Highly addictive, horribly debilitating, unfortunately pervasive, and freaking delicious.
If I had to point to ONE culprit to our country’s expanding waistlines and rapidly deteriorating health, it would be sugar. The amount of havoc sugar and sugar substitutes have wreaked on our nation is horribly depressing. Fear not, as I’ve come up with the perfect solution!
Eat less sugar if you want to live longer.
Just kidding, there’s so much more to this story than that.
I’m sure you probably have a lot of questions about sugar:
- Is sugar THAT bad for you?
- Fruit has sugar! Is fruit bad for you?
- Are certain kinds of sugar better or worse for you?
- Can you really get addicted to sugar?
- What about sugar alternatives that are used in drinks like Diet Coke? What about natural sweeteners?
Let’s nerd out about sugar and find out what you can do to kick your sugar habit and get your life back on track.
Fair warning: This post is MASSIVE (over 4,000 words), even for Nerd Fitness standards.
American’s love affair with sugar
Before we get into the biological and physiological stuff relating to sugar and how it affects our body, I want to talk about just how big of a factor sugar plays in our lives.
This might be the most telling statistic relating to sugar, especially when that close to 70% of America is overweight with a THIRD of the nation obese:
1822: Americans consume 45 grams of sugar every five days, or the amount of sugar in a can of coke.
2012: Americans consume 756 grams of sugar every five days, or 130 POUNDS of sugar a year.
As we have grown as a country (in more ways than one), sugar has continued to play an increasingly more prominent role in our food. It’s not just sugary foods like candy and cookies either, but sugar has made its way into practically EVERYTHING we eat.
Unfortunately, it’s not just sugar that’s killing us, but scientifically manufactured “sugar” as well.
Now, we all know that correlation does NOT prove causation, so let’s dig into the science behind why sugar is ruining our bodies.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate.
If it ends in a “ose,” it’s gonna be a sugar. If that’s all you’d like to know, feel free to move onto the next section, as I’m about to get all Mr. Wizard up in here.
There are different kinds of sugar, starting with simple sugars (called monosaccarides) like glucose, fructose, and galactose. Then there are also more complex forms (called disaccharides) like sucrose, maltose, and lactose.
Here’s the cheat sheet to naturally occurring sugars:
- Let’s start with glucose: It occurs naturally in plants and fruits, and is a byproduct of photosynthesis. In our bodies glucose can be burned as energy or converted into glycogen (essentially: liver and muscle fuel). Our bodies can actually produce glucose when needed.
- Next, fructose! This is fruit sugar, occurring naturally in…you guessed it, fruit! It also occurs naturally in cane sugar and honey, and is incredibly sweet.
- Onto the more complex sugars, starting with Sucrose. This sugar is found in the stems of sugar cane, the roots of sugar beet, and can be found naturally alongside glucose in certain fruits and other plants.
- Last but not least, we have lactose, which is essentially milk sugar! This is something that is created as result of a process happening in our bodies: children possess the enzyme necessary to break down the molecule into lactose to be used by the body, while some adults don’t. These are the lactose intolerant folks.
So, we have a few key types of sugar. But where does sugar actually come from? It is USUALLY created as a result of the processing of one of two types of plants: sugar beets or sugar cane. These plants are harvested, processed, and refined to eventually resemble the white sugar you’ve come to know and love (or loathe). This sugar has absolutely no nutritional value: it’s just pure, refined, sugar.
We’ll cover other types of laboratory-created-sugar later.
What happens in our body when we eat sugar?
Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that sugar can cause tooth decay and rot your teeth.
Sugar is the lifeblood of the cavity creeps!
Beyond that, your body processes sugar in a very specific way.
When you consume sugar, your body has two options on how to deal with it:
- Burn it for energy. WEEEEE!
- Convert to fat and store it in your fat cells. BOOOOO!
Depending on your genetic predisposition, your body might be better equipped to process sugar as energy, or you might be more likely to store it as fat. Think of this like you think of people with faster metabolisms vs. people with slower metabolisms.
Problem is, there’s a LOT more room for fat storage, and a lot less room to burn the sugar as energy.
So, we have this sugar in our body and blood stream. What happens next? When your pancreas detects a rush of sugar, it releases a hormone called insulin to deal with all of that excess sugar.
