Freedom from sugar: Sugar addiction and our health

Freedom from sugar: Sugar addiction and our health

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Yesterday was July 4th – Independence Day. We declared our independence in the name of freedom, in the name of liberty and justice, in the name of individual rights and the pursuit of happiness. A day dedicated to the celebration of freedom and independence. A day devoted to honoring the sacrifices made in the name of freedom and democracy.

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We celebrate with parades, picnics, carnivals, fireworks, bbqs, family reunions, and, of course, food. Food is invariably a centerpiece of our celebrations. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Food is a celebration of life. It provides sustenance, and the preparation of a feast invites community and gathering. When we have something to celebrate, we eat. That’s just how humans do it. We gather together and feast and celebrate the bounty and beauty of life.

Food and freedom: the modern paradox

But I couldn’t shake the sense of irony that arose when out of curiosity and the search for some inspiration I did a quick search of common 4th of July food. One of the first articles to come up was entitled 28 All-American Eats for the Fourth of July. Perfect.

Of course I expected burgers and fries and hot dogs and pie and red white and blue frosted sprinkled cupcakes. But as clicked through the recipes, I was still floored by the reminder of how far our diets have strayed from wholesome and natural. Sure there were a few veggie recipes. But the potatoes were drowned in mayonnaise. The corn was slathered in cheddar, bacon, and ranch. And if you’re tired of regular old hamburgers, don’t worry, they got you covered with a bacon cheeseburger pie – upping the ante with a thick pie crust and slabs of bacon covering a base of beef held together with melted cheddar.

Drowning in sugar

Then we get to the sugar. The berry lemonade has a full two cups of sugar to 8 cups of water (but it’s ok – it has berries in it, therefore, it’s healthy!). Or how about the ‘America cake’ ingredient run-down: a stick of butter, refined flour, cake box mixes, cream cheese, cups of powdered white sugar, cream cheese, food coloring…. yikes. And don’t worry, your baked beans recipe has both soda and sugar (at least that recipe called for brown… hah).

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Then down below the article I saw links to a few others, including one for 26 Guilt-Free 4th of July Desserts. Ok, phew, at least they’re acknowledging that some Americans make some efforts to eat healthy. These recipes are fruit-heavy and many dairy-free. But most are still heavy on the refined sugar. The article was more concerned about low-calorie recipes. Unfortunately, low-calorie alone isn’t a recipe for healthy.

To be fair, the original article included recipes for simpler grilled veggies and chicken and a potato salad without any mayo, but the vast majority of the recipes were processed food bombs.

It’s not our fault

I don’t want to sound like I’m up on my high horse here. But I’ve already posted about some of the ills of sugar. Americans have been sold out by the food industry giants and duped by their lords of marketing. I was always a pretty healthy eater, but rarely read the food labels and paid only scant attention to sugar quantities. I didn’t know any better, and trusted that something as healthy as yogurt was legitimately healthy. I fell prey to the low-fat-is-healthiest mantra, like everyone else.

Now, I have no problem with a little indulgence, especially on a holiday. And I love sweetness. A former cupcake aficionado, I baked my cupcakes with sugar and refined flour for years, then shifted to coconut sugar and oil, vegan concoctions, and whole wheat flour when it worked for cookies and bars. (I can still whip up a mean cupcake, but now that I know what I do, it’s rare and takes a particular unrefined form, like these.)

But then I reached my crisis point, did the research, and learned about sugar. Now I know better. And now the state of our food alarms me.

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Sugar by any other name… is still sugar

The problem is, we are legitimately addicted to this stuff. And that is not Freedom. We are addicted to sugar because it’s in everything, because that’s what the food industry does: it replaces fat with sugar to add flavor. Oh, and also to make sure we become addicted to it so we buy it over and over again. And it’s hiding even where you least expect it.

Literally – check the ingredients on your bread, your ‘fiber’ cereal, your crackers, your yogurt, your tomato sauce, your canned or boxed soups, your gatorade, your applesauce, your peanut butter, your jelly, your ketchup, your dressings, your orange juice… I could go on and on, and that’s not even counting candy, ice cream, sweets, and treats. That’s just the ‘healthy’ stuff. High fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, maltodextrin, barley malt, glucose, or even the beet sugar, date sugar or organic cane sugar/ syrup, which sound ‘healthier’… (contact me for a full list of sugar names) – it’s all just added sugar and it’s wreaking havoc on our health.

How we got here

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s when lifestyle diseases began to soar, a great debate ensued as researchers attempted to determine whether it was fat or sugar causing disease and poor health. The sugar industry paid off top scientists to determine that it was in fact fat causing the issues, and thus ensued the great anti-fat campaign, which impacted our food system for decades. And apparently we got it dead wrong. And the war on fat has resulted in a nation that is fat, sick, and tired. And dying from preventable disease.

