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Can you do a Sugar Detox? Seems a lot of people these days are trying to do a “sugar detox.” Whether it’s for a few weeks or for good, there’s no shortage of books and programs encouraging people to kick the sugar habit. Given that an increasingly large body of research is linking the excessive consumption of sugar to all manner of health risks, its popularity isn’t surprising. Although sugar has been a suspect in rising obesity rates over the past 30 or so years, it was pediatric endocrinologist Dr.Robert Lustig’s 2009 video, Sugar the Bitter Truth, that did the most to single out sugar as the chief villain. In his 90 minute video lecture—8.5 million have watched it on YouTube alone—the University of California researcher makes the case that fructose( sugar isolated from cane, corn or beets) is an actual poison that causes inflammation, obesity and insulin resistance, and can damage the liver, coronary arteries and pancreas. Ten years later and we still have a sugar problem. In Canada, a 2015 study found that although we had cut back on sugar over the previous decade, the average consumption of total sugars was still quite high—ranging between 85 and 115 grams daily, depending on age group. That works out to be between 21 and 29 teaspoonful’s each day. While we don’t know the exact ratio of natural sugars to “free sugars”) the latter, added sugars, are more of a concern), it’s clear we’re still eating too much. Which leaves some people wondering if it’s possible we’re actually addicted to sugar. Not as in “I’m a chocoholic!” but, rather, a real addiction that might one day be considered a disorder. The concept of food addiction has been growing for a while in the field but it’s very controversial. I believe that it’s not so much a matter of sugar addiction per se; it’s more of an addiction to high-palatability food which is typically high-sugar, high-fat and high-salt. That triumvirate of ingredients makes these foods very delicious but also more likely to be consumed compulsively. Some modern foods can stimulate neural pathways similar to the ways drugs and alcohol do, and since “food addicts” will also report a loss of control with food consumption there definitely are parallels. The problem with labelling of compulsive and unhealthy eating an “addiction”, however, is that this term is usually reserved for intoxicants that have a well-established addictive constituent (i.e. nicotine in tobacco or ethanol in alcohol) that isn’t necessary to keep us alive. We don’t need alcohol to live, we don’t need tobacco to live and we don’t need cannabis to live but if we’re addicted to food and we beat that addiction then we simply die of starvation. You can’t go cold turkey on food. We could however, go cold turkey on high-sugar, high-fat and high-salt food and still survive. This raises the possibility that highly palatable modern processed food affects our bodies differently than traditional foods. In his video lecture, Lustig argues that fructose, when it’s isolated from its source and added to foods, acts differently than it would if you ate it in, say, a whole cob of corn—fiber and all. Fructose as a food additive, he says, creates a vicious circle of consumption that makes us eat more because the signals that are supposed to tell the body we’re full and can stop eating actually misfire and tell the brain we’re starving instead. That’s good for food manufacturers, of course, and the exploitation of this alleged property may well have been deliberate, according to an increasing number of critics, including Michael Moss, author of Salt, Sugar, and Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The first part of the Moss book is devoted to sugar and Big Food’s search for the “bliss point”—the perfect level of salt, fat and added sugar that would inspire cravings. Sugar is an important component of the bliss factor, which is how both sweet and savoury packaged foods came to be increasingly jacked-up with added sugars. So how do we get unhooked? While a sugar detox sounds like a good plan, I believe in working towards moderation instead. The truth is that the words “sugar-detox” makes the hairs on my neck stand up, it’s ridiculous. A detox is a medically supervised withdrawal from a drug. You can’t detox from food. You can stop eating sugar, sure, but some people who do will end up creating a bit of a binge pattern. They would probably go nuts consuming sugar before they starting stopping it. Coming to terms with sugar is probably a two-step plan: Becoming aware and getting rid of hidden sugars that exist in a majority of packaged foods (like high fructose corn syrup, malt, dextrose, maltose, rice syrup and approximately 60 others) and learning to curb our habit of celebrating absolutely everything with sweets, from falling in love to eating dessert after a filling meal. Please don’t think of me as some awful person who wants to take away your birthday cake. I think there are certain things like weddings and birthdays where it’s traditional to have sweets and we should just accept that and embrace it. Because, honestly, birthdays only happen once a year, so that’s really not what’s hurting us. It’s the day-to-day bad habits of having sugar in our coffee and then a coke with lunch and then a couple of granola bars in the afternoon that are the problem. Moderation can be harder than total abstinence. It’s starting to become clear, though, that the problem with sugar is more about the mindless consumption than the rare indulgence. If we can get that under control, we might just be able to have our cake and eat it, too.

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