Too much sugar can lead to depression, memory loss, heart disease, cancers and other serious ailments. But there's hope if you can kick the habit.

The arrangement this past month has been lovely, Sugar. You brought festivity to the sweet sprinkles on miniature cupcakes at the office party, and you were subtly delicious in the thin glaze drizzled over warm cinnamon rolls at a holiday brunch.

You were the star of the show in that beautiful cherry tart and those luscious peanut butter and chocolate buckeyes. And there you were, Sugar, peeking out from a glass of wine as we celebrated the new and washed away the old.

We were busy, Sugar, getting through another holiday season. We tried to be careful. One bite of that, two nibbles of this. A sip of wine and a chunk of salty cheese.

Is that a bite-sized brownie over there, covered in a fudgy frosting?

Sugar, you were all dressed up for the holidays, like a slick drug hustler who smooth talks his way into our lives. We could not resist.

Researchers say an addiction to sugar adjusts our brains in the same way that cocaine and heroin affect them. “When we eat hyperpalatable foods—super sweet, super salty, super fat—they trigger the dopamine, or pleasure center, in the brain,” explains local nutritionist Diane D’Abate Casey. “When we have a habit of eating this way, this can dull dopamine receptors, so we need to eat more and more to get the same level of satisfaction.”

“For most people, it starts early in life,” adds Adrienne Raimo, a registered dietitian whose practice is called One Bite Wellness. “A lot of it can be emotional behavior. When people are stressed, it can be a quick comfort to reach for their favorite source of sugar.”

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Experts at the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization say that 6 teaspoons of total sugar a day is enough. (The AHA says that men might be able to go up to 9 teaspoons a day. That’s the amount of sugar in one, 12-ounce soft drink.) That means, guys and gals, that the 24 teaspoons of added sugar that we’re eating per day—according to the National Cancer Institute—is nearly three or four times more than we should ingest.

Too much sugar is killing us, in fact. A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine in 2014 confirmed that people who have diets that are high in added sugars have a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Added sugars are often found in beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, candy and dairy desserts such as ice cream. Eating too much sugar raises your blood pressure and increases your risk of getting diabetes, non-alcohol fatty liver disease and various other sorts of inflammation. If you’re achy in the joints, sugar may be the cause.

When we talk about sugar in your diet, we mean everything, including sugars buried in processed foods such as breads and pastas. Sugar can mean processed white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, raw sugar, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, maple syrup and dozens more names. Look at the labels, see what’s inside anything you buy. Overuse of high-fructose corn syrup in processed foods in recent years is linked to more cases of non-alcohol fatty liver disease, also known as inflammation of the liver, explains Casey.

When blood sugar is elevated, damage is done to our blood vessels. That can affect our brains, eyes, kidneys and many other body parts. Sugar can cause insulin resistance, which can result in diabetes and various cancers. In a 2012 study of 430,000 people aged 50–71 years, sugar was found to increase esophageal cancer, pleural cancer and cancer of the small intestines, according the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study.

Research has noted that too much sugar seems to lead to colds and other ailments. In fact, studies have shown that sugar interferes with our bodies’ immune systems. Excess glucose found in our bodies allows bacteria and yeast to grow, sometimes resulting in infection.

Sugar also controls our moods, from buzzy highs to nasty crashes. Recent studies suggest that sugar can be part of the blame for depression and other mood disorders. A 2017 study in the journal Scientific Reports found that men with the highest sugar consumption were 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Anyone who is eating a lot of sugar has a bigger chance of being diagnosed with a mental disorder. The research confirmed that lower sugar intake will improve your mental health, no matter your gender.

Sugar affects memory, too. You have an increased risk of dementia when you eat too much sugar and raise your glucose levels, according to a 2013 report published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Ninety percent of Alzheimer’s cases are preventable, according to [authors and] top neurologists Dr. Dean and Dr. Ayesha Sherzai,” says Casey. “The disease is rooted in imbalances of sugar and fat metabolism, lack of exercise and stress management, among other things. And when we change our lifestyles, the disease process begins to reverse.”

Finally, it’s about appearances. We know that sugar and fat lead to obesity, which can result in many of the complications noted above. Additionally, several studies in recent decades—beginning with one published in 1991 that focused on diabetics—have found that sugar is affecting our skin and accelerating the aging process, contributing to more wrinkles and sagging. Just Google “sugar face” and you’ll understand. 
The American Journal of Public Health also reported in 2014 that regular consumption of sugary soda is likely accelerating aging.

What’s more, sugary drinks are part of the blame for the current childhood obesity epidemic, according to a policy statement agreed upon by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say kids should drink mainly water or milk. Juice should be limited and, when used, only 100 percent fruit juice should be considered. Whole fruit is better, though, because kids benefit from essential fiber and other elements of whole fruit.

Then there’s wine. (Yes, there’s sugar in wine.) The amount of sugar in a bottle of wine is anyone’s guess because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has limited requirements for nutritional labeling for wine, beer and other spirits. The fermentation of the grapes’ natural sugars is what turns grape juice into wine. Generally, the drier the wine, the fewer grams of sugar. Be aware that cheap wines might even have added sugars, so when you invest in a bottle of wine, make it a good one.

Spending more money on better wine, in fact, could perhaps help save your life.

When it comes to food, the FDA requires most foods to have nutritional labels. “Look at labels,” advises Erica Domrose, clinical dietitian at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition. Even good foods, such as yogurt, can sneak a lot of sugar into a diet.

Manufacturers get tricky with their labels and packaging so be careful, adds Domrose. Many manufacturers use smaller quantities of several kinds of sugars, so that they are not listed at the top of a package’s ingredient lists. Also, don’t assume that packaging for children means that a food is healthy, she warns.

In 2016, the FDA approved new, easier-to-read standards for food labels—including added sugars—that researchers say will help lower health care costs. Manufacturers have until 2022 to implement the new labels.

“In the ’90s, the craze was the fat-free diet,” explains Raimo. “But where food companies took out fat, they often added sugar.”

Research regarding the ill effects of sugar is often counterbalanced by a strong sugar industry that spends a lot of money on research and lobbying Congress. In the 1970s, the American Dental Association felt the strength of the industry when the ADA announced that sugar causes cavities.

Sugar battles continue. “We’re not hearing about [the research] because there is so much money involved,” says Casey, who specializes in helping clients identify and reduce inflammation caused by food. “They try to squelch research about the proven success of a whole-food, plant-based diet. There is no money in teaching people to eat mostly fruits, vegetables whole grains and legumes. But [there is] lots of money in processed foods.”

Still, there’s also a growing recognition of sugar’s health impact.When you don’t feel shackled to sugar anymore,” Raimo says, “it’s very freeing.”

Sugar, your sweet façade is beginning to fade.

Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Health 2020.