There are times when nothing can satisfy your sweet tooth, which might explain why, despite learning a lot in recent years about how sugar jeopardizes our health, cutting back on sugar is easier said than done.
Most of us, living in the Western World, are consuming far more than the recommended amount of added sugar (which means not the forms naturally present in fruits, vegetables and dairy products).
Guidelines say added sugars should be less than 30g. However, many of us, adults and children alike (and especially children and teenagers), are consuming about twice to thrice as much each day.
We don’t put sugar cubes directly in our mouths obviously, so where's all that sugar coming from? In addition to table sugar, preserves, spreads and soft drinks are the primary sources, followed by biscuits, buns, pastries and cakes. We love sugar for sure, but why are we so smitten, and is it as harmful as reports suggest?
Where Does Our Sweet Tooth Come From?
Our desire to eat sugar is natural, and not just because it tastes good but because eating is known to trigger the reward system in the brain. Sugar intake triggers a release of the feel-good substance dopamine, a neurotransmitter that works on the brain's reward and pleasure centers. When our ancestors had to find food in the wild, sweetness was synonymous with safe food, whereas bitterness indicated a potentially poisonous food that should be avoided. Humans are also born with a preference for sweetness to ensure that we readily accept the breast milk of our mothers, which is lower in protein but higher in sugar than cow's milk. This innate preference for sweetness declines in adulthood for some people, but for others, it stays for a lifetime.
Sugar not only tastes good, it makes us feel good too, which is the reason we crave sweet foods and find it so difficult to cut down on, especially we are upset. So although we are biologically hardwired to like sweet foods, craving sugar when you are tired, stressed or unhappy isn't an indication that your body actually needs the sugar. Instead, this craving may be linked to emotional rather than nutritional needs.
The Effects on our Health
In spite of the pleasure sugar gives us, excess sugar is linked to obesity and over-activity of the immune system, which is a factor in the development of cardiovascular diseases.
Contrary to popular belief, eating sugary foods is not, in itself, a cause of diabetes, but there is an indirect link between sugar and Type 2 diabetes. Processed foods containing added sugars are typically high in calories, so eating these foods can easily lead to consuming more calories than our body needs, which results in weight gain; and being overweight-especially with excess abdominal fat, can make insulin less effective at controlling blood glucose and, over time, this can result in type 2 diabetes.
While diabetics don't need to avoid sugar entirely, they must choose foods carefully and reducing their sugar intake is a key part of managing most forms of the disease, even if they're a healthy weight. The sugar added to foods and drinks, as well as the natural sugar in fruit juices and syrups, can cause gum disease and dental cavities, so it's best to not only limit these foods but also to eat them as part of a meal, rather than on their own as a snack.
When it comes to making healthier choices, it can help to weigh up the nutritional benefit of a sweet food, as some have more to offer than others. For example, fructose, glucose, sucrose and lactose are all types of sugar, making them a source of energy, but don't, in themselves offer us any other nutrients (in other words, empty calories!).
However because these types of sugar are naturally present in fruit, veg and dairy foods-which are all a source of vitamins and minerals and form a significant part of a balanced diet-they come with nutritional benefits. It's free sugars, such as the kind that are added to soft drinks, cakes and confectionery, which have low nutritional value, so keep them to a minimum.
Some tips to make healthier choices:
You probably don't need to quit sugar entirely but it is definitely a good idea to learn to take in sugar in moderation, with a focus on nutrition. This is a more sustainable long-term approach. Aim for balance, with the majority of your meals including healthy, everyday ingredients, with some sugary foods on occasion.
P.S. My Stop Binge Eating Program will help you develop more skills to tackle sugar addiction or food addiction in general and learn more about nutrition.