Many chronic health problems that Americans face is preventable, and the recipe for that is relatively simple coming down to proper food choices and adequate exercise. From the department of health and human services, two hundred years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In 1970, we ate 123 pounds of sugar per year. Today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year. That is astonishing and makes for no surprise that a 2016 the National Health Nutrition and Examination Survey revealed that nearly 40% of American adults are obese. According to the American Heart Association, American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day, more than 3 times the recommended amount for women. This adds up to around 60 pounds of added sugar annually – that's six, 10-pound bowling balls, folks! The numbers are even worse for children. American kids consume 81 grams per day, equaling over 65 pounds of added sugar per year. Think of it this way – children are ingesting over 30 gallons of added sugars from beverages alone. That’s enough to fill a bathtub! Where’s all this added sugar coming from?
Those amounts are staggering and just plain sad. Food manufacturers are required to list the amount of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label by mid 2021, or earlier depending on the size of the company. It will be interesting to see the impact that has on disease most directly correlated with sugar consumption like cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. This is a step towards better informing the masses about what they are putting into their bodies, but is that enough? How do we get individuals to care and to prevent the long-term consequences? Sugar is at the top of lists of foods that cause joint and muscle inflammation which causes pain and also puts you at higher risk of other diseases like cancer. Obviously, it is toxic to our bodies yet most Americans are addicted to it. If we want to truly live pain free, we must start to treat our bodies like the temples that they are.
To further discuss this topic and to help educate us on what high sugar intake as well as what other toxic foods we are eating can do to our bodies and how we can start fixing our habits today, I asked Julie Olson, Functional Nutritionist for an interview. Julie is trained through the Institute of Functional Medicine, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition® (BCHN) by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board and the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP), a Certified Nutritionist (CN), a Certified Gluten-Free Practitioner (CGP), and has a Diploma of Comprehensive Nutrition (Dip.C.N.) from Huntington University of Health Sciences. Julie also has advanced her practice through many areas of continuing education.
To listen to this dialogue, check out the interview on our Podcast!
Me: First of all, Julie, I would love to hear how you got into this field and what your mission is through your work and life.
Julie: While working at Warner Bros. Pictures in California as a Senior Media Research Analyst, I received a phone call informing me that my mother was diagnosed with Stage-3 breast cancer. Within weeks, I moved back to my home-state, Colorado, to be closer to my mother and support her through her treatments. Through my search for her cure, I discovered the power of healthy foods and lifestyle choices as the real medicine for illness. My new discovery led me back to school where I studied holistic and functional nutrition. My studies left me fascinated and I was hooked.
My passion is to provide inspirational tools, guidance and education to empower all of my clients for long-term success. I am very grateful I discovered this in time to help my mother, who made positive food and lifestyle changes and today is a healthy and thriving breast cancer survivor!
Let’s start by talking about the abundance of sugar in the American diet or Western diet. I’ve never been one to eat much sugar because in high school I gave up sugar- no table sugar, no honey, nothing. I did eventually go back to it but forevermore I have been aware of the effects that sugar has on me because when you go without, it makes you much more cognizant of the effects of putting it back into your body. When I have things with added sugar, I get brain fog, I feel my nasal passages get stuffy, I become forgetful, sometimes I get a mild, tension headache, I become more tired and irritable. So, generally I try to stay away from sugar. I check every label of everything I buy to make sure there are no added sugars unless it is made with honey or real maple syrup. This is a habit I have had for about 15 years. But I think about the fact that to come to this awareness, it truly had to be eliminated and eliminated to the point where if you do eat something with sugar, it tastes too sweet in a bad way and when you eat fruits and veggies, their flavors begin to become so much more vibrant. So, I believe that many people are really suffering from eating foods from sugar and not just around their waistline, not just obvious things like diabetes and hypertension but in so many ways, we are making ourselves ill by eating too much sugar.
Me: So, tell me, what is the science behind sugar, and what is it doing to our bodies especially when we have too much of it?
Julie: Although the sugar industry has actively fought to change public opinion about the health effects of sugar, we know that sugar NEGATIVELY impacts just about every organ system in the body.
