Hidden away in my purse is a secret: Amid the tissues and coins are several packets filled with white crystals. My fix of choice: sugar. But I don't keep it on hand to sweeten my coffee; I prefer to rip open those packets and pour the contents right down my throat. If I could, I'd brush my teeth with it.
I know this is one habit I really need to break, and research backs me up: Tooth decay and extra pounds aren't the only problems associated with too many sweets. A study published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who consume excess sugar are prone to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to many diseases.
They also have lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) as well as higher levels of triglycerides, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Finally, consuming large doses of sugar has been linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
As a result, in a report last year in the journal Circulation, the American Heart Association recommended that women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day, and men no more than nine. (The average American downs 22 teaspoons a day.) That doesn't include sugars naturally found in food, like fructose (fruit sugar) and lactose (milk sugar) -- but those teaspoons can still add up quickly: Hidden white sugars (sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup) are present in most processed foods, sweetened drinks, peanut butter, some yogurts, and even salad dressings.
"Sugar and other refined carbohydrates appear to trigger a chemical reaction that creates pro-inflammatory compounds in the body," says Andrew Weil, M.D., author of "Healthy Aging." One 2008 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that healthy people who ate a sugar-rich breakfast had high blood sugar afterward, along with increased signs of inflammation.
In an ongoing Harvard Women's Health Study, participants who consumed more high-sugar foods, like white bread and cereal, were more likely to have inflammation and high amounts of bad cholesterol (LDL).
In small doses, inflammation is a good thing. Faced with injury or foreign invaders like germs, our immune cells release substances called cytokines, which help destroy bacteria and trigger short-lived redness and swelling. The problems start when sugar consumption goes from an every-now-and-then thing to a full-blown habit, and inflammation is constant and spreads throughout the body, harming healthy tissue over time.
Studies that link high sugar intake to increased inflammation in the body are troubling, says Mark Hyman, M.D., author of "Ultrametabolism." "Chronic inflammation appears to play a role in heart disease, cancer, and many other major conditions," he explains. "Anything that triggers inflammation -- including sugar -- also triggers disease."
Although the ubiquity of added sugars is a modern problem, our affinity for it may be hereditary. Scientists who identified the gene that controls our ability to detect sweetness found tiny variations that may determine who develops a sweet tooth and who can pass on chocolate cake (no surprise to me, the daughter of two dessert fanatics). Brain chemistry plays a role too.
Researchers have found that, faced with a choice between cocaine and sucrose, rats are more likely to get hooked on sweets. Sugary treats seem to stimulate the brain's reward center, as alcohol and drugs do, by sparking the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine.
It won't help to feed your craving with packets of artificial sweeteners like saccharin or aspartame. Says Weil, "We don't know the long-term effects of many artificial sweeteners, and some research suggests they may actually increase weight gain by promoting high-caloric snacking."
Indeed, a Purdue University study found that rats fed yogurt sweetened with saccharin consumed more calories and gained more weight than those who ate yogurt laced with sucrose.
For me, the prospect of going sugarless isn't so appealing, but neither is a slew of chronic diseases. So I'm taking the experts' advice and reducing my sugar intake for two solid weeks, the time it takes to wean our bodies off sweets and start reaping the benefits -- like more energy, greater mental clarity, and even better-fitting clothes.
It's easier to cut down on sugar when you crowd it out with fiber-rich foods like grains, veggies, and fruit. Read nutrition labels to spot hidden sugar; common culprits include bottled spaghetti sauce, canned soups, and condiments like ketchup.
You can also try healthy alternatives such as stevia (a naturally derived sweet herb that's calorie-free and safe for diabetics) and agave nectar, a syrup extracted from the cactuslike plant. And when you do reach for the sugar bowl, opt for organic or raw varieties, which require less processing and have no chemicals or preservatives.
Once your sugar consumption is under control, the occasional treat is fine. "You don't have to give up sugar forever," Hyman assures me. "You can keep your consumption in check -- and reduce your disease risk -- without suffering." Sweet!
Breaking up is hard to do -- but as with all dependent relationships, you'll be better off when you can restore a sense of balance. Four things to make it painless (well, almost):
Combine lean protein (eggs, turkey, or chicken breast) with healthy fats (found in fish, olive oil, and avocados) at every meal to satisfy hunger and stabilize blood sugar.
Replace sugar bombs like soda, alcohol, bottled iced tea, flavored waters, and fruit drinks with unsweetened brewed teas and good old pure water.
Keep some fruit on hand for snacks and desserts. Keep fruit on hand for snacks: The natural sugar in berries, cherries, and melons can quell cravings while offering antioxidants and fiber. Also try natural sweeteners like nectar, stevia, agave, and rice-based amazake.
Hearing sugar's siren song? Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and imagine walking away from a sweet and toward something neutral. If all else fails, a quick stroll may help; it raises levels of feel-good serotonin.