March is National Nutrition Month, and we’d like to take the opportunity to open a discussion on sugar – a hot topic. This is the second in a series of posts in March concerning sugar, carbohydrates, and blood sugar. Feel free to comment and get the discussion going!
Visibly upset, she comes into my office with at least 75 pounds to lose. “Patty” has tried every diet imaginable, from those icky pre-packaged frozen 1200 calorie plans to an ultra low-carb diet where she went cold-turkey on her addiction (literally) and ate cheese and meat all day. “I’m addicted to sugar… is that possible?” she asks. She is one of countless people who have asked me this very question and, as usual, my answer (like a bad Facebook relationship) is “it’s complicated”.
Why do we crave sugar? Why do we feel compelled to buy a giant blueberry muffin with our sugary mocha in the morning? Why do we feel so controlled by the taste of ice cream or even sweet breakfast cereal? To understand our cravings, we must first understand what sugar is and the effects it has on our bodies and brains.
Table sugar is a compound composed of two smaller sugar molecules, glucose and fructose. These two molecules are the same ones found in sweeteners like honey, molasses and yes, even high fructose corn syrup. Sugars such as these are all broken down in the body and are absorbed into the blood stream, going directly to the brain and muscles to produce energy. They are fuel. In order to fuel our muscles, the sugars need something called insulin to transport them into cells. Insulin is released from the pancreas when blood sugar rises, and in very large amounts when blood sugar rises quickly. Insulin lowers our blood sugar, but also triggers our body to store fat.
Sugar and other fast carbs also have an interesting effect on the brain; they give us a “high”. Yes, you can most definitely be high on sugar! Eating sugar or other foods that turn quickly into sugar (high-glycemic carbs) give the brain a sugar rush, producing a release of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, as well as endorphins. These opioids are released every day in response to a warm hug or a satisfying meal… but they are also released in the brains of drug or alcohol users, and are part of the reward pathway. This pathway reinforces behavior with the “reward” of feel-good neurochemicals.
Now, let’s put these effects together and see why my patients feel helpless in the face a Girl Scout cookie. Patty has had a stressful week; she has been working long hours and hasn’t been sleeping well. She wakes in the morning and rushes to work. On the way, she stops at a coffee shop and grabs a blueberry scone and a Grande vanilla latte. While she eats at her desk, the 98 grams of carbohydrate (the majority of it sugary “fast” carbs) goes quickly into her blood stream. Insulin floods her system in order to shuttle the sugar into cells, but also stores much of this energy as fat. Her mood improves as serotonin and endorphins flood her brain. She feels happy, and even energetic. Two hours later, her blood sugar comes down quickly, leaving her feeling “crashed”. She feels lethargic, moody, and begins prowling the break room for something to munch on. She finds some coffeecake, and the cycle begins again.
You can imagine how tough this cycle is to break when sugar is found everywhere and at low cost. Due to government subsidies for agricultural commodities such as corn, high fructose corn syrup is cheap. This cheap sweetener is put into everything from cookies to whole wheat bread. If you’re stuck in the crave-crash cycle, how appealing is that $.99 box of snack cakes on aisle 7?
How can Patty stop her addiction? I tell Patty that she needs to focus on whole foods sources of carbohydrate at her meals, such as root vegetables and whole grains. Choosing meals that combine healthy fats, protein, slow carbs and fiber will help her avoid the crave-crash cycle. She can replace her breakfast with a Greek yogurt topped with nuts or a Zing bar. I also make sure to address concerns of emotional eating – relying on food as a stress reliever or a distraction from her emotions can only make her addiction feel more extreme.
Patty and countless others may feel caught, but aren’t controlled by this feeling of addiction when the crave-crash cycle is broken. She must begin by first changing the fuel she puts into her body. My patients are always surprised how their cravings go away when they begin eating balanced, low-glycemic meals and snacks.
Do you feel addicted to sugar? What has helped you overcome these feelings?
Christine Weiss MS, RD is a dietitian and Bastyr University graduate who counsels people dealing with food allergies, diabetes and digestive issues. She enjoys working with Zing Bars to raise awareness about healthy living through online media. She can be found at Eating It Up online.