©Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Do I need to read Connie Bennett’s new book, Beyond Sugar Shock? You bet, I do …
I once ate an entire box of brown sugar … with a teaspoon … in under thirty minutes. No, it wasn’t a contest. I had a hankering for something sweet, and back then, before I recognized the error of my ways, that box of sugar was just about the only thing in my cupboard. I guess I should confess that I am the kind of person who likes to have a wee bit of pancake with her syrup, who prefers the frosting to the cake, whose idea of a celebration is a candy-crammed piñata, sweet tea, and a sticky pitcher of margaritas.
That’s right, I am a sugar junkie, reformed perhaps, but always teetering on the verge of falling off the wagon and directly into the cookie jar. I used to think there were advantages to a diet that consisted largely of refined sugar. I’ve always been thin (in a way only possible for the nutritionally deprived), quick, and famous both for my phenomenal multi-tasking abilities and laser-sharp focus. Yes, I can be a little moody and I have a tendency to crash like a Vespa slamming into a brick wall when the low hits—and it does hit—but in the past I felt these were minor prices to pay for the highs. Far more dangerous are the consequences of long-term sugar abuse—the destruction of healthy metabolic function; the cell and organ damage; the risk of diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, hypertension, stroke, and—researchers now say—various cancers. Some people will tell you that sugar can kill … and, you know, those people are right.
Yet, in spite of the mountain of evidence implicating sugar in a host of disastrous health outcomes, world sugar consumption continues to rise. American’s consume around 22.3 teaspoons or 355 calories of added sugar—that’s sugar that does not occur naturally in a balanced whole food diet—daily. The American Heart Association recommends that women keep their added sugar intake to no more than 100 calories a day and men to 150 calories. So the average American is ingesting more that three times the healthy level of added sugar. Why?
Well, one reason is obvious. Sugar is yummy. Our bodies require simple sugar, which plants manufacture from the combination of water, carbon dioxide and sunlight, as a primary source of energy. It’s no wonder, then, that various forms of sugar, be they natural—glucose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, sucrose—or manmade, have tremendous appeal. Sugar is necessary for cell vitality and for brain function and refined sugars deliver the goods in an accelerated way. They can flood our systems in a manner that raises insulin levels in the blood, endorphin levels in the brain, and produces a chemical high, which brings me to the second reason why we are overdosing on sugar. Unnaturally powerful mood altering substances are popular, and if you infuse products with them, those products will sell.
It doesn’t matter where they are from, most people find cakes, cookies, candy, soft drinks, alcohol—just about anything loaded up with edible crystalline carbohydrates—hard to resist. And the more we eat, the more we want. That’s because our bodies are marvelous self-adjusting mechanisms. When we get too much of a good thing, they recalibrate to stabilize the system. Over time the brain’s endorphins production will slow or shut down, insulin levels in the blood will rise to neutralize the excessive sugar and the adjustment will very likely result in feelings of depression and lethargy. No worries; more sugar can subvert that unwanted downer.
Maybe that’s why some of us may feel we are addicted to sugar—although the notion of sugar addiction is by no means universally accepted. Studies have shown, however, that the way sugar affects opioids and dopamine in the brain suggests a neurochemical response similar to those induced by other addictive substances. “Bingeing,” “withdrawal,” “craving” and “cross-sensitization” are behaviors that sugar lovers share with drug users. Lab rats supplied sugar-laced diets in one Princeton study experienced teeth chattering, paw tremors and head shakes when the sugar was turned off. Given the opportunity, they relapsed, hitting the sweet dispenser again and again.
And that’s just what I do, though I know well that the path to perdition smells just like gingerbread and is paved in peppermint patties. I can’t help it. I still find the temptations of a big bag of jellybeans, a Krispy Kreme donut, or a bottle of blackstrap molasses hard to resist. But now, with a host of food allergies, very possibly provoked by the sweet life, I have learned to eschew added sugars or, at least, to limit my intake. I have to say, it’s not easy. As I mentioned before, sweet stuff sells, so you’ll find lots of hidden sugars in places you might not suspect. Label reading reveals that the substance, very often in the form of high fructose corn syrup, finds its way into just about everything from so-called “healthy” foods like flavored yogurt, granola and low fat salad dressings to ketchup and hamburger buns.
It’s hard to avoid it in processed foods, so I’ve come to rely on plenty of lean protein, low fat dairy, fresh fruit and vegetables to keep my system in balance. It helps with the cravings. But every so often when the moon is full, or the stress is high, or I have a huge deadline looming, I will give in, hop on the old sugar rollercoaster, hang on tight, and ride it once more to the top.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Poet, travel writer and novelist Linda Watanabe McFerrin (www.lwmcferrin.com), has been traveling since she was two and writing about it since she was six. A contributor to numerous journals, newspapers, magazines, anthologies and online publications, she is the author of two poetry collections, an award-winning novel (Namako: Sea Cucumber) and short story collection (The Hand of Buddha), and the editor of a travel guidebook (Best Places Northern California, 4th ed.) and four literary anthologies.
A past winner of the Nimrod International Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction she teaches and leads workshops in fiction and creative non-fiction. Her latest novel, Dead Love (www.deadlovebook.com), a Bram Stoker Award finalist for Superior Achievement in a Novel, was published by Stone Bridge Press in 2010.