After climbing steadily for decades, America’s sweet tooth is finally showing signs of rehabilitation. Still, most adults in the U.S. consume 22 teaspoons (355 calories) of added sugar per day — a far cry from the American Heart Association’s recommendations of six teaspoons (100 calories) for women and nine teaspoons (150 calories) for men.
Many of us don’t even realize we have a sugar problem, in part because the processed food industry has artfully disguised sugar under inconspicuous names like cane juice, malt syrup and fruit juice concentrate and hidden it in foods that are widely believed to be healthy such as yogurt, bread and breakfast cereal. Out of 600,000 processed foods on the market, 80% have hidden sugar, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Nature programmed us to seek out sweet foods. Eons ago, the same drive that is now damaging our health helped us survive by drawing us to fruit and other natural energy boosters. So, why fight nature? Because the habits of a hyper-processed, convenience-obsessed age are putting our mental and physical health in jeopardy in alarming ways:
Today, we not only like the sweet stuff, but some of us display dysfunctional patterns similar to addicts in search of drugs. Although controversial, a growing body of evidence points to the addictive potential of sugar. Both drugs and, to a lesser extent, sugar and processed junk foods flood the brain with the feel-good chemical dopamine.
In a study by researchers at Yale University, the simple sight of a milkshake activated the same reward centers of the brain as cocaine among people with addictive eating habits. Some rats actually prefer sugar water to cocaine and demonstrate classic symptoms of addiction, including tolerance and withdrawal, when the products are taken away.
In the short term sugar can provide a quick energy boost but as blood sugar plummets, sugar can cause irritability, fatigue, poor concentration and other mood problems. Research published in US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression and worse outcomes in individuals with schizophrenia. Although many mechanisms could explain this link, including hormone changes and chronic inflammation, the association is difficult to ignore. In fact, research has found that numerous countries with high sugar intake also have a high rate of depression.
Overweight and obesity can be caused by many factors, but it’s becoming clearer that sugar is one of them. Not only are sugar-laden foods high in calories but they’re also low on nutrition and ingredients that keep you full like fiber, ultimately driving us to eat more. Obesity, in turn, can increase the risk of cancer and other health problems, according to the National Cancer Institute.
#4 Heart Disease
For years Americans believed their weight worries would disappear if they just ate less fat. Now we know that fat is just one ingredient that can increase the risk of heart disease and, in fact, sugar may be just as problematic.
There is a strong correlation between sugar intake and heart disease. In a Journal of the American Medical Association report, people who consumed more than 17.5% of their calories from added sugars were 20-30% more likely to have high levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood) than people consuming less sugar. People who consumed 25% or more of their calories from added sugars had triple the risk of having low levels of healthy cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and other problems. These effects occurred regardless of weight, suggesting that sugar itself is the problem.
Sugar, especially in the form of sugary drinks like soda, fruit juice and sports drinks, has been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. In one Harvard School of Public Health study, people who drank one to two servings of these beverages per day were 26% more likely to develop diabetes than those who drank them once a month or not at all. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco linked 130,000 deaths from 1990-2000 to sugary drinks.
Some researchers believe sugar is a direct cause of diabetes. Pediatric Endocrinologist Robert Lustig found that people with greater access to sugar had higher levels of diabetes, regardless of their weight. Even if it doesn’t directly cause diabetes, sugar consumption can cause weight gain and obesity, which is a risk factor for diabetes. Because sugary drinks don’t make people feel full, they don’t compensate for the added calories by eating smaller meals.
These are just a few of the possible side effects of eating too much sugar. If the health consequences aren’t reason enough to moderate your intake, sugar may also prematurely age the skin and promote tooth decay. Sugar isn’t the sole cause of America’s declining health, but all evidence suggests it’s a serious threat – one that is avoidable by eating unprocessed foods that come from nature, not a package.