Insulin helps regulate that level of sugar in our blood; the more sugar in the blood stream, the more insulin is released. Insulin helps store all of this glucose in the liver and muscles as glycogen and in fat cells (aka adipocytes stored as triglycerides).
Now, oftentimes our body struggles to get that balance right (with us putting way too much sugar in our system very quickly). TOO much insulin is released, which ultimately results in our blood sugar dropping below normal levels.
This is called hypoglycemia, essentially a sugar crash: Our bodies respond by telling us: WE WANT SUGAR.
So we cram sugar down our throats and the process starts again.
Unfortunately, the more often this process takes place (the more sugar you consume), the more severe the blood sugar spike is, and the more insulin is required. This means it becomes easier and easier to skip using sugar as energy, and go straight to extra insulin and fat storage.
This is best explained by this three minute video, which is definitely worth watching: Why You Got Fat:
Along with making you fat, sugar consumption has been implicated in a litany of crimes, including contributing to an increased chance of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, renal failure, chronic kidney disease, and high blood pressure.
So, I should just eat less sugar?
Now, you might be thinking: I’ll just eat less sugar and won’t have this issue, right?
Well, that’s a good start, but that’s only half of the battle. You see, our bodies actually process certain types of carbohydrates in a very similar way to processing pure sugar.
Believe it or not, there is an entire area of scientific research on how our bodies process certain foods.
You’ve probably heard of the Glycemic Index, and its lesser known associate: Glycemic Load.
The Glycemic Index is the calculation of how quickly a particular type of food increases one’s blood sugar level, on a scale from 1-100 (100 being pure glucose). Harvard researchers have found that things like white bread, french fries, and other simple carbohydrates have nearly identical effects on our blood sugar as glucose.
Generally, the more refined (processed) the food, the more likely it’ll be to get converted quickly to sugar in our body for processing.
What about fruit and fruit sugar? Keep reading!
For now, hopefully you’re coming to a conclusion with something like this:
“Oh, maybe fat isn’t making me fat. Maybe it’s the sugar and carbohydrates that I’m consuming…”
And unfortunately, it’s not JUST sugar, but also fake sugar, which I’ll get to soon.
What surprising foods containing sugar?
So, we’re learning that sugar is bad for us.
That’s nothing new, and it’s not a shock to companies that manufacture food. For that reason, companies have started to disguise the sugar in their foods, so it’s not as apparent how much sugar you are consuming. Here’s a quick list of what sugar can be listed as on a label:
- Agave nectar
- Brown sugar
- Cane crystals
- Cane sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Crystalline fructose
- Evaporated cane juice
- Organic evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
Why do they change the name of sugar? Because nutritional labels are required by law to list their most prominent ingredients first. By putting two or three different types of sugar in the food (and calling them each a different name), they can spread out the sugar across three ingredients and have it show up much further down the list! Tricky tricky tricky!
To be sure, READ THE LABELS OF FOODS THAT YOU CONSUME!
If you’re curious how much sugar you are consuming, check out SugarStacks.com, which gives you a simple visual aid as to the amount you’re pumping into your body through surprising meals.
What about fruit sugar?
Ahhhh, the great “is fruit sugar bad for you” debate…
Honestly, I’m quite torn on fruit and fruit sugar. I’m a big fan of the Paleo Diet, and I know a LOT of fruit can contain a lot of fructose (and thus a lot of sugar).
That being said, I believe the consumption of fruit can be beneficial.
When you consume fruit, you are not only consuming fructose (in its natural state), but also consuming fiber and lots of vitamins and minerals. Yes, fruit can have an effect on your blood sugar, it IS sugar. But generally fruit will cause less of a blood sugar spike compared to nutrient-void table sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Along with that: Fiber is an important part of a balanced diet (ask your bowels), and fruit can contain a lot of it!
Here’s my official stance on fruit: Consume fruit that has a low glycemic index/glycemic load to reduce blood sugar spikes and insulin secretion. Consume organic fruit when possible.
If your main goal is weight loss, and you need to keep your carb intake low, minimize fruit consumption and instead load up on vegetables.
However, if your choice is between processed foods, sugary drinks, candy, or fruit…GO WITH THE FRUIT.
