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America is Addicted to Sugar

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

By Steven Hopper

This is a hard story to write, because if you knew me you’d know that I have a huge sweet tooth. And, ironically, I happen to be writing this on “National Donut Day”. So before I begin, let me start by saying that I’m a guilty sugar addict too. However, I started changing my ways ever since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis about a year ago.

At first, the pain started in subtle ways. My ankle would randomly hurt, then my knee, and sometimes my wrist. I assumed these were just related to overuse from working out or typing on a keyboard too much. But then things got worse. A little pain turned into more severe pain and even more dramatic swelling. Some days, my fingers were double in size, so big that I could barely bend them — and this, I knew, was not a normal reaction to overuse. When things became more serious, I started paying more attention to try and find out what could be triggering these symptoms.

I noticed that my pain and swelling would especially flare up after nights of indulgent partying, in which I consumed excess alcohol (with sugary mixers) and rich foods. Once I ate a cupcake, for example, and just hours later I could feel my wrist and fingers start to swell and then the joint pain ensued. I felt like this was bizarre behavior and like I must be having some sort of allergic reaction. It took months of waiting, but when I finally was able to get an appointment with a rheumatologist the diagnosis that I had feared for so long was finally confirmed: the swelling and pain in my joints was actually coming from my own body attacking itself.

I went home and immediately began researching how to live with this chronic condition, determined not to let it progress and continue damaging my joints and eventually crippling me. After a lot of research on arthritis and how to live a healthy lifestyle to control the disease, what I discovered is that sugar is a major culprit for causing inflammation in the body, hence causing flare-ups for many autoimmune diseases — including diabetes. But sugar causes many other health concerns, even for people who don’t have an autoimmune disease.

While it’s true that anything in excess can be bad for you — fats and sodium included — sugar is one of the few ingredients that has zero nutritional value. Doctors are concerned that eating more sugar means replacing more nutritionally-dense foods or tacking on unnecessary calories to an otherwise healthy diet.

And what are the effects of eating too much sugar? Well, it is responsible for more than just my arthritis symptoms. In fact, people old and young alike are suffering from many symptoms and illnesses related to sugar consumption. For example, sugar is linked to things as seemingly innocuous as mood and energy swings, weight gain, tooth decay and cavities all the way to more severe health concerns such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, non-alcoholic liver disease, and gout (a type of arthritis).

And Americans consume a lot of sugar. Just take a look at the sugar consumption of Americans from 2007. Although overall sugar consumption is slightly lower currently, the “sugar glut” still exists.

This map makes sense if we examine the standard American diet versus that of other countries. Americans eat a lot more processed food and sugary drinks compared to other countries. Just think about a typical American breakfast — cereal, pancakes, french toast, waffles, and yes, donuts— all loaded with sugar to start off the day.

But an even worse culprit are the drinks that Americans consume between meals that have a disastrous impact on total sugar consumption. I saw this tweet just this week and find it fitting in honor of “National Donut Day”. Check out how much sugar is actually in some of the drinks people consume and without thinking twice about it.

Even when Americans think they’re cutting out sugar by limiting desserts or those obvious sugar culprits, they might be missing added sugar from a variety of other sources. Added sugar goes by many names on food labels, which is often why it’s so hard to identify just how much sugar you are consuming.

Image from WebMD

So because of these other ingredients, sugar hides in many common foods not considered to be “sweet” or sugar-containing.

And sometimes, companies want to promote food as though it’s “healthier” because it offers other health benefits, is made with less or with all-natural sugar.

But sugar is sugar and the effects on your body are the same. Yes, all natural sugars (such as real fruit, maple or agave syrup and stevia leaf) are much better on your body, but ultimately there is still a limit to how much sugar your body needs.

So after I learned about all of this, I tried to track my own daily sugar consumption and avoid eating sugar as much as possible. And that’s when I discovered just how difficult that is to do in America. Sugar is everywhere. And sugar substitutes, sweeteners and sugar alcohols — all chemically made additives — may be lowering the overall calorie count in foods but still pose a threat to our health.

This made me realize that America is addicted to sugar and it’s literally killing us. In fact, this is what Cassie Bjork, a registered dietician and founder of Healthy Simple Life had to say about sugar,

“Research shows that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine. Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward center, which leads to compulsive behavior, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more.”

The food industry knows about this addictive quality and that’s why so many of our products are laden with sugar. Think about it: Have you ever tried ketchup without high-fructose corn syrup or sugar? Or eaten real cacao before it becomes sugary chocolate? What about all-natural jelly or plain yogurt with zero grams of sugar? These foods taste completely different than the American food industry has led us to believe. It’s exactly these deceptive practices that Michael Moss discloses in his book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Basically, I’m a sweet tooth because America wanted it that way. So after I realized how sugar was connected to my rheumatoid arthritis and the detrimental effect it was having inside my body, I have spent the last year re-training my body and taste buds to un-like sugary foods and slowly but surely it’s working. I rid my pantry of sugar and any processed foods containing sugar. In my cooking, I only use real fruit, honey, maple syrup, and stevia and all in moderation. I even started making my own desserts, sauces, breads and drinks (when I have time to). I switched where I shop for groceries, because I found an all-natural grocer where I can buy healthy and quick foods for when I don’t have time to make it from scratch. I know that these changes are working because now, when I try to indulge by eating typical American desserts, I find them way too sweet and can’t finish them.

I know that this article isn’t the first time that people are learning about the impacts of processed foods and added sugar on our health. Sadly, it took a big wake-up call for me to realize that even when I thought I was living a healthy lifestyle, I was still consuming extreme amounts of a deadly ingredient. Luckily, the food revolution is under way and people are starting to revolt against the American food industry. Now, there are great options available for sourcing local produce and buying all-natural foods, but these still cost a lot for the average American. So it’s critical to spread the word and take action to reverse America’s sugar addiction, before more people have to suffer the health consequences.

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