What is it about sugar that is so terrible for us?
Our bodies were designed to process sugar in small, infrequent doses, like the natural sugar that’s found in fruits or vegetables, which also contain fibre and nutrients to slow down and regulate its absorption. The problem is, the food industry has put sugar into almost everything we are eating. They’ve also supercharged its potency, so today’s sugar packs a punch the second it hits your tongue, lighting up your nervous system and brain’s dopamine receptors, making you want more and more and more. Sugar also impacts your endocrine system, which doesn’t allow your body to assess whether you’re full. Our environment also supports this overconsumption, and when we’re overstressed or under-slept, it impacts our hormones and increases our cravings. This puts you in a real predicament where sugar becomes our solution, but also fuels our problem.
How likely is it that all of us consume too much sugar?
In short, very likely. Sugar is the star player in the foods we know aren’t healthy for us – like biscuits, cake, sweets and fizzy drinks. But it’s also hiding in plain sight in yogurt, sauces, dressings, bread and cereal. In fact, it’s hard to find a packaged food that doesn’t have added sugar. This might be why even though you think you’re eating less sugar by skipping dessert or sugary snacks, you’re still consuming unhealthy amounts, fuelling cravings and ultimately, dependence.
What are some of the main diseases or illnesses which result from a high-sugar diet?
Excessive sugar intake is linked to type II diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, kidney disease, gout, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). It can also increase the risk of developing cancer, depression and acne. Beyond that, it rots your teeth, worsens your joints, damages your kidneys and ages your skin. What’s shocking is that isn’t even a complete list.
Why is sugar so addictive?
Sugar, like other drugs, floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’. While dopamine does lead us to ‘feel good’, it mostly leads us to ‘seek out’. When our brain is consistently flooded with dopamine, as it is with a sugar-heavy diet, we are more driven to seek out than we are to enjoy. Also, when we eat sugar, our brains do not relay the proper ‘stop eating’ messages that we get from fat or protein. So, we keep eating and eating and eating, often to the point of discomfort and feelings of hopelessness and shame.
Why is sugar worse than fat or carbs?
Sugar has become the devil because we’ve finally gotten clear on the science. The low-fat movement was based on faulty research linking fat to heart disease. That study has been debunked, but it wasn’t until after the low-fat movement spurred the food industry to start taking fat out of processed foods and substituting high amounts of added sugar instead. With that change, obesity rates skyrocketed. And while some fats can negatively impact cholesterol, fats are really a vital part of our diet, and are not the villain they were made out to be. We know sugar, which is a carb, is linked to diseases that are slowly killing us, so refocusing our attention towards educating people on its evils is a win-win.
Do you think the food industry is actively trying to push sugar on us?
Without a doubt. The food industry and the tobacco industry have more similarities than I could ever begin to explain. Sugar compels you to keep consuming food, with no stop valve in sight. It certainly makes sense that putting sugar in more products would lead to more consumption, thereby enabling the food industry to sell more products. What’s more, these companies do tons of research to find that undeniable “bliss point” – the perfect balance of sweetness, fat and salt that makes you keep eating. There’s a whole host of evidence showing the food industry has pushed sugar into our products with profits, not consumer health, in mind.
In your clinic, how often do you pinpoint sugar as the problem for clients?
Most of the people who come to my clinic are in an unhealthy, and often abusive relationship with sugar. The fad-diet industry has spewed so much misinformation about low-fat, high-exercise, or highly restrictive food plans, many people don’t realise a solution exists.
Can dependence on sugar be classed as an eating disorder?
Even though a dependence on sugar hasn’t been formally recognised as an eating disorder or substance abuse disorder, it most definitely has traits of both. It shares symptoms with substance abuse disorder, such as overuse, tolerance, withdrawal, repeated attempts to quit, and continued use despite negative consequences. It also shares traits with binge eating disorders, like eating rapidly, feeling uncomfortably full, eating alone, and distress and guilt afterwards.
How realistic is it to completely eliminate sugar from our diet?
