Sugar Stokes Our Happy Place
Most of us have had childhoods chock full of sugar laden "rewards."
Scarcely is a child's birthday party complete without the gaudy, colorful, super-sweet theme cake that makes everybody psychotic immediately after eating it. Every bakery I have ever been to with my children had the obligatory sprinkle sugar cookie at the ready to give out to children to forge a positive relationship. Teachers, grandparents, and yes, even parents, use candy, ice cream and cookies to bribe or win children over. The promised dessert is the rainbow at the end of a meal a child does not want to eat. Just the smell of cotton candy and belgian waffles reminds us of happy times at a street fair or amusement park when we were carefree kids getting sick on the tilt-a-whirl but enjoying it all the same.
It is no wonder we have such a positive association with sweets. They viscerally evoke memories of happiness and make us feel like good people. Each taste of sugar harkens back to feelings of love, approval, security and good times. We are Pavlovian creatures. Once the association between sugar and approval is forged we are victims of its lure.
We crave it physically, for its salivary yumminess in the mouth and momentary rush of energy in the bloodstream, and psychologically for all those happy aforementioned associations.
Craving sugar is also biologically very natural. Carbohydrates (sugar being a simple form of carbs) are broken down into glucose in the digestive tract. It is the stuff that fuels our physical and mental activities. When we are tired, sleep deprived and overworked -- as, sadly, such a large percentage of our culture is -- we reach for sugar to provide us with a compensatory pick-me-up. Our physiology associates sugar with the energetic boost which kicks in quickly as the refined sugar surges into the bloodstream. Numerous studies have shown that chronically sleep deprived individuals tend to a higher body weight than folks who value their sleep. The sleep deprived population tries to fight its fatigue with food, and the most efficient, and therefore attractive, food for someone desperate for energy is something sweet and sugary. Besides, refined sugar products surround us everywhere. When on the run, it is easier to pick up a candy bar or soda from a vending machine than a banana from a supermarket.
If you did manage to score a banana to enjoy as a snack you would benefit in many ways. Fruits are complex carbohydrates, along with vegetables, whole grains, potatoes and legumes. They are high in fiber, promote healthy digestion, give you a satisfied feeling and keep blood sugar stable. On the flip side, if you give in to eating some simple carbohydrates, such as candy, cookies, cakes, sodas, fruit juices, white flour breads and pastas, and most commercial packaged breakfast cereals, your body will experience a drastic spike in blood-sugar levels causing mood swings, cravings, compulsive eating, weight gain and eventually an impressive slew of chronic and degenerative illnesses.
Wait a second, what happened to the happy, feel-good part about sugar?
Well, in the body, as in this story, it doesn't last long...
Refined sugars are unnatural. All the valuable constituents of a whole food, such as vitamins, minerals and fiber are processed out of it leaving it in more of a chemical than a food form. This pure substance basically slips through the digestive tract straight to the liver since there is nothing for our digestive systems to "chew on." The liver is overwhelmed and is not able to prevent a barrage of sugar from entering into the blood stream which causes damage to the liver itself and all the cells of the body. This incomplete sugar metabolism creates toxins and interferes with cell respiration which leads to cell abnormalities and degenerative diseases. Frequent sugar intake will cause the liver to swell. The excess sugar from the liver is sent back into the bloodstream as fatty acids and is cleverly distributed throughout less active parts of the body like the belly, thighs, breasts and derriere. Coincidentally, 63.1% of American adults are either overweight or obese.
Most of us know that sugar is not good for you but have little idea of how much sugar they actually consume and how far reaching the harmful consequences really are.
The typical American eats the equivalent of about 31 teaspoons of sugar every day. This daily sugar intake totals almost 500 extra calories -- about 25% of the average person's caloric intake. This rate of sugar consumption adds up to about 2 to 3 pounds of sugar each week or 135 pounds per person per year.
These sugar calories are often masked in breakfast cereals that claim they are heart healthy or full of healthy fiber. They are found in innocent looking iced tea and sports beverages and snuck into condiments, salad dressings, crackers and commercial breads. A serving of McDonald's oatmeal, which is touted as a healthy breakfast choice, contains more sugar than a Snickers bar! It adds up even if one tries to avoid the obvious sugars in desserts and sweets.
Now, lets take this 25% of an average person's caloric intake comprised of refined sugars and consider that these calories are not just devoid of nutrients but they actually leech vitamins and minerals from the muscles and bones in order to be metabolized. Sugar consumption is what makes the vast majority of Americans overweight and under-nourished. This one omnipresent, "feel good" substance is making almost every American sick. Refined sugar and simple carbohydrates are enormous contributors to, if not entirely responsible for, all of these health conditions: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, tooth decay, premature aging, migraines, allergies, osteoporosis, digestive disorders, suppressed immunity, kidney damage, and hyperactivity -- especially in children.The positive associations we have with sugar-laden holidays and special events are a strong pull on our heart strings and our salivary glands. We may never be able to over-ride them completely with the knowledge that sugar is really bad for us. But there are steps that we can take and techniques to empower our bodies and minds that can enable us to break the addiction and arrive at happier and healthier boundaries in our relationship with sugar.
