Did you know lots of lip balm has sugar in it? Katy Perry, you’re welcome.
“Sugar is the new nicotine!” proclaims Action on Sugar, a consortium of scientists and doctors whose mission is to reduce sugar consumption and diabetes worldwide, in a new public awareness campaign.
According to their press release, “This group will initially target the huge and unnecessary amounts of sugar that are currently being added to our food and soft drinks. Action On Sugar will carry out a public health campaign, to make the public more sugar aware and thus avoid products that are full of hidden sugars. Children are a particularly vulnerable group targeted by industry marketing calorie dense snacks and sugar-sweetened soft drinks.”
Public health! Awareness! The children!! – they certainly hit all the high points for making a headline-garnering campaign but are they correct? Is sugar really the health menace to society that nicotine is? And should we be fighting it the same way we fight cigarettes?
If you’d asked me this a few years ago, I would have said this is ridiculous and that clearly my adorable, delicious balls of jelly bean joy are not at all the same as cancer sticks of death. For one thing they turn my teeth and tongue a lovely purply-blue-green instead of a hideous, desiccated yellow. But also have you ever seen the Easter Bunny pooping eggs of tobacco chaw? But these days I’m not so sure. I do think that the food industry manipulates sugar, fat and salt to make their foods physiologically addicting so we’ll buy more of them.
Plus the amount of e-mail and comments I get from readers asking about how to break their sugar addiction/moderate their sugar intake/make peace with treats is staggering. I’m definitely not the only person with a very conflicted relationship with the stuff!
Yet as new studies have emerged, the science is making a compelling case (that is, if one is rational about things like Easter candy which I clearly am not). Check out the similarities between the white satan and the brown devil:
Both can be addictive.
People like to scoff that a soft heart-shaped sugar cookie can effect the brain in the same way as nicotine or even cocaine – maybe because baked goods are so much cuter? -but study after study has shown that sugar can and does operate on the same neural reward pathways as harder drugs.
“We consistently found that the changes we were observing in the rats bingeing on sugar were like what we would see if the animals were addicted to drugs,” said professor Nicole Avena from a 2008 Princeton study that fed rats both sugar and cocaine and then monitored their brains and physiological responses.
A meta-analysis done by the University of Florida in Gainesville found the same link in 28 separate studies. “The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,” says Nora Volkow from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We are finding tremendous overlaps between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.”
While sugar does meet the four criteria to qualify as a “drug” – bingeing, withdrawal, craving and sensitization – whether or not gummy bears produce the same degree of dependence or withdrawal is still up for debate. Frankly it’s hard to separate in human models since sugar is so readily accessible and is more acceptable in society than other drugs. Plus all those ethical review boards get testy when we start trying to test out cocaine withdrawal on people. Still, I hate it when people dismiss sugar addiction by saying something like “Well, I’ve never seen anyone rob a bank to get money for a Ben & Jerry’s fix!” How easy is it to simply walk to the corner store, fork over a few bucks, and buy a pint? If pasta and crusty French bread were restricted to the point cocaine is, you might see people taking extreme measures to get it. Did no one else see Lady and the Tramp as a dysopian future cautionary tale??
Both produce an immediate, momentary high.
Ah sweet sugar high! (Gotta have it really need it to get by… That was basically the only the time I ever liked Renee Zellweger. And she’s singing about sugar. Coincidence?) One of the best – or worst, depending on your perspective – attributes of both sugar and nicotine is how quickly they make us feel better. And it’s not just a psychological thing. The sugar rush or candy crush or sweet euphoria or whatever term you use to describe that blissed out moment right after you eat that first bite of chocolate lava cake does exist thanks to a short-term rush of dopamine in the brain unlocked by a tasty treat. You know what else increases dopamine in the brain? Nicotine.
(Although just for future reference, there appears to be no scientific link between hyperactivity, ADHD and sugar consumption in kids.)
Both cause health complications that appear much later, even years after consumption.
Part of the problem with getting people to drop their cancer sticks was convincing them that their cigarettes were actually carcinogenic. Even though the research showing the harm started coming out fairly early, people didn’t believe it because they couldn’t immediately see it. They smoked, they felt great and maybe 20 years down the line they get lung cancer but who cares because by then hopefully there will be a cure for cancer or maybe it’s just your time to go because we all have our time to shuffle off this coil amirite? Sugar suffers from a similar PR affliction, except worse – because how cuuute are conversation hearts and chocolate bunnies??
While there has long been an established link between excess sugar consumption and diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, fatty liver disease, tooth decay and cancer among other nasty things, people still think of it as relatively benign. And while I’m not saying that a handful of Junior Mints will bring you to your untimely end, the relationship does bear examining. For instance, take a study from just last month done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta that found that daily drinking the amount of sugar contained in just one soda bumped up your risk of dying from cardiac disease by a third. If 25% or more of your calories come from sugar that risk doubles.
But not only does increased sugar increase your risk of disease but a 2009 University of Alabama study found a correlation between decreased sugar intake and a longer lifespan, saying that sugar affects our health on a molecular level. Reducing glucose – a common type of sugar – actually “reduced the metabolic age” of cells. Skipping the birthday cake could actually turn back the birthday clock?
