Do you know which substance is the most popular…most addictive…and least regulated drug in the United States? It’s not heroin…cocaine…tobacco…alcohol…or even coffee. It’s sugar.
In 2016, researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) found that excessive sugar consumption causes dopamine levels to rise in a way that parallel the effects of cocaine and other highly addictive substances. Over time, sugar consumption reduces dopamine levels, causing people to need to take in more and more sugar simply to avoid a mild state of depression. To recapture the old sugar high, a still greater quantity of sugar is required.
A Brief History of Sugar
These days, we think of sugar as a pantry staple, a food ingredient, a commonplace item. But that hasn’t always been the case. Indian records from 500 A.D. show that sugar was treated as a medicinal substance, and used to cure headaches…indigestion…and impotence.
Sugar remained a valuable, and even sacred, substance for centuries. Travelers often carried sugar in pouches to use in trade negotiations as they traversed critical routes. Then technological advances made it sugar productions far, far less time-consuming, and its value began to decrease.
By the 17th century, British people were not only stirring sugar into their tea, but using it to produce jams and sweet treats, too. By the late 20th century, sugar production had become a highly-subsidized, multi-billion-dollar industry, with a product that appeared in more and more processed foods.
The Consequences of a Sugar Overdose
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average adult living in the United States consumes 94 grams—approximately 22 teaspoons—of sugar daily. This is over twice the Food and Drug Administration’s latest recommended daily limit for men, and over three times the limit for women! No wonder, considering that 50 percent of the foods that make up a typical American diet contain sugar.
The unpleasant effects of eating all this sugar go far beyond a fleeting stomach ache. Since the late 1960s, when sugar-laden processed foods began to go mainstream, the number of people diagnosed with diabetes (a disease unquestionably related to sugar consumption) have climbed from approximately 3 million individuals to 28 million.
How to Cut Back Your Sugar Intake
The addictive nature of sugar itself is magnified by what experts call “sugar culture.” This culture shapes the way we feel about sugar and the way we incorporate it into our lives. We see sugary treats as a reward, as a centerpiece for a celebration. We associate sugar with
love…happiness…and nostalgia. It’s hardly surprising that even when we recognize the adverse health effects of sugar, and try to eat less, we often slip up.
If you’re ready to cut back your sugar consumption, Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy and sugar scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, has the following advice for you…
- Stop buying sugary drinks: she acknowledges that this will be challenging for many people, but says that “if we can all get ourselves off the sugary drinks, we would be lowering our total sugar consumption, on a population level, by almost half.”
- Don’t keep sugary foods in your house: if you have a serious sweet tooth, help yourself resist temptation by not buying sugary foods in the first place.
- Avoid foods that come in bags, boxes, and cans: highly processed foods, even ones we don’t consciously think of as sweet, often contain hidden sugar. Even snacks label “organic” or “healthy” can have high amounts of sugar in them. If the ingredients list doesn’t feature items you’d put in a homemade dish, be wary, Schmidt says.
- Surround yourself with supportive influences: food isn’t just a way to fuel our bodies, also a part of the social fabric of our lives. Seek out a community that celebrates healthy, whole-food based eating. That will make sticking to your ideals far easier than if the people around you pressure you to eat sweet treats, or stigmatize you for foregoing them.