Regardless of whether you have a trick-or-treater in your house, candy is all around you these days. And let’s be honest, sugar is all around you every day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes roughly 69 pounds of cane sugar and 57 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year.
You’re probably well aware of the usual sugar suspects, but there are also hidden sugars in most processed foods. This includes many so-called “healthy” foods such as whole grain breakfast cereals, granola bars, pasta sauce, yogurt, and sports drinks. And while obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are certainly enough to scare you, did you know that sugar can cause your muscle and joint pain as well?
Research shows that sugary foods cause a spike in a hormone called insulin, which leads to the production of inflammation. Insulin secretes from the pancreas and is responsible for taking sugar out of the blood stream and storing it in the cells. This also contributes to the accumulation of fat. Visceral fat, or stomach fat, itself secretes proteins and hormones that generate chronic inflammation. Most forms of joint pain and muscle aches involve inflammation, and even if your pain has other causes, high sugar foods can magnify symptoms.
To be fair, sugar does have benefits: It supplies instant energy, stabilizes low blood pressure, and raises your spirits—all of which can be necessary in certain situations. Luckily there are naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables that help you get what you need when you need it. Your sugar dependence also has a biological purpose. In the hunting and gathering days, people knew that if a food tasted sweet, it was ripe and not poisonous. The main culprit in staying healthy is “added sugar,” which is taken from its original source and added to foods and drinks to serve as a sweetener or increase shelf life. When doctors tell you to avoid high sugar foods, they’re likely talking about this type.
One extremely important fact about sugar is that it’s addictive. The sweet stuff releases dopamine and natural opioids in the brain. These are the same chemicals found in highly addictive painkillers, so your craving might be a lot stronger than you think. Unfortunately, you can’t simply quit sugar because in some cases the withdrawal symptoms are just as bad as narcotics. As is often the case with your health, moderation goes a long way.
Here are some tips for reducing your sugar intake:
- Clean out your kitchen to remove temptation, especially when you are hungry.
- Check food labels for brands and products with less added sugar.
- Plan your meals out beforehand when you’re not stressed, tired, or hungry so that you can pay closer attention to sugar content.
- Avoid sugary drinks, which can easily fill your daily healthy limit of sugar in a single serving.
- Exercise 20 minutes a day to increase your energy levels and reduce the need for a sugar boost.
- Avoid sugar alternatives and substitutes so that you’re controlling your body’s craving for sweets.
Cutting back on sugar is certainly not effortless—especially with temptation all around. But once you get through the rough patch and begin to feel the benefits, you’ll have no trouble passing on the sweets.