Sugar gives us energy, but in excess it can be harmful to our brain and body. It gives us a quick spike of fuel, followed by a big dip in energy – something you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever eaten a big bowl of pasta and then immediately wanted to take a nap. Here are three ways excess hidden sugar might be playing havoc with you.
1. Hormone health
For healthy hormones, our bodies need proper nourishment. Too much sugar can throw the following hormones out of whack.
- Thyroid hormones – these govern our metabolism. our thyroid gland needs iodine, selenium, vitamin B12, zinc and a good nutrient supply to keep it working properly. Packaged and processed foods that are packed with sugar often lack these nutrients.
- Insulin – our fat storage hormone. To keep our insulin levels in check, we need to keep our intake of added sugars low. Excess sugar consumption leads to excess glucose, and when this isn’t burnt for energy and accumulates repeatedly, it can lead to insulin resistance or pre-diabetes and makes weight loss very difficult.
- Cortisol – this is our stress hormone, which is governed by our adrenal system, and dislikes sugar overload. Food itself doesn’t contain cortisol, but sugary foods can raise cortisol levels to more than a healthy body requires. Excess cortisol affects our immune system and digestion, and reduces levels of our calming hormone, progesterone.
2. Brain health
None of us wants to feel like we have a ‘broken’ brain, and yet many of us do experience poor brain function, at least occasionally – from ‘brain fog’, lack of concentration and poor memory, to anxiety or depression.
The good news is that eating whole, real food – packed with fats, protein, smart carbs and fibre, and low in added sugar – is like fertiliser for the brain. If we keep our blood sugar from wildly fluctuating up and down, we’ll have the energy we need to think, process information and make decisions. And if we regularly eat high-quality fats, we can dampen inflammation throughout the body – a key culprit in brain dysfunction.
3. Mental health
Depression is silent, scary and has many causes. And while depression and mood disorders may be linked to factors largely outside our control, such as genetics, disease and external stressors and toxins, the one thing we can control is what we eat, and we know there is a link between food and mood.
As we saw earlier, studies are increasingly showing the important role good nutrition plays in our mental wellbeing, with the gold-standard SMILES trial on major depression concluding: ‘dietary improvement may provide an efficacious and accessible treatment strategy for the management of this highly prevalent mental disorder’.
Eating real, unprocessed foods benefits not only our body, but our mental health. Too much sugar is bad news for our mood.
Is it because sugar-laden foods are often devoid of nutrients we need for biochemical pathways that create our happy hormones?
Is it because sugar creates dysbiosis in the gut, or symptoms such as irritable bowel, and it is our gut that creates 90 per cent of our happy neurotransmitter, serotonin?
Is it because clean, whole foods are full of vitamin B, and this gives us energy, which has a flow-on effect to everything we do in life?
Probably all of the above. Meanwhile, research continues at a rapid pace in the area of nutritional psychiatry.
But what about ‘natural’ sugar?
So here’s the thing: our brain and body love glucose as source of energy. Sure, our body can run off the energy we get from fat and protein alone, but for busy productive people, smart carbs allow us to function exceptionally well.
Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, beetroot, carrots, quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat and oats: these kinds of complex carbs break down into natural sugars that our body can then use for creative thinking, critical skills, decision-making and concentration. Smart, natural carbs also keep our muscles energised, fuelled up and ready to move.
Put simply, the sugars naturally occurring in dairy, fruit and vegetables are fine. These sugars – lactose in dairy, and fructose and glucose in fruits and vegetables – are naturally occurring and provide us with energy. Some of these foods have a lower sugar count than others, so if you want to lose weight, stick to those low in sugar. And by sticking to whole foods – full-fat plain yoghurt, for example, or an apple with the skin on, for the all-important fibre – you can’t go too far wrong. of course, if you have issues with the lactose in dairy (bloating, constipation, diarrhoea or abdominal discomfort), give dairy a miss.
The final word on sugar
- The sugar naturally occurring in fresh whole fruit is fine. If you are wanting to lose weight, stick to low-sugar fruits like berries, eat a maximum of two serves a day and enjoy them.
- Know the difference between starchy and non-starchy vegetables. Starchy vegetables are solid and heavy – potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and so on. Eat them earlier in the day so your body has=a better chance of metabolising their natural sugars. At night, stick to non- starchy, more water-based vegetables.
- If in doubt, crowd it out. When your meals are packed with protein, healthy fats and non-starchy vegetables, you’ll find you don’t have much cause to reach for refined carbs and sugary snacks.