What about fruit juices?
So, we’ve established that fruit can be healthy if consumed properly.
Unfortunately, fruit juices don’t really fit into that bill. Here’s why: When you consume fruit juices like orange juice, apple juice, or cranberry juice, the juice is squeezed, giving you all of the juice but very little of the fiber or nutrients that get left behind in the process.
For this reason, many fruit juices should probably be called “sugar water.”
Here is a typical amount of sugar for four popular beverages (stats from DailyBurn):
- Orange juice - 21g of sugar
- Apple juice - 28g of sugar
- Cranberry juice – 37g of sugar
- Grapejuice - 38g of sugar
For reference, a can of teeth-rotting, insulin-spiking, fat-inducing Coca-Cola has 40g of sugar.
Want to know an even worse offender? Naked Juices! The “Green Machine” variety, with “NO SUGAR ADDED” and promised to be “ALL NATURAL” has 28 grams per serving…and there are TWO servings in those little tiny bottles. That means when you consume one small bottle of this “healthy” smoothie, you’re getting almost 60 GRAMS of sugar.
Brutal. Shame on you, Naked.
If you’re going to eat fruit, get it in FRUIT form, not juice form.
If you’re going to drink juice, squeeze it yourself, and even then consume it in small quantities.
What about sugar alternatives?
So, with more research coming out about the dangers of sugar, companies are scrambling to protect their image by promoting “healthy” alternatives so that they can slap on a fancy labels and toot their own horn.
There are a few main sugar alternatives that I want to cover, and allow you to make up your own mind:
Honey - Is Winnie the Pooh onto something here? Is honey a better alternative than regular sugar? The appeal of honey is that it’s not just fructose or glucose, but a mixture of all sorts of compounds, minerals, and more. A study comparing honey to various types of compounds resulted in good results for the sticky stuff: “Overall, honey improved blood lipids, lowered inflammatory markers, and had minimal effect on blood glucose levels.” Along with that, honey resulted in a lower blood glucose spike in rats compared to other types of sugar.
Agave Nectar: This is the most recent darling of the fake “healthy food industry.” Unfortunately, despite the fact that it comes from a cactus (which is natural!), this stuff is so processed and refined, and contains an absurd amount of refined fructose (90% fructose and 10% glucose). Also, the process to create this stuff is similar to the process used to create high fructose corn syrup.
Aspartame: So, many people have switched to diet soda because they heard regular soda can be bad for you. I would guess that 90% of diet sodas out there contains aspartame, a laboratory-created sugar alternative. NutraSweet also contains aspartame and should be avoided. Studies on this stuff have proven inconclusive and wildly different. Although some studies cite an increased link with aspartame and cancer, I believe more research needs to be done. Even still, I have made the decision to avoid aspartame until more conclusive studies surface.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that is non-caloric as the body struggles to break it down. Sucralose is approximately 600 times as sweet as sucrose (table sugar), and thus can be consumed in smaller quantities to get the same desired “sweet” effect as sugar. Sucralose is available in things like protein powders, Splenda, and other products reliant upon remaining low-sugar or low-carb. Allegedly, sucralose has a negligible effect on blood glucose levels.
Stevia is a naturally occurring sweetener from the Sunflower family. It is approximately 300 times sweeter than table sugar, and allegedly has a lower effect on blood glucose levels. As you can read about here, Stevia has had an interesting history in the United States (for political reasons), but appears to have been used in Japan and South America with minimal adverse effects.
Saccharin is another artificial sweetener, created back in the late 1890s, that is much sweeter than table sugar and thus is consumed at lower quantities. It was linked to increased risk of cancer within laboratory rats and labeled as dangerous by the US, though this label was removed in 2000 due to the fact that the results couldn’t be replicated in humans. That being said, more studies need to be conducted.
This nerd’s opinion: If you’re going to eat sugar, get it from fruit or naturally occurring sweeteners. With that being said, to minimize the effect on your blood sugar, minimize sugar consumption across the board if your primary goal is weight loss.
what about High Fructose Corn Syrup?
I’m writing this section while grinding my teeth because it grinds my gears.
