Sophia Kamveris, MS, RDN
Does Sugar Make Us Happy?
I’m sure every kid you know can answer this question with no trouble! Was I inspired to write this article with Halloween around the corner? Of course I was. It’s hopeful thinking that there’s some benefit from eating sugary foods. As the article will discuss, sugar has biological effects on our bodies, but too much of it can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Let me begin by employing my good friend—science. Single sugar molecules are called monosaccharides (glucose, fructose galactose), while two sugars are called disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, maltose). Technically, sugar is “sucrose” and scientifically, it is made up of two molecules, glucose and fructose. Add on galactose and the three amigos make up what we call a “carbohydrate.”
You know carbohydrate as the bad guy that is always villainized in fad diets but we need carbohydrates to fuel our bodies. Glucose is the preferred fuel source for the brain. Because of its simple molecular form, it can be accessed quickly when needed. Snickers’ TV ads “You’re not you when you are hungry” hits home for a lot of people. Many of us experience a “hangry” feeling (one part hungry, one part angry) if we haven’t eaten in awhile. That happens because the brain is low on sugar. As soon as you eat (say) candy, the sugar gets quickly absorbed in the bloodstream and heads right to your brain. Glucose also fuels and stores energy in our muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. These stores act as a back up battery for energy when we run out of the easy to access supply (i.e food).
Let’s get even more scientific and look at how two hormones, serotonin and dopamine, affect our brain.
Serotonin is involved in the willpower and gratification epicenter of our brain. Low serotonin levels can lead to depressive moods, which we know can result in overeating patterns. Carbohydrates help to raise serotonin levels, so some theorize that the craving for sugar is Mother Nature’s way of naturally improving ones mood.
Dopamine is associated with emitting pleasure and happiness. Research shows that sugar may interfere with dopamine receptors in the brain. Akin to an addiction to a drug, a tolerance develops, which means more of the substance (i.e. sugar) is needed to get a similar, positive effect. The brain becomes more dependent on sugar and is left vulnerable when the supply is not there, landing us back on the “do not pass go- hangry” square.
What’s the best way to stay ahead of biology’s ups and downs? Listen to the cues your body is sending you —it’s actually telling you when it’s time to eat. Stress and time crunches disturb that messenger center so be prepared with an arsenal of healthy choices when you feel the dark crash coming. I never walk out the door without a snack- my go-to is usually nut butter and Triscuits or apple slices and string cheese. Yes, there’s sugar (fructose) in an apple, but it’s also loaded with fiber; and along with the protein in cheese, the absorption of sugar in the blood stream is slowed down. No hangries in sight.
Feed your body every few hours with the right combo of foods and I can guarantee you, your face will never appear in a Snickers ad!