We are all facing many challenges in our modern world. While in some ways we have made incredible advances that prolong health and increase our ability to enjoy life, in some ways we have more cards stacked against us than ever. Some of our convenience and accessibility even works to our detriment. One of the ways our health is challenged on a regular basis is our access to sugar. Our ancestral wiring to love the taste of sweetness served us well when berries and other sweet things were rare and offered precious phytonutrients rarely available. But now that sugar can be mass produced and added to everything, our desire for sweet simple carbohydrates is contributing to our demise.

There is a higher percentage of obese people in industrialized nations now than ever before, adults and children. Evidence is mounting that our global obesity pandemic is caused not as much by an over-abundance of food, as by eating food of relatively poor nutritional quality. In both industrialized and developing countries, simple sugars and starches make up the most affordable and readily-available calorie source. But what is saved in dollars over eating real, whole foods is more than paid in the cost to our bodies and brains. Eating sugar is one of the most dangerous long-term activities in which we can engage, and unfortunately one of the most popular across the globe.

Sugar consumption has been shown to cause or contribute to nearly every major disease. In the big picture sense, sugar feeds disease. In the case of cancer and diabetes, this is a literal statement. But even in less severe diseases sugar consumption can play a part. Eating any form of sugar can raise blood pressure, trigger the liver to dump the harmful fats triglycerides into the bloodstream, and double the likelihood of dying from heart disease. And this is just one of the many disease processes in which sugar plays a part.

You have probably heard that sugar is not good for you, and perhaps even your doctor has already told you to cut back. But here are a few more specific reasons to cut back on foods that contain sugar, how to identify foods that act like sugar in your body, and how you can curb sugar cravings and get your metabolism back on track.

Know Your Metabolism

Sometimes it is easier to stop a self-harming action when we understand how it is negatively affecting the body. Eating sugar is hard on the body in a number of ways, but the most readily apparent is its affect on the metabolism.

Eating sugar spikes the blood glucose (blood sugar) levels. When our blood glucose levels rise rapidly, the pancreas releases insulin to balance the blood sugar levels so we dont go into a kind of shock. Whatever glucose is not burned by the muscles immediately is stored in liver and fat tissues. Unfortunately, the pancreas tends to overcompensate and release so much insulin that the body goes into a low blood sugar state, which causes the brain to think the body needs more sugar, starting the whole roller coaster ride over again.

This is why one you have a sweet thing, an hour or two later you may find that you cannot stop yourself from eating another, then another, and perhaps craving more the next hour (or day). Years of this kind of abuse of the body can lead to the development of insulin resistance. Once the body develops insulin resistance, more and more insulin is needed to perform the functions of metabolizing glucose and balancing blood sugar levels. At a certain point the pancreas is no longer able to produce sufficient insulin to overcome the resistance, and blood glucose levels continue to rise unchecked. This can lead to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

To protect your pancreas and metabolism from this kind of damage, it is important to limit sugar intake. It also helps to manage overall blood glucose levels by eating small meals throughout the day, and getting plenty of fiber and protein to balance any sugar you do eat.

Know Your Brain

Another key component of sugar toxicity is its affect on brain chemistry. Eating simple carbohydrates activates the brains reward circuit by stimulating the release of serotonin and dopamine. Some people seem to be more strongly affected by this artificial release of brain chemicals than others, and are therefore more prone to sugar addiction. For people with fewer D2 dopamine receptors, extra large doses of sugar are required to feel the pleasurable release of dopamine, and the amount needed increases over time (much like the building of insulin resistance).

Because it is intrinsically linked to our pleasure and reward system, our ability to feel good, eating sugar can become compulsive. On a primal levels our brains believe that we are rewarding ourselves by eating sugar, when in fact we are setting up a dependency. Eventually it becomes harder and harder to feel good in any way without sugar as we need more intense and concentrated doses of dopamine to feel pleasure at all. Over time sugar dependency can rob us of our ability to experience any kind of pleasure from life, even those not associated with food.

Why White is Not Right

It is important to understand what we mean when we say sugar. The granulated stuff in shakers at coffee shops is obviously sugar. But sugar actually makes it way into our mouths in a wide variety of forms. If any food is refined enough, it acts like sugar in the body. The more the fiber and fats are removed from a food, the closer to pure sugar it is and the more dangerous for our bodies and brains it becomes. This includes all kinds of sweeteners and processed foods evaporated cane juice, cane juice crystals, corn syrup, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, any kind of fruit juice, flour, and alcohol.

A quantitative way to track how a food might affect your blood glucose levels is to check its glycemic index score (GI). Foods are ranked based on how much they will spike the bodies glucose. The highest GI food is white sugar and cane syrup/juice derivatives. Some natural sweeteners such as honey and coconut sap are not as intense for the body as cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup, but should still be enjoyed only in moderation.

You may be surprised to know that highest on the list behind white sugar are other white foods white bread, white flour, baked goods, white rice, white pasta, and white potatoes. Most of these foods are made by heavy refining, where the nutrients are bleached or processed out. This makes flour more shelf stable by removing the more volatile fats and fiber, but strips it of the necessary nutrients that would make these types of foods at least somewhat nourishing to the body. These simple sugars and starches are the prime culprits in creating blood sugar and brain chemical imbalances, and contributing to numerous diseases.

Embrace the Rainbow

To truly satisfy your palette and nourish your body, make your plate as colorful as possible. Eating a rainbow is more fun than staring at an all white plate, anyway. Strive to have a food of every color with most of your meals, and you will be getting a wide array of vital anti-oxidants and other phytonutrients. You are also likely to get more fiber, and have a meal that is lower on the GI.

The Darker, the Better

Dark, richly-pigmented foods contain the most nutrients. Their bright colors actually come from the potent nutrients they contain. Include dark leafy greens, yams, deeply-hued squashes and bell peppers, carrots, beets, and other bright dark foods to nourish your body much more deeply than white foods (other than maybe fennel stalks or cucumber innards) ever possibly could.

Feed Your Body and Brain

To help transition away from a sugar/simple carbohydrate dependency, stack the deck in your favor by keeping your body and brain well fed. Eat consistent small meals throughout the day, so you are never overfull, which would cause an insulin spike, or super hungry, which might trigger a binge caused by the signals associated with low blood glucose. Build your meals around whole vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins. One of the most helpful ways to keep your metabolism active and healthy is to eat an appropriately substantial breakfast that includes a good source of protein, 15 to 30 grams depending on your weight.

If you are busy, it helps to be prepared so you are never caught without food, tempted to eat a readily available sweet treat because you dont have time to cook. Keep yourself stocked with supportive snacks like nuts, seeds, whole fruits, nut butters, avocado, celery and other simple vegetables you can eat raw, and sprouts.

Many people breaking free of sugar are supported by making meal plans, creating a system of making the food for a whole week ahead of time, or at least having all the ingredients on hand and recipes ready for a weeks worth of food, so they never have to wonder about what they will eat in the too-late-because-you-are-already-hungry moment.

For even more help some people modulate their brain chemistry and receptor function by ingesting specific nutrients, such as protein, vitamin D, high EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, chromium, glutamine, and tyrosine. However you choose to do it, consciously supporting our body to maintain healthy blood sugar levels will go a long way in helping you break a sugar/simple carb dependency and be healthy for years to come.

Sugar is not as sweet as we might like it to be, and eating it frequently can be very bitter for us in the long run. Take even better care of your body by laying off this artificial form of sweetness, and all the foods in which it hides especially the white ones like bread and pasta. Remember, if its white its not right!


Mark Hyman, MD
Harvard Medical School