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By sandraljames, Jun 7 2016 06:45PM

The subject of sugar is very topical at the moment and actually quite complex. So what are the key questions?

1. Is sugar addictive?

In neuroscience, food is known as a “natural reward.” In order for us to survive as a species, things like eating, having sex and nurturing others must be pleasurable to the brain so that these behaviours are reinforced and repeated. The prefrontal cortex also activates hormones that tell our body: “Hey, this cake is really good. And I’m going to remember that for the future.”

There is increasing neuro-chemical and behavioural evidence that suggests that sugar is addictive. Like drugs, sugar spikes dopamine release and over the long term, regular sugar consumption actually changes the gene expression and availability of dopamine receptors in both the midbrain and frontal cortex. Repeated access to sugar over time leads to prolonged dopamine signalling, greater excitation of the brain’s reward pathways and a need for even more sugar to activate all of the midbrain dopamine receptors like before. The brain becomes tolerant to sugar – and more is needed to attain the same “sugar high.”

2. How much sugar are we eating?

All starches, carbohydrates and sugar are converted into glucose in the body. This means that you might think you're not a 'sweet person' but you could be living on sugar all day.

Fruit is one thing, but modern diets have taken on a life of their own. A few months ago, one expert suggested that the average Briton consumes 238 teaspoons of sugar each week.

A common scenario is eating highly processed cereal for breakfast, biscuits or chocolate snacks mid-morning, sandwiches for lunch, a chocolate bar or piece of cake in the afternoon, pasta for dinner and sweets or chocolate in the evening. This means your body is living on sugar all day.

3. What happens in our bodies when we eat sugar?

All carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. The glucose is then absorbed into the blood stream where it is distributed to all cells and used as energy. To maintain a constant blood-glucose level, your body relies on two hormones called insulin and glucagon that have opposite actions and are produced in the pancreas. Insulin is released in response to a rising blood sugar (glucose) level and causes a reduction in blood sugar by facilitating the passage of glucose into the cells. Any excess glucose that is not used for energy is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle cells and once these glycogen stores are full the remaining glucose is stored as fat. Conversely glucagon responds to falling blood glucose and thereby causes an increase in levels by reconverting the previously stored glycogen back to glucose.

When the pancreas senses a big hit of sugar has come into the digestive system, it releases insulin into the blood, to reduce the ‘blood sugar high’ but as lots of sugar is removed from the blood - this can result in an energy low a few hours later, that weak ‘afternoon slump’ feeling we get, and those ‘sugar low’ feelings that make so many of us crave more sweet, sugary food. This can lead to a cycle of energy lows and sugar cravings which perpetuates round and round.

4. What does eating all this sugar this mean for our health?

By consuming refined carbs or refined sugars every 2 or 3 hours from 7 in the morning until 9 or 10 in the evening, your body is in ‘insulin response mode’ all day long and can mean

• Easy fat/weight gain

• Persistent inability to burn off excess body fat

• Unstable energy levels; tiring energy lows; regular sugar cravings,

• Irritability, anxiety, headaches

• Eventually it can lead to Type 2 Diabetes and many other chronic health problems.

5. So how do I start to get off the ‘sugar rollercoaster’?

You need some sugar in your blood to give you energy, to keep you awake and keep your limbs moving and your brain working. So I am not suggesting for one minute you give up all carbs and sugars – it’s more about what you choose and how & when you eat it.

Start by

• Eating more complex carbs - whole oats, sweet potato, marrow, pumpkin, swede, squash and quinoa all make good healthy substitutes for white potatoes, white rice and pasta.

• Avoid simple carbohydrates, such as fruit juice, soft drinks, cane sugar, jam (use a little all-fruit spread), chocolate, sweets, biscuits, cakes, pastries.

• Eat more fibre, which slows down digestion, promoting satiety and sustained energy, e.g. vegetables: broccoli, kale, watercress, spinach, carrots, butternut squash; beans: chickpeas, peas, lentils; wholegrains: oats, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa.

• Protein should be included at each meal because it slows carbohydrate breakdown by the body, thus sustaining energy release and satisfying the appetite for longer.

• Avoid artificial sweeteners too - it is better to have the occasional sweet treat (e.g. once a week) than regularly cultivate a sweet tooth with these sweeteners

There are also several specific nutrients that can help: these include chromium, omega 3 fats and alpha lipoic acid - but these should only be taken these as part of a recommended programme from a Nutritional Therapist or Naturopath who will consider all of your health needs and make sure any supplements are the right ones for you.

Are you feeling motivated to give up sugar?

Following these recommendations will give you a good start in stabilising your blood sugar fluctuations but for a dedicated personalised plan or for more info on any of the above then just get in touch.

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