Two hundred years ago, our biggest challenge was getting enough to eat (and avoiding getting eaten by a lion). Calorie-dense foods were important to provide energy and keep humans alive during dire times; sugary foods were a matter of survival.
Flash forward to today and we have a very different challenge: avoiding the surplus of food that is constantly surrounding us so that we don’t gain weight. While our bodies are no longer threatened by starvation, our brains and hormone regulation has not caught up. Our instinct to crave and overeat, especially when it comes to sugary foods, now works against us.
How Sugar Tricks Your Brain
Our brains react and respond to sugary foods even before they enter our mouth. Just seeing a picture of high sugar foods can excite our brains reward center (which is why you can not even be thinking of dessert, then see an ad for ice cream and immediately have to get some). As soon as that food touches your tongue your taste buds begin to send signals to your brain, which triggers a rush of dopamine.
Dopamine = pleasure, so your brain starts to think sugar = pleasure.
The more sugar you eat, the more your brain gets flooded with dopamine. So much so that it eventually becomes desensitized to it. Much like a drug addict, when you start to become desensitized to a substance, you need to consume more of it to get the same feeling. So while one or two cookies used to satisfy you, over time if you overeat sugar foods, you’ll need to eat more and more cookies to get the same sense satisfaction.
The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you’ll crave.
But What If I Don’t Have A Sweet Tooth?
You may think you don’t have a sweet tooth, but if you frequently consume crackers, chips, bagels, bread or other starchy foods, news flash: these refined (aka white) carbs break down to simple sugars in our bodies and have a similar effect as eating a food high in sugar.
While small amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar is ok, overeating them consistently is a problem. Ever eat a massive bagel, then feel hungry again an hour later? Here’s why: those white carbs (and sugary foods) digests quickly, leading to a big spike in blood sugar. Your body then releases lots of insulin which causes your blood sugar to crash back down within an hour or two, leading to more hunger and cravings.
The Problem with Too Much Sugar
Added sugars don’t provide any nutritional benefit outside of calories. While some sugar is ok to have, when you eat too much it will start to displace other, more nutritious foods. Excess sugar is also linked to weight gain and obesity, high triglyceride levels, heart disease and diabetes.
I mentioned before that sugar contributes “empty” calories. When you eat too much sugar, it not only adds calories to your diet but it can displace other, more nutritious foods. Once added sugar makes up 10-20% of your calories, serious nutrient deficiencies can occur. Added sugar provides no nutritional benefit, and is linked to increased risk of many diseases.
Natural vs. Added Sugars
All forms of sugar are not created equal. There are two types of sugars found in foods: naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are those that are present naturally in foods, such as those in fruit and milk. Added sugars include any sugars or sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages when they are being made – they are not normally present in food. While we sometimes add sugar ourselves (like sugar in coffee), most of these added sugars come from packaged and processed foods. Added sugar or sweeteners include natural sugars such as white sugar, brown sugar, and honey, as well as chemically manufactured sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup.
Foods that contain naturally occurring sugar, like fruit or dairy foods, also provide you with other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Added sugars on the other hand only provide calories, with no other nutrients. Another word to describe this is “empty calories”. There is no protein, vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants in sugar, just calories.
Added sugars are found in sweets and sugary foods like cookies and cake, as well as most savory packaged foods too. This includes many foods that are marketed as “healthy” or “natural”. Bread, pasta sauce, granola bars, flavored yogurts, green smoothies – these all can have added sugars. 74% of packaged foods contain added sugar, so even if you are skipping the sweet treats, you may still be consuming more added sugar than is recommended.
How Much Sugar is Ok?
While a little added sugar can be ok, most people are consuming much more than they realize. The average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day – triple the recommended amount. Not to mention children, who are having almost 34 teaspoons of sugar each day.
Let’s put those numbers in perspective:
- 20 ounce bottle of regular soda – 65 grams of sugar, 16 teaspoons
- 20 ounce bottle of sports drink – 35 grams of sugar, 8.75 teaspoons
One teaspoon of sugar is equal to four grams. The American Heart Association recommends that men have no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar per day (36 grams) and women no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day (24 grams). Reminder: we are talking about added sugars here, not those that occur naturally.
How to Spot Added Sugars
Unfortunately the current food label does not differentiate between natural and added sugars (though we will see this change in the next few years), so you have to do a little investigative work.
Look at the nutrition facts panel
Look at the food label and find the total grams of sugar* and the serving size. Divide that grams of sugar by four, which gives you the amount of sugar in teaspoons (a much easier thing to visualize) that is in one serving. For example, if there are 36 grams of sugar in a serving, that means there are nine teaspoons of sugar. *This will include both natural and added sugars. Many packaged foods and drinks have more than one serving in the bag or box, so if you eat the whole thing the sugar will add up quickly.
Look at the ingredient list
- If fruit or milk products show up towards the beginning of the ingredient list, you’ll know that at least some of the total amount of sugar is from natural sources.
- Next, look for added sugars in the ingredient list. This is tricky, since there are over 60 different names for sugar listed on food labels.
- Once you see that a product has added sugar in it, look at where it falls in the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending weight order, meaning that the first ingredient makes up a bigger percentage for the product, while the ingredient that is listed last has been used the least. If a sweetener is one of the first few ingredients on the label, it means that there is a lot of added sugar in the food or drink.
Different Names for Sugar:
- Agave nectar
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Carob syrup
- Castor sugar
- Coconut palm sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Glucose solids
- HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm sugar
- Powdered sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice syrup
- Sorghum Syrup
- Sugar (granulated)
- Turbinado sugar
What About Artificial Sweeteners?
While artificial sugar substitutes don’t add any calories, they do still flood your tastebuds with a very sweet taste. Some research suggests that these artificial sweeteners can lead you to crave more sugar, since your brain tastes sweetness but doesn’t get the dopamine rush as it does with actual sugar.
Luvo believes it should be easier to make good food choices. Luvo’s 3-2-none philosophy supports the right balance of protein, veggies and whole grains, not too much sodium or added sugar, and no artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners. It’s their goal to produce food with responsible sugar levels and to help educate people so that you can make better choices for you and your family.
Feel like you’re eating too much sugar? Here are five ways to cut back.
How do you reduce sugar in your diet? Let us know in the comments and be sure to sign-up for Luvo’s newsletter for more nutritious recipes and exclusive giveaways.