Sugar: Treat or Toxin? A Holistic Nutritionist Weighs In
Updated: Feb 17
I don't know about you, but for me, cold weather brings sweet treats of comfort, more time indoors, and of course- yummy holiday meals. But then come springtime, I notice it's a little more difficult to enjoy the fresh taste of spring fruits and veggies.
There is a reason for that! Our taste buds actually adapt and change and get accustomed to the sweeter things in life! Similar to a drug, consuming sugar on a regular basis (which most of us do), results in needing more of the sweet stuff to get our cravings fulfilled.
In fact, studies show that increased sugar consumption elevates dopamine levels in the brain, similar to that of drug users. Sugar addiction is actually driven by hormones and neurotransmitters increasing our sugar and carb cravings. According to Pr. Selena Bartlett, a neuroscientist at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and senior author of the study,
"Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain. It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine, and morphine."
Why is this harmful? Sugar is no longer the occasional treat or celebratory indulgence. It is found EVERYWHERE and in EVERYTHING. That is no coincidence. The food industry is a business. Our health and well being isn't exactly their top priority. Making money is. What is one way to ensure a profitable business? Sadly, addicted consumers. So what do the food manufacturers do? They add sugar, a known addictive and toxic substance to there food.
Where is Added Sugar Found?
Added sugar is in processed, packaged foods, fast foods, and takeout. Not only is it added to light up the reward centers of our brains (keeping us wanting more), but also to cover up the tastes of additives and preservative chemicals that are also in our food. Even more frustrating, we can find sugar, not only in the obvious places, but it is also hidden in condiments, bread, pasta, soups, coffee creamer, cereal, pasta sauce, and even perceived “health foods” like yogurt and protein bars.
As a Holistic Nutritionist, one of the first skills I teach my clients is reading the ingredients list on the food label. But with more and more people desiring to know what's IN their food, food manufacturers had to come up with creative ways to confuse us. Did you know there are over 60 different names for added sugar? That is no accident- it's meant to confuse us. That's not all:
Currently, 74% of packaged food contains added sugar. Seemingly healthy foods like yogurt and energy bars are loaded with sugar. So are savory foods like bread, pasta sauce, salad dressings, ketchup, and other condiments.
Soda, Sports Drinks and Juice with high fructose corn syrup are the largest sources for added sugar in the American Diet. Too much sugar from these sources overloads critical organs, because of the lack of fiber, which would help slow the release of sugar in the bloodstream.
Low-Fat foods replace fat with sugar- don’t be fooled (besides, healthy fats are GOOD)
If that wasn't bad enough, you now have these companies marketing fruit juice and vitamin water to athletes and kids. Vitamin water has the same amount of sugar as a bottle of coke! And apple juice, a common order I get for tiny kiddos on the plane, has 10g MORE sugar in a 12 oz glass, than a snickers candy bar.
What Does Added Sugar do to Us?
Now that it is found everywhere and in everything, overconsumption of sugar is now a common threat. That constant blood sugar spike and crash not only keeps us in the vicious cycle of sugar addiction, but it also contributes to:
Obesity and difficulty losing weight
Inflammation, the precursor behind all chronic disease
Metabolic Syndrome (Type 2 Diabetes + Heart Disease)- in fact, sugar is now known to be THE driving factor in cardiovascular disease, NOT fat.
Hormone Disruption- sugar confuses the heck out of our hunger and satiety hormone regulation system
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Sugar causes the liver to produce fat via lipogenesis.
Premature Ageing and Wrinkles- sugar weakens your skins support structure and collagen
Decreased Cognitive Function by making changes to your hippocampus- the area of your brain that is important for memory and stress management
Fatigue and irritability – due to the constant roller coaster of your blood sugar throughout the day. The crash following that blood sugar spike causes fatigue and irritability, making you desperate to find energy in the form of sugar or carb-heavy food or caffeine.
What about Natural Sugar?
You may be thinking, "uhhh sugar is a natural substance, it's also in fruit and vegetables. How can it be so dangerous?"