Sugar is always a tricky relationship because it tells you it’s too hard, it’s too inconvenient, it’s too painful. But with some planning and perseverance, fully breaking up with sugar is possible, and even better than that, it allows you to be in a peaceful relationship with food.
What are some of the initial baby steps that people can take to reduce their sugar intake?
The first thing I would recommend is to see exactly what your relationship with sugar looks like. Write down everything you eat for a week – the good, the bad and the in-between. This is how you can start to see where, when, what and why you’re eating and start to reduce from there. Then, think about the ways you can reduce your sugar, and be sure your commitment is one you can follow through on. It’s important to be able to feel as though you’re not letting anyone down. Find one thing you eat or drink almost every day and either reduce or cut it out of your diet – that includes the daily sugary coffee drink and the dressing on your salad – and skip dessert after dinner. My book also has a quiz which can help you better understand the nature of your particular relationship. Once you have that understanding, the changes you may want or need become clearer. And while I think people may want to give up sugar completely, reducing any amount of it can have positive effects.
Can you share some of the techniques people can use to avoid temptation?
One of the best ways to change a behaviour is to substitute it with a new one. It’s essential you find new ways to de-stress. When you’re at work, make a tea, squeeze a stress ball, chat with a colleague, or do some deep breathing. Of course, it won’t have the same numbing effect as sugar, but it also won’t cue the same feelings of hopelessness and remorse. Sometimes, it’s so important not to allow even the first bite. We can come up with all sorts of rationalisations like “It’s only one, it’s no big deal” or “Everyone’s doing it, so it’s fine.” But after that first bite, our brain is activated and not eating sugar becomes so much harder. I also recommend having something on hand to remind yourself of your commitment. At the clinic we ask people to write their personal commitment statement about why they’ve decided to give up sugar and put it on a post-it or as a pop-up reminder on their phone.
What are your top tips for keeping children on a low-sugar diet?
Limiting the sugar in your kids’ diet is incredibly important. Yet, at the same time, you want to empower your kids to make choices for themselves. It’s important to model this behaviour and highlight the consequences of overeating. So rather than saying, “Sugar is bad – you can’t have it,” say “When I eat sugar, I find it hard to stop eating and then I have a stomach ache. How does it make you feel?” Setting limits is healthy, but being a sugar dictator is certainly not a good long-term solution and can actually backfire. That being said, no one solution fits every kid, and it completely depends on your child’s individual sensitivities and needs.
You yourself have been through all of this first hand. What was your own relationship with sugar like and why was it important to get it out of your diet?
Food was always my go-to comfort source. I was put on a diet at a very young age, and struggled for the next 20 years. It was torture – I was controlled by food – to the tune of near suicidal depression and weighing over 325 pounds. It looked like this: Go on a diet, fail at diet, turn to sugar. Sugar made me feel great in the short-term, and like any abuser, it also controlled and dictated my life. Half a box of biscuits became entire boxes, small ice-cream portions became entire gallons. It dictated when and what I’d eat, told me what I should do and focus on, and it felt like my solution, when in fact, it was my problem. Eating sugar was a daily necessity – the cravings felt like commands – if I didn't have it, I felt lost, irritable and distracted.
What was the moment that snapped you out of that cycle?
My brother started the paleo fad, which I inaccurately understood as no sugar, no grains. Because I loved a fad diet back then, I challenged myself to try it. I was shocked to find myself detoxing hard – think irritability, sweats, exhaustion and mad cravings. The addiction therapist in me knew this wasn’t just an adjustment to a new diet, I was properly detoxing. So, I began researching and stumbled upon Dr Robert Lustig’s talk on sugar addiction called The Bitter Truth. The medical field was beginning to talk about sugar addiction as a real and diagnosable illness. I experienced a real “a-ha” moment: I was addicted to sugar. And that’s where my path to creating a loving and healthy relationship with food began. I haven’t really looked back since. The results I’ve experienced in every area in my life are far better than any cake, biscuit or chocolate bar I ever ate.