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Sweet Poison: Sugar


Children love sweets, adults like to “reward” themselves with a treat, everyone likes sugar. Why is that? Genetically speaking, we are still the same people as we were 10,000 years ago and sugar is “new” to us. Until about 200 years ago, sugar did not play a major role in our diet. It was a luxury product and had to be imported, extracted from sugar cane. Until then, honey was the main way to sweeten foods. Today, up to 20 percent of our total daily calories are consumed in the form of sugar.

Nutritional effects of sugar

When we eat, we do it to supply our body with nutrients and energy. Carbohydrates, which are considered a macronutrient, in addition to fat and protein, play an important role in this energy supply. They are found in many foods, such as fruit, grains, bread, vegetables, potatoes and dairy products.

All the carbohydrates we absorb are broken down into their smallest building blocks, the monosaccharides, during the digestion process. The most important monosaccharide is glucose. It enters the bloodstream via the intestinal cells and causes blood sugar levels to rise. The brain relies on glucose as an energy source and uses other energy sources only in emergencies.

According to scientific studies, we need on average about 220 to 240 grams of carbohydrates per day. Half of the sugar consumed is used by the brain to produce energy (5 to 6 grams of glucose per hour). Therefore, the brain is also most likely to respond to low blood sugar levels.

The absorbed glucose is either used as energy in the cells or – if no energy is needed at the moment – stored in the form of glycogen in the muscle cells or the liver. This process is controlled, among other things, by the hormone insulin.

Insulin is also indirectly involved in the production of serotonin, which is produced in the brain. Serotonin is considered a “happiness hormone” and is responsible, among other things, for feelings such as happiness . 

Scientists have found that a serving of 2. 5 tablespoons of sugar or 60 grams of candy is enough for this feeling of happiness. Interestingly, a higher amount does not lead to greater feelings of happiness.

Is sugar addictive?

Bart Hoebel from Princeton University was able to prove in an experiment with rats that too much sugar leads to changes in the brain in the long term and increases the potential for addiction. In the experiment, the addiction researchers fed their test animals a sugar solution over an extended period of time. The animals did not have access to food for twelve hours, after which the sugar solution was offered. Over this period of time the animals drank large amounts, increasing the amount of sugar they consumed. After four weeks, the rats were given normal food again, without sugar. The researchers observed how withdrawal symptoms that are otherwise only known from drug addicts, such as trembling, anxiety, restlessness and listlessness, set in with the animals.

According to Hoebel, sugar triggers the brain’s production of endogenous opioids such as dopamine. The researchers believe this is a key to addiction: The brain becomes addicted to its own opioids just as it does to morphine or heroin. Drugs have a stronger overall effect, but the process is basically identical.

Avoiding sugar traps!

The solution is certainly not to remove carbohydrates or sugars altogether from your diet. Most people know that too much sugar is unhealthy – for the teeth, the body and the entire metabolism. That’s why they consciously avoid sugar in their coffee or tea and avoid sweets. Nevertheless, sugar consumption has unfortunately remained constant at around 70 pounds per person per year over the past three decades. If this figure seems way too high, think about the many hidden sugar traps in “completely normal” foods such as bread, chips, ketchup, spreads, ready-made soup, cereals, soft drinks or barbecue sauces and salad dressings. Therefore, it is advisable to pay attention to the label and nutrition labeling when shopping. There may be hidden sugars in foods that you would never expect.

Tips: This makes it easy to avoid added sugar:

Prepare meals yourself and do not use processed foods.

Bananas or dates are an excellent alternative for sweetening dishes.

Spices such as cinnamon and vanilla give an essence of sweetness, and are great added to yogurt or smoothies.

Bitter substances, which are found, for example, in espresso, cardamom seeds, arugula or radicchio, reduce the craving for sweets.

Avoid sugary drinks like sodas or adding sweetened coffee creamers. 


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