By Guest Contributor on March 2, 2017
Guest contribution from Dr. Thara Vayali
The 4 o’clock drop that requires a fully loaded latte. That extra piece of cake at the party. That late night bowl (or two) of ice cream. We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to feel an irresistible urge to have just one more. In the right moment, that sweet temptation can override any well-seasoned health plan.
The concept of temptation implies restraint, and assumes bad behaviour. This set up may be the origin of our society’s disordered relationship with sugar. Our well-laid dietary plans can backfire when we aim to control our desires and admonish our opposing actions. We can have a more balanced, fulfilling relationship if we are honest with our cravings and use mindfulness to interact with our sugar-laden food.
There is absolutely nothing unhealthy about reaching for sweet food to fulfill a sugar craving when it hits, but when those cravings are daily (or for some, constant) there is the potential to lose our capacity to regulate intake.
Usually, this loss occurs because we aren’t paying attention to why the craving is there in the first place. When we ignore the source signals, the craving grows and with it, our intake regulation goes out the window.
What are the source signals?
There are many reasons we can over-consume sugar.
- It tastes sweet, which hearkens back to times of childhood and pleasure. Generally, when we taste sweets we feel safe. When we feel unsafe or scared, we reach for sugar.
- It is easier to get energy from sugar than from other food sources.- When we miss meals or snacks or get “hangry”, our bodies will make us search out quick energy sources. When we are hungry, refined sugar beats a balanced meal any day.
- Consuming sugar to soothe stressful situations can be habitual. Emotional tension or chronic stress can cause a release of cortisol. Sugar can soothe this cortisol surge more easily than dealing with our stressor. When cortisol rises with stress, so does our appetite for easily accessible carbohydrates.
- It fills our brain’s reward centre faster than working toward and achieving a goal. Dopamine is the most plentiful neurotransmitter in the reward center when we feel accomplished and proud. Sugar can fill that reward centre without needing to achieve anything. When we aren’t feeling sincerely satisfied with our daily doings, sugar’s chemical structure is able to fill that neurotransmitter requirement. On the flip side, we often associate sugar as a reward for our arduous accomplishments. If this is the case, consider that there may be something you value more than sweet food,that can be your hard-earned”prize”.
- Sugar is added into most fast foods, finger foods and social foods, and we may not realize the amount consumed, until we feel the crash after the sugar floods our system.
All these beg the question: What does “overdoing it” look like?
The World Health Organization’s recommendation for maximum daily refined (or added) sugar intake is approximately 5-10% of our daily calories. That equals to 6 – 10 teaspoons or 24 – 40 grams.
One large pumpkin spice latte has approximately 48 grams of sugar of which 31 grams are refined sugar from the flavour syrups alone. The rest (17g) are naturally occurring sugars from the milk. Add in some whipped cream and you have an extra 12 grams. That’s your entire added sugar quota for the day.
Unfortunately, nutrition labels do not separate added sugars from naturally occurring sugars, which further confuses our personal sugar assessments. Mindfulness might be more helpful than micro-managing and controlling our recommended intake.
A sugar recommendation does not mean we have a sugar requirement, it just means that to engage in common food customs and maintain social engagements, we will likely consume some refined sugar in the day. So, it is best to keep it below the recommendations.
On average, Canadians consume 50-60g of added sugar per day. For more information, check out these infographics of our annual total sugar intake from Statistics Canada, through MacLean’s, and Global News, and a fantastic Canadian Documentary, Sugar Coated that discusses the health impact of sugar and the influence of industry lobbying.
But for now, let’s get back to mindfulness.
When it comes to health behaviours, the most common dialogue around refined sugar and health is about self-control or ways to cut sugar out completely.
What we want to be aware of is the difference between self-control (will power) and self-regulation (mindfulness).
Using self-“control” in the context of cravings is akin to ignoring a message that our body is trying to tell us. Will power doesn’t break craving cycles, it merely silences them for a short time. Silencing a craving can build resentment and strengthen the urge to break free from the restriction.
Being mindful about our sugar intake is a more active role in breaking a cycle. Using mindfulness can be a more effective way of regulating sugar intake. Mindful sugar consumption starts with pausing, noticing, asking and choosing. It’s not a quick fix, but it makes long term behaviour change more realistic.
What could mindful sugar consumption look like?
Pause: Next time you choose to consume something that’s sweet, check in with your body by taking three deep breaths.
1st Breath – Do nothing, simply inhale and exhale.
2nd Breath – Look at what you are about to eat/drink.
3rd Breath – Look around the room at your surroundings for context.
Notice: Take in the sounds, smells and sights. Notice if your body is tense, if you are salivating, if your stomach has a knot, or is growling.
Ask: Which of these is true for me right now:
- Am I feeling unsafe/scared?
- Have I eaten enough today?
- Am I feeling emotional tension or chronic stress?
- Have I done anything today that serves my sense of pride?
- How many “fast food” items have I consumed today?
Choose: Given my answers:
- Do I want to eat/drink this right now?
