You need a skim mocha latte to get you going in the morning. You frantically search your office drawers for something sweet after lunch every day. You grab an energy drink to make it through your evening commute. According to Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., an integrative physician and medical director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers, these scenarios may seem like harmless habits, but, in fact, they signal a sugar addiction that could be sabotaging your health.
“The problem is that we are eating more sugar than ever before—processed foods alone add more than 140 pounds of sugar to our diets each year, and up to a third of the calories we eat come from sugar and white flour,” says Teitelbaum, author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now! (Fairwinds Press). “Our bodies simply were not designed to handle this massive load.”
Countless studies prove his point. Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that eating large amounts of excess sugar triples your risk of having low HDL (the “good” cholesterol), a major risk factor for heart disease. Other studies show that sugar often replaces more nutritious foods. One study, recently published in the Annual Review of Nutrition, tracked women ages 20 to 39 from 1970 through 2000 and found that even though their daily caloric intake skyrocketed—from 1,652 calories a day in 1970 to 2,028 calories a day in 2000—the calories they got from healthy fats and protein actually decreased.
Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., says this means one thing: We’re eating fewer nutritionally dense foods and more empty calories in the form of sugar-packed processed foods.
“When you fill up on sugar, you don’t have room for fruits, vegetables and health-promoting carbohydrates—like those found in whole grains,” says Reardon. “This means we aren’t getting the nutrients that we need.” The result? Everything from decreased energy to life-threatening diseases.
Why are we addicted to sugar?
Our dependence on sweet stuff makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. “A taste for sugar is how we determined what was poisonous and what was OK to eat 2.5 million years ago,” says Reardon. “It’s one of those survival qualities we developed to help us thrive as a species.” Problem is, we’re not foraging for wild berries anymore and don’t need that trait in our survival arsenal. But our taste for sweets is still going strong, due in large part to the connection between sweets and “feel-good triggers” in the brain.
“Sugar gives us an emotional and physical lift,” says Ashley Koff, R.D., a dietitian in Los Angeles. “It stimulates the brain to release endorphins, which raise the level of the feel-good hormone serotonin.” Because of this, you may eat sugar when you’re stressed, feeling sad or dealing with PMS. “But it’s important to remember that sugar is only a Band-Aid,” says Koff. “If you are using sugar to feel good, you’ll still feel bad when it wears off.”
What’s worse, you’ll have the added problems of less energy and extra weight (at least over time).
That’s why Koff, Reardon and Teitelbaum agree the key is figuring out the underlying issues causing you to reach for sugar in the first place. “Doing that makes it much easier to break your sugar addiction for good,” says Teitelbaum.