The modern food system, and therefore modern eaters, have a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship with sugar. It’s one of the most addictive substances (up to 8 times more addicting than cocaine) that humans regularly consume and added sugar is in nearly every processed food product made.
High sugar intake is linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, high-cholesterol, heart disease, fatty liver disease, cancer, dental caries, systemic inflammation, and many other disease states. When we consume too much sugar, too frequently, it causes our brain to release an overabundance of dopamine into the reward system. Continued increases in frequency and intensity of reward center stimulation lead to addictive behaviors — we want to the pleasurable feeling from elevated dopamine to continue — so we seek out more and more sugar. The addictive qualities of sugar don’t affect everyone equally — for those with a tendency toward addiction, it’s particularly powerful. Everyone knows that cigarettes, alcohol, and illicit drugs can be addictive, but few people realize that the high amounts of sugar many of us consume on a daily basis can be even more harmful. Consider the following signs of sugar addiction: uncontrollable sugar cravings, binges, withdrawal, constantly feeling hungry, irritability, and low energy, how many of those signs have you experienced? What is perhaps most frightening, especially from a public health perspective, is how hooked our children are on sugar. No sane person would give a child a cigarette, yet, we think think it’s fine to give them a soda (or a popsicle, cereal, or “fruit” snacks). In isolation a can of soda or even a cigarette won’t do much damage — what matters is the dose — and we are dosing ourselves all-day, every-day, with sugar.
In addition to the effects of sugar on the brain, it has wide-reaching effects on the rest of the body. When we consume sugar it is quickly absorbed into our bloodstream as blood glucose. In response to increasing blood glucose levels, your pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin has many roles in the body, but the primary one is to signal glucose uptake by the cells for energy production or storage as fat. When large amounts of sugar are consumed, our blood glucose rises rapidly, triggering a large release of insulin, which works to bring our blood glucose levels back down, in part by triggering fat production (the large increase in blood sugar is a signal to your body that you consumed too much energy and therefore need to store that energy as fat). As insulin works to bring our blood glucose down, blood glucose levels frequently dip to lower than normal, leaving us feeling lethargic and craving another sugar kick.
Do we really consume that much sugar? Absolutely. The average American takes in 23 teaspoons (which is 92 grams or 368 calories) of added sugar every day. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, finally gives a specific recommendation for added sugar. The U.S. government now recommends that the calories from added sugar not exceed 10% of total daily calories. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s 200 calories or 50g of added sugar, or about half of our current intake. However, many health practitioners and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend substantially lower sugar intakes than those of the Dietary Guidelines. The AHA recommends that the daily added sugar limit should be no more than half a person’s discretionary calorie intake, which means about 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men, or 25g and 40g respectively. Although I don’t track my sugar intake (nor do I count calories or macronutrients), I do pay very close attention to limiting the amount of added sugar in my diet. A mental tally of my average day puts me between 20-30g and that’s with a lot of effort and consciousness to limit sugar. Why are the government’s recommendations so much higher than those of the AHA? Lobbying by the food industry.
Why does our food supply have so much damn sugar? Thank the food industry, again. In the last 50 years, we moved away from in-home preparation of meals and toward reliance on industrially processed foods for meals, snacks, and beverages. Mass production and processing of food generally works best — and food companies profit most — when they utilize economies of scale. Unlike our agricultural history of the past, most of our farms now produce a small number of commodities: corn, soy, and wheat. The production of these three crops (and a small handful of others) are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government (about $20 billion annually), leading to artificially cheap corn, soy, and wheat. The food companies use these cheap and abundant crops as either animal feed for meat or dairy production, or they turn them into the vast majority of shelf-stable foods and beverages in our grocery stores. We are bombarded with soda, candy, granola bars, cereal, bread, and crackers (all foods that contain added sugar) in part because there’s enormous financial incentives to do so — they’re exceptionally cheap to produce. Also, because we’re biologically programed to like sweetness and sugar is addictive, by lacing every processed food product with sugar, these companies help ensure you will continue buying more and more of their products. What we are left with is a food supply that makes the junk cheap, while making nutritious foods (fresh organic produce, pasture raised animals, wild fish, legumes, and beans) seem expensive in comparison.
One of the ways I’ve found minimalism helpful is that it cultivates a skepticism of marketing and social norms, and it encourages exploration of our personal motivations for consumption. Where food is concerned, understanding corporate control of the food system and a little human biology, psychology, and sociology, make it easier to consciously begin making alternative choices. I’m sure that an iced blended coffee drink tastes delicious on a hot summer day (it should for the 50+ grams of sugar and copious amounts of caffeine it contains). But I find the marketing and social pressure to consume “foods” that are clearly engineered to turn me into a sugar-hooked customer, rather than a healthy, autonomous person, distasteful.