Is it time to quit the sweet stuff? Eating disorder therapist Molly Carmel reveals the sour truth about sugar
Imagine finding out the person you love is cheating on you – major betrayal. The first step of breaking free from this toxic relationship is to learn the bitter truth. You’re not crazy for loving sugar – the minute your mother gave you milk to soothe you, this relationship got complicated. The safety and security of sugar goes back to the days of hunting and gathering. Back then, we needed energy fast – and sugar is the fastest and most easily broken down nutrient. We associate sugar with celebration and love. The problem is, your relationship may have taken a nasty turn. Let’s learn about how this all went down to shine the light on your path to freedom.
Not so sweet
We know sugar impacts your vanity: weight gain, belly fat, breakouts, skin irritation, wrinkles, ageing skin, tooth decay, and hair loss. But sugar also negatively affects every single part of your body. Some of these harmful effects are more well known than others. Eating sugar has been linked to: inflammation, migraine headaches, anxiety, brain fog, trouble sleeping, weakened eyesight, gum disease, heart disease, increased cholesterol, asthma, suppressed immunity, kidney damage, non-alcoholic fatty liver, overworked pancreas, arthritis, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome and leptin resistance. There’s even terrifying research showing that sugar increases the risk of developing cancers. And of course, let us not forget sugar’s piece de resistance, glucose intolerance and diabetes.
How could sugar do this to me?
You may be thinking: How did it get this bad? Why can my best friend have a bite and walk away from the cupcake, while I want a dozen more? Your relationship with sugar has gone haywire for a whole host of reasons: the nature of sugar itself, the nature of your environment, and the nature of you. These issues are annihilating your relationship with food and fuelling your attachment (and maybe your addiction) to sugar. No two people are impacted in exactly the same way – you’re like a snowflake with your own reaction, vulnerability and sensitivity. This is what makes the whole concept of addiction so complicated. But, we are on the road to a permanent, sustainable solution. The first step is to simply become informed about why you’re in this boat to begin with.
Sugar on steroids
Look at pictures from the 1950s and you’ll see people drinking soda and eating cookies like it’s no big deal. And it wasn’t, really. So, what happened? Today, our food is specifically designed with highly concentrated sugar and minimal amounts of fibre and protein. To put it lightly, our sugar got turbocharged. It activates your brain’s reward pathways with an intensity and magnitude that nature never would have dreamed of intending.
What’s more, this new-millennium-highpotency sugar food is everywhere. It’s in places we would expect – cookies, cakes, breads and sweets. It’s also hidden in our peanut butter, salad dressing, protein bars, sauces, deli meats, tomato sauce, and just about every highly processed food you can get. The truth of the matter is we’re eating sugar – knowingly and unknowingly – all day, every day. The food we eat today has been designed and manipulated to make eating healthfully and intuitively nearly impossible! It’s no wonder so many people struggle with listening to their hunger and fullness cues – the foods we’re ingesting are deliberately processed to override that system.
Sugar and stress
The way we live and eat is the farthest thing from intuitive, so why do we expect our relationship with food to be that way? We are sleeping less, working more, and taking worse care of ourselves as a result. In this state, not only are we more susceptible to craving the sweetness, comfort, and instant energy burst that sugar gives, it also makes us more vulnerable to wanting more. Brainimaging studies show that people who sleep less have greater desire and craving for highly caloric foods. What’s worse, they find these foods to be more pleasurable, which only increases sugar’s grip.
It’s not just lack of sleep that makes us eat more, it’s also stress. When we’re glued to our phones, our attention is demanded at all times. This causes cortisol, our stress hormone, to kick into overdrive, much like if you were in fight or flight mode 24/7. While in the short-term, stress can suppress your desire to eat, when your body is under stress for prolonged periods, cortisol floods our system, increasing our appetite. When we’re stressed, we eat more and inevitably gain more weight. And it’s not just any foods that we crave; it’s the high sugar foods that – in the short term – counteract our stress response and boost our mood.
You might think the answer is more willpower, but it isn’t. Willpower is a limited resource that we use constantly throughout the day – going to work, making decisions, fulfilling obligations, saying no to the cookies. By the end of the day, our willpower has been sapped dry and we are cued for a reward. It’s now when we’re most likely to break that promise we made to ourselves to “be good” and reignite our affair with sugar – so sweet and rewarding. So the answer isn’t more willpower, it’s about planning, creating new habits and mastering skills that help to re-up your willpower when life gets tough.
Why do I keep eating sugar?
The main reason you can’t stop eating is that sugar has hijacked your brain – studies have shown that sugar dependence looks like other addictive substances like alcohol, cocaine and opiates. It alters your brain, nervous system, and endocrine system. Sugar floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for “wanting” and “liking”. So when our brain is constantly flooded with dopamine, as it is when we are misusing sugar, we’re more driven to seek out than we are to enjoy. Dopamine affects decision-making, memory, and learning centres, training us to seek out sugar. Cravings are powerful and motivate us to choose sugar again and again, without regard for the harmful effects to our body, self-esteem, and relationships.
The problem is that with prolonged exposure to sugar, you’re dimming your ability to experience pleasure. Chances are, you need a lot more sugar now to get the same feeling you had when you had your first bite of ice cream as a kid. That’s because as you eat more sugar and your brain floods with more dopamine, your dopamine receptors begin to thin out. That means progressively more sugar is needed to achieve that feeling. Now that you have built up a tolerance to sugar, it affects your brain much less than someone who doesn’t eat it at all. I’ve had so many clients point out in amazement how, after they broke up with sugar, fruit tastes like a flavour explosion.
When you eat sugar, your body floods with insulin, a hormone created in the pancreas. Insulin’s job is to regulate your blood-sugar levels and allow sugar to enter your cells to give you energy. However, when we eat too much sugar, all that insulin begins to block leptin, the satiety hormone.
When leptin is blocked time and time again, we can no longer feel full. To make matters worse, excess insulin triggers our body to stop burning and start storing fat. With less sugar in your body and insulin levels back to normal, you put yourself in a better position to stop overeating and release unnecessary weight. So many of my clients are in awe of how much faster they feel full and that they are satisfied finishing a meal, something they never thought possible.
For more, read this Molly Carmel
Extracted from Breaking Up With Sugar: A Plan to Divorce the Diets, Drop the Pounds and Live Your Best Life is available now (Paperback, ebook and audiobook, Yellow Kite)