Is sugar consumption connected to the leading causes of death?
Some twelve years ago, I came to my senses and ended my relationship with sugar. Prior to that, I was a firm believer in moderation being the key to health. For many people, moderation is the perfect way to interact with sugar. Having a “bite of this” or a “taste of that” is enough to satisfy, and then leaving it alone from there is possible. Baking traditional Holiday cookies for the family and eating a cookie to taste test is a good example. Unless you are in the middle of a clinical corrective program for a specific health issue, I consider moderation like that to be healthy.
In opposition, I had found that a small serving of sugar, for me, was opening the door to a level of brain stimulus that was out of control. Addiction is a word that is appropriate to use. It turns out that addiction is not a term of weakness; as I studied the topic, it is a genetically predisposed chemical imbalance that creates a NEED for more. In this case, the word “need” unfolds in many mechanisms that differ from individual to individual. When the studies were released suggesting that sugar is eight times as stimulating to the human brain as cocaine, it started to make more sense. In some people, a bite simply is not enough, and moderation is not easy to adhere to as a concept. As with any stimulus, the level of reactivity and desire for “more” can vary from mild to moderate to severe. I would consider myself to have been in a severe category twelve years ago.
In the local Giant Eagle grocery store, right beside the lightly salted organic brown rice cakes, sat a bright orange bag of Pamela’s dairy free, gluten free, mini chocolate chip cookies. They were Mini, meaning that if I ate one or two mini cookies it would represent moderation at it’s best. Friday was a half day in my office and I would grocery shop on the way home while coming down from a stressful week of hard work. There are different eating triggers for different people; stressed, angry, hungry, lonely, bored, tired, pissed off and social eaters. I was a stress eater.
Consumption of sugar would serve as a very effective stress reducing mechanism for me. So, while shopping, I would open the bag and have a few mini cookies to take the week’s edge off. Now some of you are feeling what I am about to say, and others who do not suffer from any form of addiction will either laugh at this or say…really? Yes really, it is like this; I live 2 minutes from the grocery store, that whole bag of cookies was empty and in my garage garbage can before I got in the door with the healthy groceries. If I purchased two bags of cookies, they would have both been consumed.
Considering that I was gluten free, dairy free, corn free and consumed a very healthy whole foods diet, I exercised regularly, slept well and hydrated effectively, the Friday cookie binge didn’t seem to be much of an issue, but it was. During the four days following the mini bag episodes, I would have intense sugar cravings, mood fluctuations and energy imbalances to where I would need to nap. So, I identified the problem and I had to “break up” with sugar. I actually wrote a “Dear Sugar Letter” to formalize the end, explaining the ups and downs that sugar and I had shared together. It was more of a fun letter but served its point for me. The most important part to the success of my power over sugar however, came from my deep knowledge of the relationship between sugar and death. That combined with my personal choice not be a hypocrite and to share in the healthy path that I outline for patients who hire me to be their health expert.
This article is to serve as “food for thought” for those who want to understand the end game of sugar and how it plays out in the lives of those who can’t seem to walk away from it. I had to intellectualize my path to be able to make the choice that I did. Here are some snippets of the power-tools that I used to arm myself and win the battle over sugar;
Sugar consumption over the years.
In the early 1900’s the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, that average was around 123 pounds of sugar. Today, the average American consumes around 152 pounds of sugar a year. This is approximately six cups of sugar a week! If you follow me on Facebook, you are aware that I have a thing for repeatedly pointing out the relationship between sugar consumption, inflammation and disease. We all know that important topics, when repeated, usually show up on the final exam. In this case, the final exam is on how you chose to live your life. Will you decide, unlike many Americans, not to die from a completely preventable disease by modifying your diet?
Carbs are broken into three categories; sugar, fiber and starch. Starches are classified as complex carbs, as they consist of many sugar molecules joined together. Complex carbs, like breads, cereals and grains, were often viewed as healthy. I propose that the changes in technology have modified our requirements for these foods. 100 years ago, doing the laundry was similar to a high intensity interval training class. Now we push a button. We no longer need to get up to find the remote control, we can just talk to our devices. Door Dash delivery has replaced the 2 hours labor in the garden and time it took to prepare a meal. Amazon delivery has removed the physical activity of going out and walking around shopping. With all of these changes, the requirement for percentages of carbs in our diet should have been modified accordingly, but in stead of eating less, we are eating more.
