When sugar isn’t so sweet

Stacks+of+sugar+bags+fill+American+supermarket+stores.+This+availability+causes+reaches+for+more+sugar%2C+contributing+to+addiction.

Lauren Elliott

Stacks of sugar bags fill American supermarket stores. This availability causes reaches for more sugar, contributing to addiction.

Sugar is found in almost everything we eat today. From the bowl of cereal that starts a morning to the dinner of meat that ends the evening, sugar finds its way into our systems and sets off a reaction causing us to crave it more. 

As a result, sugar addictions are born, and they constantly increase due to sugar’s wide availability in America. With high intakes of sugar come poor health effects, such as inflammation, cancer, and heart or liver disease. 

The addiction factor:

There are two types of sugar: natural sugars and artificial sugars. 

Anne Kolker, a dietitian at Kaiser Permanente Redwood City, explained that “natural sugars are from fruit, which has glucose and fructose.” In contrast, processed sugars are added to products and found in typical snacks, desserts, and drinks in America. 

Recently, these popular processed foods with high amounts of sugar have resulted in addictive effects on the body. Scientists believe that these addictive properties are similar to drugs like cocaine

Sugar activates a part of the brain named the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with drug addiction and releases dopamine into the body. With dopamine comes the feeling of reward, and the brain produces feelings of withdrawal and cravings when it isn’t receiving released dopamine. As a result, the brain continues to desire the dopamine release, contributing to an addiction.

“The more processed, the less nutrition, density, fiber, and the less you are going to feel full. Processed foods tend to be foods that have a draw, meaning the salt, the fiber, the sugar [making people] crave that,” Kolker said. 

These foods that have a draw lead to people becoming hooked. However, what would happen if someone completely stopped eating these addictive processed sugars?

Lorrianne Meere, who has cut out processed sugar from her diet for years, believes that processed sugar has no benefits to the human body at all. 

“It feeds a lot of things that aren’t great for you, things like cancers and inflammation,” Meere said. 

Meere started a sugar-free diet to optimize how she felt within her personal life and work life. While she was off sugar, Meere worked as a Program Manager for Apple Pay and stressed the importance of being on top of things within her job. 

Another reason why she started eliminating sugar was for her daughter’s health. Meere’s daughter struggled with essential tremors, a brain condition that causes uncontrollable shaking throughout her body. The tremors stopped when she eliminated gluten from her diet and limited her sugar intake.  

“I think we could see that there’s this direct correlation between food inflammation and how your body behaves, and so I think that’s why I started [going sugar-free],” Meere said.

While she was off processed sugar, Meere noticed a change in her mental feeling, as the sugar cravings got hard to deal with. She found herself reaching for unhealthy snacks without realizing it as if it was a habit.

“When you don’t get [the sugar], you have the drop, and you can feel this pang and craving, and then it just gets worse over time,” Meere said. 

As a result of dealing with the cravings and lack of dopamine, Meere started turning to whole fruits and vegetables. Instead of reaching for a processed snack, Meere turned to natural sugars to replace the processed sugars she had eaten before. By doing this, Meere was eating healthier and maintaining more consistent energy levels throughout the day. The natural sugar supported her metabolism and blood glucose levels

When you start to have something with sugar again, it’s almost poisonous.”

— Lorrianne Meere

The effects of sugar on the body:

With processed foods being cheaper than whole foods and the popularity of sugar-filled foods in America, there is vast sugar availability. With availability comes the greater consumption of sugar, and as a result, fewer whole foods are being eaten.

“When you are only eating foods with sugar or processed foods, you tend to not have other foods,” Kolker explained. 

Lacking whole foods in a diet prevents the body from getting the nutrients it needs and negatively affects the human body. Fuqi Liu, a nutritionist for Impossible Foods, explained sugar’s impact on the body.

“When extra sugar intake is more than what your body can process, or too much artificial sugars are consumed, people often develop diabetes, heart diseases, or cancers,” Liu said. 

Like Liu, Kolker also believes that processed sugars could cause health problems related to cancer. 

“There is some concern that it can cause the cells of the villi, and those villas are in our intestines, to grow larger, and so there’s concern about [if it would be] cancer-causing,” Kolker said. 

Kolker refers to a study with mice where scientists observed the villas, which allow nutrients to absorb into the intestines. When researchers fed the mice excess sugar, the villas grew, and the mice gained more weight due to the extra sugar and high-fat foods they received. As the villas grew and more cells continued to be made and survive, many excess cells formed, and the villi got larger. These findings led scientists to be concerned that sugar fuels cancer.

Another connection between sugar and cancer is the link to obesity. Excessive processed sugar intake is an essential contributor to obesity as sugar causes increased blood sugar and weight gain. In addition, obesity is associated with a high cancer risk due to long-term inflammation and increased cell growth. 

Steps to improve health:

Both Liu and Kolker advocate for the importance of eating with mindfulness and balance to maintain one’s health. 

“Eating mindfully can help you maintain a healthy lifestyle, but always start with realistic expectations that you can easily achieve,” Liu recommended.

Kolker voiced similar sentiments as Liu, suggesting that people slow down their food consumption and think about the substances eaten in a day rather than blazing through meals.

“The way we do it [in America] is that we eat so quickly we are not even aware that we just had a piece of candy, and then we want another piece, getting back to that addiction,” Kolker explained.

Another way to maintain a healthy life is by exercising. Staying active helps to support mental health as endorphins are released, which improve one’s overall health and is a natural pain and stress reliever. The physical benefits of exercise help prevent obesity and make the body stronger.  

Along with these individual steps that can improve eating habits and overall health, other changes in the food industry have been made to encourage more awareness of consumption. One such change requires companies to label the amounts of added sugar on their nutrition labels.

“The new food label came out two or three years ago, and the benefit is it shows added sugar, where before you wouldn’t know,” Kolker said. 

In addition to labeling, demonstrations of what a healthy meal should look like show people how foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein are essential in a healthy diet. They provide a generous supply of energy and nutrients. 

Limiting one’s intake of processed sugars, especially sugary drinks with high sugar content such as soft drinks, and replacing them with healthier alternatives will help improve overall health and prevent the risk of obtaining diseases or cancers. Being mindful and staying active are also necessary steps to become as healthy as possible.

“Sugar is definitely something people should watch out for,” Meere said.