Sugar: Is it Really As Bad As They Say?

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It seems to be everywhere these days. The vilification of sugar is rampant and it’s seemingly at the root of all that ails the human race. But is any of it true? 

First, let’s get some basics down so we can both be on the same page. Sugar is the generic name for sweet tasting, soluble carbohydrates. And of the four groups of carbohydrates that exist, the two groups most commonly referred to as sugar are monosaccharides and disaccharides (you may have heard them called “simple carbs”). 

So, sugar is a generic name for two groups of carbohydrates, that include many kinds of foods, which means what we really need to be talking about are carbs. Right? Ok, I am glad you agree. 

This is one of the reasons why, when following  low-carb diets, or when you restrict your carb intake, it can feel like all you can think about is carbohydrates

Now let’s talk about some carb basics: Carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for your body and the exclusive source of fuel for your brain. They are so important that if you limit your intake, the body has the ability to break down protein & fat to create glucose and give the body the carbs that it needs. While inefficient to do it this way, and hard on the liver and kidneys, it is an evolutionary survival mechanism that humans developed over time so that they could stay alive in times when access to carbohydrate-rich foods was low (think early human evolution and very cold winters).

Because of the importance of carbohydrates to the body, there are specific ways in which it responds to an environment in which your carbohydrate intake is low. 

Meet Neuropeptide Y. Now say it with me, “Hi Neuro-peptide-Y.”

This is a very cool neuromodulator (fancy name for a messenger that is released by a neuron to have a chat with the other neurons to make them perform a task). Its job is to increase carbohydrate cravings in the context of low carb intake in the human body.

When your intake of carbs in low, the brain releases the peptide which leads you to seek out carbs, i.e. it increases your cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods. Then, when you consume carbs, neuropeptide Y decreases. And that cycle continues. 

This is one of the reasons why, when following  low-carb diets, or when you restrict your carb intake, it can feel like all you can think about is carbohydrates and your cravings increase substantially (which can also lead to binge-eating.)

And contrary to popular google beliefs, the answer is not to restrict carbs even more to decrease that craving. In fact, this can set off a cascade of responses from the body to try to get you to eat carbs. 

In fact, when restricting carbs, the brain will release an increased amount of dopamine and dopamine=pleasure hormone. This is the same hormone that is released while you scroll instagram and then two hours later wonder what happened. Little hits of domaine is what happened.

To be clear, the release of dopamine happens when you experience pleasure. This includes, but is not limited to, hugging, laughing, cooing at your baby, having sex, seeing something that you enjoy, and food.

So, as a reinforcement (remember how important carbs are to the body), when you restrict carbs, your brain will release an increased amount of dopamine which makes that food even more pleasurable and exciting. So why does this matter?

Because this can mimic the feeling like you are addicted to carbs (sugar).

With time, as you give yourself permission to have carbohydrate-rich foods, this dopamine release decreases in intensity. This happens as the body begins to trust that carbohydrates are abundant and thus they become less overwhelmingly satisfying. They will become a food just like all the rest. 

So, what do you do with this information?

Well, what we know to be true is that your body needs carbs and you cannot trick the body into being ok without them ( cue neuropeptide-Y and dopamine) and that the more carbs are demonized (remember: sugar is a generic name for two groups of carbohydrates) the more you will become hyper-obsessed with them, and then the more you will feel out of control around them.

My suggestion? Start working on ways to include carbs into your diet. Get support and reach out to non-diet practitioners to help you along the way.

Katherine Metzelaar