Both can bring on negative social consequences.
In recent years both nicotine and sugar have begun to see a public backlash. Smoking indoors is no longer acceptable legally or socially (and thank heavens). People who smoke are losing their rep as cool rebels and nicotine ads are increasingly banned in public places. While it’s nowhere near the same level of public approbation, sugar has been pretty soundly demonized by the press, lots of people are actively trying to avoid it and showing up with a big plate of the stuff is often welcomed… with a big sigh of guilt. When’s the last time you brought a plate of goodies to the office and no one said something like “I know I shouldn’t but…” Not to mention the unfortunate but real effects of fat shaming or food shaming of overweight and obese people.
But they’re not the same.
The big difference, of course, is that nicotine is limited to nicotine products like cigars, cigarettes, chew and pipes while sugar is found in nearly everything. (And now I’m having fond memories of those candy cigarettes they sold when I was kid! And Big League chew! And bubblegum cigars! And those foot long Laffy Taffys! Okay the last one isn’t tobacco related but still, good times.) While total abstinence from tobacco has its challenges, it is definitely doable as evidenced by the number of people able to quit or never start the habit. But sugar? It’s nearly impossible to avoid it completely.
First of all, sugar is not one unique entity. For example, we have table sugar, high fructose corn syrup and the sugar naturally occurring in fruit – each has a slightly different chemical makeup and the effects can vary. It appears that added sugar – sweeteners added to a product – is the real problem. So if you’re going out of your way to avoid it then you have to learn the more than 50 different names for added sugar and pay attention to all the sneaky places they hide. Unless your friends are consummate evil then I’m guessing no one is slipping nicotine into your soup without telling you.
Plus, some sweetness is good for you. There is a built-in evolutionary drive that leads us to seek out sugar, ostensibly to encourage us to eat more nutrient-dense fruits. Plus, all forms of carbohydrates are broken down into glucose – the most readily available energy for your body. And for heaven’s sake breast milk has sugar in it and babies are born with a natural sweet tooth! Not to mention how many of our happy cultural rituals revolve around sugar. Birthday parties, promotions, homecomings, baby births, weddings, holidays – all are known for the types of sugary confections we use to celebrate them. Taking all the candy away would, undoubtedly, make the world a sadder place.
And how does this all fit in with a healthy diet? I suppose, just looking at the evidence, if we could all avoid added sugars forever we’d be as healthy as a Jaybird in a blueberry bush. But I know very few people who can say no to their fave indulgences forever. So most of us make an uneasy pact of some kind. Intuitive Eaters try to take the stigma away by no longer making fruit snacks the forbidden fruit. The idea is that your body will want what makes it feel it’s best and therefore will choose candy sometimes but healthy food most of the time. I’ve found that works for me with many foods. Baked goods are that way for me.
But straight-up sugar, like candy and chocolate (and especially if it’s something gummy and sour!), sends me into a compulsive binge-like state where I eat it until it’s gone, I’m sick or the kids find me and freak the heck out that I’m not sharing with them – whichever comes first. For whatever reason I can’t do moderation with jelly beans and the like. The only way to prevent myself from going nuts with them is to not have them anywhere I can get them. So I don’t buy them. And if I lived alone, this would be a perfect solution. I’m good in the grocery store! But I happen to live with four little people and one other big person who I swear have seven birthdays a year and 20 class parties and so many other treat-eating occasions that keeping it out of the house is a never-ending battle.
Other strategies include the ubiquitous “cheat days” where people abstain for a certain period of time (usually 6 days) and then eat whatever they want on the 7th day. Similarly, others practice intermittent fasting. Then there’s simple caloric budgeting or following a points system. Still others live by the “three bite rule” or will only eat sweets they’ve made themselves or only have treats when they eat out or will only eat high-quality foods while sitting down or make strange frankenstein concoctions where they healthify their favorite desserts into nutritional acceptability. My point: there are lots of ways people try to control their sugar intake. (Looking for more ideas? Check out my 10 tips for silencing the siren song of sugar.)
But what if we did buy into the idea that sugar is as smoking? What would an anti-sugar campaign in the style of the anti-tobacco campaign even look like?
I’m not supporting any of these options, nor saying I agree with the messages and they are not in the works (that I know of) – I just thought it was really interesting to think about what it would look like if we really did tackle sugar in the same way we’ve tackled nicotine. (My brain is a strange place) So I threw together these mock ads. The results are… unsettling?
Age restrictions: Taking candy from a baby IS easy, if you’ve got legislation!
Adding a surgeon general’s warning: That little box is enough to scare anybody, no matter what’s written in it!
Graphic depictions of gross-out diseases: Whatever you do, DO NOT google “diabetes complications”. This was the least gross one of the bunch, I promise. I was just trying to copy those smoking ads where they show the person who lost their jaw to cancer or the blackened lungs… I’m sorry. I should just stay out of advertising, right??
So what’s your take – Is sugar the new public health menace on the level of nicotine? If so, should there be a public health campaign against it, like there is with cigs? And what would that look like to you? And, most importantly, what’s your view on sugar and how do you manage it in your life? (Seriously, help me out – I need ideas!)