Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sugar Addict

Do you ever feel like you just NEED to have that piece of cake or cookie dough ice cream? What if I were to tell you that you may actually be addicted to sugar, just like you can be addicted to drugs, alcohol or other harmful substances? 

Sugar has been claimed to be as addictive as cocaine or other narcotics. As with cocaine, sugar consumption causes a euphoric effect that triggers dopamine, the "pleasure-controlling" chemical. Dopamine is largely responsible for creating a "reward-like" environment where rises in dopamine levels occur with just knowing that you will be consuming something sweet. Like certain drugs, more and more sugar is required to create the desired effect in the brain. But unlike cocaine and other harmful substances, sugar is found in so many different foods, even those we least expect. It's almost impossible to get away from!

Over the past 200 years, one of the biggest changes to our diets has been the amount of sugar we consume. According to the USDA, an average American consumes approximately 150 lbs of sugar and sweeteners per year. But, it's not completely your fault when you crave sweet treats because sugar itself has addictive properties. The more sugar you consume, the more you want.  

So why is this harmful? 

Not only is sugar responsible for our ever-increasing waistlines, but high intake is also surprisingly linked with depression, may increase risk of dementia, and perhaps even Alzheimer's Disease. It has also been attributed to certain cancers like breast and colon cancer.

Large amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates also speed up aging through a process called glycation. In his popular book, The Perricone Prescription, Dr. Perricone points out how sugar causes inflammation, accelerated aging, wrinkles, under-eye circles, brown spots and blemishes. Non-western societies that don't consume as much sugar and refined carbohydrates typically don't have acne the way western populations do. You know your dermatologist who claims that food doesn't affect acne? Well, there is too much evidence to the contrary when it comes to sugar and refined carbs. This is because sugar triggers the male hormones (androgens) that promote the excess production of sebum, which in turn clogs pores and causes pimples. 

Watch out for refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, lactose, brown sugar, molasses, fruit juice concentrates and even sugar in the raw. I would recommend to especially avoid high fructose corn syrup, a highly processed sweetener derived from corn. It is found in an abundance of processed foods from soft drinks to cereals. Although similar to table sugar, high fructose corn syrup actually has unnaturally high levels of fructose (hence the name, I suppose?). Several studies have shown that high fructose corn syrup causes more weight gain than regular sugar, although certain commercials have come out trying to claim that it is no different. They state, "Your body can't tell the difference. Sugar is sugar." Hmm, I don't know about that! Several lawsuits have been filed claiming that this is false advertising and untrue.  

So, what should you do if you have a sweet tooth? 

Health practitioners advise to start with your beverages. Incorporate more low-sugar beverages into your diet and dispose of the soft drinks, even the of the diet variety.  Gradually try adding less and less sugar to your tea and coffee. You will be amazed at how quickly your body adjusts to the taste. I used to put two heaping teaspoons of sugar into my tea and coffee and now put about half a teaspoon in, and find that two teaspoons would not be far too sweet for me.

Unsweetened almond or coconut milk are great alternatives to regular milk, which actually has a lot of sugar in it. If you can't part ways with your milk, the full fat kind might actually be better to consume because the fat content slows down the sugar absorption and is less likely to spike your blood sugar levels. So, the skim milk that you have been consuming all this time in an effort to be healthier might not be doing you any favors. But if you're like me and the thought of drinking whole milk makes you a bit queasy, stick with the nut milks! 

Switch your milk chocolate for dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao content, as milk chocolates are loaded with sugar. Dark chocolate might take some getting used to, but after a while, I promise that you will find it actually tastes better than milk chocolate. And this is coming from someone who used to hate dark chocolate! 

What about agave? Popularly touted in health food stores as a low glycemic sweetener, it may not be quite as healthy as clever marketing suggests. Although agave nectar is in fact low glycemic, it has a very high fructose content which isn't good. Arg!!  

What can be used as sweeteners?  
  • Organic stevia. I find it has a bit of an after taste, but it does the job and you only need a little amount.
  • Raw honey 
  • Malitol - a sugar alcohol considered to be natural 
  • Xylitol - low glycemic and natural sugar-like sweetener 
If you want to be overly cautious, I would use the above sweeteners only when you absolutely feel the need to have something sweet. Natural, whole foods are always the best way to go, and try to avoid processed and refined carbohydrates as much as possible. Sugar is quite the seductive demon, but it is definitely possible to overcome your cravings as you slowly rid it out of your diet. As with anything you consume, moderation is the key and learning to spot hidden sugars in your favorite foods will help you make better choices.

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