For some science, when we digest sugar, enzymes in the small intestine break it down into glucose. This glucose is then released into the bloodstream, where it is transported to tissue cells in our muscles and organs and converted into energy. Beta cells in the pancreas constantly monitor the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and cells and release insulin to control it. Basically, insulin opens the door to each cell. This means that if you consume more sugar than your body needs right away, it should be stored for later to keep your blood-sugar levels constant. But, with high amounts of sugar, cells become saturated and can reject it. The pancreas can burn out and stop making insulin. If your body stops producing any or enough insulin, or if your cells become resistant to it, this can result in diabetes, along with other health complications.
Added sugar feeds yeast and bad bacteria that can damage the intestinal wall, creating a leaky gut.
This means the chronic, low-grade inflammation that sugar triggers can lead to the transfer of substances from the gut into the bloodstream. This can trigger obesity and other chronic, metabolic diseases. (1, 2)
Sugar also sticks to proteins and damages cells, which leads to accelerated aging. One protein it really likes to stick to is collagen. Collagen is one of the proteins that makes up our skin, bones, joints, blood vessels, tendons and connective tissue. When collagen is damaged it loses its elasticity and suppleness. This leads to wrinkles, stiff joints, weak brittle bones, tight tendons, constricted blood vessels and of course accelerated aging.
Researchers also found soda drinkers had shorter telomeres, a sign of decreased longevity and accelerated cell aging. (3)
Me: What about sugar’s effect on the brain?
Julie: When we eat sugar, the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the hormones that boost your mood, which then stimulate the area of the brain associated with reward. Dopamine works with the regulators in your brain, and when large amounts are released these regulators are dulled.
This means that it takes more and more sugar to get the same feeling as the first time. So, where as a small cupcake may have been enough for you, overtime it will take two or more to get the same feeling. Regular sugar consumption can also inhibit dopamine transporters, which can lead to you needing to eat even more sugar to get the same pleasure reward as before. And sugar doesn’t suppress hunger hormones meaning your body is unable to tell when you’ve eaten enough. These are similar processes that lead to drug addiction. In fact, some studies have found sugar to be 8 times more addictive than cocaine! Side-by-side MRI images of the brain on sugar and on cocaine are nearly identical!
Some chronic health problems associated with excess sugar in our diet include:
Many chronic health problems associated with consumption of excess sugar including:
Metabolic syndrome with high cholesterol and hypertension
Fatigue and pain
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (EBV) and fibromyalgia
Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis
Respiratory diseases, such as asthma
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS),
Candida and yeast infections
Mood and mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD
And of course, Diabetes, weight gain and obesity
This is the short list. The actual list goes on and on!
Me: How does sugar increase inflammation and pain?
Julie: Let’s first talk a bit about inflammation.
Inflammation is a key aspect of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. Acute inflammation helps to heal damaged tissue and defend itself against pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
Problems arise when the inflammatory process goes on for too long and becomes chronic.
Chronic inflammation can last for months or years as a result of failure to eliminate the cause.
Chronic inflammation is at the root of most health problems and diseases.
A common sign of chronic inflammation is body pain.
Some people with chronic inflammation experience pain as a general body ache. Others may have pain in one or more joints. For some people, though, the pain is mainly in the lower back.
Sugar causes chronic inflammation by multiple pathways. It stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver. When the body digests these free fatty acids, the resulting compounds can trigger inflammatory processes.
The most important factor is that when we eat simple sugars, our blood glucose spikes. When this happens, our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight system) gets activated. In addition to raising our blood pressure and heart rate, pro-inflammatory cytokines get released throughout our body. Then, our body produces insulin which itself is a pro-inflammatory hormone that promotes the formation of arachidonic acid which is a building block for pro-inflammatory cytokines. The more sugar we eat, the more we rev up your body's inflammatory response.
Me: How little sugar do we actually need?
Julie: Sugar falls within the carbohydrate group as it consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms and acts as fuel for the body. In fact, carbohydrates are a main source of energy, converted by the body to power our cells. We need some sugar for some brain cells, some kidney cells, red blood cells and testes cells.
