How Sugar Impacts Brain Function
Almost everyone has a sweet tooth. Whether it’s vegan gummy worms, frosted doughnuts, or ice cream, nearly everyone enjoys sugary foods now and then. But, did you know that added sugar is hidden in foods you’d never imagine?
Even for those of us on plant-based diets, high levels of sugar can be found in all kinds of surprising foods. Veggie burgers, dairy-free yogurt, health bars, almond milk, and many other foods and drinks all have high sugar content, making us question their “healthy” labels and reputation.
But what does all this sugar actually do to our brains? And what does this mean for our daily sugar consumption? Let’s dive into all that and more in ATAQ’s guide to the effects of sugar on the brain:
How Does Sugar Affect the Brain?
The brain requires more energy than any other organ in the body. To get this energy, our brain needs glucose, a simple form of sugar. Glucose provides fuel for the neurons in our brain, giving us the energy for cognitive function, which includes our ability to learn, problem solve, remember, make decisions, and pay attention.
So what is the difference between natural sugar, the kind that gives our body the healthy glucose it needs to function, and processed sugar, the variety found in the vast majority of sweet treats?
Natural sugars, like those found in fruit, give us a healthy boost of energy. When we eat foods packed with natural sugars, our gut and brain work together to release dopamine into our bloodstream. This is a natural sign that we did something “good,” and our brain rewards us with energy from the glucose which contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction from the dopamine. This energy is healthy, productive, and has been necessary for our survival since humans have existed.
Artificial sugars, like those found in popular sweets, have similar but far more destructive effects. When we consume sweets high in artificial sugars (like Aspartame, Saccharin and Sucralose) our brain goes into a state of overdrive.
Deriving from an ancestral connection that has taught our brains that sugars are an excellent energy source, our brains respond to artificial sugars and regular sugars by flooding our bodies with an excess of dopamine and energy (a “sugar rush”). This makes us feel happy and ready to tackle any activity.
It is this reaction that makes things like soda and candy so energizing and, seemingly, delightful. These foods fire up the reward system in our brain, making us crave more. This craving is exactly why sugar is so rewarding and explains the sugar consumption epidemic that has taken over many countries.
Each time we consume artificial, unhealthy sugar, our brains see it as a plentiful pleasure provider. Quick to adapt, the brain categorizes these artificial, high levels of sugar as a key source of the energy needed for our survival.
Over time, a pattern emerges, and our body begins to crave artificial sugars at a rate that simply does not happen with natural sugars. People who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. This process is known as neuroplasticity, which is the ability of our brain to rewire itself in order to adapt to new behaviors. This rewiring, combined with continued consumption of large amounts of unnatural sugar, is what starts our brain down the path of a dangerous addiction.
In fact, our brain’s relationship with artificial sugars is actually closer to those of addictive drugs and alcohol. This relationship can lead to a vicious cycle that causes so many of the unwanted and unhealthy physical effects of long-term, artificial sugar intake:
- Weight Gain
- Inflammation and Arthritis
- Dental Problems
- Accelerated Cognitive Decline
- Higher Risk for Acne
- Higher Risk for Diabetes, Heart Disease, and even Cancer
As if these weren’t enough, a steady diet of artificial sugars also has a laundry list of potential negative mental effects. These include:
- Higher Rates of Depression
How Do We Break the Cycle?
Whether you already knew the negative effects of sugar, or you’re just becoming aware of the problem, we have good news: it’s not too late to change your sugar habits!
All it takes is a strong diet plan and some determination:
To start, the World Health Organization recommends that we limit our daily sugar consumption to five percent of our daily calories. While the average adult of a normal body mass index (BMI), should consume about six teaspoons -- or 25 grams -- of sugar per day. Understanding these amounts is crucial, as it gives each of us a “target” number that helps us quantify and better understand our sugar consumption. It can help us break out of our sugar habits, which studies show include an average of 77 grams of sugar per day for most Americans.
Once you know how much sugar you should be consuming, the next step is to find better sources of sugar. We know soda, candy and desserts are delicious, but the key to healthy sugar intake is to view these foods for what they are: treats that should only be enjoyed occasionally.
Natural, healthier sugars that we can consume on a daily basis can be found in a number of delicious, plant-based foods. At ATAQ, some of our favorites are:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Butternut Squash
These foods are excellent sources of natural sugars that provide us energy and dopamine. Also, they can be easily eaten as snacks or as a part of a healthy breakfast, lunch or dinner.
In the early stages of cutting back on your sugar consumption, when you might be experiencing side effects such as irritability, we recommend recreating your favorite snacks with a healthier option and pre-planning snacks featuring any combination of the foods above. A couple of the many reasons we fall prey to unhealthy sweets is that they are cheap and easy to eat. By preparing snacks and meals in advance, we eliminate the main excuses that often lead us to reach for foods packed with unhealthy sugars.
Staying Healthy with ATAQ Fuel
We know, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by realizing how much processed sugar you may have in your diet. Our team is dedicated to helping you find a balanced, delicious plant-based diet packed with healthy sugars and plenty of nutrients, to fuel your active lifestyle!
For more information on healthy diets, exercise and lifestyle tips, feel free to check out our other blog posts and try some of our healthy raw energy bars, plant-based protein powders and more!
UVA Health- Effects Sugar Brain
Science Alert- Research Shows Sugar Changes Brain
Health Harvard- The Danger of Sugar