Why Do I Crave Sugar?

By Michael Gill

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When considering this question, it is helpful to look at human biological history.  As a species, we’ve been around for a few hundred thousand years, and for the overwhelming majority of that time we’ve been eating freshly picked fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and occasional chunks of wild game that we managed to scavenge or hunt.   Other than fruits, there isn’t anything on that list with a sweet flavor, and by most estimates, fruits at the time (before domestication and breeding) were generally less sweet.  

The human body has all kinds of chemical needs and all kinds of ways to fulfill those needs.  One of the most basic needs is glucose.  Glucose is the fuel that your cells prefer, and that your brain will absolutely insist on.  Your body can produce glucose out of other materials (creating byproducts while doing so), but will run smoothly if given adequate amounts in the diet.  This being the case, you can see why there would be biological incentive to enjoy sweet tastes, especially when they were relatively rare in our diet.

Another factor to consider is the ecosystem within our intestines.  We’ve all heard that yogurt is good for us, and we all know that it has something to do with good bacteria for our system.  Foods like yogurt and miso were used long before the word “probiotics” even existed.  What scientists are starting to discover now is just how amazing and important the environment in our intestines is.  Each of us has a colony of bacteria in our gut.  How large is that colony?  There are more than eight times as many bacterial cells in our gut than there are other cells in the rest of our bodies.  For several hundred thousand years, we ate a diet of natural, whole foods out of necessity.  Over that time, bacteria that thrived on those foods took root in our guts, digesting foods and releasing byproducts.  Our bodies evolved to use those byproducts and to count on them.  The bacteria also serve as a defense mechanism, attacking other bacteria that enter the gut.  In order to get all of these benefits (many of which are essential for good health), we need the bacteria to be of a certain type.

The modern diet is fundamentally different from the diet of our ancestors. There are any number of chemicals in refined foods that are added to extend shelf life, add flavor, effect texture, etc. Arguing whether any specific chemicals are good/bad misses the point (and usually takes years to find an answer). These chemicals are not suitable food for the bacteria that we have historically had in our intestines, but they are suitable food for other types of bacteria. Refined sugar itself is not a food that the bacteria in our intestines have historically had access to, but sugar itself is something that almost any bacteria will happily eat.  Given a steady diet of refined foods and/or sugar, the bacterial balance in our intestines will shift, as all the bacteria multiply.  It isn’t that these new bacteria are bad per se, the problem is that they produce byproducts that our bodies have not evolved to use. These chemicals (like almost any other chemical our bodies are not familiar with) have effects that are toxic to our bodies.

What is new and fascinating is something that studies are beginning to show; that these bacteria effect our food cravings. In a way, it isn’t that much of a stretch. Bacteria have the will to survive (like us) and have preferred foods (like us). They communicate with other cells via chemicals (like our own cells) and outnumber our cells by eight to one. It stands to reason that bacteria could influence our food cravings in such a way that most benefits those bacteria. This is exactly what studies are beginning to show. What this leads to, if those cravings are something we blindly indulge in, is a cascade effect where high-sugar diets lead to sugar cravings leading to high-sugar diets.

OK.  So why is sugar a problem?

This one is a question that would take a book (and many have been written) to fully explore, but I will briefly touch on a few of the most important issues.

We are beginning to understand more and more how involved sugar is with the chronic diseases that are approaching epidemic levels here in the US. All through the 80s and 90s the health industry pushed our culture toward the idea that high fat diets were the reason for heart disease and obesity. This led to an explosion of low-fat diet foods, many of which were foods that replaced fats with extra sugar. As a culture we largely embraced this, and our heat disease rates continued to rise. Our obesity rates through this time period also rose drastically. Along with these population-based realities, we’ve come to understand the chemistry behind sugar metabolism better, finding out how directly it is tied to these diseases. More and more, we are finding that inflammation is a key factor in heart disease, diabetes, alzheimer’s, hypertension, cancer, arthritis and just about any other chronic disease we could name. In this, sugar is a major culprit.

Again, take a look at the diet of our ancestors. You see very little sweet, and what is there is bottled in a package with fiber (i.e. fruit).  This leads to a situation where the body has stable levels of blood sugar (fiber slows down the speed at which sugars are absorbed).  As a protective mechanism, for those times when our ancestors stumbled on a pile of dates, mangoes, or some other fruit, our body will release insulin.  Insulin is designed to help the body store excess blood sugar for later use. The problem that arises is that both sugar and insulin are rough on our blood vessels, causing inflammation. Furthering this problem is that, over time, our cells will stop responding to insulin if it is ever-present. At that point, our body will release more and more insulin, trying (understandably) to lower blood sugar. This process, in its full expression, leads to diabetes.  Even in limited expression, it leads to obesity and a system-wide rise in inflammation.

There are many other effects, involving obesity, inflammation and hormones, which would take many pages (or chapters) to explain. Suffice to say that a large portion of these effects also involve the insulin/blood sugar system of the body. This even ties into one of the best reasons to exercise; it causes the muscles to be more sensitive to insulin. Through this, your blood sugar is better regulated and glucose is better utilized.  In all likelihood, this has a greater effect on obesity than the calories burned during a workout.

So, if you want to do any one thing for your health, cutting down on the sugar would be a great choice. What constitutes sugar? Any sweetener without fiber (honey, maple syrup, agave, fruit juice, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.) will do roughly the same things. Some have small, unique benefits, but should still be minimized when possible.

Simple Whole-food Sweet

1 medjool date

1 pinch cacao nibs

½ walnut

Take the pit out of the date and stuff the inside with cacao nibs (raw cocoa bits) and walnut.  Enjoy!

Michael Gill is a practicing Nutritional Therapist and Massage Therapist.  He has a black belt in Poekoelan Tjiminde Poekoelan, and loves to teach.