To your health: Be careful with sugar intake this Christmas season

By Alfred Casale - To Your Health | December 19th, 2017 6:00 am

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads …”

These are the familiar opening lines from Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a part of many families’ Christmas traditions. But what exactly is a sugar-plum? Well first of all, there’s no plum involved! A sugar-plum is a candy made by coating a nut, seed or small bit of edible spice with up to 30 or so layers of hard sugar.

Perhaps not sugar-plums, but do you ever dream of sugar?

Whether it’s doughnuts at work, or cookies at home, there’s something about sugar that makes us crave it.

Sugar creates body fat, which helped our ancestors prevent starvation. Craving sugar was a way to get energy, store it up and ensure survival. But even now that starvation is less prevalent, we still hold on to our love for sugar and tend to eat more than we need, leading to problems like obesity and diabetes. Added sugar turns up in many processed foods like cereals, yogurts and sauces, as well as sodas and juices.

Is sugar addictive?

When you hear the word addiction, you tend to think of things like cigarettes or abused drugs. But maybe we should think of sugar too.

Generally speaking, there are two aspects of addiction: cravings and withdrawal.

In a study from Princeton, researchers fed sugar water to rats. The rats who were given sugar had a tendency to binge on it — they started to crave it. Once the sugar was taken away, the levels of “feel-good” chemicals, or dopamine, in the rats’ brains dropped. As the rats’ sugar levels dropped, they developed anxiety-like behaviors and the shakes, signaling withdrawal.

Research shows that sugar affects the brain in similar ways to some addictive drugs. Sugar activates pleasure centers in the brain, releasing ‘reward’ chemicals. So, in a sense, yes, you can be addicted to sugar, because you can be addicted to how it makes you feel and averse to the withdrawal symptoms.

Some experts are even calling for stricter regulations on sugar for this reason.

Added sugar is unhealthy

Sugar isn’t all bad. We need it for energy and survival. The problem, however, is not the natural sugar from fruits and vegetables, but added sugars in foods — specifically sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup.

Most foods today have added sugar in them for flavor. By adding sugar, the food’s taste is enhanced, increasing the likelihood that you’ll buy it again. Plus, sugar is cheap, so it isn’t expensive to make food and drinks that are really sweet. But these sugary foods and drinks are harmful to your health, meaning you should limit how much you consume.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 37.5 grams (9 teaspoons) of sugar for men and 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women per day. Excessive sugar use contributes to weight gain, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, poor dental health and even cancer.

Talk to your doctor or a dietician if you’re having trouble cutting added sugars out of your diet.

Consider a sugar detox

If you think you’re hooked on sugar, it may be time for a detox.

There are a few different ways to detox from sugar, but according to some dieticians, the most effective method is to go cold turkey, because weaning yourself off sugar leaves the door open for cravings.

When detoxing from sugar, it’s not impossible that you will have some symptoms of withdrawal. Some withdrawal symptoms are anxiety, fatigue, bad mood and headaches. These symptoms will go away as your body adjusts.

Even if your cravings are severe, just give it time. In one study, scientists found that half of the subjects detoxing from sugar stopped having intense cravings after two to three days. After six days, 87 percent of the subjects no longer felt withdrawal symptoms. Their tolerance for sugar also dropped — 95 percent of subjects felt the food and drinks they used to eat now tasted “sweeter.”

The holidays are wonderful times to gather, celebrate and renew bonds with family and friends. The decorations, music, food, drink and gift-giving all add to the festivities. Be gentle, though, with the candy, cakes and sugary food and drink. … There is a price to pay.

Happy Holidays!

By Alfred Casale

To Your Health

Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]