Sugar has replaced fat as the evil villain of the modern diet. Just as we’ve learned to treasure our grass-fed butter and avocados and understand the difference between processed, low-quality fats and the traditional ones our ancestors thrived on, we’re learning to understand the difference between good and bad sugars too. The nutritional difference between the sugars in a peach gummy and an actualpeach are very real.
Dr. Lisa Davisof Pressed Juicery’s Medical Advisory Board is diving deep and talking to us about the dangers of processed sugar and it’s relationship to obesity and inflammatory conditions…
Obesity is a true epidemic, affecting more than a third of Americans. Eating too much sugar, which most Americans do, is a big part of the cause. We know that obesity can contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, musculoskeletal problems and even cancer. But can obesity — or even overeating foods rich in sugar — affect the brain as well?
Inflammation + Obesity: Which Came First?
Foods high in sugar contribute to systemic inflammationas well as to obesity. Think of what happens when you catch your finger in a door or scrape your knee: You’re likely to notice redness, swelling, pain and heat. These four signs signal inflammation, your body’s cellular-level response to a stressor of some kind.
In an isolated area such as the finger or the skin of the knee, inflammation may not be too serious. But when the irritation is happening throughout your body and involving blood vessels and organs, it can cause real damage.
All-over inflammation can be due to poor diet, sleep problems, stress or the metabolic impact of carrying too much body fat. The metabolic syndrome — a combination of belly fat, high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar and triglycerides (a form of fat) — is associated with systemic inflammation.
Inflammation is associated with cardiovascular disease and autoimmune-based conditions. Researchers are exploring its role in triggering or worsening neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, chronic migraines, stroke and perhaps even some forms of dementia.
Impact on the Brain: Not So Sweet
The medical and scientific literature has several examples of studies exploring how sugar can hijack the brain, encourage overeating and contribute to problems thinking, learning, and remembering.
Sugar craving is no joke: The stuff is physiologically habit-forming. Dietary and behavioral scientists have conducted research that demonstrates sugar activates the reward systems of the brain in the same way that psychoactive drugs like alcohol or methamphetamine can.
Even animals crave sugar. In a 2008 study of rat behavior by A.M. Naleid and her colleagues, the group found that the main element that made rats return again and again to a milkshake-like food supplement was its proportion of sugar, as opposed to its fat content or vanilla flavoring.
A 2015 study at Oregon State University says that mice fed a diet high in sugar experienced problems with both long- and short-term memory. Professor Kathy Magnusson and her team’s findings showed that compared to a normal diet, the one high in sugar and fat caused changes in the mice’s gut bacteria that appear to relate to cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt and learn in new situations.
Another study from 2017 looks at the link between blood-sugar glucose and Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that people who eat a diet high in sugar can reach a ‘tipping point’ that kicks off an inflammatory process associated with early stages of this type of dementia.
In the article “Sugar and the Brain,” Dr. Vera Novak, M.D., Ph.D. of The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute notes that diabetes over the long term can affect the functional connectivity of the brain and even cause the tissues to shrink. Vascular disease affecting the small blood vessels in the brain can reduce blood flow, resulting in vascular dementia.
Behavior Changes Can Help
Tossing out the sugar isn’t easy. But, as in the case of other addictions, recovery is possible. Your brain will thank you for making the effort.
It helps to know that physical hunger — the actual need to eat — is the same in obese people as it is in the non-obese. It’s thought that chronic overeaters are responding abnormally to learned behavior patterns and emotional triggers. The good news is that patients can work on these issues and get results, especially with the help of an expert.
Patients can learn if their overeating patterns are linked to habits (always eating when their favorite game or show is on TV), loneliness, boredom or other emotion. Keeping a food diary can help address the mindless, gosh-did-I just-eat-that-whole-bag kind of eating that’s often a byproduct of stress.
Eating for nourishment rather than to satisfy cravings can become a way of life. When it comes to food, addressing quality is even more important than controlling quantity.
What About juice?
Finally, know that while many juices are high in sugar, others are not, and can be a source of important brain-protecting antioxidants. A UCLA studyfound Pressed Juicery juices exhibit high antioxidant activity. Plant-based antioxidants called flavonoids can help quell inflammation and oxidative stress.
Look for juices that contain no added sugars with a low glycemic index (GI). Several Pressed Juicery juices have been evaluated for their GI by the University of Sydney. The following were found to have a low GI of under 20: Greens 1, Greens 1.5, Greens 4, Lemon Cayenne Water, Chocolate Almond, Vanilla Almond, Spiced Almond and Brazil Nut.
So go ahead and begin each day with a nutrient-dense, flavonoid-rich, low-glycemic pressed juice as a strategy for protecting the brain from inflammation and oxidation.
A diet that supports brain health doesn’t have to involve deprivation. Plenty of delicious foods are rich in fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins and other nutrients. Choosing these items, one meal, one day at a time, can address the inflammation and resulting damage caused by sugary foods.