— and why it’s necessary
WORDS by Kaisha Scofield
The holidays are coming! The holidays are coming! Depending on who is reading this, those exclamation marks can either signal excitement or terror, or maybe some combination of the two. Holidays can be filled with magic and love, warmth and generosity, but they can also be a time of overwhelm. Panicked to get the perfect gift, hustling to plan (socially distant) activities, cooking the perfect meal, holidays are stressful! It also happens to be the time of year when every surface is covered with our favourite stress buster, sugar.
Candy canes at the bank, boxes of chocolate in the office, pumpkin pie and ice cream at dinner, indulgence is around every corner. We are on sugar overload from October to December and when January hits, we are full of regrets. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. We are a society oversaturated with sugar. It is added to so much of our food that we often aren’t even aware we’re eating it. But we are eating it and in huge quantities.
We receive, on average, one quarter of our daily calories from sugar. It is estimated that Canadians consume 26 teaspoons of sugar per day, adding to 88 pounds annually! For perspective, the highly addictive magical beverage coffee was only consumed at a rate of 15 pounds per person (measured in bean form) last year. Even cheese consumption is averaged at only 39 pounds annually. Bread, arguably the most popular food item in the world, is only at 71 pounds consumed, on average, each year. I think you get the idea: sugar is king.
But sugar is so delicious! Why can’t we keep eating it? Well, as with many things that fall into the category of too good to be true, sugar, when consumed in such large quantities, is very harmful to the body.
When we eat sugar and refined carbohydrates, they are immediately turned into glucose in the body, which is then used as an energy source. However, if there is leftover glucose that the body can’t use right away, it is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. When these and other body cells are saturated with glycogen, the excess is converted to fat and is stored as adipose tissue. Simply put, excess sugar equals excess fat.
Excess sugar is also responsible for the development of advanced glycation end products or AGEs. AGEs are created when proteins and/or fats become glycated as a result of exposure to sugars. AGEs cause damage through a process called cross-linking that leads to cellular damage and apoptosis (cell death). AGEs are a bio-marker implicated in aging and the development, or worsening, of many degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, chronic kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Scary stuff!
How do we resist something so delicious and dangerous? If you’re having sugar cravings, you might want to have a talk with your hormones and look at your stress levels.
One of the easiest ways to negatively disrupt your hunger signals, trigger cravings and eat junk food is through stress. Stress is directly linked to hormone balance, which is directly linked to hunger cravings, specifically cravings of hyper-flavourful foods and instant calories (think Doritos with a side of Slurpee). Stress causes the body to release cortisol which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).
Our brain is essentially channelling the evolutionary part of our body system that would react to, for example, running away from an elephant. The body perceives this as a need for instant fuel to deal with the high-level stressor, the elephant, or in today’s world, an angry email from your boss. In hunter-gatherer times, the body would dip into stored glucose. In our times, we can reach for a Snickers bar to get a hit of 250 calories and 27 grams of sugar, enough energy to run for 30 minutes. That elephant is long gone but your boss’s email is still in your inbox.
Instead of running, however, we are more likely to return to our desk and continue on with the day. Once the glucose has been used for fuel, it is stored in the body and glucose levels return to normal. By now, however, our cortisol stores are tapped out, which causes fatigue. As the day continues and we are faced with varying degrees of stress, the cycle repeats itself. Over time this cycle creates a number of deficiencies. Cortisol can take days to regenerate and since it is interacting with the nervous system it is also working in conjunction with other essential hormones in the body. When cortisol is depleted, other hormone systems are affected, ultimately throwing the whole delicate system out of balance.
Nutrient balance is another finely balanced system that is affected by the stress and sugar cycle. Sugar processing requires a large number of vital nutrients. In order to metabolize sugar, the body requires high levels of magnesium (tissue support), thiamine (nervous system), riboflavin (oxygenation) and niacin (digestive support). When these are used to convert sugars in the body, they are diverted from other important areas. Add to this the reality that most sugar-laden foods are highly processed and devoid of nutrients, and it is no surprise that the body is quickly faced with nutrient deficiencies and overall depletion.
The most immediate symptom of a depleted and overburdened system is fatigue and mental fog, which often leads to—you guessed it—an inability to properly process stress. The cycle is now on repeat.
It is important to note that eating sugar during times of stress is not about willpower and instead has everything to do with mental health and wellness support. We have a tendency to put a value judgement on food abstinence: we are good if we only eat health foods or bad if we eat food that is deemed unhealthy. This thought process once again feeds into the negative cycle by increasing stress and anxiety.
Limiting sugar in the diet is important, not because eating it is fundamentally bad, but because it compromises physical and mental health. Making the decision to simply stop eating “bad” foods is not sustainable. Instead, try recognizing and preparing for times of overwhelm and stress by making more nourishing options available. In this way, those candy canes and boxes of chocolates can be approached in times of celebration instead of desperation.