In 1822, the average American consumed about 45 grams of sugar every five days — and I’m guessing that he wasn’t getting it from Ding Dongs and Skittles.
You want to take a stab at how much sugar the average American consumes today? 765 grams every five days. Or rather, the same amount that ye old American was drinking, but in seven hours instead of five days.
We have taken something that used to be a luxury and made it into an entire food group. Scratch that. We’ve weaved it into all our food groups.
If we were to take about 20 teaspoon-sized steps back, what would happen to our bodies and our minds? Let’s talk about you not on sugar.
You could glow like Beyonce
Glycation. The effects of sugar molecules on your body’s cells. Guess which cells are most prone to this effect? The same ones that make you look younger, plumper, and glowy, of course! According to an article in Elle, “when those proteins hook up with renegade sugars, they become discolored, weak, and less supple; this shows up on the skin’s surface as wrinkles, sagginess, and a loss of radiance.”
Okay, okay, we get it. So if we cut out the ice cream (and the sugar-packed cereals, and yes, even the heaping amounts of fruit), how soon can we expect results? Well, Dr. Harold Lancer, Kim Kardashian and Beyonce’s dermatologist, says people can see changes within as little as 72 to 96 hours. “They’ll feel better, their color will look better, their skin won’t be so oily and they won’t be so dry. Their circles will be reduced, perkier,” says Dr. Lancer.
That just might be enough motivation for us.
You could clear up that pizza face
But wait, there’s more! Apparently, sugar can also cause breakouts. How so? According to Beyonce’s derm, sugar has the ability to weaken the immune system. A weak immune system can’t fight off bacteria, and bacteria clogs pores. Clogged pored cause pimples. Ugh.
In addition, consuming sugar can increase your testosterone levels. And Dr. Lancer told New York mag, “Testosterone makes pores larger, skin is oilier, [and] it turns your beautiful female skin into ruddy football player skin.”
Ruddy and pimply or… Beyonce? Um. We’re with her.
Be a fertile myrtle
When Ellen Picton cut out sugar, dairy, processed foods, and alcohol from her diet, she wasn’t trying to lose weight or improve her complexion. She was trying to become fertile.
At 29, after suffering a lifetime of endometriosis, Picton met the love of her life and decided she was going to take matters into her own hands. In hearing promising results from her colleague (who also had endometriosis), she followed the advice of Dr. Zoe Harcombe and cut out the sugar. Within three months of overhauling her diet, her period was late. But this time, it had nothing to do with her endometriosis. That’s right. After years of doctors telling her she was infertile and that she may be forced into an early menopause, she conceived a baby.
Again, the research here may be a little light. But there are some potential sugar to fertility connections. Namely, sugar’s effects on hormones. We’ll explain.
Get your mojo back
A 2007 study from the Child & Family Research Institute found that excessive amounts of sugar can turn off the gene that controls the levels of estrogen and testosterone in your body. This gene is aptly named the Sex Hormone Binding Globulin, or SHBG for short.
You want your SHBG to be just right. You see, if there’s too little of it, an excess of testosterone and estrogen will be released throughout your body which can lead to infertility (see above), polycystic ovaries, and uterine cancers. If there’s too much of it, it still disrupts that E to T balance (estrogen to testosterone) which could lead to cardiovascular disease in women.
All this sounds pretty bad for women. But remember when we mentioned the lowered testosterone that leads to acne? Guess what else lowered testosterone means? Flabby muscles, flabbier bellies, and decreased sex drive in men. Oh boy. Talk about a mood killer. Forget the chocolate molten cake. We’ll take the check!
Find harmony at home
Swedish mom Anna Larsson and her sweet daughter are making headlines after Larsson posted to her Facebook page the story of her elimination of sugar in her five-year-old’s diet. Before the sugar detox, the little girl would only eat sugary foods and have temper tantrums at the drop of a hat. What happened after? Larsson told BBC, “She was calming down so quickly, falling asleep so quickly in the evenings, and she did not want to look at the television all the time, she wanted to do things.”
And the craziest part is Larsson claims that this drastic change in attitude only took two days. Two days for her taste buds to change. Two days for her to ask for vegetables instead of cookies. Two days for her to become, as Larrson puts it, “a harmonious little girl.”
Anecdotal? Maybe. The BBC makes it a point to say that there is little science to back up the claim that sugar affects behavior. An article in Parenting magazine agrees that numerous studies cannot find sugar as the cause of hyperactivity. However, the problem may not be in the sugar high, but the sugar crash. According to the article, “blood-sugar levels may then drop so quickly, your child may feel shaky or sluggish.” Shaky? Sluggish? Seems like the perfect cocktail for a meltdown to us.
You might just lose that weight!