But we only need 5% of daily calories from sugar. For instance, by eating 2,000 calories per day, the sugar would be 100 calories and hopefully it’s coming from natural sugar. Most women should not consume more than 100 calories per day of sugar (six teaspoons or 20 grams) and no more than 150 calories per day for men (or about nine teaspoons or 36 grams). (4)
To put that into perspective, one teaspoon is equal to four grams of sugar. An eight-ounce glass of orange juice has 5.5 teaspoons of sugar. That’s equal to over 20 grams. That’s why you want to eat your fruit; don’t drink it.
Let’s not forget about the kids! Children do not need so much sugar, yet it’s in everything. Sugar consumption for children should not go beyond three teaspoons of sugar per day, which equates to 12 grams. Did you know that one cup of Fruit Loops cereal contains 3.75 teaspoons of sugar? That alone is over the recommended amount for kids.
Me: What else happens to our body when we overindulge in sugar?
Sugar negatively impacts brain function, can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and increases our risk of heart disease.
Added sugars appear to increase the risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs.
Sugar can give a sense of having energy. The truth is, it’s false energy. Sugar gives our body a rush that allows it to get a small boost. When this boost is gone, we have what is known as a sugar crash leaving us feeling tired or it can leave us feeling tired along with having a migraine or light headedness.
Sugar over stimulates our body to have a reaction that makes you jumpy or anxious. This can, at first, be confused with just being excited or energetic. The problem is that we need to have more and more sugar to get that same reaction. Our nerves, cells, and body system as a whole become used to the sugar and begin to crave it. It makes our body feel like the only way we can get the boost is through sugar. In this way, it is just like any other drug addiction, tricking our body into needing the chemical to keep going.
Overloads Our Liver
This is probably one of the most common adverse side effects that added sugar has on our body. Our liver is put in jeopardy if we consume too many foods with added sugar, since sugar can overload it. Sugar will be broken down into fructose and glucose, and our liver can only metabolize so much of it at one time. This may lead to issues later on with your liver.
Increases Risk for Type 2 Diabetes
As mentioned previously, our body often becomes resistant to insulin when it’s trying to digest a lot of sugar, which can cause mismanaged levels of blood sugar. This in turn may increase our risk for diabetes, or accelerate it to where we notice its effects much sooner.
Exacerbates Mood and Mental Issues
As I mentioned, sugar causes a short-term boost of energy that leads to a much longer sugar crash. This in turn can make it harder when dealing with mental health issues like depression, bipolar, anxiety and ADHD as the crash often mimics a depressive episode. Too much sugar can also cause severe mood swings and irritability.
Having too much sugar in our body can also trick our body into holding onto weight or gaining weight. When we have too much sugar in our body, it doesn’t stimulate insulin properly. This ultimately causes our hunger hormone to work in overdrive, which is why we tend to eat more or feel hungrier after eaten foods with a lot of added sugar. When we keep feeling hungry, we eat more to be satiated, and thus have a much higher risk of gaining weight.
Me: Are naturally occurring sugars actually like maple syrup, honey, and agave syrup better for you, does eating them make a difference in how your body processes it? And do you believe it reduces one’s risk of disease over table sugar?
Julie: I get this question all the time and include the explanation in most of my classes. The overall answer is NO and there are numerous studies to support it. Our body processes any sugar the same way. Dextrose. Fructose. Lactose. Maltose. Glucose. Sugar by any other name is still sugar. In fact, there are more than 60 different names for it.
We start secreting insulin from the moment we think about or anticipate eating. The taste of something sweet causes a higher secretion of insulin.
Published studies in the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, and the Nutrients Journal, to name a few as referenced in its systematic review find no difference in inflammation from dietary fructose and glucose or sucrose.
Me: How about non-caloric artificial sweeteners?
Julie: The problem with non-caloric artificial sweeteners is they do not contain any calories and the body still makes insulin, yet the insulin locks all fuel sources away, so the cells are hungry! We feel hungry sooner and crave sweets to replace the calories we have stored away in anticipation of the new calories arriving. Artificial sweeteners literally produce effects similar to those obtained with table sugar, highlighting the importance of reevaluating our relationship with sweetened food and sugar per se.
