The sight of a slice of pizza oozing with cheese, the smell of fresh pastries, the fluffy feel of a piece of cake on your tongue – just the thought of these can give us intense feelings of pleasure. And in a fast paced, hectic life with time constraints, those feelings of pleasure are coveted. For some, eating has become a coping mechanism to alleviate the daily pressures of life, with many of us turning to and consuming more junk food. But beneath the taste, smell, feel and look lie hidden sugars that can contribute to troubling conditions.
Sugar – It’s Not So Sweet
Foods laden with sugar may reward us with a tasty experience, but they can produce some unpleasant consequences. Consuming too much sugar may result in higher levels of blood sugar, high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels. It can also lead to obesity and widespread inflammation, which in turn can contribute to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Where Does Sugar Hide?
Some foods that contain sugars are obvious – sodas, juices, sports beverages, cookies, baked goods, pastries, ice creams and all sorts of processed foods. Some are not so obvious. Specialty coffees found at your local café could contain more than your daily limit of sugar.
Some foods we presume are healthy, such as breakfast bars or yogurt, contain hidden sugars. For example, a breakfast bar with whole grains and real fruit could still contain 15 grams of sugar. And although “no high-fructose corn syrup” may be printed on the packaging, that does not necessarily mean low in sugar. A cup of bran cereal with raisins could have 15 grams of sugar.
There are many hiding places for sugar we don’t even consider when enjoying our meals. Ketchup is a good example. A tablespoon of ketchup contains about four grams of sugar. Many of us use considerably more than a tablespoon of this popular condiment on burgers and French fries without realizing that the sugar from the ketchup exceeds the sugar found in store-bought chocolate chip cookies.
Other products with hidden sugars include cranberry or other fruit juices, vegetable juice, salad dressings, noodles and alcoholic beverages.
A major study on intake of added sugar and cardiovascular diseases among US adults revealed that participants with 25% or more of their daily caloric intake comprised of sugars were more than twice as likely to die from heart diseases than those whose diets included less than 10% of daily calories from added sugars – 10% is the average in American diets (JAMA Internal Medicine).
Excess sugar can also have detrimental effects on the brain. Studies have found negative impacts on cognition, behavior control and memory.
Your Brain on Sugar
When we feast on junk foods, the brain reward center activates and releases dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for our feelings of pleasure and reward. When dopamine is released, it transmits a signal synonymous with a pleasurable experience. It tempts us to eat more junk food, and as we eat more of it, our tolerance for sugar increases. The craving for more junk food takes over, and our brain becomes overwhelmed with pleasure. This creates more receptors for dopamine, which then increases our desire for and dependency on junk food. It’s a vicious cycle.
Younger individuals are even more susceptible to this. That’s because the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the last part of the brain to reach maturity (typically when one is in their 20s) controls temptations, urges and cognitive behavior. With the brain not fully developed, it is more difficult to resist the temptation for junk food, and as a result, younger individuals consume more of it. Sugar intake may also spur hyperactivity and attention deficit in children and adolescents. Excess sugar can have a negative impact on memory, too, so adults need to be on guard as well.
Research studies have shown that high junk food consumption damages the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus. High sugar levels may be responsible for degeneration of nerve cells, and it may cause neuroinflammation. It can also result in diminished neurogenesis, reducing production of new neurons that form memory more easily. People who have some mental health disorders, such as depression, often have lower neurogenesis and they are drawn to eating comfort foods, which further lowers neuron production and contributes to increased feelings of sadness.
The memory center does more than help us remember things. It is also responsible for sending signals to let us know when we are full. When that is impaired, people feel hungry all the time, because the brain is unable to process fullness signals from the gut. The vicious cycle to consume sugar-sweetened foods is perpetuated, and our brain continues to release the dopamine that compels us to keep eating and craving the sugar found in so many foods.
What can we do?
How do we combat the temptation and craving for sugar infused foods? Can we win the war against junk foods?
A good starting point is to build awareness. Instead of letting the senses of sight, smell and feel tempt you into making food choices, think of how much sugar is in those foods and what those sugars will do to the body.
Eating a healthy diet, with plenty of fresh foods and vegetables, will increase antioxidants and help fight inflammation, including neuroinflammation. Include natural supplements that help you manage food cravings and support overall balance and health.
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