To say I was skeptical would be putting it mildly.
Years ago, some of my clients started asking me to write about the “dangers” of consuming sugar.
Sugar? Please. I felt like John Travolta when he plays the angel in the movie, Michael. In one scene, after pouring heaps of sugar on top of his breakfast cereal, he says to his caretaker’s little dog, Sparky, “And you just gotta remember, Sparky, no matter what they tell you, you can never have too much sugar.” (Watch him piling it on here.)
That was years ago, and I’ve read the studies now for quite some time. I have to say, the evidence is convincing. Not that sugar is somehow toxic (I haven’t seen evidence going that far…yet), but that we’re eating way too much of it, and that at high quantities, it’s not good for us for a lot of reasons.
Further, it’s not just about consuming the white stuff, but about eating foods like white bread and pasta (simple carbohydrates) that break down quickly in the body, spiking blood sugar levels and then crashing them later on.
From what I’m seeing so far, this seems even more dangerous.
With that in mind, I’m hoping to convince other writers and creatives to think about cutting back, if you haven’t already. I’m never going to be one to tell you to give up your favorite chocolate chip cookies or summer ice cream cone or nice piece of birthday cake, because, I mean, life’s too short, and a treat now and then isn’t going to hurt anyone.
But there are other ways sugar is sneaking into your diet that you may not even be aware of, and the bad news is that it could be messing with your ability to be at the top of your game.
Seriously—in some cases, sugar can actually diminish your ability to write as well as you might.
We’re Eating Far Too Much
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assessed major trends in food consumption between 1970 and 2005, and found that the average American consumes 156 pounds of added sugar per year.
They noted that the Dietary Guidelines suggest Americans on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet limit consumption of added sugars and sweeteners to 8 teaspoons a day. We consume 30 teaspoons a day instead.
According to the Obesity Society, U.S. adult consumption of added sugars increased by more than 30 percent between the 1970s and today. These sugars are obviously in our candy, cookies, soft drinks, and other treats, but they’re also in so many other things where we don’t think to look for them, like our salad dressings and sandwich spreads.
This is where it gets a little frustrating. It’s not just about the sugar treats we choose to eat, but the everyday foods that we think are good for us that are actually dosing us with extra sugar.
That’s why we have to start being more careful, because all that sugar is slowing us down and robbing us of our most important skill—our ability to think and create.
1. Too Much Sugar Slows Thinking
It’s easy to succumb to the sugar craving either before you write or while you’re typing. I know many writers love to have that bag of candy or other sugary treat nearby during their writing periods.
Sugar fuels the brain, so it’s natural for you to crave the stuff when you’re tapping into your creative genius. But realize that your cravings can mislead you. Consume too much of the stuff before getting to work, and you could be sabotaging your brainpower.
In a 2012 animal study, researchers found that a diet steadily high in high fructose corn syrup slowed the brain down, hampering memory and learning. Subjects who over consumed the stuff showed actual damage in their brains.
“Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,” said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
The problem is that high fructose corn syrup is in so many foods these days. Check your soups, breads, condiments, yogurts, cereals, granola bars, and more. Some manufacturers are starting to cut back, but you’re likely to find it in a lot of places you may not have suspected.
The solution? Read labels, and consider more organic items. They usually use real sugar (showing in studies so far to be less damaging than high fructose corn syrup), and often much less of it. Check out the grams per serving, and choose the option that has the least.
2. High sugar diets can increase risk of depression.
We creative types are already at an increased risk for depression—we don’t need more help.
But a high-sugar diet may push us over the edge.
In a 2014 study, researchers gave animal subjects either a normal or high-fructose diet. After 10 weeks, the high-fructose diet worsened anxiety and depressive behaviors and altered how the brain responded to stress.
In an earlier 2002 study, researchers compared sugar consumption rates from various countries with annual rates of major depression, and found a “highly significant” correlation between the two.
In another 2014 study, researchers found that a higher dietary glycemic index was associated with increasing odds of depression. The “glycemic index” is a system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on their effect on blood sugar levels.
The higher the number (“high” is described as landing between 70-100), the faster the food breaks down into sugar in the body, spiking levels and taxing hormones like insulin.
I won’t go into the complicated details here, but suffice to say that the science is finding that some of our health problems—including the increased incidence of type 2 diabetes these days—may be associated with regularly consuming high-glycemic foods like sugary cakes and cookies, white potato chips, white bread, white pasta, white rice, French fries, and the like. (Find a more extensive list of high and low glycemic foods here.)
The 2014 study above also mentioned that higher consumption of “added sugars”—sugars added after the fact, such as to sugar sweetened beverages and desserts, as opposed to natural sugars in fruits—was also associated with an increased risk of depression.
Bottom line—to keep on top of your mental health so you can continue to create, watch what you eat. Try snacking on real fruit for a sweet treat. Most fruits are in the safer mid-range on the glycemic index. In addition, look for high-fiber items. Fiber slows down digestion, and tames blood-sugar spikes.