Why too much sugar is poison

Research has found that sugar actually activates pleasure receptors in the brain and triggers the production of natural opioids. What’s truly alarming is that research has found sugar to be more addictive than cocaine:

Overall, this research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive. At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine, possibly reflecting past selective evolutionary pressures for seeking and taking foods high in sugar and calories.

Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Ahmed SH1, Guillem K, Vandaele Y.

Yikes. Basically, the reason our bodies react so strongly to sugar is that back in the days of our Paleolithic caveman ancestors, natural sugar was quite rare in our environments, and since food was so scarce, our bodies evolved to crave sugar so we would eat as much as possible, thereby consuming as many calories as possible. Our brain literally sends out excessive reward signals when our taste buds detect sugar. It overrides self-control and addiction ensues.

This is also the reason for the rise of the paleo diet amongst healthy foodies: it’s a return to the unprocessed food found in the diets of our ancestor – the way, paleo experts claim, our bodies were evolved to eat. From a human evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that we are facing the health crisis we are: we did not evolve to consume such vast quantities of sugar and chemicals, and our bodies really don’t like it.

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The ugly truth of sugar consumption

Because here’s the ugly truth: sugar addiction can result in weight gain (specifically the dangerous belly fat), obesity, diabetes, heart damage or failure, shorter lifespans, liver damage (as much or worse than alcohol), depletion of brain power, and yes, cancer cell production.

Suffice to say, sugar can ruin your health. High sugar consumption can actually cause nutrient imbalances or deficiencies, trigger behavioral changes, including hyperactivity and anxiety, impair bodily functioning in dozens of ways, and increase risk of a whole host of diseases beyond those mentioned above.

And for a truly eye-opening, real life account of just how sugar impacts the human body, check out That Sugar Film. A typically healthy eater, the Australian documentarist becomes the human guinea pig of his own experiment: under the watchful guidance and monitoring of health and nutrition experts (and against their better judgment), he consumed the same amount of sugar the average Australian male does each day for just six weeks, without actually eating any junk food. The documentary tracks his health over the six-week experiment, and it’s truly shocking and alarming to see just how dramatically sugar impacted his body and his health. All without candy, soda, or chocolate.

The white handcuffs… or not?

To return to the opening of my post, the way Americans eat completely contradicts the values we hold most dear: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The standard American diet endangers our lives, creates legitimate addiction and imprisons us by the constraints of ill health, and keeps us tired and stuck.

All that said, I do like to be even-handed and do my comprehensive all-sides-of-the-issue research; disease in the body is more complicated than just ‘sugar is bad!’ ‘Avoid sugar and be the picture of health!’ No, it’s certainly not so simple. Unfortunately.

The New Yorker recently published a critical analysis of the sugar-fat debate. In particular, it examined the arguments put forth by Gary Taubes, who has been on an anti-sugar crusade for well over a decade. When it comes to health and nutrition, I appreciate all the well-researched resources I can get my hands on, because the ‘science’ of nutrition is complex and confusing and often quite contradictory. Personally, I thought the author’s analysis of the sugar debate was flawed and looked at the issue through a very limited lens. He avoided actually diving into the research itself, rather choosing to pick apart the analysis of other people’s (including Taubes) claims.

Our bodies are extremely complex, extremely fine-tuned machines, honed over millions of years of evolution. Illness and disease are complicated, and environmental factors in bodily imbalance are increasingly difficult to grasp in our rapidly changing modern world. Nutrition is also not an exact science. However, I think the mounting evidence is quite clear: sugar isn’t doing us any favors.

Salvation

Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave with doom and gloom – not at all. The point here on this blog is that there are plenty of ways to indulge your taste buds and live a fully satisfied life without all the crap. And live a life where our food choices support our optimal health. Real food tastes really good! With just a little education and a little effort, we can find unprocessed real-food alternatives and recipes to our favorite dishes that nix the chemicals and refined and processed food.

And there are plenty of solutions to the sugar factor. You can have your cake and eat it too, without all the sugar! Sweetness without the sugar. Sweetness without the sin.

And let’s be real – satisfaction and sweetness can be found without consuming food at all. But that’s another post for another day.

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Sweetness without the sin

I started off this post by explaining that I was searching for some red-white-and-blue holiday recipe inspo, and I wound up sticking with simple berries-and-cream, but the cream here is dairy-free and completely sugar-free: I used a little monk fruit to sweeten (0g sugar!) and coconut cream as the base.

Here are a few other 0g sugar recipes (sweetened with stevia, monk fruit works!)

How does your body react to sugar?