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The not so sweet story about sugar and sugar addiction in America

Variety of different sugars
Variety of different sugars
Romain Behar - Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that more than half of all Americans consume almost three times the recommended 40mg of refined/processed sugars every day? There is no doubt that we as consumers are unaware about the levels of sugar that is contained in the products we eat on a daily basis, and it’s this lack of knowledge that is having a major impact on the health of millions of people in the USA, and around the globe.

When I started down the path to a healthier life, sugar consumption was the first thing that was attacked, but I was not prepared for the massive withdrawal symptoms that came along with giving up sugar.

For almost two weeks I was irritable, had feelings of depression, went through bouts of cold sweats, and suffered with shaking and bad headaches. I honestly had no clue what was going on, in fact I thought I had a bad virus at one point so I went to my doctor. My doctor knew I had recently changed my diet and picked up on what was happening, but when he told me I was experiencing sugar withdrawal symptoms I was completely shocked.

Maybe in my case it was a little extreme because I went cold turkey on refined foods such as sugar (which I do not recommend), but after some research I found out that sugar can actually be as addictive as cocaine and it can be just as hard to stop using it.

Over the last 20 years, scientific data on processed and refined sugars has been accumulating. The data that has been collected indicates that sugar causes a neurochemical reaction by stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain. The sugar activates the pleasure centers and then we feel great, but the brain can become numb to the effects over time, and in order for our brain to feel the same high, we need more and more sugar.

Sugar raises insulin levels, which ultimately causes serotonin (the body's feel good or happy drug) to be released. This is why we consider sugary foods to be comfort foods because they really do make us happy when we eat them. Unfortunately they also make us gain weight, become depressed, and increase our chances for hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.

As with any other drug, if you take it on a regular basis your body needs more of it to achieve the same high. This is where we run into problems and our dependency on the drug (in this case sugar) gets out of control. As a nation we are consuming more sugar than ever before, and as a nation we are experiencing a massive outbreak of obesity, diabetes and other diseases that can be directly linked to the consumption of processed and refined sugars.

In 2012 the Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta conducted a study that saw them track and monitor sugar consumption and blood fat levels in more than 6,100 adults, and the results were not pretty.

The sugars that were tracked were table sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, agave syrup and other caloric sweeteners in processed foods such as soft drinks, iced tea, candy, pastries, cookies and canned fruits. Sugars that were not included in the study were natural sugars (fructose) which can be found in fruit, 100% juice and other natural whole foods.

The study revealed that the participants consumed an average of 21.4 teaspoons of processed sugars every day. This alone added more than 320 calories to their daily caloric consumption. On average 16 percent of the participants daily caloric consumption came from processed sugars, which is an increase of 7 percent since 1977. They also found that the participants had lower levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and higher levels of triglycerides (blood fats). The results completely shocked the researchers, and it showed that the participants just didn’t know how much sugar they were consuming on a daily basis.

The American heart association recommends that women consume no more than 6.5 teaspoons of processed sugar per day, and that men consume no more than 9.5 teaspoons per day. Remember that the average person in this study was consuming 21.4 teaspoons per day. Would you knowingly sit down at breakfast, lunch and dinner and eat 7 teaspoons of sugar on purpose? Unfortunately millions of U.S citizens are doing exactly that, and unfortunately we do not realize it.

Sugar consumption around the globe is out of control, and if we want to become a healthier we have to lose our addiction to sugar. When you are out shopping for foods be aware of the sugar content in the products you are buying, and do not automatically assume that because it says sugar free, that its sugar free. This is not always the case. Look for ingredients such as maltose, dextrose (glucose), fruit juice concentrate, corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, malt syrup, and brown rice syrup. All of these are essentially sugar, and should be considered red flags. The naming of the ingredients lets the manufacturer get away with calling their product sugar free.

Do you have to completely remove sugar from your diet? Absolutely not, because in moderation it’s okay, and quite honestly it would be next to impossible to completely remove processed sugars from your diet, but we can make smarter choices when it comes to the foods that we buy. Read the labels carefully, buy as many fresh fruits and vegetables as you can, and stick to natural, whole grain foods and you will go a long way when it comes to reducing your processed sugar consumption.