There is a difference between the type of carb with relationship to whole foods or refined. With fiber intact, whole foods release the sugar into your blood stream at a slower pace, often allowing the sugar to be used for energy. You can find a 100% whole wheat non-GMO, Organic bread at the grocery store. This bread has more fiber and releases the sugar more slowly into your blood stream. When you use this whole grain bread it is still a carbohydrate. A great tip is to only use half of what you are used to. For example, if you make sandwiches, try an open faced sandwich, bread on the bottom, lettuce on the top. Do you really need two whole slices of bread for that eight to ten hour work day sitting in front of a computer?
Enriched, bleached and refined grains have been stripped of the fiber and so there is a more rapid release of sugar in the bloodstream. This rapid release, called “empty calories”, leave you tired, hungry, gaining weight and craving more. The bread ingredients say it right off the bat “Enriched wheat flour, Barley Malt” etc… If you have any tendency toward sugar addiction, these sugar spiking foods can start the downward spiral. Not many people are aware that a serving of white bread can trigger a level of insulin that can start sweet cravings, and those cravings can last for 4 days. There are also starchier natural foods that will spike sugar quickly like white potato, banana, corn and peas. Extensive study shows that eating a diet rich in refined starches is directly linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
High starch, low fiber, less healthy food examples;
• Cereals with enriched flour
• Enriched or refined Baking Flours
• Pasta or Breads with enriched, bleached, refined flour
• Instant noodles, instant rice, white rice
• White Potato
Higher fiber, lower starch, more healthy food examples;
• Bread: whole grain, multigrain, rye, sourdough
• Fruit: apples, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums, pears
• Vegetables: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, zucchini
• Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, baked beans, butter beans, kidney beans
• Rice: long grain, brown
• Grains: quinoa, couscous, buckwheat
• Dairy and dairy replacements: cheese, yogurt, unsweet coconut or almond milk
• Fish and seafood: including salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, and prawns
• Other animal products: including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and eggs
• Nuts: such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, and macadamia nuts
Hidden Sugars Everywhere.
There are over 600,000 products available on the grocery shelves of America. 80% of those items have sugar added. This includes Morton’s Salt, pickles, ketchup, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce, most salad dressings and relish. The decision to list the “Added Sugars” to a label only came to fruition in 2019. Until then only “Total Sugars” were listed among many loopholes for the industry to hide sugar from the consumer. Some common “hidden sugar” mistakes that I see people confused with on a daily basis; “No Sugar Added” Foods that still have sugar added under another name. Instant, Flavored Oatmeal may have 4 teaspoons of sugar or more. Dried Fruit often has sugar added, even though the fruit was already a natural source of sugar. Smoothies are toted as a healthy meal replacement that often contain fruit juice, flavored syrup, and hidden sugar. What are some of the names for these hidden sugars?
- Corn syrup
- Rice syrup
- Juice Concentrates
- Cane Sugar
- Confectionary Sugar
- Brown Sugar
Sugar and the leading causes of death.
Instead of sifting through the thousands of studies that dance around the varying statistics on sugar and death, I am going to summarize a directional concept into bullet point statements. These statements are great to print and put up on your refrigerator door.
- High levels of sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption are the primary drivers of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
- The damage caused by refined sugar consumption increases inflammation in the cardiovascular system, increasing cholesterol and blood pressure.
- 647,000 people a year die in the U.S. from cardiovascular diseases.
- 121 Million Americans have some form of Cardiovascular disease.
- 43% of Americans are classified as obese in 2020.
- Obesity, over 35 BMI, carries a decreased life expectancy by approximately 8 years.
- Obesity is listed as cause of death at the rate of 2.8 million a year.
- Type 2 diabetics have a decreased life expectancy of 10 years.
- Diabetes counts for 12% of all Deaths in America.
- Sugar feeds the body type that supports cancer cell survival.
- Consuming Refined Sugar turns the natural estrogens that are made in your body into a cancer-causing form of Estrogen.
- The number one risk factor for breast cancer returning after successful treatment is increased body weight/body fat composition/obesity.
- 184,000 worldwide deaths a year are related to sugary drink consumption.
- Of the 3,700 disease diagnoses that can be made, there is only one connection; inflammation. Sugar drives up levels of inflammation in the body.
Overcoming Sugar Cravings.