Did you know that the artificial sweeteners Aspartame (NutraSweet) breaks down into formaldehyde in the body, so you can pickle yourself before you are dead, Ha! Ha! and Sucralose (Splenda) can cause swelling of the liver and kidneys!
Me: What Are the Best Alternatives for Sugar (or Added Sugar)?
Julie: For all these alternatives, choose organic and use sparingly:
3. Maple Syrup
5. Coconut sugar
6. Blackstrap molasses
7. Balsamic glaze
8. Buy fresh fruits instead of fruits that are canned, especially those in syrups.
9. Instead of adding sugar to your morning cereal, use fresh bananas or berries.
10. When baking, cut the sugar by one third. Just try it! You probably won’t even notice.
11. Try using spices, such as ginger, cinnamon or nutmeg, instead of sugar.
12. Try unsweetened applesauce instead of sugar in recipes.
Me: What are some ways to reduce our sugar intake?
Julie: First determine if you have a mineral deficiency.
Mineral imbalances in the body can cause sugar cravings. Essential minerals help maintain our hydration status, so being deficient can cause you to reach for sweets when, in truth, you are just dehydrated. People who experience sugar cravings often have very low zinc, calcium, chromium, and magnesium levels. Magnesium regulates glucose and insulin levels, as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine. A deficiency will cause intense sugar cravings, especially for chocolate.
Sugar addiction is the canary in the coal mine.
It usually points to a larger problem that is also dragging you down. To beat sugar addiction, first you’ll need to figure out which type of sugar addict you are. Different kinds of sugar addictions have different underlying causes and require different solutions. If you have tried the “cold turkey” approach to sugar addiction without nutritional strategies, guidelines, and support, you probably found success elusive. That’s because getting rid of the sugar is but one step in an overall comprehensive approach that must be addressed.
The 4 Sugar Addiction Types
Type 1: Chronically exhausted and hooked on caffeine and sugar.
Type 2: Adrenal exhaustion or burnout.
Type 3: Yeast/candida overgrowth. This may be accompanied with chronic nasal congestion, sinus infections, or irritable bowel syndrome.
Type 4: Hormonal. This can be from premenstrual (PMS), perimenopause, menopause or andropause for men.
Me: As a sales person by profession, I always say, you cannot drive results for something that you do not track. You have to come up with baseline metrics first. So, I recommend to people that you start by tracking all of the sugar you eat over a 2-week period, eating your normal diet without changing a thing. Make sure you are looking at all of the dressings, condiments, sauces, crackers you are eating because those are the sneaky culprits, things that definitely don’t need sugar but do. Then, start slowly by maybe just eliminating the things that have added sugar that don’t need to and then once you had made yourself accustomed to less sugar, the easier it will be to actually reduce sweets and sodas from your diet. I am not a nutritionist, but that is one of ways I have found is easier to get people to wean off of addictive sugars.
Me: Would you agree with that method and what are some other ways you get your clients to eat less sugar?
Julie: Sure, that’s one way to do it. But, take it slowly, to ensure that you’ll be able to handle the process easily. It won’t happen overnight. It takes time and patience.
15 Other ways to conquer sugar cravings and stop eating excess sugar include:
1. Increase Your Fiber Intake
Fiber moves through the body undigested, helping to keep you feeling full and satisfied to kick sugar cravings to the curb. Not only that, dietary fiber also helps keep blood sugar levels steady, preventing a drop in sugar levels and side-stepping some potential negative effects of sugar withdrawal. A few healthy high-fiber foods include vegetables, nuts and seeds and legumes. Remember to drink more water if you’re upping your fiber intake to prevent unpleasant digestive side effects, such as constipation.
2. Eat More Protein
Protein is great for reducing hunger and sugar cravings. Not only does a high-protein diet cut levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, but it also helps maintain normal blood sugar levels to prevent several sugar withdrawal symptoms. (5, 6) Good sources of protein include grass-fed beef, lentils, wild caught fish, organic poultry and free-range eggs. Keep a few high-protein snacks on hand for when sugar cravings strike.
