In Mary Poppins, a happy little song suggests that we eat a spoonful of sugar when we face something unpleasant like taking medicine. Similarly, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban recommends eating chocolate when facing debilitating depression. Both kids and adults routinely reach for sugary treats when the going gets tough, but, just like with other drugs, sugar is not the answer to our troubles. It ultimately hurts rather than helps, and we really should avoid it almost altogether.
This Is Your Brain on Sugar
Did you know that sugar activates the same dopamine pleasure receptors in the brain as heroin? In fact, researchers at Princeton University studied the brains of mice addicted to heroin and the brains of mice addicted to sugar. The results are frighteningly similar. The brain changes in both sets of mice not only resemble each other, but the changes may also be permanent -- a disturbing finding.
In addition, the more sugar the mice consumed, the more their brains resembled the brains of the heroin-addicted mice. This tells us that now is the time to stop consuming sugar to stop the damage. Waiting to make changes only further harms your brain.
Leptin and Your Brain
According to Robert H. Lustig, MD, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, "Leptin is our starvation hormone." When we begin to starve, leptin sends signals to the brain that we need to eat. When we are full, leptin sends signals to the brain that we are should stop eating. At the same time, leptin also turns off dopamine receptors in the brain, making eating less pleasurable.
Leptin is stored in fat cells, so it would seem that those with an abundance of fat cells would get the message to stop eating more easily than those with fewer fat cells. Unfortunately, the body can become resistant to leptin's message. Those who are leptin-resistant have very little physical encouragement to stop eating.
When we consume sugar, the body releases insulin. This powerful hormone tells the body how to use the energy we consume. The first place to store excess glycogen is in the liver. Here, it remains until blood sugar levels drop. When the body experiences a drop in blood sugar, the liver releases the stored glycogen, keeping blood sugar levels stable. However, if glycogen stores in the liver are full, then insulin tells the body to store excess glycogen in fat cells, an action that sends leptin to the brain to tell us to stop eating.
When we eat too much sugar, our body becomes resistant to both insulin and leptin. Resistance to these important hormones keeps our brains from getting their messages, and we keep eating far beyond what our bodies require.
Why Dieting Isn't the Answer
It would seem that an effective diet would put these two important hormones in balance, but this is simply not true. The most important way to stop the cycle is to stop eating sugar, the chemical that radically alters the effectiveness of the hormones in the first place.
When we diet, we shrink our fat cells. Since leptin is stored in fat cells, shrinking them means that we receive even less of leptin's message to stop eating than we did before the diet. Our dopamine receptors begin screaming for a fix, and suddenly, we find ourselves face down in a pan of brownies.
Yes, dieting is a great way to look and feel better, but dieting will always fail if we do not address the sugar addiction. If you begin your lifestyle change by cutting out sugar before attempting a complete dietary revolution, then you are much more likely to succeed.
To eliminate sugar from your diet, you must begin obsessively reading labels since sugar is everywhere. Certainly, you should avoid all fruit juices and sweets. But you should also look for ingredients like fructose, lactose, and sucrose. The list of sugar's aliases is long.
When you take action regarding sugar, you will be pleased with the results. In fact, even before you lose a pound, you will already be healthier than you were when you consumed the white powder.
What's your relationship with sugar? Have you ever tried to eliminate it? What worked for you?