Once you have removed high refined sugars and sugar spiking carbohydrates from your diet completely, it can take 4-10 days for the cravings to dissipate. There are many things that you can do to improve your odds of success.
- Hydrate Properly. Many people report a significant reduction in sugar cravings if they consume 50% of their body weight in ounces of water.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners. The taste of sweet can be enough to trigger ongoing cravings. Even if there are no calories, these “no sugar” products are very toxic and will not help your process.
- Create a team. There are groups like overeaters anonymous who meet regularly and create support mechanisms, accountability and sponsors to assist people through the challenge of overcoming an addictive tendency toward foods. You do not have to meet in a group though, having a close friend or family member can be enough if you ask them to be your “accountability partner”.
- Don’t skip meals. Ravishing hunger for some can be a trigger to grab a quick sugar to feel better. This is likely to trigger the sugar craving centers of your brain.
- Identify your weakness. As mentioned before, are you stress, hungry, lonely, tired, bored, pissed off or a social eater? Plan ahead if you know that you will be in the environment that you are weakest. Have some healthy foods like hummus, hard-boiled eggs or cut-up veggies prepped and ready to go. That way if you find yourself in a pinch there is still some quick to grab items that are less likely to trigger you.
- Hire a Functional Medicine, Certified Clinical Nutritionist to identify your biochemical imbalances. Finding the right diet for your individual system can be very balancing and helpful to keeping your cravings lower. This diet is individual to your needs and your genetic makeup.
Are there vitamins that can help with sugar cravings?
There are a number of tools in the form of vitamin therapies that you can use to help with this challenge.
- Magnesium is used in the regulation of glucose, insulin, and the neurotransmitter dopamine; a deficiency can manifest in the form of intense sugar cravings, especially for chocolate. Magnesium glycinate 100mg with each meal can be helpful.
- Zinc is needed for proper insulin and glucose utilization; a deficiency can also lead to sugar cravings. Zinc Picolinate at 30-50mg a day can improve the processing of sugar for some people and subsequently decrease cravings.
- Chromium and Vanadium are insulin-sensitizing minerals that can create blood sugar stability and decrease cravings. Chromium 300mg 2x day and vanadyl sulfate 10 mg 2x day is often a supportive starting dose.
- Cinnamon Extract is a spice that also serves to improve insulin sensitivity allowing sugar to be used more effectively, less likely to be stored as fat and help control cravings. 500mg 2x day is a good place to start.
- L-Taurine is an amino acid that assists the release of insulin helping to control carbohydrate metabolism.
- My supplement Sugar-Mend has most of these nutrients in a combination for easy use. Start with 2 capsules at breakfast and 2 capsules at lunch. Add Magnesium Complete and Zinc if more support is needed.
Sugar will not kill you right away so it seems innocent. Consuming refined carbohydrates and sugary snacks on a daily basis will catch up with you eventually. We are trained from an early age that sugar is connected to celebrations, traditions, Holidays and birthdays. Also, not just for celebrations, sugar will console you when you are feeling down. It is much more socially acceptable to use sugar as a medication for stress or depression than it is to drink large quantities of alcohol or use an illegal drug. The food industry does not have your back. They will continue to find ways to pack the foods that you eat with hidden sugars. This is simple psychology. If the food has more sugar, it releases more satisfaction in your brain and you, the consumer, will want more. Sugar is connected to systemic inflammation that is a driver for all diseases and sits firmly in the seat as a primary contributor to the leading causes of death. Sugar is highly addictive and for certain genetically predisposed people can create a real health crisis. The 43% obesity rate in America speaks to this problem being an epidemic.
The great news is that the list of diseases that sugar can contribute to can often be controlled or reversed with sugar elimination or moderation. There is nothing wrong with having a small serving of your favorite treat every once in a while. There are a number of effective tools to help you overcome sugar addiction issues between support groups, friends or family members, dietary modification, mindful preparation, optimal hydration, trigger identification and individualized guidance from a Functional Medicine Doctor or Clinical Nutritionist.
Whenever you are ready to create a new path the tools will become available to you. I enjoy a delightful organic berry sorbet at my children’s birthday parties instead of cake and ice cream. The sorbet tastes great and removes the need for a nap, intense cravings and feeling low mood later. Nothing tastes as good as having great energy and a clear mind feels. If I can do it, I have no doubt that you can too.
Health is most certainly a choice. Chose as if your life depends on it, because it actually does.