Your Brain On Sugar: A Conversation With Max Lugavere

We know added sugar is bad for us and that eating too much of it can lead to obesity and diabetes. So why can’t we stop eating sugar? Why is it so hard to have just one scoop of ice cream and not eat the whole pint?

Max Lugavere explains why sugar is so addictive and what it is doing to our brains. (Image: Unsplash)

The average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons of added sugar every day, and 66 pounds of added sugar per year, which, according to the American Heart Association, is just way too damn much. There’s sugar in our bread, pasta sauces, chips, fruit drinks — any way food manufacturers can sneak sugar into our diet, they’ll do it.

To get to the bottom of why we can’t stop eating sugar and how it is affecting our mind and body, we spoke to Max Lugavere, New York Times best-selling author of “Genius Foods” and host of The Genius Life podcast.

On this week’s episode of LIVESTRONG.COM’s Stronger podcast, Lugavere breaks down the link between sugar and brain health, reveals tricks to reduce sugar cravings and discusses how to responsibly satiate your sweet tooth.

Listen to Your Brain on Sugar to hear what Lugavere has to say — and visit Thrive Market for all your organic food needs!

You can also read some of the highlights from our interview with Lugavere about what sugar does to our brains, below.

What's So Bad About Sugar? And Is It Really Addictive?

Animal studies have shown us that sugar does have addictive qualities to it certainly, but I would say that the most insidious form in which sugar takes today, is that it's squeezed into every crevice of the modern food supply via ultra-processed foods. And if you just think for a second, children today and even adults, we're not buying bags of sugar from the supermarket and consuming sugar right? So it's not necessarily sugar that we all collectively find to be so delectable and addiction forming. It's really the fact that sugar is usually combined today in packaged, processed foods that take these foods and combines a combination of flavors and mouth feels that make them hyper-palatable.

What Is Hyper-Palatability?

Hyper-palatability is a term that describes a food that's essentially impossibly delicious. And these foods are not natural foods. Nowhere in nature will you find sugar combined with fat, combined with wheat, combined with starch. And so food scientists, what they do is combine these flavors, and it's those types of packaged, processed, industrially manufactured foods that I would say are the biggest problem. They're the foods that are the most addictive. It's why we can't just have one potato chip from the bag of chips—we end up going through the entire bag before we are even cognizant of it. Why it's impossible to have a scoop from the pint of ice cream sitting in our freezers, we are so frequently inclined to eat the whole pint.

Are Non-Caloric Sweeteners a Healthy Alternative to Sugar? And What's the Downside, If There are Downsides, of Sugar Substitutes like Erythritol and Xylitol?

So I would say the jury is still out for the most part, but there are definitely sugar substitutes that I would say are safer than others. I am not a fan of sucralose which is the primary ingredient found in Splenda; I'm not a fan of aspartame, I'm not a fan of saccharine. So, immediately, those artificial sweeteners I would take off the table.

I am okay with monk fruit and Stevia. And erythritol and xylitol, which you mentioned, those are sugar alcohols. There are a number of sugar alcohols. There's maltitol, sorbitol; I would say that erythritol and xylitol are the best, the ones I would choose to consume, of the known sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are natural, even though they sound like they're alcohol, they're non-alcoholic, and they're usually produced via the fermentation of gluten-free grains like corn and things like that.

Some sugar alcohols can promote digestive distress but erythritol is pretty safe and so is xylitol. There might even be some dental benefits to consuming either. But again, even though these sugar alcohols are found in nature...in sugar-free "packaged, processed foods," they are usually concentrated in very high amounts. I don't know if that is necessarily good for us. Again, the jury is still out. But if it satiates your sweet tooth and you want to use these sugar alcohols occasionally to make something to satiate that sweet tooth, then I see nothing wrong with that according to the latest evidence that I've reviewed.

On this week’s episode of the Stronger Podcast, “Genius Foods” author Max Lugavere discusses America’s sugar addiction and offers insight into how to reduce sugar cravings. (Image: LIVESTRONG.com/Max Lugavere)

What Are Some Food Hacks For Someone Getting Off Refined Sugar?

I would say if transitioning and sort of leaning on Stevia, and those kinds of non-caloric sweeteners may help, then I would say, by all means, go for it. I also think one of the most important things that you can do, is counterintuitively, is get your sleep in line. Our hunger patterns are driven by our hormones and sleep is a master hormonal regulator. So I'm a big fan of getting sleep. I think sleep is the one thing that we discredit.

I was just reading a research paper, and 30-percent of the general population suffers from insomnia. So this is problematic when you look at the fact that sleep helps to fortify our willpower to help us make better decisions when it comes to diet. So if you are struggling with sugar addiction and things like that, I would look to other parts of your life that you can sort of optimize, to reduce the burden that you place on your will power which is a finite resource.

What Are Some Foods That People Don't Realize Contain a Ton of Sugar?

I would say salad dressings, commercial sauces. These are all major offenders. Sugar-sweetened beverages for sure. I think a lot of people give drinks, like coconut water, the benefit of the doubt because of the potassium that it contains. But it's 15 grams of sugar being funneled straight into your bloodstream without any fiber or anything like that to slow it down. So I would say sugar-sweetened beverages are a major problem for most people. I'm all about non-caloric beverages, not drinking your calories.

And really forgoing sauces, ketchup, barbecue sauces things like which are usually loaded with sugar and especially if they're the commercial variance, they're usually made with high fructose corn syrup which certainly isn't good for you.

People think that dried fruits are automatically good for you, but most of the time they have added sugar. It's an onslaught. That's why I say even when you're trying in a modern diet to eat a lower carbohydrate diet, we're still eating dramatically more carbohydrates than our ancestors. For every person, generally speaking, it's good to become conscious of your overall carbohydrate and especially sugar intake.

How is Sugar Linked to Depression and Anxiety?

Sugar typifies junk foods along with added unhealthy fats like canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil. And junk food consumption has been associated with depression for quite a long time actually in the medical literature. But we now know that, thanks to a slew, I would say small but meaningful trials like the Smiles Trial that was performed out of Deakin University at the Food and Mood Center there, that replacing these kinds of foods with healthier, whole foods, like the kinds of foods that would be consumed in a Mediterranean country, for example, actually can improve symptoms of depression even if you have major depression. So this is pretty empowering information.

The other thing is, when it comes to anxiety, which is a little bit different than depression, I've talked about this recently on my podcast "The Genius Life," many people when they are stuck on the high sugar standard American diet, they make it from meal to meal, basically by the skin of their teeth. Essentially, every meal they're treating the withdrawal from the sugar that they're experiencing from the previous meal.

And sometimes for a person who is prone to panic attacks, that relative bout of hyperglycemia can actually trick the brain and lead them to believe that they are having like heart palpitations or things like that. So for somebody who is prone to anxiety, and definitely for somebody who is prone to depression, there is certainly no harm in cutting the sugar out of your diet and reducing your consumption of packaged, process foods and I think the potential upside is that it probably, will help you in the long run, mitigate symptoms.

To learn more about what sugar does to your brain, listen to the whole episode here.

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