In my last post, I talked about the effect smoking and drinking can have on our health particularly their effect on the brain. For me cigarettes and alcohol aren’t my vices. In fact, what is my unnecessary evil is a substance which everyone of us takes every day. Maybe two spoons in your coffee or one on your cereal or maybe you just had that cheeky slice of cake. Yes, you guessed it. Sugar.

Sugar is very much in the public eye at the moment. On the T.V, programmes such as Sugar-Free Farm are trying to demonstrate the risk involved with consuming unrefined sugar in our diets. Until recently sugar to me was just something that rotted your teeth and if you couldn’t see it in your drink or food was it really there? So, this year my New Year’s resolution is to cut down on my sugar intake and this post is explaining why.

Life expectancy from 1974 – 2010 increased across the world by 10-12% for both males and females. However, around 66% of deaths recorded in 2013 were caused by non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. All of which are attributable to poor diet, lack of exercise and obesity. Interestingly, in 1974 a study published in The Lancet claimed an estimated 105 million people worldwide were obese. Shockingly in 2014 this figure had risen 6-fold to a staggering 640 million. That is well over half a billion people on the planet who are medically obese. With a population growing at this vast rate the likelihood of reaching a global obesity target is next to nothing.

In the last decade, a new model has landed which states the overconsumption of food is due to an underlying “food addiction”. In essence, an addiction to food can be appreciated in the same neurobiological basis as drug addiction. A specific case which falls into the food addiction model is the consumption of sugar. In tests carried out on rats it has been shown that foods which are high in fat and high in sugar are considered addictive. Foods which are highly processed and generally contain little fibre, protein or water content giving them an increased potency and swift absorption rate. Hence, why you feel hungry a short while after eating. However, the same study could not convincingly conclude a human addiction to sugar exists as most the literature was animal or rodent based.

Nonetheless, sugar is a major constituent of the Western diet which is packed with low fibre and highly processed foods. Obesity is a massive contributor to non-communicable diseases. However, 20% of the obese population have a regular metabolism and a normal lifespan and what’s more 40% of healthy weight individuals will contract a metabolic disease in their lifetime.

So, what are the risk factors?

Tobacco, alcohol and diet have all been named by the United Nations as dominant risk factors in developing diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Sugar is no different.

In effect, sugar and alcohol are very similar. Both provide calories but little nutrition, none of the biochemical reactions taking place in the body require sugar or alcohol. Lustig, Schmidt and Brindis (2012) draw parallels between Babor and colleagues four criteria justifying the regulation of alcohol; unavoidability, toxicity, abuse potential and its negative impact on society.   

Let’s face it sugar is pretty much unavoidable today in Western societies. Once upon a time our ancestors would wait months to acquire sugar from fruit or honey, today it’s everywhere. The very substance nature made hard to get, man made easy. Sugar is relatively inexpensive and it tastes good so why would anyone want to stop adding it to their food or drink? Let’s also be truthful, sugar is a great marketing tool. It sells.

When it comes to toxicity, sugar can do as much harm to our liver in the long term as alcohol according to experts. Alcohol is derived from fermenting sugar so this should be no real surprise. Prolonged fructose intake can be an example of unnecessary increased food intake and exhibits symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal similar to that of alcohol.

And what about “sugar abuse”? Well, sugar has the ability just like tobacco and alcohol to act on the brain to tell it to have more. Furthermore, it is able to suppress the hormone leptin which is responsible for making you feel full. So when you eat sugar your body still thinks it’s hungry. Probably the most disturbing part for me is sugar’s ability to interfere with dopamine signalling. A reduction in this pathway impedes with our reward system. For example, eating sugar suppresses the dopamine pathway and the reward we would normally naturally feel from eating is also suppressed, making us want to eat more.

Finally, the negative effects on society are huge. In the case of tobacco and alcohol, the number of car accidents involving alcohol was enough to pursue a public health campaign. In the case of sugar, the long-term effect on the economy, health service and human cost puts sugar in an equal category. In 2007, the cost of obesity on the NHS was a staggering £4.2 billion and this figure continues to rise.

All is not lost however, a study has shown that the metabolic health of children who are clinically obese can be improved in as little as 10 days. The kid’s metabolic status was analysed then, for the following 9 days they were fed processed food but with the added sugar removed as well as fruit and whole foods with naturally occurring sugar. Each diet was tailored to contain the same amount of calories as their regular home diet but if they started to lose weight they ate more. After all this was not about weight loss but about the effect of sugar on metabolic disease. So, at the end of the trial there was no weight loss, the same number of calories had been consumed but more importantly by cutting out the added sugar the children’s blood pressure, triglyceride levels, glucose tolerance, bad cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity had all been improved.

Could this work in adults? More research needs to be carried out but in kids at least we have the time to turn around the damaging effects of our Western diet and sugar. On a personal level my sugar intake is gradually decreasing but we have a long way to go before we begin to see global results.

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