What makes you happy? The smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns? Warm chocolate fondue? A large bowl of Phish Food™ice cream?
Well, there is a reason for that. All of these desserts have one thing in common: sugar.
(Image courtesy of Google)
That’s right, sugar is what makes us happy. But do you know why…?
Sugar has the same affect on our brains as everything else that makes us happy. Playing our favorite sport, learning, praise, spending time with friends, having dinner with family, observing art, receiving emails, you name it. Whatever it is that gives us joy in life does so because of one chemical, the pleasure molecule, a.k.a. dopamine.
This chemical is responsible not only for pleasure, but also has many other roles in our bodies. It makes contributions to our consciousness, mood, motivation, attention, movement, blood pressure, coordination, and unfortunately, addiction.
When a behavior or substance makes us feel good, it triggers the release of dopamine. And because it makes us happy we want it again and again, hence, we form an addiction
This same science applies to sugar, or more specifically, refined sugar.
It tastes good, and makes us feel good; therefore, we continue to crave it.
If you don’t believe you are addicted to sugar, think again. (Unless, of course, you are one of the lucky few strong enough to abstain from it completely, then I congratulate--and also envy--you).
You may think that you could stay away from sweets if you tried, but it isn’t just desserts and baked goods you need to steer clear from. No, refined sugar is in EVERYTHING. And it disguises itself in many ways.
Refined sugar, also known as sucrose, hides in grocery items such as flavored yogurt (it is not just fruit that makes those yogurts taste so delicious), bread, tomato sauce, cereals, flavored oatmeal packages, ketchup, BBQ sauce, pizza, “The Snack That Smiles Back, Goldfish” (now you know why it makes you smile), soda, salad dressing, chips, chicken nuggets, the list goes on and on.
Just read the ingredients lists of all the food you normally eat and you are bound to find some sort of added sugar in many of them (unless you eat mostly whole foods like fruits and vegetables, then you are good to go!).
And when I say "added sugar," I mean one of the following:
Aspartame – marketed as Nutrasweet (artificial, 0 calories)
Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K) / E950 - marketed as Sunett / Sweet One (artificial, 0 calories)
Barley Malt Extract
Brown Rice Syrup
Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
Dehydrated Cane Juice
Evaporated Cane Juice
Evaporated Cane Syrup
Fruit juice concentrate
High-fructose corn syrup
Invert sugar (golden syrup)
Mannitol (2.6 calories)
Neotame (artificial, 0 calories)
Saccharin (artificial, 0 calories)
Sucralose – marketed as Splenda (artificial, 0 calories)
Sorbitol (2.6 calories)
If you see one of these sweeteners lurking in the ingredients list, it means that it was not naturally present in the product. It was added to make the product more appealing to our sweet sense of taste.
In the early 1900’s, the average person consumed approximately ½ a pound of sugar per year. Today, the average amount of sugar intake per person is a ½ a pound each day (See here and/or here). That is equal to 48 teaspoons, or, 1 cup of sugar!
And this is why. Sugar hides in many of the foods we believe to be healthy for us.
For example, according to USDA's MyPlate, some foods we should include in our diets are whole grains and low-fat dairy. But for many of us, our “whole grain” ends up being 2 slices of whole-wheat bread in a sandwich, which we believe to be good for us, right? And our “dairy” may be a container of low-fat strawberry yogurt, which we think is good because the package says it’s made with real fruit. But if these:
(Images courtesy of Google)
are your choices of bread and yogurt, the added sugar in the serving sizes for these products adds up to a total of 6 teaspoons of extra sugar (1 tsp from the bread and 5 tsp from the yogurt), which is the amount of added sugar someone from 1900 would consume in approximately 46 days! The American Heart Association (AHA), however, recommends consuming no more than 100 calories a day for women and 150 for men from added sugars, which is about 6-8 teaspoons. Unfortunately, those two slices of bread and container of yogurt are unlikely to be your only sources of extra sugar in one day.
But why should we limit added sugars?
Refined sugar is the result of what is left after its original plant source (i.e. sugarcane, sugar beet) has been stripped of all its fiber, vitamins, and minerals, or worse, man-made (i.e. artificial sweeteners).
The sugar is left with no nutritional value.
Refined sugar, therefore, is considered to be a source of “empty calories,” which means this sweet substance provides calories, but no nutrients. It does nothing for us...except make us happy.
But are we really happy when we feel sluggish and have less energy? Or feel as is we can't think straight? Or that we get sick more often than we should?
Since refined sugar has a low nutrient density, it reduces our energy level, brain function, and immune system. It also contributes very much to weight gain if over-consumed.
Our bodies receive no benefits from eating sugar, unlike blueberries, which provide cognitive benefits, or ginger, which has “immune boosting action,” or any other whole food (<-- seriously, this site is great!) that provides a natural source of energy that won’t leave you struggling after you’ve “crashed” from your “sugar high." This occurs because refined sugar produces a large spike in blood sugar since it is immediately used for energy as it has no protein, fat, or fiber to slow its breakdown in our bodies. Instead sugar slows us down, in more ways than one.
Yet we keep coming back for more.
Why? Because sugar is addictive.
It is addictive and it is in so many of the foods we believe to be healthy, which is why it is difficult to reduce our intake.
Even for myself, who has been researching sugar and health since the 6th grade, whose nickname was “Health Freak” since Elementary school, and who gets made fun of for talking about food and nutrition constantly, it is tough to resist sugar.
Try as I might to abstain from refined sugar completely, I occasionally cave for some dark chocolate.
Now as much as I wish I could tell you to cut out sugar from your diet all together, that would be a lot to ask.
Sugar is good, and once in a while it is okay to treat your self to something small.
What I do suggest, however, is trying to limit your intake. Be aware of the ingredients in your food.
Choose fruits over sugary snacks.
Enjoy whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and sprouted grain bread that don’t contain extra sugar.
Eat oatmeal for breakfast made from plain oats and add your own toppings (i.e. nuts, cut/dried fruit, cinnamon, see my Filling Hemp “Oatmeal”).
Choose plain yogurt and add your own whole fruit. Unfortunately, there is no refined-sugar free version of vegan yogurt, or none I have come across anyway. Even the plain flavors of coconut and almond milk yogurt contain some added sugar, so, just be aware.
Sweeten your baked goods with more natural/less refined sugars, like dates, unsweetened applesauce, local honey, real maple syrup, or if you must, organic cane sugar. Or use a teaspoon of vanilla extract in place of ½ the sugar. There are so many options!
Reduce the amount of processed food you eat because that is where most of the added sugars lie.
Instead, work on transforming your diet to include more whole (preferably plant-based) foods like fruits, vegetables, whole-grains (not just whole-wheat, there's a difference), beans, legumes, and if you choose grass-fed/organic/know-where-it-came-from/treated well meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy.
There are plenty of amazing, healthy, and delicious foods naturally growing on our Earth just waiting to be enjoyed by us!
In time, you will find, that these natural, nutritious foods will make you happy too. J
(Image courtesy of Google)