Bittersweet: The Truth About Sugar
By Emi Yasuda
21-Day Sugar Detox! 25% reduced sugar! Clean your diet! Lately, no-sugar options have skyrocketed in popularity. This month, Atlas Films released the documentary Fed Up, whichwarned that sugar, not fat is responsible for the rising obesity levels in the United States. But is sugar really the main culprit in America’s obesity pandemic, or are no-sugar diets just the latest health craze?
Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, today we are met with a smorgasbord of tantalizing treats. Whipped marshmallow spread, caramel chocolate bars, and even natural sweets like honey and berries are available year round. Although we do not need any added sugar, we have evolved to prefer sweet foods due to natural instincts to consume what will give us more energy. Eating sugar activates the brain’s reward center, enforcing your cravings for sweets, and leading some researchers, such as those at France’s University of Bordeaux, to suggest that sugar can surpass the brain reward for cocaine, even for those addicted to the drug. The university’s study concluded that these signals generate “supranormal reward,” which could potentially lead to sugar addiction.
You may be wondering, “Why does it matter? If humans are predisposed to want to eat more sugar, why shouldn’t they?”
Well, the answer is here. A multitude of studies have been conducted in recent years to find sugar’s effects on health, the brain, and the population as a whole. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found that sugar overload may not only put you at risk of diabetes, and heart disease, but even cancer.
Perhaps you don’t think this applies to you. Maybe you’re just one of the many Americans who grabs a donut or a chocolate bar from time to time. This can’t possibly mean you’re overloading, can it? The reality is, it could be. Despite yearly decreases in the purchase of bags of sugar, in the past century, the average American has gone from eating 18 to 150 pounds of sugar per year! The culprit? Invisible sugar. Sugar can be found in 80% of American food products; even everyday foods like bread and crackers may contain sweeteners.
Meanwhile, sugar may also be affecting your cognitive abilities. A study conducted in 2012 found that teens that consumed excess sugar were at risk of “accelerated cognitive decline.” In seniors, sugar was found to contribute to a gradual decrease in the size of the hippocampus, the area of your brain responsible for memory.
Many people reach for artificial sweeteners as a healthy alternative, but are they? These compounds can be hundreds of times sweeter than natural sugar. Despite being lower in calories, sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin also have potential risks. The lack of calories in artificial sweeteners interferes with your brain’s natural ability to associate energy with sugary foods.
So should you start that sugar detox ASAP? While it could help your health, most drastic diet changes are difficult to maintain. The general consensus is that everything in moderation is the best way to go. The next time you visit the grocery store, check the label. Your brain will thank you.