Let’s Stop the Froth and Bubbles and Cut to the Chase. What Sugar is Really Doing to our Brains

The announcement by industry this week to reduce the amount of sugar in soft drink by 20% by 2025 as a means to combat the global pandemic of obesity had me rolling around the floor in fits of hysterical laughter.

Seriously?

While the prospect of tax cuts in seven years might feel slightly appealing, waiting the same amount of time to see the sugar reduction take full effect, is essentially urinating (you can use your own word here) into the wind.

This poor attempt by industry to be seen doing the right thing is a furphy, but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s like when McDonald’s came out with its “healthy” menu.

Sorry, just as health and McDonalds should never occur in the same sentence, neither can “less sugar and soft drink.”

If we’re serious about this ask yourself this question.

Why has it been reported that 40% of Thai Buddhist monks are now obese and sick, despite the fact they fast for much of their day?

The answer is that they are now consuming higher amounts of sugar laden soft drinks and juices.

The only effective way forward here is to stop drinking the stuff.

Should soft drinks be banned?

No, but I would be very happy to see them far more difficult to obtain.

It’s time to get sugar savvy because excess refined sugar is contributing to the global health problems of obesity and type two diabetes. It is associated with shortened lifespans and chronic health problems and also our brain health and how well we think.

It’s not sugar’s fault.

Sugar is a carbohydrate, as is fiber and starch and comes in a variety of forms. Sugars as found in whole foods are not the issue, it’s the addition of refined sugar to processed foods that is the problem and it’s added to almost everything.

Excess sugar leads to a pro-inflammatory state and inflammation. It is now understood to be the basis for many of today’s chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and neurodegenerative conditions.

You Don’t Need to Quit Sugar

The paradox is that glucose derived from the breakdown of vegetables and fruit is the brain’s primary source of energy (except during starvation when ketone bodies generated by the liver can provide a temporary substitute). This energy is used to power up neuronal transmission. If you’ve ever gone “low carb” and wondered why you’ve developed foggy thinking, this is why!

One small study of older people with normal glucose tolerance showed that glucose regulation is associated with cognitive performance. Common dietary carbs as found in barley and potatoes enhanced cognition in those subjects with poor memory.

Conversely, the SAD (Standard American and Western) diet that is overloaded with too much saturated fat and simple carbohydrates (as found in refined sugar) has been shown in the longer term to have a negative effect on our cognition, to the level it is thought to contribute to the development of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Yikes!

Simply said, it’s the excess simple carbs that affect cognition.

When writing a nutritional prescription, it’s about adding in those foods being under consumed to enhance health and cognition while reducing or eliminating harmful foods being over consumed that can make us sick.

Simple carbohydrates, namely glucose and sucrose, when consumed in excess can impair post-prandial memory function. And you thought it was just from eating too much lunch?

Why this happens is because of the impact excess refined sugar has on the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Researchers have proposed a ‘vicious cycle’ model where following the SAD diet over time contributes to obesity by impairing how the hippocampus works leading to impaired memory and interfering with our ability to say no to those environmental cues that entice us to have that next donut or snack. Why? Because it’s been shown to make us feel hungry all the time!

Even if you’re still in the normal weight range, consuming excess refined sugar contributes to neuroinflammation and the associated drop in neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

If we’re addicted, is it our fault?

Much has been publicised around the addictive nature of sweet foods.

However, taming your sweet tooth is perfectly possible.

When we consume something we find tasty, it stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter released in response to a rewarding event. It’s the same circuitry that is impacted by those highly addictive drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine. Feeling rewarded motivates us to repeat that same behaviour and let’s face it having something sweet tastes good, hence the notion that sugar can have addictive qualities.

When habits are created, it’s the anticipation of the reward that is so enticing, which is why it can be hard to shake that mid-afternoon ritual of having a chocolate bar.

We adapt to this by down regulating the number of dopamine receptors meaning it takes more of a sugar hit to get the same response. You can probably see how this leads to us consuming more sugary foods.

Also, eating more of the same food increases our desire for it even if we didn’t like it in the first place!

Note to parents – this is helpful if you have fussy kids who don’t like vegetables. Keep offering it to them and one day (OK they might be 45) they could suddenly take a liking to mushrooms, brussels sprouts or kale.

Step away from the donut. Safeguarding your thinking starts here.

Cognition is precious. To think well and remember more, following a brain healthy diet has never been easier.

It’s about adding in more vegetables, fruit, lean protein, seeds and nuts, legumes and whole grains as found in the Mediterranean style diet.

Get specific – as in add one extra variety of green vegetable to your evening meal or eat one piece of fruit for lunch every day.

Be consistent – It’s about what you do generally, rather than the occasional treat.

It’s about eating less refined sugar and saturated fat.

Again, get specific. If your habit is to have a muffin with your morning coffee, substitute it with another yummy treat such as an apple or banana.

Be consistent – changing habits doesn’t occur overnight and of course there will be those times the muffin wins. Ditch the guilt and just carry on working towards healthier choices that will lead to a change in your taste buds and lower the desire for the sweet fatty stuff.

In the workplace this is where providing healthy options can work well.

If vending machines are provided seek to reduce the amount of processed foods and drinks on offer and increase the availability of fresh unprocessed alternatives including water.

Let’s be grownups here.

Legislating changes, or imposing a sugar tax might lower refined sugar consumption, but what we’re really talking about is changing our mindset and behaviour.

It comes down to conscious choice and determining what’s important to you and your family.

We know the downside of excess refined sugar – it’s now up to us to make an informed decision and take on the responsibility for our own actions.

And let’s stop drinking soft drink. Period.