Our bodies process ALL sugar the same. We elicit the same insulin response that moves excess sugar from our bloodstream to our liver and muscles for stored energy, and any excess is stored as fat- whether we are snacking on bananas or a snickers bar. HOWEVER, fruits, veggies and carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and quinoa are in whole food form, which means they also have fiber; a key component in slowing the digestion and absorption of sugar (glucose), causing a slower and smaller rise in blood sugar levels. Pair that same fruit or vegetable with a source of healthy fat and protein, like nut butter or sunflower seeds, and you have the perfect blood sugar balancing snack.
In addition, these sources have an abundance of nutrients like vitamins and minerals, whereas the sugar added to our food supply is completely devoid of nutrients. This is because, during the processing and manufacturing of sugar, all the nutrients are stripped so it essentially becomes empty calories that promote the cycle of sugar addiction. This is one of the reasons why sugar from processed food or table sugar is dangerous, and the sugar from fruits and veggies are not.
So, is Sugar a Treat or Toxin?
On average, we are consuming 66 pounds of ADDED sugar, per person, per year. If we add in naturally occurring sugars from fruits and vegetables, that number is closer to 150 lbs of sugar per person, per year. Whichever way you look at it, sugar consumption has surpassed the "treat" category and slid its way into toxic amounts.
The American Heart Association suggests limiting added sugar to less than 6 teaspoons/day (25 g) for women, 3-6 tsp. (12-25 g) for children, and 9 tsp. (36 g) for men. But according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the average American consumes 19-1/2 teaspoons of added sugar every day. And it's no wonder when 74% of packaged foods contain added sugar and these packaged foods are a staple in the American Diet.
You may be wondering if you need to give up sugar altogether. And you may be surprised to hear, as a Holistic Nutritionist, that is NOT in fact, my recommendation. That is because I do not believe in implementing unsustainable food rules like "never consume sugar again!" What I do encourage, is to take some time for self-reflection and doing a pantry inventory to find what foods you consume on a regular basis that has hidden added sugar.
If you notice strong urges to consume sweets or carb-heavy foods during the day, or you tend to reach for those same foods in moments of stress, or if you notice a drop in energy shortly after consuming sweets, these, along with a few others signs, may indicate you are hooked on sugar, your blood sugar balance is out of wack and a 10-day sugar detox may be necessary. By taking inventory of your pantry and refrigerator for sneaky added sugar, you could realize you are consuming more added sugar than you thought.
Doing this will allow you to make the best decisions for your health. Maybe you can switch your coffee creamer so you're not starting your day with added sugar. Or you make your salad dressing to bring to work because you know the dressing in the office refrigerator is loaded with sugar. By doing this, you can then pick and choose where you get added sugar. You could decide that you're go-to protein bar is NOT worth the 10g of added sugar, but the 3g in a square of dark chocolate after dinner totally is.
If you would like to work with a Holistic Nutritionist to learn more and kick your sugar habit, set up a free 20-minute session with me to get started.
If you desire to tackle this project on your own, that's fine too! My 10 Day Winter Refresh program is a self-paced sugar detox course, where you will learn:
To identify hidden sugar in common food products, along with a list of more than 60 different names for added sugar.
How to revamp your pantry and swap out your current pantry staples for healthier alternatives that don’t include added hidden sugar
How to create blood sugar balancing meals to support and elongate your blood sugar curve throughout the day, preventing the dramatic roller-coaster ride of the sugar cycle.
As well as a 10 Day Meal Plan with whole food recipes and no added sugar + much more.
DiNicolantonio, James J, and James H OKeefe. “Added sugars drive coronary heart disease via insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia: a new paradigm.” Open heart vol. 4,2 e000729. 29 Nov. 2017, doi:10.1136/openhrt-2017-000729
Shariff M, Quik M, Holgate J, Morgan M, Patkar OL, Tam V, Belmer A, Bartlett SE (2016). Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptor modulators reduce sugar intake. PLoS One. 2016 Mar 30;11(3):e0150270. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150270. eCollection 2016.
Vartanian, Lenny R et al. “Effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition and health: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” American journal of public health vol. 97,4 (2007): 667-75. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2005.083782
Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516–524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563