Why We Crave Sugar and How We Can Overcome It

Ann Bartlett Health Guide
  • Do children with diabetes miss anything by having limited sweets? I think the obvious answer is "no," but so many parents go through the emotional rollercoaster of dealing with forced denial and children go through what should be an easy indulgence to something that's denied. That said, I thought the development of taste buds might be a great thought starter for how everyone should look at food choices and particularly the taste for sweets.

    The sweet indulgence has filtered into the adult population where it should be better controlled through knowing how to make choices. Comfort foods and the desire to have more than we should seem to derail common sense. If you follow the Diabetes Online Community (DOC) on Twitter and Facebook, the diabetes community appears to have strong opinions on both sides. Some believe it is a matter of carb counting and some believe low carb/paleo is the healthiest diet for people with diabetes. I then asked myself, when did my sugar craving start? Did I learn it from being around functioning pancreases? Is it my small rebellion to having diabetes?

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    For most humans, the need for sugar starts at the beginning of life. In utero, babies learn about flavor through the amniotic fluid that flows in to nourish them and then actual taste develops at 21 weeks. When amniotic fluid builds up, moms are injected with a sweet substance because babies will drink more of the amniotic fluid and reduce the build up. In truth, babies prefer sweet tastes and, in some cases, sweetness eases pain through a natural analgesic effect in the body. In other words, sugar is an easy comfort food we have known for a longtime. After reading this I feel like reaching for a cookie is a basic instinct!


    However, sugar also has an addictive quality. As recent as April 2012, 60 Minutes and Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig asking "Is Sugar Toxic?" Furthermore, a study out of University of California, Davis, gave evidence that increased sugar in the diet showed an exponential increase in LDL and other measures for heart disease. In the 70s, a study on fat in the U.S. diet showed the same effect and so dietary guidelines were put in place to avoid heart disease. Now we have epidemic levels of diabetes and a new villain, sugar, to continue the concern for heart disease. We've jumped from one culprit to another.


    According to Dr. Lustig, this is new evidence is an alarm for concern. While Dr. Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist, he is not alone in his concern over sugar. Dr. Lewis Cantley, head of Deaconess Beth Israel Hospital Cancer Center agrees with Dr. Lustig. Research on cancer has shown that increased sugar releases more insulin into the body to reduce the blood sugar level. This has two effects:  for people living with diabetes, it encourages insulin resistance, but for the non-diabetic population, the second effect of raised insulin levels is that insulin can act as a catalyst to some forms of cancer.


    The average American eats roughly 130 lbs of sugar a year, which breaks down to about 1/3 of a pound per day. If sugar is risky to everyone's health, then what are the guidelines we should know about? After years of saying that guidelines were not necessary, the AHA finally released guidelines, last October.


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    Added sugar should be no more that half of your discretionary calories per day. For the average American woman that means no more than 100 calories per day or six teaspoons. For men, it's 150 calories per day or about nine teaspoons. These are the sugars that are added to foods, like high fructose corn syrup - refined sugars - that are not naturally occurring in the food.


    How much do you consume? Every time I have a grande skim mocha with whip at Starbucks, my discretionary sugar intake from that drink is 40 grams, or 160 calories! I'm so bummed! But the caveat is... if I exercise more, I can easily increase the discretionary sugar level a little. Yay!

    So, what can you do?

    In February, Jessica Apple of A Sweet Life wrote a blog on sugar, Paula Deen and the lost teachable moment. Jessica suggested a movement called Sugarless Tuesdays and created a Facebook page to help support the effort, but to date there are only 58 likes for the page. When the DOC was up in arms about an article that criticized a group of PWD meeting at an ice cream shop, DOC members on Facebook went ablaze with an ice cream social that garnered over a thousand likes before the end of a week! The disparity of "likes" between Sugarless Tuesdays and the ice cream social speaks to the problem. We need to do both: ice cream social AND Sugarless Tuesdays, because each is about educating PWD and non-PWD.

    Taste is an important driver to enjoying eating, but it can be tempered and expanded upon more than we think. And sometimes the challenge is facing your weakness and finding a workaround, for which PWD are experts and I think Sugarless Tuesdays is a great thought starter for finding a method to the madness and disengaging from the sugar blitz!

Published On: May 03, 2012