After some time in the health and wellness community, we have picked up on the ingredients to stay away from: a.k.a. the ones that are hard to pronounce, are big red flags and trigger your brain to put the product back on the shelf and walk away. Things like high fructose corn syrup, potassium benzoate, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin…the list goes on.
It’s not news that Americans love sugar. We run on sugar. Our country is branded with staples like Coke-a-Cola, Nestle and McDonalds that have taken over the Western world and even influenced our culture. Yes, an occasional chocolate or ice cream is delicious and okay in moderation, but sweets all too often can lead to more than just weight gain.
“The amount of sugar consumed in America has increased our perceived threshold for sweetness to the point where eating a whole fruit is not enough to satisfy a sweet tooth,” says wellness specialist and deli liaison of People’s Rx, Kimberlee Springer.
What happens when we eat our favorite sweet foods too often? One of the most common outcomes of repeated spiked blood sugar is diabetes. According to Medical News Today, “Persistent high blood glucose levels can lead to complications of diabetes, including nerve damage, vision loss, kidney damage, kidney problems and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Satisfying a sweet tooth may be more dangerous than you think.
In addition to diabetes, a diet with relentless, copious amounts of sugar can lead to cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, Springer says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.4 percent of the United States has diabetes. In addition, diabetes was found in 2015 to be the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.
“Sugar is addictive for some people. Consumption of sugar elicits a dopamine response in the brain which makes us feel pleasure,” Springer says. “Similar to nicotine or other stimulants, refined sugar has been shown to alter the structure of specific neurons in the brain responsible for memory and emotions after excessive long term consumption.”
The fight-or-flight response, which happens when we have high blood sugar levels, impacts cortisol, epinephrine, dopamine and insulin and can even alter the synthesis of our sex hormones, Springer says.
Furthermore, excess sugar can, over time, even affect someone’s epigenetics, which causes a change in the expression of genes related to specific metabolic processes, Springer says.
“It is constantly in our face as consumers. Even in health food stores you will find it beside the checkout counter,” Springer says.
Our sweet tooth also may have something to do with the way our body metabolizes fructose and glucose, Springer says. As glucose is required for the proper function for our cells within the body, when consumed, it stimulates the release of leptin, which is a hormone that causes us to feel full. However, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver and will not trigger the hormone, leptin. Therefore, when we consume fructose, we will not have the feeling of being full, Springer says.
“It’s making America sick,” Springer says.
As it is a good (and necessary) idea to limit the level of sweets in our diet, sometimes we all just need a little, quick fix. Fortunately for us, there are some alternatives that will not spike blood sugar.
An alternative to artificial, non-nutritive sweeteners, Springer says monk fruit (also called luo han guo) is a great alternative, because it is naturally calorie-free and does not spike blood sugar levels. In addition, stevia, which is made from the stevia rebaudiana plant, is another satisfying, more natural option.
In addition, more natural options include coconut sugar, raw honey, dates and blackstrap molasses but, of course, should be consumed in strict moderation.
Even though we can find ways to substitute our sweeteners and sugars, Springer says although it can be challenging, it is best to cut out sugar from our diets.
“Natural sweeteners do not necessarily make a good alternative for people with diabetes,” Springer says, “If it does not spike the blood sugar, it is fine, but there are some natural sweeteners that impact blood sugar in the same way as refined cane sugar.”
All in all, sweeteners and sugars are an addiction that can lead to many health complications if left unaddressed. So, next time you’re at the grocery store, flip over that intelligently marketed and fun-colored box of your favorite snacks and see if it contains ingredients that will fuel your sugary addiction.
“Sugar alternatives are just a giant band-aid for one of the nation’s biggest addictions and won’t eliminate cravings,” Springer says, “If you want to eliminate sugar, the best plan is to substitute whole fruits when you get a sweet tooth whenever possible, and if it is going to be a sustainable change, it will be a slow process.”
So, when life gives you lemons…maybe skip the lemonade, and just add some lemon to your water instead.