Sweet and innocent? Certainly not. As our global sugar intake rises, our health is in decline. We give you the lowdown on why we crave sugar and how to beat it
According to chef Samin Nosrat’s famed cookbook (and, later, Netflix series), Salt Fat Acid Heat, a well-rounded, flavorsome dish relies on mastering cooking with these four key elements. So where does sugar come into the picture? Globally, we now consume around 172 million tonnes of sugar each year – a quantity that’s almost impossible to fathom.
As a guide, the recommended daily intake of sugar for women is a maximum of 6 teaspoons (around 24g), but on average – and whether we’re fully aware of it or not – we’re each consuming something closer to 28-30 teaspoons per day. A huge difference, which is, inevitably, taking its toll on our health and general wellbeing.
Which leads us to ask: if more savory (or umami) flavors can satisfy our taste buds, and our bodies’ requirements, why do we reach for the sugary treats so frequently? And, truthfully, can cutting the sweet stuff out of our diets – or even reducing our intake – make a real and lasting difference to our all-round wellness? We took a closer look…
What is it about sugar that makes us crave it?
The short answer, according to London-based longevity and nutrition expert Vivienne Talsmat, is that “sugar sets off a chain reaction of chemicals [endorphins and dopamine] in the brain that explode the reward centre, making us feel happy and fulfilled. Think of a firework display – when you eat sugar, a series of electrical and chemical pathways light up several different regions of your brain, and it feels so good that you want to do it again. As you repeat this cycle, it becomes a habit and an addiction.”
Like most addictions, it’s not healthy, but, as with most habits, it can be broken. Some things, such as our seemingly innocent groceries, don’t make it easy, however.
There is no way I eat 28 teaspoons of sugar a day… or is there?
Read the ingredients lists on most packaging carefully – even things we assume to be “healthy” options – and you’ll make an interesting discovery: there’s some form of sugar hidden in much of our food. As Vivienne tells us, “nine thousand foods in the supermarket will have sugar in them – that’s about 75% of the whole store. Don’t think that doesn’t include savory dishes, which can have more hidden sugars than obviously sweet foods. Sauces, soups, bread, mayonnaise and, the worst culprits, your fat-free foods. As fat is a taste enhancer, excess sugar is used to replace the missing deliciousness factor.”
Hidden or otherwise, what is the impact of sugar upon our health?
Naturally, if we are consuming more than four times the recommended daily intake of sugar, you’d expect it to have an impact on how you feel day to day. “It immediately starts with mood and behavioural changes,” says Vivienne. “Headaches, tiredness when the sugar rush wears off. Then, you might experience bloating, anxiety and depression. Later, when [our sugar intake is] continued over time we move up to the disease states. This is mainly Type 2 diabetes, which is totally food-induced.”
American psychotherapist Lesley Koeppel experienced this for herself. “A few years ago, I had some health issues and was feeling generally unwell. I asked the doctor to check my thyroid, as I had two inches of belly fat, which was unusual given my (I thought) fairly healthy lifestyle. She took my blood sugar and discovered I was in the pre-diatetic range – it came down to my sugar intake,” she recalls. “I [realised I] needed to make some drastic changes to my lifestyle and diet.”
That’s not the limit of sugar’s cruelty. In addition to diabetes, Vivienne references a number of health problems that make those daily “treats” suddenly look less sweet: “Metabolic syndromes – high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and abdominal fat – heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This last one is a condition that didn’t exist twenty years ago; today, it’s the leading cause of liver transplants.”
Are all sugars bad for us?
While it’s pretty clear that refined sugars have very little value, surely some sugars are necessary as part of a varied diet. “Protein, fats and carbohydrates are three of the main nutrients that our bodies need,” says Vivienne. “Carbohydrates break down into glucose (blood sugars) and are the main source of fast and easy energy for our bodies’ cells, organs and tissues.”
It’s not quite so simple as culling sugar in its entirety then. “Our bodies need the sugars that come from complex carbs, such as fruits, vegetables and grains,” Vivienne explains. “It’s refined carbs that need to be avoided, as these are the precursors to illness.”
The main benefits of reducing the sugar in our diets
For many people, the idea of a reduced – or zero-sugar diet sounds drastic. It does, however, come with some serious benefits. Primarily, as Vivienne says, “you will live a longer, happier and healthier life without a doubt. You will have very few energy dips throughout the day, experience better skin and look much younger than your years – you definitely age more slowly.”
These are all outcomes that Lesley can attest to. It’s been years now since she excluded sugar from her diet entirely, and it’s had a huge impact. “There are so many benefits: you don’t get that afternoon slump, which a lot of people fill with coffee – I don’t even feel hungry in the afternoon any more. I also sleep better at night, and my stomach doesn’t feel bloated any more.”
Still not convinced of the benefits? Vivienne adds a few more for good measure: “You reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s (diabetes of the brain), as well as all the diseases we named previously. Plus, sugar is rocket fuel for cancer.” If you need motivation, this is it. In her years of experience, Vivienne is more than aware that “health [itself] usually isn’t [motivation] for most people until they become ill and lose it. You have to list the benefits [of cutting down sugar], such as youthfulness, vitality and joy, and weigh that against disease.”
How to approach cutting sugar out of your diet
It’s not always easy to know where to begin when you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake – in fact, many of us will find plenty of excuses to avoid it! As with all addictions, it takes time to break. “When you first go sugar-free, the first two to three weeks you’re like a recovering drug addict,” says Lesley.
“All I wanted was sugar: I dreamed about it. I felt like there was nothing I could eat. Then, after a couple of weeks, I realised I needed to shift my perspective to combat the cravings; you have to think about what you can eat, not about what you can’t. I think about the provenance of food, whether something is processed or not – is it fresh? When you remove sugar from your diet, your palate changes; I started an instagram account to share what we were eating, and now it’s a platform to show people how it can be done.”
This flipping of perspectives is an approach that Vivenne concurs with, recommending that you make a list of 10 benefits and 10 drawbacks of eating sugar. “Most people will say there are only negatives; this is a lopsided perception – if you can’t see both sides you will only temporarily break the habit.”
Less sugar or sugarless?
While Lesley has cut all sugars out of her diet, that’s not something that feels available to everyone. “It’s hard,” says Vivienne. “I’ve only ever met one person who has not eaten any sugar – even honey – for twenty years. She’s forty now, looks twenty, and is super fit and full of energy. However, to stay this way she never eats out and cooks all her own meals; personally, one of my biggest joys in life is a delicious meal out with friends.” For the longevity and nutrition expert, it’s about balance. “I don’t eat processed food and I’ve not bought sugar for more than thirty years – it’s simply not in my house.”
Beyond that, she has some further tips. “Add protein and healthy fats to every meal, especially breakfast – my Rejuva|Detox powder is perfect for this—as it curbs your cravings for sugar. Make sure you get 8 hours’ sleep a night (hunger hormones are released when you miss sleep). Exercise and movement is vital.” And, if you want a more guided approach, Vivienne can help you there, too: her 28-day Longevity Is Delicious program, available here on MCC, will give you all you need to achieve the benefits of a low-sugar life.
- Vivienne Talsmat is a longevity and nutrition expert based in London; rejuva.uk. Moon Community Club members can experience her expertise via her Longevity Is Delicious program
- Follow Lesley Koeppel’s sugar-free food journey on Instagram, @cooked_at_home
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