Giving up sugar is not difficult! It requires a resolute desire to do so, a period of complete abstinence to break the addiction, learning what to substitute for the times that one would normally eat something sugar sweetened and then making a decision regarding any sort of reasonable sugar allowance.
There are two major motivators for people to change their diets. One is inspiration and the other is suffering.
Through inspiration we have the desire to change to better ourselves with the wisdom of knowing that thoughtful decision-making and discipline will pay off down the road. Inspiration to create change reflects self love and self respect and a willingness to rise above our base desires to achieve something great for ourselves. Some people give up sugar for this lofty reason.
More often, people decide to give up sugar because they do not feel good. Perhaps they are getting colds too often and are constantly struggling with fatigue. Frequent and migraine headaches are debilitating enough to encourage a change. The desire to have clear skin can even convince an image conscious teen-ager to lay off the sodas and chocolate. More seriously the scare of a pre-cancerous pap smear, a diagnosis of prediabetes, or a debilitating digestive disorder will drive a patient to do whatever needs to be done to turn his condition around.
Consider this: A patient with Crone's disease will notice significant improvement to his condition in 24 to 48 hours after completely abstaining from sugar. Drinking one soda per day can make a person 10 pounds fatter in one year. Imagine the potential weight loss for an overweight person that drinks 3 cans of soda per day! Going cold turkey on sugar is guaranteed to even out and enhance a person's energy and mood, and enable more mental clarity. Eliminating sugar will lower blood pressure for people with hypertension and normalize blood pressure for people that have episodes of extreme hypotension because low blood pressure and erratic sugar levels go hand in hand.
Quitting the sugar habit is powerful medicine!
Are those girl scout cookies in the cabinet drastically losing their appeal?
Are you ready to quit? Here's how!
You need to go cold turkey for three weeks. Throw out all the sweets in your house (or give them to your least favorite neighbor). This includes sodas, ice cream, cookies, pastries, candy, chocolate, sweetened cereals, granola bars, "nutrition" bars, many snack foods, etc. The only sweet things you should have left are fruit, unsweetened dried fruit, and raw honey.
Natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave nectar, and brown rice syrup, seem pretty innocent but are still unnaturally concentrated sources of sugar when compared to the original food they are refined from. Brown rice is sweet, but you would have to eat buckets-full to get the amount of sugars that are in a tablespoon of brown rice syrup. Fruit juices present the same problem. An orange is good for you but a glass of orange juice (even freshly squeezed) contains the juice of about 6-8 oranges. That's too much for your blood sugar. So, you'll have to get rid of the juices too.
Go out and buy some delicious, fresh, organic fruit, and a nice variety of it. You will crave sugar for the first 2-5 days and eating a banana, some berries or an awesome mango will give you a lot of satisfaction. Why organic? Because it's better for the planet, is not produced with toxic chemicals, and tastes much better! What is good for the planet is good for you.
Plan your meals and snacks with a regular intake of protein in mind. There is nothing better than a nibble of protein to alleviate a sugar craving. It is commonplace for vegetarians, and especially vegans, to have strong sugar cravings due to a deficiency of protein. Eggs, small portions of meats or fish, beans and nuts provide the body with satisfying slow burning fuel which stabilize blood sugar and reduce sugar cravings.
If you are used to eating sweetened breakfast cereal in the morning you will have to replace it with either a completely unsweetened variety or something entirely different. Unsweetened cereals are hard to find and may taste a lot like compressed sawdust or shards of hockey pucks. You may want to get more for your money and opt for an egg and a piece of whole grain toast. (Better to get that from a local bakery than a packaged variety from the supermarket. Bread from the supermarket shelf is likely to contain sweeteners.)
When you are sitting with your friends or family at the table after dinner and someone mentions dessert... be strong! Stick with your resolution and learn to decline. After doing this a few times, it becomes easy. It's just a habit. The hardest part for me is shunning the mini Kit-Kat bar that I've had plopped down in front of me on my airline lunch tray. But I've learned to just tuck it under my napkin and remind myself that the pleasure I may get from it will only last about a minute.
Good job! You've stood tough, nibbling on nuts when you had to, and now you have not eaten sugar for five days. At this point the strong craving is really gone, and you have found nutritious and yummy foods to take the place of desserts and other sugary snacks. You will likely feel a greater mental clarity and sharpness. Bonus!
Some say that the standard amount of time it takes to entirely change a pattern, addiction or habit is 21 days, other sources say 30-45 days. There are no hard and fast rules. If you were drinking a liter of soda and a box of cookies per day it will take much more mental and physical reprograming than for someone that had one cookie after lunch each day. Both will crave the habit for a longer time than the body will crave the sugar. I find that after completely eliminating sugar (that means 100%) for 3 weeks, you will get up from the dinner table and realize that your brain did not even consider dessert.
When you reach that benchmark in quitting the sugar habit it is best to stick with it. Just one pastry with your coffee at Starbucks will find you considering another the next time. Hopefully, if you cheat, you will get a headache from the sugar as your body reminds you that it is not doing this anymore.
Yet on the rare occasion...since a giant piece of carrot cake can pop up in front of you on your birthday accompanied by an embarrassing group of singing waiters, there is a grace in asking for more forks for your friends and having some, and enjoying it.
Image by aleksands, courtesy of Creative Commons license.