I recently listened to a lecture series, which discussed the role of nutritious eating, exercise, stress management, 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep, and avoidance of toxins - all requirements for those of us who want to age well. This was not new information, but for some reason, it made an impression this time.
The question haunting me was whether I had been burying my head in the sand for a very long time by ignoring or downplaying all that valuable knowledge. What specifically grabbed my attention and the focus of this article is the role sugar might be playing in my health.
I have always eaten sugar. Lately, way too much. My daily diet included a brownie for lunch (they were so good!); a sugary afternoon snack (well, I needed energy!); a piece of cake after dinner (it was small!) and two cookies before bedtime (but it was only two!).
That didn’t include sugar in starchy vegetables like potatoes, whole grains, rice, breads, and cereals. Bagels for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta or rice for dinner were major parts of my diet.
In addition, the yogurt with granola I eat each morning has about 30 grams of sugar and the English muffin has about five. That’s already over the limit according to the American Health Association (AMA) and it’s only breakfast.
While other groups are more lenient, the AMA suggests an added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.
Healthy or natural sugar occurs in fruits, vegetables, and tea or black coffee. It’s also an additive in certain foods and drinks.
Unhealthy or refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, which is processed to extract the sugar. People use white and brown sugars to sweeten coffee, cereal, and even fruit. Common foods with unhealthy sugar include, but are not limited to
Cookies, cakes and pastries
Bread, pasta and crackers
Pre-made beverages, including coffee, tea and sports drinks
Salad dressing and condiments
Tomato and pasta sauce
For more information, take a look at The Health Line website. It lists eighteen surprising foods high in sugar. There are many other websites that provide solid information, such as https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/18-surprising-foods-high-in-sugar and https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-sugar-foods.php.
While sugar is not unhealthy in and of itself, consuming too much can lead to health problems such as diabetes, cavities, and more. Too much sugar can also cause increased weight, irritability, fatigue, low energy, and headaches. More serious concerns are Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammation, acne or wrinkles, and joint pain. So, while it tastes so good, sugar isn’t necessarily your best friend.
Conversely, cutting sugar out of your diet can decrease inflammation, boost energy levels, improve sleep and the ability to focus.
Is it really possible that lowering the amount of sugar I eat could make a difference in my health and my goal to age well?
Just in case, I decided to decrease the amount of sugar in my diet by cutting back on the bread, juices, sodas, and portions of rice and pasta. Cookies and cake remain, but they are being phased out.
Sure, there will be sugar in my diet - it’s almost impossible to have none - but my choices are now more mindful and careful. So, we’ll see - after three weeks, it seems like there are some changes.
Several other websites discuss the negative effects of sugar on a person’s body. For example, the WebMed website discusses ten ways that sugar affects the body. Similarly, the Healthline website names eleven reasons why too much sugar is bad for you.
Two major risks to highlight are brain damage and obesity.
Dr. David Perlmutter, a Board-Certified Neurologist and five-time New York Times bestselling author, suggests that a person’s diet effects his or her brain and may lead to brain diseases like dementia. His message is long, but powerful and worth considering.
I was the primary care-provider for my husband as Alzheimer’s disease ravaged his brain. It was hell. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone and plan to take every precaution to avoid the disease.
The United States leads the world in consumption of added sugars and ranks third in the world in the sale of sugary drinks. All of this sugar has consequences - the U.S. has one of the highest overall obesity rates in the world, and the highest rate of childhood obesity. Over 30 million Americans have diabetes, and another 84 million are at risk of developing diabetes.
Various research studies have drawn a link between sugar consumption and excess body weight. Johns Hopkins cardiologist Chiadi E. Ndumele, M.D., M.H.S says:
I don’t think we have enough evidence yet to suggest that sugar is the reason for the obesity epidemic . . .but there is enough evidence to say that elevated sugar consumption is an important contributor to weight gain.
The CDC website states
The US obesity prevalence was 42.4% in 2017 – 2018.
From 1999 –2000 through 2017 –2018, US obesity prevalence increased from 30.5% to 42.4%. During the same time, the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%.
Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. These are among the leading causes of preventable, premature death.
The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008. Medical costs for people who had obesity was $1,429 higher than medical costs for people with healthy weight.
The map shows the self-reported cases of obesity by state.
Is there such thing as a sugar addiction? The jury is still out.
We find little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar. These behaviors likely arise from intermittent access to sweet tasting or highly palatable foods, not the neuro-chemical effects of sugar.
Sugar addiction can be both a behavioral addiction—you get used to eating sugar after meals or at certain times of the day—and it can also be a chemical addiction. When you quit or interrupt your normal schedule, your body may show signs of distress or withdrawal.
Whether there is such a thing as a sugar addiction or not, take a look at what could happen if you stopped eating sugar for a week?
I cut my sugar consumption down by about two-thirds and do generally feel better.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
The Elite Medical Center website suggest 6 ways to remove sugar from the diet including lots of water and choosing fruits over desserts.
The Healthline website offers a Simple Three Step Plan for Stopping sugar cravings which includes eating a healthy meal, taking a hot shower or going for a walk when you feel the cravings.
My plan is to cut sugar consumption back in phases.
If you are interested in healthy diets, two are the Mediterranean plan, which I want to follow more closely and the Keto plan, which is popular right now. You may want to read about the differences. However, there are many, many more options.
I am not really thinking in terms of diet alone, though, but more of a lifestyle change. One that includes healthy eating and less sugar.
While sugar probably won’t be totally eliminated from my diet, I can certainly be more mindful about my choices. So, my new goal is to take my head out of the sand and include sugar - minimally. Let’s see if doing this will help me, or you if you want to check it out, to age well.