Sugar: More Than Just Empty Calories


What do the following conditions have in common?




-Difficulty concentrating


-Memory problems

-Brain fog

-Mood swings



-Joint pain


-Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

-Metabolic syndrome (prediabetes)

-Type II diabetes

-Heart disease


-Alzheimer’s disease

They’re all linked to sugar.

But aren’t sweets ok to enjoy in moderation?  Isn’t sugar merely “empty calories”?   That way of thinking has led to the tsunami of chronic diseases listed above.  The truth is that sugar disrupts metabolism, suppresses the immune system, and causes inflammation. The progression towards disease starts long before a diagnosis is made.  For example, many people have normal fasting blood sugar levels, but may be unaware that their insulin levels spike after eating, as an insulin challenge test is seldom ordered during standard lab work-ups.

Insulin dysregulation leads not only to belly fat, prediabetes and Type II diabetes, but to heart disease, cancer (cancer cells feed on sugar), and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, which is being called Type III Diabetes. Tragically, children as young as four years old are being diagnosed with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which now affects 90 million Americans.  You don’t have to be overweight to be prediabetic or have a fatty liver.  Visceral fat hugs our vital organs.  The culprit is the 158 pounds of sugar and 146 pounds of flour consumed in a year by the average American.

Hunter-gatherers consumed about 20 teaspoons of sugar per year. That’s because sugar was available either as fruit for only a few months a year during harvest time, or as honey guarded by bees.  But today sugar is added to nearly all processed foods.  So in nature sugar is hard to get, but we’ve made it easy.

Sugar is everywhere.  Walk down an aisle in a supermarket and pick up anything that comes in a bag, a box or a can.  Chances are pretty good that you’ll see some form of sugar on the label.  Don’t be fooled if it’s organic or has a health claim on the front.  Even canned organic corn has sugar added.  Some barbeque sauces have as much sugar as a candy bar.

Sugar may also be hiding under an assumed name.  Look out for barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, polydextrose, fructose, or the health food industry’s current favorite: agave nectar.  Processed grains such as bagels, breads, muffins, pastas, cereals, crackers and chips are just another form of sugar as well.  Even those products advertised as “whole grain” or “whole wheat” fall into the sugar category.

More addictive than heroin, cocaine, tobacco or alcohol, sugar acts on the same areas of the brain as addictive drugs, so we crave it.  This behavior served us well, evolutionarily speaking.  Our ancestors gorged themselves on wild berries in the fall, gained belly fat, and thus were able to survive the famine of the coming winter.  We’re doing the same thing: devouring sugar on a daily basis, but the difference is we’re doing this day in, day out, all year round.



If you suffer from sugar cravings, the following tips may be helpful:

-Eat protein and healthy fats, such as avocado or olive oil, with every meal.

-Eat foods with more grams of fiber than grams of sugar.

-Eat every 2-3 hours for blood sugar control.

-Have only 1 serving of fruit per day.

-For those times that call for a sweet food, choose wisely and eat mindfully. Enjoy baked goods made with coconut sugar or raw, unprocessed honey.

-Spend time soothing yourself without sugar.  When a craving hits, thinks of what would really feel good.  Nothing beats the sweetness of meaningful social connections and pleasurable activities.


Sandra Scheinbaum, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Director, Feed Your Mind Wellness, LLC.