We couldn’t leave this one out. It’s often the most common and obvious reason to eliminate the white stuff from your life. Celebrities are having success with it — from John Goodman to Adele. Seems pretty straightforward. Stop eating donuts, cronuts, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and stop taking in all of the empty calories that come with them, right?
Well, that’s just part of the story. Remember earlier when we were talking about insulin release and its effects on hormones? Insulin also has some other jobs. One of them is to communicate with our fat cells. When insulin levels are sky-high, it will tell our cells to store fat and avoid burning more. From here, the body can’t access the stored fat. Which it interprets to mean, “I’m hungry!” Another bowl of granola? Don’t mind if I do. And what about that granola? Do you think it’s going to keep you full and satisfied until lunch? Probably not.
A 2013 study served 20 healthy test subjects either a glucose-sweetened drink or a fructose-sweetened drink. (Just a quick reminder that glucose is the body’s preferred energy source, while fructose relies solely on the liver to be metabolized, which doesn’t always go as planned.) The results? The glucose drinkers felt more full and satiated, while the fructose drinkers were left unsatisfied and somewhat hungry.
Interpretation: The more processed sugar you eat, the more processed sugar you want. All the while, your body is storing fat, not burning it, and wondering, “When am I going to get my next meal?” Cut down the sugar, and you might just see your waistline go down too. Couldn’t hurt to try, right?
You could clear the cobwebs
Upon immediate consumption, fructose is a reward for the brain. It gets a temporary high and feels pretty good about itself. But animal research is now suggesting that repeated sugar hits lead to prolonged dopamine signaling, a more rewarded brain, and in turn, a need for more sugar to keep this fantastic high going. As neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis puts it, sugar “hijacks the brain’s reward pathway.”
In another animal study, researchers at UCLA found that a diet high in sugar can affect your ability to learn new things and remember old ones. The gist of their research was this: Rats who ate too much sugar had damaged synaptic activity leading to impaired communication between brain cells.
Last but not least, elevated blood sugar levels can cause inflammation in the body, which can also lead to brain degeneration, and ultimately, diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Addictive tendencies? Check. Learning impairment? Check. Memory loss? Check. Gang’s all here! Before we know it, we’re going to see Rachel Leigh Cook with a frying pan and a donut, shouting “This is your brain on sugar!”
Take the edge off
Sugar and anxiety. They seem to go hand in hand, don’t they? You had a fight with your boyfriend? You eat a pint of ice cream. Nervous the night before a presentation? You eat a pint of ice cream with chocolate chips. Asking for a raise tomorrow? You eat a pint of ice cream with chocolate chips and slather it with peanut butter. What? Too much?
Anyways, according to Psychology Today, it’s not sugar that causes anxiety, but it is a catalyst for making anxiety symptoms worse. For example, for the person who suffers from an anxiety attack, sugar can exacerbate her already heightened sense of impending danger. Blurry vision, fuzzy head, fatigue, shaking — these are all symptoms of a typical panic attack. The worsening symptoms cause more worry and fear, creating a vicious cycle.
What about for those of us that don’t suffer from panic attacks, but maybe your garden variety anxiety pings? Well there’s some rat research that seems to say a little bit more about the general effects of sugar on anxiety. A 2008 study found that rats given an excess of sugar,and then deprived of food showed a dopamine imbalance which resulted in increased anxiety. The following year, another study found that consuming sugar in the long term reduces the ability to fight anxiety. All this talk of anxiety is making us a little nervous. Maybe a nice cup of tea to calm our nerves? Hold the sugar, of course.
A world with no sugar?
Before we go cleaning our cabinets of all things with any sugar content and banning birthday cakes from our kids, let’s keep a little perspective, shall we?
The sugar discussed in this article is largely from processed foods like soda pops, sports drinks, breakfast cereals, and snacks that are marketed to be healthy, like low-fat yogurts and protein bars. That still leaves plenty of room for more natural forms of sugar, like berries, sweet potatoes, dark chocolate, and even homemade baked goods sweetened with things like honey or dates. We need sugar in our diet. It gives us energy. The problem is our approach to eating it.
Take Maddy Moon, for example. The former fitness competitor turned body confidence coach has gone to the extreme with sugar — from overloading herself with it to going months without a drop of it at all. But in neither case did she feel healthy. She now will allow herself wine, beer, fruit, and even cake when she feels like it. “I have absolutely zero judgment towards my food choices when I do decide to have sugar, I just do it with radical responsibility, knowing how it might make me feel,” she says.
I think we can all take a page out of Maddy’s book and approach sugar in the same way. Just like anything else, too much of anything is a bad thing (i.e. 765 grams? C’mon, America!). But just enough can lead to a very sweet life.