3. Too much sugar leads to weight gain.
You knew this one was coming. We’ve all heard it before. But since writers are particularly susceptible to weight gain (all that sitting and typing and not enough moving), we have to look at what we’re eating while we’re working.
I’ve noticed it more lately than I used to. If I snack too much on sugary stuff, it shows up on the scale the next day. I can chow down on other types of foods like fruits and vegetables, soups, salads, and the like, and I’m good, but eat those dense, sugary things and pow, my belly stores them up as fat.
Science is still studying this, but so far, the research shows that added sugars contribute to weight gain. There have been a number of studies specifically on sugar-sweetened beverages, showing that they lead to obesity.
In a 2013 study review, for example, intake of sugar and sugar sweetened beverages had a significant impact on body weight, and eating less sugar was linked with weight loss, while eating more was linked with weight gain.
Sometimes you need a little chocolate while working through a plot problem. The goal is not to beat yourself up, but to make other healthier snacks available. Think a handful of nuts, cut up fruit and veggies, tea, coffee, plain yogurt, and whole-grain snacks.
Choosing water-filled foods like melons can also help you enjoy a satisfying snack without layering on the pounds.
Three Ways Writers Can Control Sugar Consumption
I’m not going to tell you to give up sugar (or carbohydrates, for that matter). Some health practitioners are recommending that, and some people who have tried it claim to feel much better.
But the science isn’t done researching all of this. Sometimes when people go completely off carbs, they experience negative effects. A white baked potato, for example, can be very satisfying and nutritious, and can keep you from snacking later on, which is better for your weight long-term than avoiding that potato and then reaching for chips before you go to bed.
My main recommendation for writers and creatives are as follows:
- Read labels: Cut down on all those added sugars in your other foods. Read labels and look for options that have little or no added sugar. Be especially careful with those foods I’ve mentioned, like cereals, soups, condiments, dressings, breads, and the like. You may be surprised at how hard it is to find a BBQ sauce, for instance, that isn’t full of added sugar! But they do exist—at least, lower-sugar options. You just have to look in the organic or whole foods stores.
- Snack healthy: This is where most creatives get tripped up by sugar. We tend to mindlessly eat while writing (or painting, etc.). That means we can easily polish off a bag of high-glycemic chips or sugary candy in one session. If you must have sugar, measure it out so you don’t eat too much. Better yet, check out our posts on healthy snack suggestions here and here.
- Beware of addiction: Recent studies have shown us that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine and other drugs. That means the more we eat it, the more we want it. Studies have also shown that the brain can build up a resistance to sugar, just like it does to drugs, so it wants more and more for the same effect. Be aware of your own feelings. If you find that your cravings are getting out of hand, try to cut back. Get the sugary stuff out of the house and replace it with healthier options, and make sure you’re getting enough exercise. It helps reduce cravings. Click here for more help on resisting cravings.
That’s it. Keep it simple. Don’t deprive yourself, but watch out for signs of over consumption. Get the sugar out of your other foods, and then it won’t be such a big deal if you have a cookie now and then.
You know if you’re eating too much. Most of us do. Besides the sugar sneaking into our other foods, we’re well aware of when we’re eating too many candy bars or drinking too many sodas. Try to use something else besides sugar to reward your good work—a walk in the park, for example, or the purchase of a new book—and take little steps at a time.
As Teresa Aubele, Ph.D., says in Psychology Today:
“If you have a craving for sugar, try nature’s sugar in the form of fresh, unadorned fruits, such as blue berries, strawberries, raspberries, or apples, all of which are very good for your brain. Your brain will thank you later!”
Do you struggle to eat less sugar?
Elaine Schmidt, “This is your brain on sugar: UCLA study shows high-fructose diet sabotages learning, memory,” UCLA, [Press Release], May 15, 2012, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/this-is-your-brain-on-sugar-ucla-233992.
Emory Health Sciences. “High-fructose diet in adolescence may exacerbate depressive-like behavior.” ScienceDaily. November 18, 2014, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141118141852.htm.
Westover AN, Marangell LB, “A cross-national relationship between sugar consumption and major depression?” Depress Anxiety, 2002; 16(3):118-20, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12415536.
James E. Gangwisch, “High glycemic index diet as a risk factor for depression: analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative,” Am J Clin Nutr., June 24, 2015, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2015/06/24/ajcn.114.103846.abstract.
Hodan Farah Wells and Jean C. Buzby, “Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005” USDA, Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-33) 27 pp, March 2008, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib-economic-information-bulletin/eib33.aspx.
Mollie Turner, “U.S. Adult Consumption of Added Sugars Increased by More Than 30% Over Three Decades,” The Obesity Society, [Press Release], November 3, 2014, http://www.obesity.org/news/press-releases/us-adult.
Lisa Te Morenga, et al., “Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trails and cohort studies,” BMJ, 2013; 346:37492, http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.e7492.
Kathleen Doheny, “Sugar and Excess Weight: Evidence Mounts,” WebMD, January 15, 2013, http://www.webmd.com/diet/20130114/sugar-excess-weight.