When trying to maintain a Paleo diet, the biggest stray away from this lifestyle is the barrage of added sugar in our modern food environment. We know sugars are added to many of our foods to sweeten them and make them taste better. The sweetening of our diet has become something we hear a lot about, as it contributes to excess calories, is addictive, and adds on pounds. Americans are consuming more sugar than we should: 3-4 times more than recommended by the American Heart Association.
When you eat sugary foods or beverages, the sweet taste receptors on the tongue send signals to the brain to release a chemical known as dopamine, which is a reward signal. When dopamine is released, we feel good about what we just ate, and our brain tells us we want more. However, overeating sugar over-stimulates dopamine hot spots in the brain, similarly to drug abuse. Putting the reward system into overdrive either from sugar or drugs like cocaine, nicotine and alcohol, is what leads people to constantly seek the high they get from dopamine release. In terms of sugar, this feedback cycle can lead to loss of control when eating, craving, and even tolerance to sugar.
Some signs of a possible sugar addiction include: you never feel satisfied when you eat healthy food, you feel like you need to keep eating and eating to feel satisfied, you are irritable and grumpy when dieting, and you constantly crave certain foods. In addition, some researchers believe binge eating is a hallmark of food addiction—a behavior that has been extensively studied in rats to show that an addicted individual may binge on food the way he or she binges on drugs like alcohol.
Although eating balanced, healthy meals will cause a spike in dopamine, the reward system does not get over stimulated and over time, eating the same or similar meal will cause less and less dopamine to be released. In order to keep interest and dopamine levels up, it is important to add variety to your diet. This is especially important when beginning a new diet, like paleo, where your food options may seem limited at first. Our brain has evolved to pay attention to new stimuli (like smell or taste), so switching up your meals and experimenting will keep your brain excited and interested in the food you are eating.
It is a great idea to cut back on added sugars, but it isn’t easy. Overindulgence of sugar is a new problem to our era even though our ancestors, much like modern day humans, loved sugar just as much as we do. The difference is that our ancestors never had enough sugar to overindulge, and the sugars they did have came from natural sources (such as fruits), which also contain fiber and essential nutrients. Our problem has gotten so out of hand that added sugars are found where we least expect it.
Here are 5 foods where you will find added sugar but probably least expect it:
- Cured Meats. Meats like salami and pepperoni often contain seasonings and sugar. Watch out for other dried meats and jerkies; they are often laced with sugar. You must scrutinize those ingredients labels, as sugar is sometimes a “seasoning.”
- Nuts. Sure, assortments of nuts can be great additions to Paleo diets. Flavors like “honey-roasted” and other candied nuts obviously have sugar. But watch out for what appear to be sugar-free varieties. “Seasoned dry roasted” nuts and other mixed nuts can have added sugar. Same goes for nut butters. Most varieties have sugar, so search for one that only have nuts (or nuts and salt).
- Water. Flavored “waters” like Vitamin Water contain vitamins, and plenty of sugar. In fact, all of the calories come from the sugar. I guess calling it “Sugar Water” probably wouldn’t sell as well.
- Yogurt. If you eat dairy, you may be eating yogurt. Watch out! It can be loaded with added sugars. This is especially true for the ones that contain fruit. While yogurt appears to be a healthy snack (fruit and dairy), many yogurts contain sugar in the fruit flavoring. You are better off eating a plain yogurt and adding your own fresh fruit (which also contains sugar in the form of fructose, but at least it isn’t added).
- Canned soup. It doesn’t taste sweet, but it is. Canned, condensed, or ready-to-eat soup (like tomoato soup), all three varieties can contain added sugars.
With sugar hiding in so many places, what can you do to cut back on your intake? First and foremost, you need to read and scrutinize the ingredients labels. Just because something isn’t obviously sweet or sugary doesn’t mean it is sugar-less. Also, understand all of the different names out there for sugar, such as glucose syrup, corn syrup and sucrose (to name a few), so you can recognize it. It might take some detective work, but if you really want to reduce your intake of added sugars, you have to know where to find added sugars in your diet so you can replace them with alternatives. Just remember that when needing our “sugar fix”, our ancestors foraged for foods like fresh fruit and vegetables. Any additional sugar in these or other foods are unnecessary.
Appreciation is extended to Katie Bishop for her assistance with drafting this post.