On Monday, May 16, I watched a documentary called "That Sugar Film." In this documentary, an Australian man eats 40 teaspoons (the daily average sugar intake for an Australian) of hidden sugar a day for sixty days. He stays away from ice cream, candy, fast food, and soft drinks, but, instead, eats yogurts, juices, granola, and other "healthy" foods. In sixty days, he gains weight and he presents signs of heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes.
After watching this documentary, I looked at my cereal box and was astonished to find out that my "healthy" granola contains three teaspoons of sugar in one serving (2/3rds of a cup)! Now, seeing that on a box may not seem like much, but when you measure it out in a measuring cup, that's a lot of sugar! Just thinking about that much sugar for one meal made me feel sick, so I decided to go with my gut (literally) and give up sugar again.
I didn't want to make a blind decision, though, so I started researching processed sugar's effect on the body and brain. As I read more and more, I became more and more disgusted and concerned, and confidant that I had made the right decision.
There are three different types of sugar to be aware of: one is glucose. Glucose is found in every cell in the body and is necessary for human survival. If we don't eat enough glucose, our body produces it. Glucose is what gives us energy. If we already have enough energy, glucose is turned into glycogen and saved for later. Carbohydrates are turned into glucose and, like nearly anything, if you eat too much, it may have negative benefits. It is, however, important to have some kind of carbohydrate in your diet, whether that be simple carbs like grains, or complex carbs like fruits and vegetables.
The second type of sugar is fructose. Fructose is found in fruits, but is also added to about 80% of food found in the store. During the low-fat movement of the 1970s, fat in food was deemed unhealthy and taken out of many foods. To compensate for this, food manufactures added sugar to their products so that it would still taste good. Therefore, many foods that are supposedly healthy—such as low-fat yogurt—are actually unhealthy because of how much fructose they contain.
While glucose is easily turned into energy, fructose is not, especially if eaten in large quantities. The liver, where sugar is processed before being sent into the bloodstream, doesn't know what to do with large quantities of fructose. If it can't be used for immediate energy, the liver will turn it into fat and send it into the bloodstream. At the same time that the liver is sending glucose and fructose into the bloodstream, the pancreas is sending insulin into the bloodstream. The more sugar that is in the blood, the more insulin is sent. Insulin helps turn glucose into energy but, like the liver, it doesn't know what to do with fructose so it tends to hover around it aimlessly.
The third type of sugar is sucrose and is made up of glucose and fructose.
There are several reasons sugar—specifically sucrose and fructose—are bad for our bodies. Fructose that has been turned into fat by the liver can stay in the liver, causing fatty liver disease. This fat could also travel into the bloodstream and cause blockages leading to heart problems. Eating too much sugar can also lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. And, of course, sugar rots your teeth and makes you fat. Additionally, sugar can inhibit the hormone that tells your body that it's full. It has also been shown that sugar affects learning, memory, and can even contribute to anxiety and stress.
While these are good reasons to give up sugar, they are not the primary reason I chose to give up sugar. I chose to give up sugar because of what it does to mood and the brain.
According to the articles I have read, sugar represses a hormone nicknamed BDNF, which is important for mental health. Depressed people often have low BDNF. Sugar also causes inflammation, which is associated with depression.
Often, when people are sad or depressed, their first reaction is to grab a chocolate bar or a bowl of ice cream because sugar makes them feel better. This is because sugar activates the pleasure center in the brain. The pleasure center releases dopamine, the reward chemical. This good feeling is accompanied by an energy spike (or, "sugar rush"). But, as the sugar runs out, so does the good feeling and the energy. It is replaced with irritability and tiredness. So, in order to release more dopamine to make us feel good, we eat more sugar. And more. And more. Eventually, this could lead to a sugar addiction as the brain becomes reliant on the dopamine and energy spikes caused by sugar. The same part of the brain that is activated by addictive drugs and alcohol is also activated by sugar.
I don't want to be addicted to sugar. I don't want to rely on it, especially if it contributes to depression, with which I already struggle..
So, I've stopped eating it. It's only been ten days, but I can already tell differences:
1. My teeth are cleaner. Instead of brushing them for four minutes with my Sonicare toothbrush, I only need to brush them for two.
2. I am fuller, longer. When I ate cereal for breakfast, it would keep me energized for two hours or so and then I would feel hungry again. Now, eating eggs (and bacon or avocado) for breakfast, I can work for three or four hours before getting hungry.
3. I don't have a foggy brain anymore. I used to wake up every morning feeling like my head was surrounded by a cumulus cloud. No longer! The cloud has blown away. Giving up processed sugar has given me a clear head.
But, Abbey, what about the sugar in fruit??
God created fruit to contain sugar, nutrients, and fiber. The fiber and nutrients slow down digestion so that the sugar doesn't enter the liver all at once, like it would if you ate a candy bar or drank a soda.
Now, this doesn't mean that fruit juice, dried fruit, or even smoothies are healthy. Fruit juice takes the fiber and presents you with only the sugary juice, dried fruit condenses the sugar into a tiny package, and smoothies can be made with sugar. I, however, still eat and drink these things. But, I do it in moderation. If I drink a glass of juice, I make sure it's in a four-ounce glass. I try not to eat too much dried fruit, but I do love raisins (someone has to)... When I make smoothies, I make sure to use the whole fruit so that I keep in the fiber and other nutrients. Still, smoothies are a little bit over-the-top. After all, you wouldn't sit down and eat ten strawberries, a handful of blueberries and raspberries, a mango, a peach, and a banana is one sitting, would you?
I vlogged my first nine days of being sugar-free. If you're interested, check out the video:
I'm not a nutritionist and eating sugar-free is not for everyone. Though sugar has come under interrogation in the past ten years, there are still many people who are unaware of its negative effects and of its prevalence in our food. I have tried to present my research as I've understood it, so I apologize if I've gotten anything wrong (and all my sources are from the Internet, so there's always that liability). I hope you've learned something from this post!
One last note... 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon of sugar. 4g=1tsp. It's fun and interesting to pull items from the shelf or the refrigerator and calculate exactly how much sugar you eat in one meal. Try it, and let me know in the comments what you find!