I have always had sensitive blood sugar. My mom tells me that from a very early age I had a look—a far away, glossy-eyed stare—when I needed to replenish. I am breastfeeding, so now more than ever, I can feel when my blood sugar drops, and I often almost frantically crave a quick fix to reboot.
My co-worker has nine old fashion jars each filled with different kind of candy on her desk. It’s supposedly a sugar ministry for the kids, but the jars are always there in our shared office, inviting me to indulge.
My mom used to hide candy in our house, and it became a game for my siblings and I to find it and then eat it slowly enough that she wouldn’t notice and change locations.
We are one month away from introducing food to my son. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we eat. Simon is watching intently. What will we introduce him to? What will our rules around sugar be? Am I willing to cut out sugar for Simon’s sake? Is downshifting on sugar enough? Thanksgiving pie okay? Well then how about Easter jelly beans? And then there is birthday cake and Christmas cookies and ice cream on a hot day and…
I had been thinking a lot about sugar, then, when my dear friend asked me to edit her MFA thesis titled Sugar Dust. It was so well written that it made my teeth hurt. She tells her family history that includes sugar plantations and refineries, and at the end, she digs into sugar in modern day society. She plainly asks the question, “How much sugar is enough?”
With her permission, I am sharing an excerpt from Sugar Dust, by Robbie Oxnard Bent. The whole piece is wonderful, but here’s a taste (pun intended):
Sugar is a carbohydrate and offers us energy, but the energy is in the form of empty calories since it provides zero nutrients, minerals, enzymes or fiber.
The American Heart Association’s (“AHA”) website states: “Too much sugar isn’t so sweet for your health…Our bodies don’t need sugar to function properly. Added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health.” The AHA recommends that women limit the amount of added sugars they consume to no more than one hundred calories (six teaspoons) per day. For men, the limit is one hundred and fifty calories per day (nine teaspoons). Today the average American adult consumes twenty-two teaspoons per day and the average American child consumes thirty-two teaspoons per day. One twelve-ounce can of Coca-Cola is sweetened with ten teaspoons of sugar or the equivalent in High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). In fact, twenty to twenty-five percent of all the calories we consume come from added sugars.
Of the 600,000 food items for sale in the United States, eighty percent include added sugars including sugar, HFCS, anhydrous dextrose, corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars, pancake syrup, sucrose, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, and liquid fructose. While some of these are unprocessed or “natural,” the effect they have on the body is the same as sugar. All sweeteners consumed in current amounts have an adverse effect on health.
Sugary drinks are the number one source of calories in the U.S. diet. The combined revenue of the three biggest sugared drink companies in the world, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr. Pepper, totaled $122 billion in 2012. Only the auto industry spends more money on marketing than the food and beverage industry. The mission of The Sugar Association, a trade group of sugar producers and growers, is “educating health professionals, media, government officials and the public about sugar’s goodness.” They claim on their website, “All-natural sugar is an important part of a healthy diet and lifestyle…Sugar is more than a “fun” food ingredient, it’s an essential one as well. Because it’s all natural, you can consume it with confidence.” The website asserts that it’s a myth that sugar makes you fat and they spend a fortune fighting claims that sugar causes disease. But the reality is that the U.S. spends close to $500 billion annually to treat medical issues related to our sugar habit including $245 billion on diabetes and $190 billion on other illnesses related to obesity. A third of Americans are obese and a third have Type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes. The increase in added sugars in our diet correlate to an increase in obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, any one of which increases your chance of early death. These five illnesses clustered together are called Metabolic Syndrome. Insulin resistance is linked to metabolic syndrome. Apparently thin people can be insulin resistant too. In fact, twenty percent of those who are obese have a normal metabolic profile and as many as forty percent of those who are normal weight have an abnormal metabolic profile. It’s not subcutaneous fat that causes the problem; it’s the invisible visceral fat surrounding our organs that kills us slowly. Fructose is frying our livers. Now, scientists are researching the possibility that Alzheimer’s is a form of diet-induced diabetes.
New research suggests that soda may be linked to violence in young people. In a study conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health, those who drank five or more cans of soft drinks in the previous week were much more likely to engage in violence against peers, siblings and romantic partners and were forty percent more likely to have carried a gun or knife in the previous year. The effect of sugar on these behaviors was on par with or stronger than that of alcohol and tobacco. Other studies have linked soda consumption with depression and suicidal behavior.
What, exactly, does sugar do in our bodies? According to Dr. Michael W. Smith, “Sugar fuels every cell in our brain and our brain sees sugar as a reward, which makes us keep wanting more of it.” Sugar is turned into glucose in the bloodstream (which makes blood sugar spike) and the body moves glucose into cells for energy. “To do this, our pancreas makes insulin, a hormone. As a result, our blood sugar level may have a sudden drop. This rapid change in blood sugar leaves us feeling wiped out and shaky and searching for more sweets to regain a sugar high.” In our brains, the dopamine receptor D2 must be switched on for us to feel pleasure. The amino acid dopamine triggers the pleasure response and sugar increases dopamine in the short run. “Our brains are wired for reward—it is the primary force behind human survival.” Furthermore, “Evolutionarily, sweetness was the signal to our ancestors that something was safe to eat because no sweet foods are acutely poisonous.” It’s still true—no sweet foods are poisonous—but in the amounts we eat today, sugar is poisoning our bodies.
Brain scans of obese people look a lot like brain scans of people addicted to drugs or alcohol. A healthy person’s brain scan shows a lot of dopamine, but scans of the obese or addicts show little to none. “When someone experiences a reward—say while eating a really good meal—their Dopamine…level spikes. For addicts, the opposite is true: [t]hat spike in Dopamine only comes in anticipation of the reward, as opposed to the actual reward itself.” People can be addicted to sugar in the same way they are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Since dopamine is reduced in addicts of all kinds, more stimulation is needed in order to feel pleasure. “Not only does fructose turn your liver to fat and your proteins brown, but it tells your brain that you need more of it…and more…Similar to the effects of alcoholism, fructose stimulates excessive and continued consumption by tricking your brain into wanting more.” We eat more and more and more seeking pleasure that is harder and harder to attain.
Many researchers are looking into the link between alcohol addiction and sugar addiction. According to a research abstract on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information:
[A] high number of alcohol-dependent and other drug-dependent individuals have a sweet preference, specifically for foods with a high sucrose concentration. Moreover, both human and animal studies have demonstrated that in some brains the consumption of sugar-rich foods or drinks primes the release of euphoric endorphins and dopamine within the nucleus accumbens, in a manner similar to some drugs of abuse. The neurobiological pathways of drug and “sugar addiction” involve similar neural receptors, neurotransmitters, and hedonic regions in the brain. Craving, tolerance, withdrawal and sensitization have been documented in both human and animal studies…It has also been observed that the biological children of alcoholic parents, particularly alcoholic fathers, are at greater risk to have a strong sweet preference.
 Lustig, p. 49.
 Lustig, p. 61.
 McCay, Tom.
 Lustig, p. 127.
 Fortuna, J.
How much sugar is enough? One answer is clearly, “None.”
How will it all work in the real world with Simon? None is not terribly realistic, but I also know it is good to keep asking the question.