In an effort to keep family farms alive in the Great Depression, the government started paying farmers NOT to grow food, since crop prices were wildly low. Over 80 years later the program has evolved many times, and today we give almost $5 billion a year to growers of commodity crops, creating cheap corn.
Not surprisingly, when given the option to grow a crop with or without a government subsidy, many farmers went the lucrative route.
And thus, we ended up with a crazy amount of excess corn, and nothing to use it for!
(Un)luckily, science stepped in, and found a use for corn beyond just eating it or feeding it to animals.
Scientists discovered by processing and refining the corn, it could be turned into a sugar alternative, called high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Despite the name, high fructose corn syrup is actually composed of equal parts of fructose and equal parts glucose.
This video gives a quick demonstration of how HFCS is produced.
As the government continued to subsidize farmers to produce corn, the cheap price of HFCS created a MUCH cheaper alternative for food producers compared to regular sugar.
Now, producers of high fructose corn syrup (and producers of food who use it) argue that it is no different on a molecular level from regular sugar, and is thus a safe alternative to sugar in food and drinks.
Unfortunately, it turns out that HFCS, despite being molecularly similar to regular sugar, does not affect the body the same way as table sugar. A recent study conducted by Princeton University concluded:
Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.
In addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.
Two groups of rats were fed the exact same number of calories. One group was fed HFCS, while the other was fed regular table sugar. The rats fed HFCS gained significantly more weight.
If this was a movie, you’d see an evil scientist in a laboratory, with lighting flashing in the background as he laughs maniacally while creating his greatest evil creation: HFCS, knowing that it’ll soon take over the world.
I highly recommend you watch the documentary “King Corn,” available for free on Amazon Prime for an interesting look at just how pervasive corn and high fructose corn syrup has become in our nation.
- Here’s a list of all the fast food items out there that contain HFCS.
- Here’s a list of all other types of food that contain HFCS.
- Here are 8 “healthy” foods (like Special K and Yoplait Yogurt) that contain HFCS.
Sugar = bad. High Fructose Corn Syrup = Bowser evil.
Can you get addicted to sugar?
So we’ve covered natural sugars, sugar alternatives, and the evil HFCS. Is this stuff addictive?
Short answer: YES.
Long answer: Sugary foods can be as physiologically addictive as many drugs. You can legitimately become addicted to sugar and sugary foods.
From another study:
In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.
In other words: We are not genetically designed to consume the amount of sugar that we are currently eating. For that reason, our brains get that ‘happy feeling’ from sugar and it can override the “I’ve had enough” mechanism.
It’s why your concentration goes to Hell when you eat a chocolate chip cookie and there is an additional plate of them in front of you. Suddenly it’s the only thing you can think about until you’ve eaten them all! Or you eat a Peanut M&M, and suddenly you’ve polished off a family-sized bag.
Do this repeatedly, and like Pavlov’s dog, your brain will start to anticipate this sugar rush and get prepared for it…even when you’re merely thinking about food!
It’s why Cinnabon is usually isolated in malls - away from the food court, it has a better chance of getting its smells into your nostrils from far away…which then triggers that mechanism in your brain if you love sugar: “SUGAR! CINNABON! HUNGRY NOW!” Suddenly you can’t think of anything else.
It’s also why everybody in line for Cinnabon looks so depressed. As Louis CK hilariously points out (NSFW language): it’s like they have no control.
I think I’m definitely addicted to sugar.
I’ve already covered food addiction, but I want to talk specifically about sugar.
Like with any other addiction, you have two main options:
- Cold turkey (and suffer through the withdrawal).
- Slowly ramping down the addiction.
I’m a bigger fan of the second option, as I find that most people end up going overboard when they fail on the “cold turkey” and are worse off than before.
However, I don’t know you personally (which is a shame!), so you’ll have to decide for yourself which method is best for you.
Like with any habit, it’s far easier to build a new habit in place of an old one than just trying to get rid of the old habit, so let’s take action:
1) Create your new identity. “I am somebody who is completely in control of the food that I eat.” “I only drink soda once a day instead of four times a day.” “I don’t eat cookies.” The more specific and positive and definitive you can make your new identity, the more likely you will be to eventually make that identity your new reality.
