Sometime in the 90's, a miracle happened. My overweight, junk food loving self could suddenly get fat free cookies and cakes and wash it down with zero calorie soda. To a girl who could drink a 2 liter bottle a day, this was music to my ears. No longer did I have to feel guilty if I ate a whole box of cookies, as long as they came in a green box labeled "Snack Wells". Who needs to drink water when Diet Coke tasted better and had the same amount of calories? I could even douse my broccoli with butter that I could not believe was NOT butter!! The food industry had revolutionized diet foods and convinced America this was the new "Healthy". Surely "fat free" would keep Americans svelte and decrease the risk of heart disease and other obesity related chronic illness.
Hindsight is 20/20
Today, the rate of obesity is at a record high. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, adult onset diabetes has been renamed to Type II Diabetes since more and more children were getting diagnosed and the rate of childhood obesity went from 12% in 1990 to 23% by 2005.
Oops....maybe my fat free miracle wasn't such a miracle after all.
But how could this be? There was scientific proof that too much fat made people, well, fat. Doctors were telling patients to lower their fat intake. Nutritionists touted the food pyramid and recommended lots of grains in the form of bread and pasta (low fat) and limit meat, eggs and dairy as they were higher in fats.
We followed the recommendations...and we got fat!
Remove the fat...Replace with sugar
Turns out, when you remove fat from foods, they taste gross. In order to account for this, food manufacturers turned to one ingredient that would solve this problem...SUGAR. And guess what. Sugar is FAT FREE!!!
The makers of high fat treats found a way to make them fat free and taste good. So good in fact, the consumer would want..no need...more and more! Once "forbidden" snacks suddenly flew off shelves and filled kitchen pantry's and lunch boxes alike.
America would be thin again!
Do you know what happens to sugar when it enters the body?
When consumed, sugar, the simplest of all carbohydrates, is quickly converted to glucose. Glucose raises blood sugar and triggers the pancreas to secrete insulin, a hormone that help regulate blood sugar levels. This insulin informs the body to turn off fat burning in order to turn on glucose burning for energy. Any excess glucose not used up is stored as fat.
To summarize, the sugar used to create that fat free treat, once consumed, turns into FAT!
But that is not all...
The increase stress sugar places on the pancreas and body has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes...oh...and obesity of course! So much for my miracle!
Sugar also affects the brain in much the same way drugs do. Sweet foods result in a release of dopamine, a reward chemical that signals pleasure. The brain will seek out more of this "pleasure inducing" substance, resulting in the consumer not being able to "eat just one" cookie. Add to that the ability to build a tolerance, a sugar addict, like a drug addict, will seek more and more to reach the same level of pleasure as the first "hit".
Yes...sugar is ADDICTIVE!
Even with this knowledge, our society places such an emphasis on being thin, food manufacturers continue to perfect their craft of making "fatty" foods "healthier". Americans continue to fear the f-word (fat) and take drastic and often contradicting measures to avoid it at all costs.
Sugar in Disguise
The American Heart Association recommends adults limit their added sugar intake to 25 grams per day. Today, the average American consumes about 77 grams per day or approximately 60 pounds of sugar a year. More frightening, the average amount of sugar consumed by kids is higher at approximately 81 grams per day according to the American Heart Association! I wish it was as easy to recommend avoiding sugar on food labels, but there are now over 50 types of sugar that food companies have no problem using in order to deceive or confuse the consumer. Check out 52 different sugars here.
Some say sugar is the new tobacco, and I am inclined to agree. It was not long ago similar tactics were used to prey on the consumers ignorance using deceptive marketing and claims then placing the responsibility on the consumer if they get sick (heart disease) from their product. The company never made me buy and eat those cookies that eventually caused my obesity, but they did not make it easy to say no to them either.
What can you do?
What I once thought was a fat free blessing from above became an addiction I continue to struggle with today. There is one thing I agree on with these big food companies, it IS MY RESPONSIBILITY to keep myself healthy. They clearly are not making any plans to change. It is up to you to educate yourself and change your habits. Take responsibility!
