I really don’t eat much sugar. I don’t have breakfast at all (I do 16:8 intermittent fasting), I drink coffee and tea with unsweetened soy milk and no sugar, lunch is a tortilla wrap with lettuce, carrot, cucumber and cheese / roasted sweet potato & feta / tuna / boiled egg and in the evenings a vegetarian dish. If I want dessert I have 80% dark chocolate or hot cacao. I really very rarely have sugar – I don’t miss it, I don’t crave it.
That was until last week Thursday. At our office Christmas party I had Christmas pudding with custard for dessert. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but I now realise that that festive pud had actually set a series of things in motion. Over the course of the following weekend I had toast with jam. Twice. Monday I bought Christmas mince pies and ate two. On Tuesday I broke the 16:8 fast by having a croissant for breakfast and I had another Christmas pudding at a second office Christmas party.
The kicker is that through all of this I was feeling bloated, constipated, anxious, extremely tired, didn’t want to exercise at all, I had a nasty pimple just above my eyebrow (WTF?) and I craved more carbs and more sugar – even though I suspected it was the sudden intake of sugar that made me feel this way in the first place. I kid you not, I had a dream about croissants!
Isn’t that a sign of addiction? You feel compelled by a force stronger than you to have more even though you know it’s bad for you? Yes it is. And sugar can be addictive. In 2008 researchers from Princeton University found that just like drugs, it causes you to binge on it, feel unable to resist it and then show withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop.
In experiments, the researchers have been able to induce signs of withdrawal in the lab animals by taking away their sugar supply. The rats’ brain levels of dopamine dropped and, as a result, they exhibited anxiety as a sign of withdrawal. The rats’ teeth chattered, and the creatures were unwilling to venture forth into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area. Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the rats in sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore.
Feeling unusually tired on the days I was having a lot of sugar also wasn’t my imagination. A study from April 2019 by scientists from three Universities showed there is no such thing a sugar rush and in fact, sugar will make you more tired and less alert. So on top of the addictive qualities of sugar I was experiencing, I thought that I had to have more sugar as a pick-me-up to counter the tiredness, when in fact sugar was the cause of the tiredness and incapable of giving me an energy rush.
The researchers found that 1) sugar consumption has virtually no effect on mood, regardless of how much sugar is consumed or whether people engage in demanding activities after taking it; 2) people who consumed sugar felt more tired and less alert than those who had not; and 3) the idea of a ‘sugar rush’ is a myth without any truth behind it.
These facts are shocking, but what shocks me even more is that for years I was feeling anxious, tired and bloated day in and day out and eating sugary snacks to help me feel better. Little did I know that what I thought was the cure, turned out to be the cause.
I’ve now been back to my usual way of eating for three days and I’m feeling much, much better. But it’s only because feeling unwell is so unfamiliar to me now, that I was willing and able to cut back on the sugar again. A year ago, I would just have continued to eat sugary snacks, trying to find other reasons (excuses) for feeling tired. I was trapped in a bitter sweet spiral of ill health and had in fact gotten used to feeling tired and sluggish. No wonder I struggled to get up in the morning – never mind getting up extra early so that I could exercise! My “normal” was actually a very abnormal way of living to which I had become accustomed. Sadly in Britain most people consume almost 3 times the recommended daily sugar intake. That’s a whole nation of tired, bloated, anxious (and diabetic) people.
I just wish more people would try giving up on sugar so that they can experience how good “feeling good” really feels. Once you do, you’ll never want a sugar laden snack ever again. The NHS published a great guide on how to cut down on sugar. It’s basically just a case of swapping out the sugar laden foods with something less sugary. And if in doubt, read the food label. If the swaps are done gradually – don’t go cold turkey otherwise you will suffer withdrawal symptoms – you will soon start to feel more energised which will keep you motivated to stick to the less sugary foods. For life. Before you know it, you won’t even think about sugar any more.
And when Christmas comes around and you have a mince pie, stop at one. Don’t let the sugar addiction take hold!