#HOWSWEETITISNT is a series of articles, infographics and videos, where livehealthy.ae takes a closer look at scientific and anecdotal evidence telling us why and how the sugar we love to eat is hurting our health – and what we need to do about it.
I do love coffee, and enjoy one on most days, although there was a time when I thought I’d have to say goodbye to my daily cup of caffeine-fuelled good vibes. Admittedly, this was when I could only drink coffee with sugar. It was only one teaspoon of brown sugar, but it was added sugar nonetheless.
The impact on my physical and mental state was undeniable. I would experience a surge in energy followed an hour or so later by a nervous shaky feeling and irritation. Then the inescapable feeling of crashing energy levels would take my mood and emotional state with it, leaving me feeling exhausted and stressed.
Back then I totally overlooked sugar as the culprit and blamed the caffeine. Then one day I thought: what if I just didn’t add sugar? The change was like going from night to day. Literally. I still felt a boost in energy and creative juices from a single shot of caffeine, but without the nervous shaky feeling and energy crash. I remained relatively balanced and emotionally stable.
That may sound far-fetched: one teaspoon of sugar, for me, being the difference between emotional stability and chaos. Yet the latest research likens the impact of sugar on your brain to a drug with serious consequences for your physical and mental health, all while sabotaging your best efforts to eat healthily.
If you’re consuming sugar, then whether you are aware of it or not, you are on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Scientists are now able to prove that as far as your wellbeing is concerned, it’s more of a white-knuckle ride than anyone thought. And it raises a serious question: should we be officially limiting sugar intake, especially for children?
It is clear that each of us will have a different tolerance level for this powerful, yet everyday condiment. Mine is obviously low, yet it turns out the impact was magnified because I was combining it with caffeine.
According to 2017 research conducted at the University of Huelva in Spain, the impact of sugar on insulin resistance and metabolic disorders found “the most significant findings were observed after the co-ingestion of caffeine.”
This is very worrying, considering the free flow of sodas and energy drinks being consumed by adults and kids alike in the UAE.
Most problematic is the fact that a small amount is never enough and just like some of the most powerful illegal drugs in the world, sugar leaves you always wanting more. As Dr Joel Fuhrman wrote earlier this year on VeryWellMind, scientists believe that consuming sugar can produce “addiction-like effects in the human brain, driving the loss of self-control, overeating and subsequent weight gain.”
Sugar consumption is a significant driving force behind the obesity and diabetes epidemics in developed countries. Addiction to sugar is literally hijacking our best attempts at healthy eating, despite all our nutritional awareness.
If you’re consuming sugar you are less able to make better choices for your health and wellbeing. Brain imaging studies of individuals with elevated blood glucose reveals sugar compromises the ability to process emotions and contributes to mood alteration.
In fact, data taken from the 2017 Whitehall II study involving 23,245 people, and analyzed by scientists at University College London, found that “those with the highest level of sugar consumption were 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder than those with the lowest sugar intakes.”
As a nutritionist I know that many people know what to eat to support their health and wellbeing. Having the ability to actually make a different food and lifestyle choice is another matter.
Under the influence of sugar you are chemically compelled to eat more sweet stuff, and with energy crashes, altered moods, compromised ability to process emotion and a higher propensity for mental disorder – all well-documented effects of sugar consumption – who is going to choose a quinoa salad over a doughnut or a croissant?
With unstable blood sugar levels, you literally do not have the capacity to slow down and make a different choice. You’re running on autopilot, grabbing whatever food you see first that looks like it will ‘hit the spot.’
The data on the effects of sugar consumption is compelling and begs the question: should a substance which is shown to be more addictive than a class A drug be so freely added to foods and beverages that are being consumed daily by adults and children?
While most people understand the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy diet, I don’t believe the mainstream public is aware of just how damaging sugar consumption can be to an individual. Lower intake of sugar is linked to better physical and psychological health and we absolutely must make the messaging stronger.
So, what is the solution? Just start, like I did, by not adding any sugar to drinks. That includes white sugar, brown sugar and the sugary flavored syrups popular at many cafes.
Next look at your consumption of soda, energy drinks and juice; they all contain added sugar. Either eliminate them completely or dramatically reduce how much you drink. There are soda alternatives on the market which are sweetened without adding sugar, so seek those out if you feel you need something fizzy.
Finally, pay attention to the amount of cakes, cookies, chocolates, candies and any sweet-tasting food products you are eating. Don’t worry about naturally sweet foods, such as bananas and dates – I’m talking about manufactured products with added sugar. These are to be avoided as much as possible. And for a treat, seek healthy alternatives such as the many homemade brands popping up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Dr Laura Holland PhD (Integrative Medicine) is an author, nutritionist and wellbeing expert consulting with private and corporate clients for more than 10 years. She is passionate about helping people to find relief from an endemic diet culture, healing our relationship with food and promoting body acceptance.