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The Link Between Sugar and Health

Spoonful of sugar cubes

July 11, 2022

We all love, and often crave, the sweet bliss that sugar offers us. But sugar isn’t so sweet for our physical and mental health if not carefully monitored.

Greg Nawalanic, PsyD, clinical director of psychology services at The University of Kansas Health System, answers 7 common questions about the link between sugar and our health and what we can do about making healthy choices.

  • Dr. Nawalanic talks about the bliss point, which happens with a combination of 3 ingredients: sugar, fat and salt. The goal for food manufacturers is to have just the right amount of one or more of these ingredients.

    “It’s basically hotwiring our pleasure center,” Dr. Nawalanic says. “They’ll try to mix at least 2, maybe all 3 ingredients if they can, to trigger a dopamine release, which is the neurotransmitter that’s involved in the reward center of our brain.

    “So you have 1 bite and your brain is like, ‘Whoa, that was cool.’ And then it wants to do that again.”

    Basically, those dopamine hits keep us wanting for more, which is why we’re quick to reach for another potato chip, piece of candy or bite of ice cream.

  • Simply put, the jury is still out on whether you can get addicted to sugar. However, there is a certain dependent response that people can have when eating sugar. Also, going back to that dopamine hit, the sugar brings us comfort, which keeps us going back for more.

    “It's a hot source of debate and discussion about whether sugar is actually addictive,” Dr. Nawalanic says. “Does it produce a physiological response? Can it alter brain chemistry? Does it change our behavior? Are there withdrawal effects? To some degree, there could be some irritability when you try to stop these things.

    “There are studies with rats and even humans that show, when the pleasure center gets tricked, it does largely mirror other addictive responses. But we don't want to jump to the word ‘addiction’ for sugar.”

  • It can differ from person to person depending on age, weight, existing health conditions and other factors. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams) for women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams) for men.

    Those numbers are even lower for children under the age of 18. Those concerned about their sugar intake should speak with their doctor about specific limitations in their diet.

  • Sugar itself does not cause type 2 diabetes. However, you are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if you are overweight or obese. Since eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity, there is technically an indirect link between sugar and diabetes.
  • Sugar intake still matters even if you frequently exercise.

    “My famous saying is, ‘You can't out-exercise a bad diet,'" Dr. Nawalanic says. “A common thing people do is reward themselves. ‘Oh, I went and did 30 minutes at the gym. Now I’ll go home and eat ice cream or indulge myself.’”

    The truth is, we would need to exercise basically all day to work off the number of calories taken in through a bad diet. And even then, eating unhealthy foods can still negatively affect our bodies over time. So the key is moderation in our diet, plus consistency in our lifestyle with staying active and making healthy choices.

  • Think of your decisions as a step-by-step process, and then let them evolve into a lifestyle change. Every time you make a positive decision for yourself, it encourages you to keep going. And if you slip up, that’s okay – just keep looking forward instead of dwelling on past choices.

    “When we look at any sort of behavioral change, we want to try to have less emphasis on self-flagellating thinking where we shame ourselves for mistakes,” Dr. Nawalanic says. “The more positive our orientation can be, the better.

    “You could think, ‘Here's this bag of chips. If I eat it, I know what will happen and how I’ll feel. So let's not eat it. Let's make a better choice, go for a walk, or eat something healthier.’ Engage in a positive activity so you can look back and say, ‘Wow, I resisted that urge. I did that. I made a positive choice for myself.’ And then that becomes a habit.”

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