How many of us can honestly say we don’t love something sweet? Ever since we were children, most bribes, temptations or treats that were reward or comfort based have revolved around foods containing sugar. In this way many of us have been conditioned to both like and crave sugar. Hard day? Whether it’s reaching for the wine or a biscuit, it’s the underlying sugar that soothes our frazzled feelings.
The truth is more complex though. Brain function and energy rely on glucose release into our systems, and often the reaction we have to stress that sends us reaching for something sweet is part of an ancient fight or flight threat response that tells our body to mobilise energy stores. Clearly, a sabre-toothed tiger is unlikely to come hurtling around the corner, but the realisation that we’ve miscalculated our parking time as we hurtle around the corner to see the parking warden hovering over our car provokes exactly the same things to happen in our body.
In reality, yes, our brains need sugar every day to function. Brain cells require two times the energy needed by all other types of cells, and uses roughly 10% of our total daily energy requirements. How we get our brain and body the fuel it needs is the issue. It’s not so much sugar intake that’s the problem, it’s the added sugars, hidden sugars, chemical sweeteners, and associated habits and addictive behaviours that are the problem.
Research indicates that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Our brains use it to make new memories and without it, we can’t learn, or even remember, much. Levels are particularly low in people who have impaired glucose metabolism (in other words, diabetics and pre-diabetics) and as BDNF falls, sugar metabolism gets worse. In other words, too much sugar leads BDNF production to fall, which then creates insulin resistance, which leads to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which leads to all the health problems associated with diabetes.
Depression and dementia have also been implicated in lowered BDNF levels, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a host of other diseases and chronic conditions turned out to be linked to it too. Other studies have focused on sugar’s role in over-eating and obesity. We know that sugar and obesity are linked, but the exact reason why eating sugar-laden foods seems to make us want to eat more hasn’t been well understood until recently. We now know that sweeteners can actually encourage people to eat more and cause weight gain (ironically enough). So, why is this?
The latest research shows that chronic consumption of added/excess sugar affects the brain’s mechanism for stopping eating by reducing activity in the brain’s anorexigenic oxytocin system (responsible for the “stick a fork in me, I’m done” signal). What studies suggest is that serious damage is done by processed foods high in added sugar, and the damage begins with our brains. So, is sugar consumption as big a problem as smoking or alcohol, health-wise? Many doctors and nutritionists would say so. We know that it creates an addiction cycle by lighting up the pleasure centres of the brain in the same way as drugs like cocaine – even more frightening than that, we know that these pleasure centres find sugar eight times more addictive than drugs. Yes, really!
Can the Sugar Monster be beaten? Definitely! But depending on your level of reliance on it, the amount of will power and retraining your brain and body need can be very different. The main areas to look at are:
- Changing processed and packaged foods full of added, hidden sugar for fresh food, including bottled and ready made sauces (home made all the way!)
- Giving up processed, sweet snacks and ‘treats’ – replace with healthier, home made or fresh (protein bars, energy balls, dips and crudités, nuts, fruit, the lost goes on!)
- Replacing refined sugar and chocolate with healthier versions – you can make healthier cakes, desserts and chocolate delights! Check out this month’s recipe for a gorgeous indulgent mousse made with healthy ingredients.
- Weaning yourself off sugar in your tea and coffee – gradually reduce it until you no longer use any. Remember that your taste buds have been trained to expect unrealistic levels of sweetness as normal – retraining them will normalise them again, and you’ll rediscover an amazing world of flavour and tastes that don’t make everything sweet!
- Find more effective ways to deal with stress – the stress response is a major trigger for reaching for sweet foods, so take up yoga, learn to meditate, or book a Body Calm coaching session with me to learn techniques for immediately removing stress from the body. Whatever you do to find strategies for stress, finding them will help enormously.
- Get over the need or justification for ‘treating yourself’ when it comes to unhealthy, sugar-laden foods. We really don’t ‘deserve’ that bar of chocolate – we ‘deserve’ to treat our bodies and brains with respect by eating healthy, nourishing foods! A healthy alternative is a great way to ‘treat’ ourselves properly.
So, work towards beating your own Sugar Monster, however big and nasty it is – if you need a hand, drop me an email. In the meantime, removing unhealthy sugar doesn’t mean no sugar, no chocolate, no treats, or no desserts – to prove it, check out this month’s frankly gorgeous recipe…. Enjoy!
Mock Choc Mousse
2 ripe bananas
1 large ripe avocado
2 tbsp organic raw cacao powder
6-8 large dates (depending on size)
2 tbsp walnut or almond butter (you could also use pumpkin seed butter here)
honey or maple syrup to taste, if required
Put all the ingredients in a food processor, blend until smooth (dribble in a little water to loosen the mixture a touch if necessary) and scoop into 2 glasses or ramekins. Decorate with flaked roasted nuts, or maybe some seeds (chia or pumpkin, for instance) Chill for an hour or so, then enjoy!