3. Stay Hydrated
How many times have you felt your stomach grumbling, only to drink a glass of water and have it disappear? Thirst is often confused with hunger, and sometimes all it takes is drinking a bit of water and staying hydrated to squash cravings. Next time you catch yourself eyeing a sugary candy bar or dessert, try drinking a glass of water, waiting half an hour and seeing if you’re actually hungry or just feeling thirsty. Drink water instead of flavored beverages and juices.
4. Try supplementing with Gymnema Sylvestre
This rare herb is known as the “destroyer of sugar” and studies indicate that it helps to stimulate insulin production in the pancreas, which also helps lower blood sugar levels. It can help inhibit glucose absorption and reduce sugar cravings, as shown by research conducted in India.
5. Pack in Some Probiotics
Eating plenty of probiotic-rich foods helps increase the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Not only does this have far-reaching effects in terms of digestive health and immunity, but some research has even found that it could regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce sugar cravings and appetite. (7) A few examples of nutritious probiotic foods include kombucha, kefir, tempeh, miso, kimchi and natto. Aim for a few servings per week to give your gut health a boost and minimize sugar cravings.
6. Up Your Intake of Healthy Fats
Fat, much like protein and fiber, can promote satiety while warding off sugar cravings. This is because fat is digested very slowly, so it keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should load up on the greasy burgers and fries in order to reduce your sugar cravings. Instead, opt for healthy fats from foods like avocados, nuts and seeds or coconut oil.
7. Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth with Alternatives
There are sweet alternatives to grab without the side negative effects. Some options are fruit, adding spices such as cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg and yogurt. Fruit is great for satisfying sugar cravings since it contains natural sugar, but since it has plenty of fiber it helps control blood sugar levels. However, the natural sugar fruit contains does add up so it's best to limit fruit intake to 2-3 servings per day.
8. Don't Keep Temptations in the House / Clean Out Your Pantry
Keeping sugary foods around the house makes breaking a sugar habit harder. Remove sugar, syrup, and honey from your pantry and table. Nobody has unlimited willpower; most people can only say no to that chocolate bar so many times before giving into temptation. It's easier to say no to sweets once at the grocery store than to say no to sweets fifteen times at home. By removing all temptations from your home, you reduce the amount of willpower you must exercise on a daily basis and set yourself up for success!
9. Plan out your meals and snacks / Prepare Food and Beverages Yourself
By starting your week knowing what you’re going to eat, it makes it much easier to stay on track, plus even harder to stray toward the candy machine or picking-up fast foods or take-out.
10. Stay motivated
Make a list of the reasons why you decided to cut out sugar and keep it close by to keep you going strong when cravings hit or symptoms worsen.
11. Don't Deprive Yourself Completely
Going cold turkey on sugar does work for a few people but for many, it leads to a sugar binge. In order to avoid this binge, allow yourself to have a couple of portion-controlled treats each week. The key to stopping at just one sweet treat is to focus on quality over quantity; instead of buying a large bag of cheap sweets, have a slice of cake from a bakery or a bar of your favorite chocolate. If you're seeking to completely cut out processed sugar, reduce your sugar intake gradually. In no time you won’t even want the sugary treats because you feel so much better and they’ll taste too sweet! For years now, I’ve had no desire or cravings for sweets.
12. Get Some Exercise and Adequate Sleep When you exercise, it reduces your stress levels. This is important when cutting back on sugar because high stress-levels may lead you to reach for sugary foods. The exercise doesn't have to be strenuous to have a positive effect, even a brisk walk can help reduce your stress levels and keep you on track. Lack of sleep can cause everyone to crave sweets!
13. Learn to Distinguish Cravings from Hunger When you have a craving you may feel like you are truly hungry, but this isn't always the case. You may be seeking out a specific food because you're stressed, bored, or upset rather than being truly hungry. To determine whether you are truly hungry or simply having a craving, ask yourself if you would eat something like eggs, carrots, or an apple or if you only want sugary foods? If the answer is that you only want sugary foods, find something to take your mind off of eating until you are truly hungry.
14. Smell Instead of Tasting