Back in 1822, an average American would take five days to eat the amount of added sugar that we get in just one can of soda. Today, that much sugar is consumed within seven hours.1
India is likely to have it worse, being the largest consumer of sugar in the world.2,3
Here’s why this isn’t good news.
What Happens When Sugar Enters our Body
Carbohydrates are thought of as “quick fuel” for our body because they are simpler to convert into energy, as compared to fats and proteins.4
When we consume them, they are broken down into small units of sugar, mainly glucose. The glucose in your blood, referred to as ‘blood sugar’, is then transported to the various tissues and organs, where it is used as energy.
There are two hormones in the body that mainly regulate this blood sugar:5
1. Insulin: makes our cells receive blood sugar and use it as energy, thereby reducing the amount of sugar in blood.
2. Glucagon: releases our body’s stored energy into circulation when it needs it (for example, between meals and during exercise), thereby increasing the sugar in blood.
Together, they are designed to keep the circulating glucose level within a relatively narrow range (~70 – 140 mg/dL).
When there’s excess glucose in the blood, the body experiences a ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’, where it goes way out of the normal range.6
This has three stages: the spike, the crash and the craving.
During this stage, excess sugar gets turned into body fat. Also, all this excess blood sugar makes our insulin levels increase rapidly.
The overproduction of insulin makes blood sugar suddenly low, leading to a “crash”.
The sudden drop of blood sugar releases stress hormones, which gives us a tired, weak and shaky feeling, with a rapid heart rate.
Since carbohydrates are the quickest source of energy, your body now craves it – leading to a constant cycle.
Sugar and Addiction
Sugar is generally addictive because it releases a feel-good hormone called dopamine, which affects the ‘reward and pleasure’ centres of our brain. In fact, sugar is said to trigger a more ‘rewarding’ sensation than even cocaine!7,8
Gradually, the more sugar you have, the less dopamine is released. To get the same effect, you need to keep having sugar – leading to addiction.7,8
Long-term Effects of the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
- High levels of insulin gradually make the cells resistant to it. This leads to type-II diabetes 9
- High blood sugar for a prolonged period of time leads to all sorts of problems including inflammation, nerve damage, heart disease, skin problems, and bone and joint problems 9
- Through its effects on insulin and glucagon, the sugar rollercoaster can create metabolic mayhem, as the hormones of our body have complex interrelationships 9
- It is the primary cause of weight gain
Balance is Essential
Trying to completely cut out carbohydrates from your diet to avoid the blood sugar rollercoaster doesn’t help either. When your body doesn’t get enough carbohydrates, it burns muscle, and holds on to fat. This makes energy levels drop, and cravings increase – as you can imagine, this may also lead to weight gain.
The solution? The right amount of carbohydrates! This maintains a balance between our insulin and glucagon levels, and ultimately promotes less fat storage.
Ways to Cut Down Sugar
Indians have a genetic predisposition to type-II diabetes, making it even more important to cut down on all the sugar! 11
Meals: Avoid carbohydrate-only meals (like store-bought donuts and plain bagels). Including proteins, fibre and good fats in your diet reduces the insulin spike in the blood, and keeps you fuller for longer (so you crave less sugar!). Also, choose whole grains instead of refined grains. 4,6
Sugar Intake: nine teaspoons of added sugars is said to be the daily limit for men, and for women, six. Make rules about when you can allow yourself a treat, based on these numbers and your meals.12
Glycemic Index: Foods with a low ‘glycemic index’ don’t spike your insulin levels. You can download an app on your smartphone that can tell you about the glycemic index of common foods.
Avoid junk and processed food: These often have added sugars. Read food labels and ingredients lists of packaged food. Look out for other names of sugar like high-fructose corn syrup, dried cane syrup, invert sugar, and molasses.
Beverages: Gradually reduce the amount of sugar in your beverages by adding flavour. For example, you can order an unsweetened latte and add cocoa, cinnamon or vanilla powder.
Artificial sweeteners: Diet soda, sugar-free candy and packets of sugar substitutes aren’t good either! They’re believed to encourage sugar cravings. 13
Drinks: Do you generally mix a sweet beverage with your alcohol? Replace sweet beverages with club soda/water and lime.
Dark Chocolate: Love chocolates? Replace your regular ones with at least 70% pure cocoa chocolates.
Understand what your body needs – is it addicted or simply hungry? Notice the effect of your food on your body.
In addition to all of these, exercise to help burn off all the sugar!
With these simple fixes, you can soon get rid of constant cravings and feel lighter, fitter and happier – without depending on sugar!
1. Guyenet S. By 2606, the US Diet will be 100 Percent Sugar. 2012
2. Gulati S & Misra A. Nutrients 2014, 6(12): 5955-5974.
3. USDA. Foreign Agricultural Service Report 2014.; 2014.
4. Boundless. Boundless Biology. Hormonal Regulation of Metabolism 2015
5. Aronoff SL, et al. Diabetes Spectrum 2004, 17: 183-190.
6. Burn G. Healthy Mind and Body All-in-One For Dummies. Wiley, 2009.
7. Avena NM, et al. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2008, 32(1): 20-39.
8. Lenoir M, et al. PLoS ONE 2007, 2(8): e698.
9. MayoClinic.org. Hyperglycemia in diabetes. Diseases and Conditions 2015
10. Jameson J. Harrison’s Endocrinology, Second Edition. McGraw-Hill Education, 2010.
11. Radha V & Mohan V. Indian J Med Res 2007, 125(3): 259-274.
12. Johnson RK, et al. Circulation 2009, 120(11): 1011-1020.
13. Yang Q. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 2010, 83(2): 101-108.