What you should know about sugar—according to a doctor


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Today, the average American consumes almost 60 pounds of added sugar per year, which translates to about 17 teaspoons a day. Despite this mass overconsumption of sugar by Americans, it is well understood that eating too much sugar is bad for your health. It contributes to weight gain, cavities, acne and long-term health problems like type 2 diabetes, cancer, liver disease, heart disease, dementia, mood disorders, and metabolic issues.

While most people know that sugar is not doing them any favors, the reality is much more serious than that: Sugar directly impacts your biology in addictive ways. Research presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference shows that sugar actually activates the reward center of your brain—the same one that lights up from cocaine and heroin. The stimulation of these neural pathways is reinforced every time we eat sweets and causes the brain to become increasingly hard-wired to crave sugar on a regular basis.

Sugar directly impacts your biology in addictive ways.

Even if you don’t think you eat a lot of added sugar, after you start to look at your diet, I bet you’ll find sugar is hiding in more places than you thought—like the smoothie you grabbed from the juice bar, the dressing at your go-to salad spot, the tomato sauce with your favorite dinner, and let’s not forget that after-dinner chocolate.

If you just read that and thought, “Crap!” you’re not alone. It’s not your fault. We’ve all been trained to think of fat as the enemy instead of sugar, which is likely why sugar overconsumption is so common.

It wasn’t until 2016 that most of the medical community started to understand the impact sugar may be having on our health.

It wasn’t until a September 2016 paper published in JAMA, a prominent American medical journal, that most of the medical community really started to understand the impact sugar may be having on our health. The paper unveiled the truth: that a major Harvard study in the 1960s, which blamed fat and cholesterol for heart disease and obesity (and downplayed the role of sugar), was actually sponsored by the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group that advocates for the U.S. sugar industry.

Here is why sugar is so problematic. Eating too much refined sugar causes systemic internal inflammation. Studies show that sugar increases key biomarkers of inflammation in the body such as C-reactive protein (CRP). Over time, regular overconsumption of refined sugar keeps the body in a prolonged, chronic state of inflammation, which is a key contributor to the acceleration of cellular aging and the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. To date, more than 8,000 scientific papers have been published on the negative health effects of added sugar.

The idea of a refined-sugar detox isn’t about deprivation.

So how can you break the cycle? I find that a short refined sugar detox works for many of my patients at Parsley Health who struggle with sugar overload in their diet. A refined sugar detox can help to effectively balance blood sugar levels, improve digestion, and reduce inflammation—while helping to ultimately curve cravings.

The idea of a refined-sugar detox isn’t about deprivation. It’s about ensuring you’re getting your daily requirement of carbs and sugars from natural, whole food-based sources such as fresh fruit, starchy vegetables, and whole grains rather than processed foods like bagels, pizza, cookies, and those on-the-go “nutrition” bars.

My challenge to you? Try just five days of refined sugar-free eating—you’ll be amazed at the short-term and long-term benefits from slashing your sugar intake. These are just a few.

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You’ll make better food choices

By eliminating processed, sugar-laden foods and adding more whole, unprocessed foods to your daily intake, your diet naturally shifts to more nutrient-dense foods like fiber-filled veggies, healthy fats, high-quality proteins, and complex carbohydrates. These will all help you feel full longer after meals and reduce sugar cravings.

Here’s why: When you’re eating a high sugar diet, the hormone ghrelin is stimulated more regularly which makes you hungry more quickly after eating. But when you cut down on sugar, you are better able to turn off those hunger hormones. Similarly, consuming sugar triggers the release of the brain hormones dopamine and serotonin, which increases your desire for more sugar. By decreasing your sugar intake, it will naturally reduce those sweet cravings.

You can strengthen your immune system

Can sugar really be linked to that lingering cold? Yes! Excess sugar can stunt the cells in your immune system that attack pathogens, your body’s white blood cells, making you more susceptible to illness and infection.

When you’re eating more plant-based foods rich in certain vitamins and minerals, you can actually help keep your immune system strong. Citrus fruits, garlic, ginger, turmeric, broccoli and almonds all contain nutrients that help to protect cells against invading pathogens and decrease your likelihood of getting sick.

You’ll boost your energy levels and stabilize mood

My patients often tell me they reach for sugar because it helps their energy—and they’re not entirely wrong. Your body absorbs simple sugars quickly, which increases your blood sugar and gives you a temporary surge of energy. But this “sugar high” is short-lived and followed by a dramatic crash in energy which often accompanies feelings of irritability, sadness, or mental fogginess.

Freeing yourself from the constant highs and lows of a high-sugar diet allows your blood sugar levels to be better regulated. As a result, you’re left with more stable energy and a more balanced mood throughout the day.

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Your skin will clear up

Sugar might be what’s firing up the inflammation causing your breakouts. When you eat too much refined sugar, systemic inflammation rises which suppresses your immune system and leaves you at a higher risk of developing pimples from acne-causing bacteria on your skin’s surface. This boost in inflammation stimulates your body’s production of stress hormones, like cortisol, which increase sebum production (the oily substance on your face) and give bacteria the ideal environment they need to grow and populate.

Your heart health will improve

Higher sugar diets can increase your risk of death from heart disease even if you are consuming other heart healthy foods regularly, like fruits and vegetables and are a healthy weight, found a 2014 JAMA study. By limiting sugar in your diet over the long-term, you’ll lessen your risk of heart disease, which still remains the leading cause of death in the United States.

While the mechanism in which excess sugar might harm the heart isn’t exactly clear, research suggests sugar’s association in raising blood pressure and stimulating the liver to excrete more fat into the bloodstream might be major factors involved in explaining why sugar-laden diets are boosting heart disease risk.

You’ll improve your gut health

Too much refined sugar can overfeed the “bad” bacteria in your gut microbiome, the ecosystem in your gastrointestinal tract that helps regulate your immune system and is key to ensuring proper digestion. This overgrowth of bad bacteria can lead to digestive issues, but also inflammation, acne, joint pain, and many other health concerns. By cutting back on sugar, you can restore the balance of bacteria—leaving you less bloated and more regular.

Ready to get started with a 5-Day No-Refined-Sugar Challenge? Head to Parsley Health for tips, recipes, and more.

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