Sugar: A Sneaky Addiction

A teaspoon of sugar with sugar cubes around it sitting on a counter

To say Andrew Nish, MD, UnityPoint Health, is extremely passionate about sugar is putting it mildly. He firmly believes sugar is the root of many major health issues. He categorizes sugar as a “metabolic disaster,” saying how we’re eating today is not the ideal diet for our genetic makeup. Dr. Nish provides five suggestions on how to overcome sugar addiction.

Why is Sugar Addictive?

Dr. Nish explains what he calls the negative feedback loop of sugar, which creates a disruption of our biochemical feedback controlling energy intake. Sugar consumption (as well as consumption of refined carbohydrates) leads to elevated insulin levels (a fat-storing hormone), which disrupts leptin signaling, thus tricking our bodies into storing more energy despite the fact that we have plenty of energy on board for normal physiologic function. We ultimately eat more food and calories (mainly in the form of sugar and refined carbohydrates) than our bodies truly need. It produces a continuous cycle, one that can only be broken by bringing insulin levels down. Sugar has another property harmful to our health and that is stimulation of reward centers in our brain, leading to probable addiction.

Dr. Nish suggests that our consumption of massive amounts of sugar can be traced to the low-fat diet fad, which appeared in the late 1970s. Emphasis shifted to making food cheap, convenient and low-fat with an extended shelf life. Consumers were faced with more products higher in carbohydrate and sugar with fewer essential nutrients.

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“The problem with today’s food can be broken down into four main bullets – we’re eating too much sugar (fructose), too many carbohydrates, too many manufactured fats and too little of essential nutrients, such as natural fats, protein and vitamins. There are roughly 600,000 processed foods in a grocery store, and 80 percent of those contain added sugar,” Dr. Nish says.

How to Break the Sugar Habit

All told, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds that as of 2000, Americans are consuming over 150 pounds of sugar each year. The American Heart Association recommends only six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons of added sugar per day for men. Very easily, Americans can far exceed this recommendation when eating breakfast. One 12-ounce glass of orange juice contains over eight teaspoons of sugar.

  Daily Sugar in Teaspoons Daily Sugar in Grams
Women 6 tsp. 24 grams
Men 9 tsp. 36 grams

(1 tsp. of sugar = 4 grams)

“We are consuming enormous amounts of sugar in forms never intended for human consumption. Our metabolic systems are built to handle sugar in the form of fruits and vegetables but are completely overwhelmed with the metabolic loads delivered in sugary beverages and processed foods.”

He offers recommendations on how to stop eating so much sugar:

  1. Artificial sweeteners aren’t the answer.
  2. Don’t be tempted to think artificial sweeteners are less harmful than regular table sugar. Although non-caloric, these artificial sweeteners are thousands of times sweeter than sugar, making us more and more tolerate of sugar in our diets. Artificial sweeteners have been associated with increased risk for weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

  3. Emphasize whole foods
  4. Plan your meals around meats, fruits and vegetables, limiting grain consumption, even if the product is identified as whole grain. Most foods advertised as whole grains are still highly processed.

  5. Examine food labels
  6. Take time to review nutritional labels. The Federal Food and Drug Administration just made changes to its food labels, including line items for both total sugar and added sugars in products. As you will notice, there is no recommended daily allowance for sugar. It is up to consumers to understand how much sugar they should be consuming.

  7. Count the ingredients
  8. In addition to reviewing the nutrition label, scroll down further to check how many ingredients are in the foods you’re purchasing. In general, the fewer the better. Also, if you can’t pronounce the ingredients listed in the product, you might want to put it back on the shelf.

  9. Don’t believe all packaging
  10. Words like “natural” and “organic” don’t necessarily paint an accurate picture. Flip to the back of a package to review the nutrition label and ingredients list to verify.

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