They say that ignorance is bliss. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a clearer example of this old saw, than the moments of unfettered joy that accompany the consumption of your favorite sweets. If you really knew what all that sugar was doing to you, that cupcake just wouldn’t taste the same.
So before you read any further, know that this article aims to remove a little of the bliss, and all the ignorance about sugar.
And we aren’t just talking about overindulging on desserts. Sugar is everywhere these days. Seriously, once you start looking, it's shocking. The impact that sugar is having on our bodies and society can be startling as well.
Listing the foods that don’t contain added sugar, may be easier than doing it the other way around. Most of us understand that sugar consumption is higher than it used to be, but what comes to mind is candy and desserts, soft drinks and sweet tea.
Few people realize just how prevalent sugar really is. The following comes from the incredibly interesting account of Eve O. Schaub, who led her family to abandon sugar for one year:
“Once we started looking we found sugar in the most amazing places: tortillas, sausages, chicken broth, salad dressing, cold cuts, crackers, mayonnaise, bacon, bread, and even baby food. Why add all of this sugar? To make these items more palatable, add shelf life, and make packaged food production ever cheaper.”
How does that work out in terms of dietary impact? Estimates range, but experts claim that Americans are consuming over 20 teaspoons per day. That's more than 300 calories added to our diet every single day.
To put this consumption into historical perspective, Americans in the 1820’s consumed, on average, less than 8 pounds of sugar per year. But modern Americans consume about 130 pounds of sugar per year.
The Impact on Our Bodies
So what though? Things change all the time. They didn’t have the light bulb or Twitter in the 1820’s either. What’s the big deal?
It turns out that this massive increase in sugar consumption is demonstrably connected to decreases in our health. Perhaps the most drastic impact (certainly the most visceral) is to body weight.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, over two-thirds (68.8%) of American adults are considered overweight. Over one-third (35.7%) are considered obese. And more than 1 in 20 American adults (6.3%) suffer from extreme obesity.
Of less statistical significance, is the meteoric rise in “Yo momma so fat” jokes.
As a society, controlling our weight has become a significant problem. Consuming hundreds of sugar calories per day really adds up. In terms of raw energy conversion, 300 extra calories per day amounts to nearly 31 pounds of fat in a year.
Of course, not all of those calories end up being turned into fat. But realizing that the average American is consuming the energy equivalent of 31 pounds of fat, in sugar each year puts the seriousness of the problem into perspective.
The health impacts of rampant sugar consumption don’t just make it harder to tie our shoes. The effects of all that weight gain include: High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and type 2 diabetes.
The increase in diabetes is one of the most troubling of these conditions. Since the 1980’s the number of Americans diagnosed with diabetes has more than quadrupled!
And increased sugar intake is almost certainly the culprit behind this precipitous rise. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced to counteract elevated blood sugar, and our immense sugar intake means that we are producing much more insulin than we would otherwise need.
Aside from these serious health concerns, there’s mounting evidence that sugar just makes us feel crummy.
For instance, fluctuating energy levels are commonplace these days. We just accept it as normal that we struggle to make it through the day. And why not? Everyone else seems to feel the same way.
How about the way that you experience hunger? If you’re like most westerners, hunger doesn’t so much build, as hit you over the head with a sledgehammer. Wild fluctuations in blood sugar and appetite are commonplace.
Sugar really is the reason for all of this for most people. Our bodies get used to regular injections of incredible energy that requires very little processing. We come to depend on these hits, and the day becomes a series of energy and hunger peaks and valleys.
There’s even a compelling case that sugar makes us more sick more often, by causing inflammation.
Despite how common a lack of consistent energy, dramatic hunger spikes, and regular illness are, these experiences aren’t normal. Without the influence of sugar in your regular diet, all of these things can change.
Cut sugar out of your diet as much as possible.
Okay, we should probably say more here, but let’s face it, this isn’t calculus. Once you accept that “normal” sugar consumption is more like “extreme” sugar consumption, the right move is to adjust.
What it’s Like to Quit
We won’t lie, depending on the size of your habit, the first days/weeks of cutting out the sugar can be rough. Your body’s used to receiving regular hits of raw energy. Going without will feel like somebody pulled out your batteries. In fact, many people who’ve taken this particular journey liken the experience to the flu.
But if you can push through, the results are well worth it. When you get off the blood sugar roller coaster you’ll have energy throughout the day. You’ll be healthier, less moody, and odds are great that you’ll see a noticeable difference in body fat.
Interestingly, even your palette changes. If you’ve ever cut out soft drinks, you have a sense of how this works. That first time you have a soda again, it tastes kind of like liquid Skittles.
When you’ve gone without a steady influx of sweetness, you become sensitive to sugar again, and a little goes a long way.
You don’t have to be as extreme as Eve O. Schaub’s family to get results. Maybe you don’t want to inspect everything that you consume to see if sugar has been added anywhere. At least start with those items that we all know are chock full of the stuff. Try cutting out sweets, and sodas to start. Give it a few weeks, and see if you can’t feel the difference.
As a culture, we’ve accepted the massive presence of sugar in our diets. So suggesting cutting it out can sound extreme. But there was also a time when making Coca-Cola with cocaine didn’t raise eyebrows. We think that history may judge our current sugar obsession in a similar way. Why not get ahead of the curve?
Sugar is also hidden in many of the foods that we think are good for us. Check out our article "Unhealthy Food List: 10 Products That Have You Fooled" for some of the top offenders.