For mind and body, sugar is too sweet to be wholesome

Sugar, and our craving for it, is a silent killer. To boost our mental and physical wellbeing Martina Gallivan outlines ways to avoid the sugar rollercoaster.

Most of us frequently experience sugar cravings and find it difficult not to devour foods that have a high sugar content, especially when feeling tired and in need of instant energy.

Food manufactures love sugar because they know we’ll keep buying it. So extra sugar is added to certain products which makes them tastier. And the removal of fat is often replaced by sugar or sugar substitutes.

“In order to overcome a sugar rush we should view it as if going through a tunnel. You can’t turn back. It’s a one-way system. So, when you have a craving, STOP”

The thing about sugar is most people deny their overuse of it. But if I ask somebody the question of how much sugar they consume, the reply and indeed interpretation is they don’t use sugar in tea or coffee. However, sugar is in most foods. For example, it is used in yogurt, granola, low fat snacks, fruit-flavoured water, bread and sauces to name a few. Added to this our consumption of foods containing sugar eventually makes us crave more of the same.

Globesity

For this reason, I’m convinced there are many of us who are addicted to sugar on some level. The consumption of high sugar and refined foods dominates our dietary intake and can potentially lead to illnesses including high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, mood alterations, and is also a contributory factor to blood sugar spikes which can lead to insulin resistance. Undoubtedly, the number one contributory factor to many illnesses is obesity. This is a worldwide problem and nowadays often referred to as “globesity”. 

Frequently, people tend to blame themselves for lack of control around food. Yet food cravings are very real and equally capable of producing a chemical reaction whereby the pleasure centres in our brain light up which in turn triggers further cravings.

Compounding this is the relative low cost of foods which are highly palatable but yet contain very little nutrition. A concentration of energy dense rather than nutrient dense foods is endemic within our current cultural environment. This does not apply purely to adults. We’re seeing an increase in children also.

In previous articles I refer to dopamine as one of the pleasure centres of our brain hence stimulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine has the effect of giving us a natural high and providing a feel-good factor. Another is the nucleus accumbens which plays a part in our pleasure and reward system and is a contributory factor in addiction.

It begins with an initial craving and subsequent consumption of sugar. For example, a square of chocolate which gradually escalates to eating most of the bar or binging on the whole bar. A behaviour similar to the type of compulsiveness often seen with other addictions. We feel comfort from eating and have a propensity to eat in response to an external trigger, for example a stressful situation in work or at home. Cortisol the stress hormone is an enticement to eat sugary foods which boosts neurotransmitters and has the ability to distract us away from an emotional chain of events. But rather than dealing with it, we envelope ourselves in the comfortable familiarity of eating, most likely sugar.

How to overcome a sugar rush

In order to overcome a sugar rush we should view it as if going through a tunnel. You can’t turn back. It’s a one-way system. So, when you have a craving, STOP. Realise that cravings are part of a normal response to those same chemical reactions in your brain I eluded to earlier.

We are creatures of habit so for example if my routine is to sit with a cup of tea and a handful of biscuits at 8pm, my brain will draw upon memory producing a chemical signal which reminds me of the habit. But this habit can change over time and with some self-help you can incrementally diminish one habit in favour of another.

Firstly, recognise the feeling. Become aware of the craving and its causes or triggers. Cravings peak and fall. They come in waves but can subside given time. Usually within 45minutes. Turn your attention away from the craving. Go for a walk, do the ironing, phone a friend. Whatever it is you feel could help to draw your attention away from the craving, then do it.  

Another way to self-help is by rebalancing blood sugar levels. You can do this by eating regularly. Every 3-4 hours ensuring you have a source of protein with each meal. For example some nuts, cheese, chicken, smoked salmon etc… and possibly some natural sugars found in fruit. By balancing blood sugar levels you can avoid what we call a “blood sugar rollercoaster” which may raise your insulin and therefore trigger more sugar cravings.  

Breathing exercises are actually very helpful with cravings. They instantly take your mind away from the craving due to the concentration it takes to mindfully breathe. Draw in your breath for 4 seconds, hold for 5, and release after 7 seconds. There are numerous apps out there also for breathing which you can download.

American physician Dr Mark Hyman states “foods that spike blood sugar are biologically addictive” and this is true.

You have to start to think differently about sugary foods which could lead you to seek out more of the same. By identifying these foods, you may then be able to avoid them before they take control of you.

Martina Gallivan is a nutritionist and director of RK Cardiology Healthy Living Ltd. If you are interested in learning more about health and lifestyle medicine for you or your family please contact her at martina@roseville.ie

Published: 6 March 2020