Here are six steps you can start today to begin tackling a sugar addiction:
1. AVOID High Fructose Corn Syrup
This cheaper and sweeter version of sugar made from corn gets absorbed by the body quicker and leads to inflammation. Studies have shown this chemically produced sugar may speed up the aging process, damage the liver, increase risk of Alzheimer's, lead to depression and damage the immune system in addition to increasing risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. In addition, HFCS has been shown to be highly addictive.
If this ingredient is lingering in your pantry, throw it out!
2. Nature's Candy
Fruits and some vegetables are naturally sweet because they contain a natural sugar that is more easily broken down during digestion. Fruits and veggies also come with a powerful punch of vitamins and minerals that support health as well as fiber that keeps you feeling full longer. When in need of a sugar fix, reach for berries or other fruits that do not spike blood sugar. Try and limit or avoid dried fruits, fruit juices or canned fruits as these are often made with added sugar. Roasting vegetables such as sweet potato, beets and onions brings out a natural sweetness as well.
3. Nix the Artificial Stuff
Those cute pink, blue and yellow packets may look sweet (and taste about 3x sweeter than real sugar) but they play a mean trick on your brain,. When your brain expects a sugar "hit" and you send in an impostor, the brain will get angry and start sending signals to get it what it wants. In other words, you will begin to crave more sugar and likely overeat, totally defeating the purpose of that fat free latte with sugar free syrup and three Sweet n' Low.
If you are going to sweeten a beverage or food, go with the real thing. Reach for raw sugar or, better yet, raw unprocessed honey or maple syrup. These sweeteners have trace amounts of minerals in them and have not been highly processed.
4. Peppermint to the Rescue
Studies have shown that the smell of peppermint can curb sugar cravings. Think about it...when was the last time you were craving anything right after brushing your teeth? Nothing tastes good after a swish of minty mouthwash. Try brushing your teeth or chewing peppermint gum during the hours you usually find yourself dreaming of a sugary treat. You can also use peppermint essential oil. Place a drop in some unscented hand lotion or carrier oil and rub into hands. Cup your hands over your nose and mouth and breathe deep. You could also use a personal diffuser or cotton ball.
5. Be a Detective
As I mentioned above, there are many secret identities to sugar. Start with the foods you have at home. Compare the list to the ingredients on prepackaged foods. You might be surprised to find hidden sugars lingering more than candy and cookies. Products such as salad dressing, ketchup, yogurt, soup and "healthy" granola bars.
6. Manage Stress and Get Your Zzzzz's
Stress and lack of sleep can cause a hormonal imbalance that results in an overload of hunger hormones. When these hormones are triggered, it causes you to go hunting for food, most often the sugary ones that will help give you that dopamine "high". Aim for 8 hours of sleep and include stress reducing activities into your daily routine.
40 years ago, tobacco companies thought they had a brilliant new invention that would help people relax and unwind when they came up with the cigarette. History shows us sometimes we have to learn from mistakes. I do not blame tobacco companies for my grandmothers lung cancer or my grandfathers emphysema. There was no way of knowing the dangers of their decision to start smoking. Time would tell, and even today tobacco companies invent newer "healthier" alternatives that lure the uneducated consumer to buy their product.
Today, food companies are using the same unethical tactics to keep their pockets lined, only now the addictive substance is sugar, something that anyone, anywhere at any age can get their hands on. Like me, you may find it a struggle to reduce or even eliminate processed sugar. Addiction is real, whether to nicotine, alcohol, cocaine or sugar. To stop is hard.
Take a deep breath and start from where you are. Do not dwell on past decisions or try and place blame. With the right support, it is possible to break the sugar addiction! The first step is to recognize and acknowledge it.
Do you have a sugar addiction?
I'm Liz. Mom, wife, teacher, Health Coach. My passion lies in everything health and wellness. When new research and trends pop up, you can bet I am finding the best resources to information, weeding out the not so good and making the great easy to digest. From meal planning and recipes to exercise and mindfulness, wellness touches upon so many dimensions. Your path to optimal health is out there and I can help you find it.