, cocktails, lollies, ice cream, cakes, etc. If you desperately need a sugar hit, eat a piece of fruit (yes, fruits are ok!). Other alternatives you can cook with instead of sugar include natural and organic honey, brown rice syrup, or whole fruits.

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