- Do I want all of it, or just some of it?
- What can I do to prevent this situation from happening tomorrow?
Through this process you are regulating your relationship with sugar, rather than controlling it.
If you use this mindful process regularly, over time you will build better communication between your body, mind and the way you nourish yourself. Mindfully breaking the sugar habit is learning to listen and respond to your needs. Your body will thank you for it.
By Guest Contributor on March 1, 2016
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
Sugar, that charming devil. So sweet and irresistible, luring us down that mysterious path of pleasure. Even when chasing pleasure leads to deleterious consequences, sometimes we have a hard time stopping ourselves. Why?
First off, scientifically, sugar – as a molecule – refers to the sweet carbohydrate form that is found in all growing things. It is the basis of growth, development and most nourishment. Life cannot survive without carbohydrates, and we have plenty of choices on how those sugars arrive in our mouths and bodies.
There are plant sugars and complex carbohydrates, but when we reach for stress-soothing foods, we often reach for the quickest form of absorbable carbohydrate/sugars – what we call colloquially “sugar” – made up individually or of some combination of glucose, fructose and galactose (combined as sucrose, lactose or maltose). These small molecules have a strong impact on our brains.
Why do we reach for sugar?
We all crave dopamine. It is a reward neurotransmitter that helps us with our drive and motivation – our “get up and go”. Dopamine levels rise with novelty, socializing, sex, love, exercise and many other exciting things, including consuming sugar.
The key thing to remember is that dopamine’s reward is not simply about hedonistic pleasure-seeking, it’s about feeling secure and safe. Feeling better is often about removing fear and insecurity in a given context.
Sugar and sugar’s sweet flavour signals to our brain and nervous system that we are in a safe place and satisfied, similar to the soothing quality that milk sugars have for infants.
We crave sugar when we are feeling stressed because it is a natural stress response. The brain requires it, the body asks for it. Our brains have been accustomed to that sugary relief since birth. This is not unhealthy.
What problems can there be with sugar?
Stress increases cortisol levels. A previous post outlines why cortisol surges in stress and the damage it can cause in the body. One of cortisol’s jobs is to increase our desire for sugar – to fill the system with easy-to-access energy, and to deliver fuel appropriate for the brain. Biochemically, sugar soothes our stressors.
One way we deal with excess cortisol is by chewing. Chewing releases the cortisol precursor, to help get the stress hormones out of our bodies. That’s part of why we grind our teeth, chew gum, sip on water, and “stress-eat.”
When we are in situations of chronic anxiety, uncertainty, or long term stress – that seeping cortisol slowly encourages a consistent search for sugar. Sugar in itself is not a harmful substance, as much as when refined sugar and stress come together. The problem arises when the Sugar/Stress brigade becomes an unstoppable force that can create havoc in the body.
Do we stop eating all sugars then?
No. Absolutely not. While high-sugar diets can impact insulin levels and are associated with long-term health issues, diets that do not include healthy plant sugars give a signal to the brain that resources are low. When carbohydrate resources are low, cortisol surges to encourage you to find them, which creates cycle of deprivation, craving, and fat deposition when food is found.
There are naturally occurring sugars that, when eaten in whole food form and in moderation, are perfectly healthy:
Fructose – Found in honey, figs, grapes, pears, apples
Glucose – Found in honey, figs, grapes, plums, bananas, corn
Sucrose – Found in sugar cane/molasses, sugar beets, maple syrup, red beets, pineapples, apricots, oranges, and sweet potatoes.
There is nothing inherently unnatural or disease causing with these plant sugars. In fact, they are great sources of energy, when eaten as part of a balanced and functional diet.
Added sugars (refined sugars) come from these natural sources but are extracted from the plant, multiplied, and stripped of any nutrients that might have assisted in metabolism. Often refined sugar is seen on food labels as dehydrated cane juice, fruit sugar, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt syrup, or as the accurate names of sucrose, fructose & glucose.
Refined sugar is a quick reward for the brain and body, with very little substance. If we start leaning on them for extended periods, we can quickly find ourselves of overfed, undernourished and accompanied by health concerns.
How to assess your sugar cravings:
We crave sugar for three reasons:
- When we need more motivation/dopamine/self-worth
- When we have depleted our energy sources
- When we feel stressed or unsafe.
There’s a neurological, biological, and emotional basis under our cravings.
So next time you reach for a lollipop – check in and ask yourself:
How have I managed my food/energy levels today? Do I have patience to eat a plant based carbohydrate (which absorbs more slowly)? Am I craving sugar because I’m hungry?
How stressed have I been this week? Have I done anything to help myself mange my stress? Am I using sugar to help me cope?
Have my self-esteem been affected by something today? What can I do that would leave me feeling rewarded/accomplished/motivated? Is sugar replacing the reward of achieving something?
Craving is a complicated net of neurology, biology and emotions. A healthy tool box for these can vary based on your day-to-day situations, and your daily practices. Start by becoming curious as to where your cravings come from and you might uncover your own tools for stress and sugar management.
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.