About two years ago I began a journey to understand why I was craving sugar. Even though I considered myself a healthy eater in general, it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to eat half a box of cookies in one sitting if they were just lying around. Luckily I wouldn’t frequently buy sweets in the store, nor make them at home—but when I did, they wouldn’t last long!
Even as a child, I always seemed to have a sweet tooth—so much so that my mother was constantly concerned that I would get diabetes, although it is not a disease that runs in my family. It turns out, however, that good genetics only go so far, especially if you mistreat your body. When I was born, type-2 diabetes was non-existent in children and adolescents. It wasn’t until the 1990s when it began being diagnosed in people under the age of 18—and even then it only accounted for three per cent of all cases of new-onset diabetes in children and adolescents. Today, however, type-2 diabetes accounts up to 50 per cent of new-onset diabetes cases in youth! Diabetes—along with other metabolic disorders—are running rampant. According to a report in the Australasian Medical Journal, India tops the list with more than 62 million diabetic individuals.
Fructose, the culprit
Typically our organs, like our liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, lymphatic system and the skin, are designed to detoxify our body. When we’re healthy, our body functions normally and eliminates any harmful substances. However, if our system is overwhelmed—our body can’t perform all the necessary functions and instead stores these substances at harmful levels. This appears to be happening in the case of eating too much fructose, which is a type of sugar. Though it’s found naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables, it is being synthesised and turned into high-fructose corn syrup, which in turn can be found in sodas, juices, and other processed foods. The most important point about fructose is that it doesn’t get metabolised the same way that glucose does.
Glucose is a sugar that is utilised by all of the cells in our body. It is our basic form of energy. However, fructose, the sister carbohydrate, [which also happens to be 70 per cent sweeter than table sugar], bypasses the gut and goes straight to our livers. Some of it gets stored as glycogen, but some of it gets turned into triglycerides, which is a fancy term for fat. Too much of this can overload our livers, becoming a chronic liver toxin, and eventually lead to diseases like gout and non-alcoholic fatty liver. Once this happens, our body is negatively affected in many ways. As physician and pioneer of diabetic research, Wilfrid Oakley had said in 1962 in Transactions of the Medical Society of London, “Man may be the captain of his fate, but he is also the victim of his blood sugar.”
Your body is resilient
When your body doesn’t or can’t detoxify itself any longer, disease can set in. Our bodies are, however, intelligent and resilient systems. Even when they are burdened by poor diets, they can improve in relatively short periods of time by small diet changes. A 2015 study published in Obesity showed that metabolic syndrome can be improved in children simply by reducing fructose consumption and replacing it with healthier carbohydrates, keeping caloric intake more or less the same. The children saw improvements in their blood pressure, cholesterol readings and other aspects of health in just 10 days!
Though we should only be consuming six teaspoons of sugar daily according to the World Health Organisation, the typical American takes in 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day—which is well over three times the recommended limit! When we consume more than we should, changes in our body and mind can occur, sometimes without us consciously knowing what is happening. When I began to learn about this for myself, I decided to pay closer attention to what my body and mind was telling me. I learned that so much of what I had—from uncontrollable cravings to dips in energy throughout the day—was very much dictated by my excessive intake in sugar. As such, I began sharing this knowledge on my own personal site called sugardetox.me and sharing with others how to come to terms with one’s sweet tooth.
Signs that you need a sugar cleanse
Once you tune into your own body, you will begin to recognise clear signs that you may want to change your habits overall and give your body an additional cleanse, particularly from excessive sugars and carbohydrates. Some include the following:
You have uncontrollable cravings
Cravings—like the desire to eat a candy bar or a whole loaf of bread—are often caused by an imbalance in our blood sugar level, outside stressors, such as work stress or lack of sleep, and the “need” for a dopamine boost in the reward centres in our brain.
You have energy lulls
Cravings and energy lulls often go hand-in-hand. When we eat or drink something sugary, our body’s typical response is to tell the pancreas to release insulin to help take the sugar out of the bloodstream and shuttle to our organs. This is when our energy levels dip—compelling us to eat more sugar. If you are constantly facing low energy levels throughout the day, then you may need to make a lifestyle switch, and begin eating more nutrient-dense, non-sugary foods.
There are many causes of mood swings and it’s important to note that not all are diet induced. However, if you consume higher levels of caffeine or sugar, you may be more prone to mood swings. Reduce or eliminate your caffeine and added sugar intake if you’re seeking to create a more balanced mood.
Fogginess and mental cognition
The truth about fruits
The harmful effects of fructose apply to a western diet supplying excess calories and added sugars. It does not apply to the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables.
Fruits are real foods with low energy density and lots of fibre. It’s difficult to eat too much fruit and you will need to eat ridiculous amounts to reach harmful levels of fructose. In general, fruit is a minor source of fructose in the diet compared to added sugars.
Though research in humans is limited, various peer-reviewed studies in rats have shown how a diet steady in fructose slows the brain, hampers memory, impedes learning, and can even be a risk factor for dementia. In 2012, a team of scientists from UCLA documented the link between fructose intake and mental cognition. “Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,” said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science. Findings show that reducing one’s intake of fructose and eating omega-3 fatty acids can help improve mental cognition.
As more research surfaces about the direct links that excessive sugar intake has on our health, we can expect more moves to not only reduce sugar in our own lives—but also more politically-charged initiatives which are beginning to surface around the world, such as voluntary reduction and mandatory labelling of sugar in processed foods, removal of sugary drinks on children’s menus, banning of sodas and sugary drinks in schools and hospitals, and even sugar taxes at city, state and national levels. According to some researchers, we may very well need to go that far—developing extensive and integrated approaches—in order to bring obesity and preventable metabolic diseases like diabetes back down to pre-epidemic levels. Whatever the case, it’s clear that changes start within an individual who is seeking to make a change.
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