It’s that time of year when the days get shorter, cool breezes become more common, and it’s no longer possible to deny that the holidays won’t swiftly be upon us.
The end of October seems to kick-off a windfall of sugary indulgences that if not controlled, can derail our bodies into a sugar coma through the end of the year. We’re tempted by all types of sweets – from bags of seasonal candies, desserts, and drinks (one can’t forget the seasonal lattes). This can be the ultimate test of self-control, everywhere we turn, one can find a sugary temptation.
photo: Oregon State University
So, what exactly makes sugar so popular? It tastes good, makes us feel good, and even gives us a momentarily jolt of energy. First, let’s differentiate between “added sugars” and “natural sugar”. Added sugar is either sugar or syrup that is included in the ingredients of processed food or beverages. Candy bars, cereals, pie fillings, canned soup, and various lattes are a few examples where you can find “added sugar”. The sugar found in fruits, vegetables, or dairy is considered naturally occurring. Hence, this is not considered to be added sugar. Added sugars are empty calories. They don’t contain any nutrients our bodies need.
Our bodies receive plenty of sugars from the whole foods we eat. Fruits and vegetables are packed with beneficial nutrition, even sugar. When our bodies ingest sugar, our bodies convert it into basic forms of fructose and glucose. Glucose is an essential component of our body. In fact, our bodies will produce glucose if required. Glucose is our “energy”. Fructose provides no physiological benefit to our bodies. Our livers can only metabolize fructose, where it is turned into glycogen for replenishment. However, if our liver is already full of glycogen and our bodies don’t require any added amounts (which is the case most of the time unless you are working out or active), the liver will turn the fructose into fat. If we continue this dangerous habit, this leads to fatty liver and many other health problems.
Consuming high levels of sugar can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin is an extremely important hormone for our bodies. It allows glucose to enter cells from the blood stream, and provides instructions to the cells to burn glucose in lieu of fat. Too much glucose in our blood is harmful, and is one of many reasons for diabetic complications. Excessive sugar consumption can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a driver for many harmful diseases, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, and especially diabetes. When our bodies become insulin resistant, our pancreas increases production to try and keep up with the demand to keep our blood sugar levels within a healthy range. However, this leads to a snowball effect as insulin resistance continually worsens. If one doesn’t change their habits, blood sugar levels will continue to increase, and they’ll be diagnosed with Type II diabetes.
Sugar affects the hormones of both children and adults. Sugar can also affect our body’s mechanism to determine whether our appetite is satisfied or not. Therefore, since the body’s mechanism for the feeling of being ‘full’ is affected by consuming an elevated amount of sugar, one who does so is likely to be overweight. Are you looking to lose weight? The best thing you can do is minimize sugar consumption as well as eliminate foods and beverages with added sugar from your diet.
How often do you feel cravings for a sugary snack or drink? If it’s often, it’s important to understand that sugar is addictive. Sugar causes a release of dopamine in the reward centers of our brains – similar to the effects of abusive drugs. The added sugar in certain foods and beverages can cause large releases of dopamine, much more than what we receive from eating fruits and vegetables. Individuals can become strongly addicted to sugar, and will seek out continued consumption of sugary beverages and food.
However, whether we are eating healthy or not, moderation is always important. We can derail our bodies by eating and drinking too much of anything. Take time during the holiday season to remain mentally aware of your eating habits and food and drink consumption. You don’t necessarily need to keep a food diary, but remember how many times you reach for those candied pecans, or how often you consume a seasonal latte. Put down the snack foods with added sugar, and snack on nuts, dried figs, or dates. Are you worried that going to a party or family gathering will be a sugary calorific explosion? Bring your own dishes to share so that you can control what you are eating. When you have the option, don’t forget to keep your plate filled with mostly fruits or vegetables. Or, you can always opt for another tried and true holiday party trick: eat beforehand!