Sugar, in today’s narrative, has become public health enemy number one: The British Medical Association (BMA) has successfully lobbied for a sugar tax on sugary drinks to combat rising obesity rates and type 2 diabetes, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver regularly campaigns against sugar for children in school meals and in his restaurants, and we’re constantly being told that sugar is bad for you.
Sugar is ubiquitous. We can find sugar in a wide variety of most food and drink, and often with much less nutritional value because it’s often added sugar. Stroll down the supermarket aisles and you’ll soon realize that our modern sugar intake can be excessive because a lot of products contain a lot of added sugar.
Since sugar is everywhere, we thought it was important to understand sugar a little better. What is it? What happens to our bodies when we consume sugar? Is it actually bad for you?
What is sugar?
Sugar is a general term used to describe a class of molecules called carbohydrates. Both complex and simple carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules. When we consume carbohydrates, our digestive system breaks it down into glucose and every cell in our body uses it to generate energy and provide fuel to our brain.
Complex carbohydrates, in general, are good for you as it takes longer to digest and includes foods such as whole grains and vegetables. Simple carbohydrates are easier to digest and release sugar into the bloodstream a lot faster. Sugars that are naturally found in foods we eat include fructose, lactose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose and glucose.
When people think of sugar, it’s often thought of candy, desserts and chocolates. But sugar is also added to plenty of other food products such as tomato ketchup, flavoured water, and energy bars, to name a few.
Added sugar, including table sugar, sweeteners, honey and fruit juices, is often added to food and drink to improve taste. And the creation of high fructose corn syrup in the 1960s, which is a concentration of glucose and fructose, is lethal and what most people think when they think of ‘sugar’.
What happens when we eat sugar?
Think of a chocolate bar. When you take a bite, it activates the sweet-taste receptors on our tongue. Simply put, these receptors send a signal to our brain and activates our brain’s reward system. Our brain’s reward system is a series of pathways across the different regions of our brain.
Then, the bite of the chocolate bar travels into our stomach and into our gut. And the sugar receptors in our gut sends signals to our brain, which tells our brain to produce insulin to deal with the sugar you’re consuming, or tells our brain to stop eating because you’re full.
Can sugar be addictive?
Sugar is frequently demonized by public health experts because it’s deemed ‘addictive’. How does this work?
When we consume sugar, our brain produces a surge of dopamine. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, which sends signals to other nerve cells. Our brain includes several dopamine pathways, which contributes to the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system.
Dopamine helps to regulate emotional responses, attention, movement and learning. The chemical enables us to see rewards and also take action towards it and thus create reward-motivated behaviour. And because dopamine contributes to pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system in our brain, it also plays a role in addiction and inducing addictive-behavior because it behaves in the same way as drugs, although not as violently!
Tip: Eating lots of sugar can spark a rewarding feeling. And too much, too often can put our brains on dopamine overdrive. Overconsumption of sugar may have addictive effects on our brain, but a little slice of apple pie won’t hurt!
Negative impacts of sugar
In a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, the findings suggest an association between a high-sugar diet and a risk of heart disease. Over the period of 15 years, the subjects whose diet consists of 17-21% from added sugar, had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared to their counterparts who consumed 8% of added sugar in their diets. The study concluded that the higher intake of added sugar led to a high risk of heart disease.
Additionally, your liver metabolises sugar in the same way it does with alcohol by converting dietary carbohydrates into fat. Over time, through over-consumption of sugar, may lead to a greater accumulation of fat and weight gain and a series of other diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
We’ve looked at what sugar is, what happens when we eat it, how it can be addictive, and how it can impact our physical & emotional selves. It’s clear that the over-consumption of sugar will negatively impact your health.
However, it’s impossible to completely cut out sugar, given current production methods, and most of the excess sugar we consume is from added sugar rather than sugars that are naturally found in food.
The best way to regulate our sugar consumption is by reducing or eliminating added sugars in our diets. Below are a few simple tips that will help us become more conscious of the sugar we consume.
Tips to reduce added sugar
- Read food labels! This is the simplest way to find out how much added sugar is in the product and in turn, may help you monitor your intake of added sugar a lot easier.
- Names of sugar to look out for: corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, malt sugar and molasses. Aim to avoid or cut back on the number of foods that these sugars are found in.
- Keep track of how much sugar you add to your food or drinks. Studies have shown that two-thirds of coffee drinkers and one-third of tea drinkers put sugar in their drinks.