Quitting sugar is undoubtedly the health trend du jour. Every insta-babe worth her stevia has renounced the sweet stuff in favour of ‘healthier’ options. But just because something’s trendy, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. On the other (slightly sugar-dusted) hand, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you either. Medical Practitioner, brain health expert and author Dr Jenny Brockis delves into this sticky topic to find out whether your intake of the pure, white, addictive stuff should be chopped, swapped or completely dropped. And, perhaps even more intriguingly, whether a pear is just as bad as a pop-tart.
SFD: So, Should I Quit Sugar?
Dr Jenny Brockis: In a word. No.
Glucose is the brain’s primary source of energy. When obtained from the breakdown of fruits, vegetables and grains it is used to fuel our brain so we can think, learn and remember.
Sugar has been added to the “bad” list of foods because we are simply eating too much. It is frequently added to many of our processed foods and beverages. This means we are not always aware of how much sugar we’re consuming.
The body and brain aren’t designed to cope with a surfeit. This leads to chronically elevated blood sugar levels, putting us at increased risk of developing insulin resistance or type-two diabetes.
It’s all about moderation and knowing where extra sugar has been added to foodstuffs. All so you can make healthier food choices. Over the last few years we have been repeatedly told to eat less fat, especially saturated fats and trans fats. Taking fat out of food impacts taste, so food manufacturers have added in extra sugar to make it more palatable. From low-fat yoghurt, tomato soup, muesli bars, carbonated drinks, to sweet-chilli sauce and certain breakfast cereals, sugar is now everywhere.
It’s time to become sugar aware and to always read food labels.
SFD: How much sugar should you be eating?
Dr Jenny Brockis: The World Health Organisation recommends we should be eating no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day. That’s about 24g. However, a typical Australian is currently consuming 60g (14 teaspoons a day), British men 63 – 84g and the Americans 94g.
Life hack: To calculate teaspoons from grams, simply divide by four.
SFD: What’s the problem with too much sugar?
Dr Jenny Brockis: Excess sugar is linked to a number of potential health problems including the risk of obesity and type-two diabetes.
What has now also been revealed is the impact high sugar consumption has on our mood, and the news isn’t good.
Data from the Whitehall 11 Study has revealed that men with the highest consumption of sugar have a 23% increased risk of developing a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression over time. Moreover, it has been shown that it is consumption of sugar that leads to a lowering of mood. This is bad news, especially for those of us who reach out for those comfort foods that are typically high in sugar and fat when we’re feeling stressed or a bit down.
In the short term, diving into that packet of chocolate biscuits or tub of ice cream can make us feel a bit better. The problem is we don’t stop after eating a couple of biscuits; we end up eating the whole packet. And that’s where the problem of rising levels of inflammation and elevated blood sugar levels come into play. Too much comfort food can make us feel worse by further depressing our mood.
Eating too much sugar has also been linked to lower levels of the neurochemical known as BDNF, a brain-derived neurotrophic factor required by the brain for learning and memory formation. Low levels dull the brain’s ability to know when we’re full, meaning we’re also more at risk of being tempted by second helpings or snacks.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression affects over 300 million people and is now the leading cause of disability globally.
While there are many factors that can contribute to the development of depression and anxiety, the dietary factor cannot be ignored.
New research into the gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut is continuing to reveal how what we eat influences which of these bacterial species thrive and how they influence our mood and mental wellbeing through the microbiome-gut-brain axis.
SFD: Does that mean I shouldn’t be eating fruit?
Dr Jenny Brockis: No, absolutely not. As mentioned previously, the brain has evolved to use glucose as it’s primary energy source. Naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables are not the problem. It’s the added sugars found in processed foods and beverages that need to be cut back. (Although we do recommend sticking to a maximum of two pieces per day.)
SFD: How do you know if you’re eating too much sugar?
Dr Jenny Brockis: This is where it’s useful to adopt a Sherlock Holmes approach. Take a look at what you ate over the last week and add up how many meals you cooked from scratch, and how many were take-away or pre-prepared. Then tally up the number of soft drinks, fruit juices and sweet treats you may have had.
If your diet that is predominantly based on real food, fresh, unprocessed and mostly plant-based, that’s fine.
But if takeaways and fast food have become more of a regular staple maybe being eaten several times a week, it’s time to look at how you could be doing things differently. The same goes for buying a fair number of pre-prepared meals or processed foods. It’s time to read the labels to see just how much sugar has been added.
It’s a reality check that you shouldn’t feel guilty about. You’ll see where changes can be made to how much added sugar you’re eating.
While this may feel like an additional burden to your already short supply of time, taking the time to prepare healthy meals for your family doesn’t have to be onerous or difficult. It may even lead you to discover your hidden ‘Master chef’ talent where meal preparation becomes something that the whole family can contribute to.
SFD: Start low and go slow.
Dr Jenny Brockis: Making a lasting change to our eating patterns takes time, effort and persistence. After all, we’ve often spent years developing our habits in the first place. Success comes from mastering small wins that you add to over a period of time. It’s never an all-or-nothing situation, and it’s normal to expect setbacks. When it’s Christmas or you have a wall of family birthdays over several weeks, a little self-compassion is appropriate. Because it’s what you do over the longer term that counts.
Aim for consistency of habit, not perfection.
SFD: Got a sweet tooth that drives you to seek sugar?
Dr Jenny Brockis: Going cold turkey is not the answer. However studies have shown that you can master those cravings by making small incremental changes to how much and how often you enjoy a sweet treat. If you’ve developed the habit of buying a sugary snack every afternoon, try having something else that contains less sugar, such as a piece of fruit. Craving chocolate? Then buy the best quality chocolate with the highest percentage of cocoa. You’ll be satisfied with eating less because of its richness.
SFD: Cut back on sugar for better brain health.
Dr Jenny Brockis: Lack of time and energy are the reasons most commonly given as to why we don’t always go for the healthier choices. Habit and personal preference also play an important role.
Sure these factors can’t be ignored but anxiety and depression is a modern scourge. If reducing sugar consumption helps you feel better in yourself, and potentially lessen the risk of you or your family developing anxiety or depression that has to be a good thing.
It’s time to look to elevate your mental wellbeing. Choosing to reduce excess sugar consumption and kiss that sugar-low-mood goodbye.
Have you ever tried to quit sugar? Share your experience with us in the comments below!