2) Be aware of your cravings. When you start to crave sugar, don’t just run to get sugar immediately. Take a few minutes and analyze why: is it because you are depressed and unhappy? Bored? Hungry? Sugar creates that happy feeling in your brain, and thus you could be craving sugar for any number of reasons.
3) Once you identify the reason for your sugar craving, decide if there is another activity you can complete to accomplish the intended desire without sugar. Maybe you’re bored, so going for a walk or playing a game or talking to a friend could help. If you’re unhappy, understand that the quick rush of sugar does not beat out long-term happiness and success. If you’re hungry, eat food with lots of fat and protein and fill yourself up.
4) Identify rules for yourself, and stick with them by minimizing willpower required. “Today, I will replace one of my sodas with water.” “I drink water with dinner, I don’t drink soda.” “I don’t ________.” It’s important to use “don’t” instead of “can’t”. Studies have shown that using “don’t” results in a much stronger dedication to habit building.
5) Increase the difficulty to continue your bad habit. Don’t keep cookies on the counter. Don’t keep ice cream stocked in your fridge. If you are trying to eat less sugar, increase the number of steps between you and sugar. If you are on your couch and see a commercial for something sugary, use your own laziness to work for you. Suddenly, getting in the car, driving to the store, and buying something sweet is more effort than its worth.
Along with those few steps to get started, here are some other things you can do to help yourself fight the battle and win.
- Get mad. Like, really mad. I hate not feeling in control, and right now, the sugar and food companies have you under their control. If anything, you’re going to kick your sugar addiction to make yourself healthier and happier, but also out of spite. Stick it to the man, and let him know you’re taking back your brain.
- Don’t do it alone. Have somebody to talk to through the process. Work with others who have successfully kicked their sugar habits (check the NF boards if you don’t have somebody at home).
- Need SOMETHING sweet? Try dark chocolate or fruit. If you are craving something sweet, aim for alternatives that aren’t as bad for you or don’t trigger the same blood glucose spike. Eat dark chocolate with a cocoa content above 70% – you still get to feed your sweet tooth, but the sugar content in minimal compared to milk chocolate.
- Slowly scale it down. I don’t care if it takes you a year of slowly changing your habits to kick your sugar habit. Every change counts, and every little bit adds up. If you drink a case of diet coke every day, tomorrow only drink 11. In two weeks, cut it back to 10 per day. And then 9. And then eventually maybe it’s “only one on Friday.”
- Keep busy. If you are thinking about sugar, get up and go do something or engage your brain in another way so that you are not stuck with a one-track mind (focusing on the sugar that you’re not currently eating).
- EXERCISE! Sugar raises serotonin and dopamine levels, which can factor into your cravings. Exercise can do the same thing! Try exercising when you have sugar cravings…get that rush (and build your habits around that). Get addicted to the high from exercise.
- If you have children, save them now! Sugar addiction is built up over time, and yours might have started back when you were a child. Instead of creating a reward system with candy and treats, create a reward system that rewards your kids back with a healthier lifestyle (like in Zelda!).
- If you have to have sugar, consume it close to a workout. When you consume sugar before or after a workout, you will have a greater chance of burning the sugar/carbs as energy or having it stored as glycogen in your muscles and liver rather than being stored as fat!.
At the end of the day, understand that you are in control. If you are going to eat chocolate or something sweet, it’s because you made a conscious decision to do so OCCASIONALLY, not because you had to have it. Understand that it will be challenging. Understand that there will be cravings that get better with time.
Most importantly, understand that what you really want (a happier, healthier life) can’t happen if you keep settling for what you want RIGHT NOW (sugar!).
Understand that you can change.
Vote with your wallet
Every time you buy food, you are casting a ballot.
Every time you purchase something with high fructose corn syrup in it, you’re sending a message that you don’t care about your body, that you are satisfied with food that is making you sick, fat, and unhealthy.
Why not cast your vote for a better life?
Today’s article is educational: without action it’s just a pile of underpants.
I challenge you to decrease your sugar intake.
I challenge you to start eating more real foods and less processed ones.
I challenge you to cut back on candy and soda purchases.
Are you up to the challenge?
I’d love to hear about your personal relationship with sugar. Would you call yourself addicted? Have you kicked an addiction? If so, how did you do it?
Share your story below and help out your fellow rebels!