Are we addicted to sugar?
Nutritionist Sherry Strong looks at how sugar has become such an ingrained part of our diet and the challenges to both body and mind of trying to eliminate it.
Less than 100 years ago, sugar was consumed primarily by the wealthy, while everyone else rationed portions to sweeten tea. As it became cheaper to produce, sugar made its way into everything. It was deemed the darling of the food world once people realised how useful it was in food processing and preservation. But how sugar became an ingredient of nearly every product on the supermarket shelf is an interesting story.
In 1980, after consulting a host of highly regarded nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol, as these were thought to be contributors to ailments such as heart disease and cancer. Food companies saw a new market and low-fat products began flooding the shelves. The problem is, fat equals flavour, so to bring back flavour the food producers added – you guessed it – sugar. The effect was immediate and severe. Obesity rates in Amercia trebled within the next 20 years.
Heroin of the food world
If you look at sugar’s addictive properties, it’s no wonder we keep coming back for more. Many types of sugar are found in nature, but by the time these are turned into white sugar, the result is essentially a drug. In fact, sugar in the form we know it is created using similar processes used to turn opium sap into heroin and coca leaves into cocaine. Heat is applied to denature the plant and toxic chemicals help remove nutrients. Brain scans reveal that refined sugar lights up dopamine receptor sites (the neurotransmitter response for perceiving ‘pleasure’) eight times more potently than does cocaine.
For some, giving up sugar is harder than getting off recreational and prescription drugs. In my work as a nutritionist, I’ve had alcoholic clients who found it tougher to give up sugar than alcohol.
The body has a strong physiological desire for sugar. In nature, this is no big deal because nature makes sugar less available and harder work to obtain (i.e. fruit growing up high in trees). The opposite is true in the supermarket.
The average teenager consumes 45-68 kilograms of refined sugars each year, and it’s not just soft drinks. As Damon Gameau discovered in his documentary That Sugar Film, sugar is found in 80-90% of food in your typical supermarket, which means even savvy shoppers struggle to avoid it.
Up until recent times, sugar has been the cheapest, most socially acceptable drug on the market – no prescription required, legal dealers on every corner. I even found a local bank raising money for the pink ribbon campaign by selling candy, chock full of the stuff now conclusively linked to all types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Indulging in sugar is what I refer to in my book Return to Food, as the ‘Lethal Recipe’. Lethal may seem like a strong word, but the increased deaths from lifestyle diseases in countries that consume large amounts of sugar suggest how deadly it is. Science is providing proof to the dangers of sugar and, slowly but surely, consumers are taking note.
We’ve always had a hunch, but now we are paying more attention. Over a 100 years ago, Canadian dentist Weston A. Price linked poor dental health with diet and found that cavities were more about nutritional deficiencies than dental hygiene because refined sugar strips nutrients from the body.
William Duffy pointed out in his book Sugar Blues, that Sir Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin, noted in 1929 that plantation owners who ate refined sugar were rife with diabetes, while cane cutters who chewed on raw cane had none.
As we appreciate a better understanding of our health, we know that all refined foods contribute to health issues, but sugar is the gang leader. Knock sugar out of your diet and you’ll also find yourself eating a lot less refined oils, salts, grains and chemicals. They tend to travel together.
To tax or not to tax?
Implementing a sugar tax is currently a hotly debated topic. Jamie Oliver successfully spearheaded the movement in the UK and Sarah Wilson of I Quit Sugar fame is following suit, petitioning to implement a sugar tax in Australia.
David Gillespie, author of the ground-breaking book Sweet Poison, thinks a sugar tax is unlikely to work because people will find ways to offset the cost of the tax by buying in bulk, choosing generic brands or finding alternative sources. The fact is addicts will always find ways to get their sugar fix. If money is an issue, they forgo other things, most likely vegetables.
He posits rewarding companies that make foods with less added sugar is the solution to decreasing sugar consumption.
“Force supermarkets to show the lowest sugar choice in any food category with shelf labels,” he says. “Allow customers to vote with their wallet by buying the product that has the least sugar. Companies who want part of that action will ‘reformulate’ quickly and this should drive down the sugar content of food.”
But can our generation live without sugar? The horrific fact is, we are basically weened onto sugar from birth. Millions of people have increased susceptibility to sugar addiction due to poor infant nutrition, starting with baby formulas and baby foods, many of which are rife with refined sugars.
More than knowing
It isn’t just the poor and uneducated affected by sugar. At a recent nutrition professionals conference in Vancouver, a woman in the audience got up and confessed, ‘I’m a nutritionist and I’m addicted to sugar’. She was not only well informed, but she had the means to buy good food. Information alone is not enough to beat this kind of addiction.
Addiction is not just physiological. The latest research is showing that lack of connection is a bigger predictor than physiology for addiction. That is why I’ve been training my food coaches to treat their clients’ whole lives, not just what they are eating. Help them look for opportunities to bring sweetness into their life that isn’t in the form of food and drink.
To lick our global sugar habit, we need to be looking at the deeper human drivers that entice people to self medicate with sugar. I know this intimately from working with hundreds of clients over the years and, even more intimately, as at one time in my life I started the day with half a litre of chocolate ice-cream and went from one sugar fix to another until my head hit the pillow in a drug-like haze.
What I found is that if I didn’t have rules around sugar, sugar ended up ruling my life. The solution starts at the table with food choices and conversations that build us up, strengthening us to make more nourishing choices.
Tips for giving up sugar
Firstly, you have to admit you have a problem and in my experience, there are less than 1% of the western population who aren’t addicted to sugar.
• Do a kitchen audit and pull everything out of your cupboards and fridge that contains sugar. Get rid of it if you’re brave enough and at the very least replace it.
• Start to replace all refined sugar with natural sugars; unsweetened fruits and honey are my go-to sweeteners.
• Curb sugar cravings with supplements like chromium and magnesium.
• Go to a farmers market and bring more vegetables into your home. Learn how to prepare them simply and deliciously.