Is it time to ditch sugar?
It’s no secret that sugar can cause issues if you’re indulging in a little too much of the sweet stuff. Still, most Americans are eating too much sugar.
The harmful effects it can have on your physical health are well studied, which is why we talk so much about reducing sugar intake to lower the risk of these effects, like chronic disease.
While ditching the sweet stuff can result in a physically healthier you, it’s the effect sugar has on our mental health that’s worth taking a second look.
1. Sugar can affect your mood
You’ve probably heard of the term “sugar rush” — and have maybe even turned to a doughnut or soda for an extra boost during a long day.
Yet sugar may not be such a positive pick-me-up after all. Recent research indicates that sugary treats have no positive effect on mood.
In fact, sugar may have the opposite effect over time.
One study published in 2017Trusted Source found that consuming a diet high in sugar can increase the chances of incident mood disorders in men, and recurrent mood disorders in both men and women.
A more recent 2019 studyTrusted Source found that regular consumption of saturated fats and added sugars were related to higher feelings of anxiety in adults over age 60.
Although more studies are needed to solidify the relationship between mood and sugar consumption, it’s important to consider how diet and lifestyle choicesTrusted Source can affect your psychological well-being.
2. It can weaken your ability to deal with stress
If your idea of coping with stress involves a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, you’re not alone. Lots of people turn to sugary sweets when they feel anxious.
That’s because sugary foods can weakenTrusted Source the body’s ability to respond to stress.
Sugar can help you feel less frazzled by suppressing the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis in your brain, which controls your response to stress.
ResearchersTrusted Source at the University of California, Davis found that sugar inhibited stress-induced cortisol secretion in healthy female participants, minimizing feelings of anxiety and tension. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone.
Yet the temporary relief sweets provide may make you more reliant on sugar, and raise the risk of obesity and its related diseases.
The study was limited to just 19 female participants, but results were consistent with other studiesTrusted Source that have looked at the connection between sugar and anxiety in rats.
While findings show a definite link between sugar intake and anxiety, researchers would like to see more studies done on humans.
3. Sugar can increase your risk for developing depression
It’s hard to avoid reaching for comfort foods, especially after a difficult day.
But the cycle of consuming sugar to manage your emotions may only make your feelings of sadness, fatigue, or hopelessness worse.
Multiple studies have found a link between diets high in sugar and depression.
Overconsumption of sugar triggers imbalances in certain brain chemicals. These imbalances can lead to depression and may even increase the long-term risk of developing a mental health disorder in some people.
In fact, a 2017 studyTrusted Source found that men who consumed a high amount of sugar (67 grams or more each day) were 23 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of clinical depression within 5 years.
Even though the study just involved men, the link between sugar and depression is also found in womenTrusted Source.
4. Withdrawing from sweets can feel like a panic attack
Quitting processed sugar might not be as simple as you think.
Withdrawing from sugar can actually cause side effects, such as:
This has led expertsTrusted Source to look at how the withdrawal symptoms from sugar can resemble those of certain addictive substances.
“EvidenceTrusted Source in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugar,” explains Dr. Uma Naidoo, who’s considered the mood-food expert at Harvard Medical School.
When someone misuses a substance for a period of time, like cocaine, their body goes into a physiological state of withdrawal when they stop using it.
Naidoo says that people who are consuming high amounts of sugar in their diets can similarly experience the physiological sensation of withdrawal if they suddenly stop consuming sugar.
That’s why going cold turkey from sugar may not be the best solution for someone who also has anxiety.
“Suddenly stopping sugar intake can mimic withdrawal and feel like a panic attack,” Naidoo says. And if you have an anxiety disorder, this experience of withdrawal can be heightened.
5. Sugar zaps your brain power
Your stomach may be telling you to dive in and drink your way out of that jumbo cherry Icee, but your brain has a different idea.
Emerging research has found that diets high in sugar can impair cognitive functioning, even in the absence of extreme weight gain or excessive energy intake.
A 2015 studyTrusted Source found that consuming high levels of sugar-sweetened beverages impaired neurocognitive functions like decision making and memory.
Granted, the research was done on rats.
But a more recent study found that healthy volunteers in their 20s scored worse on memory tests and had poorer appetite control after just 7 days of eating a diet high in saturated fat and added sugars.
While more studies are necessary to establish a clearer link between sugar and cognition, it’s worth noting that your diet can affect your brain health.
If you’re craving sweets, here’s what to eat instead
Just because you’re ditching or limiting processed sugar doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself the pleasure of sweet-tasting food.
In addition to being a doctor known as an expert on food and mood, Naidoo is also a chef and the author of the forthcoming book “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
Here are a few of her favorite low- or no-sugar recipes.
Chef Uma’s Chai Tea Smoothie
1 serving vanilla protein powder of your choice
1 tbsp. almond butter
1 cup almond milk
1/8 tsp. each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and cardamom spice
1/4 tsp. organic vanilla essence
a small bit of organic honey to sweeten, if needed
brewed chai tea instead of spices
avocado for creaminess
Add all ingredients to your blender.
Blend until smooth.
Chef Uma’s tips
If you don’t have the spices, brew a cup of chai tea using tea bags or whole leaf tea. Use it instead of the almond milk.
For a thinner smoothie, add more almond milk.
For creaminess, add avocado. It’s also a healthy fat to boot!
Chef Uma’s Watermelon Pops
4 cups chopped watermelon
1 tablespoon honey
juice of 1 lime
zest of 1 lime
1 cup whole blueberries
Puree the watermelon, honey, lime juice, and lime zest in a blender.
Pour into square ice cube trays or popsicle molds.
Before fully frozen, add ice cream stick to each ice cube or mold.
If desired, add whole blueberries to ice cube trays or popsicle molds.
Chef Uma’s tips
You can omit the honey, as a ripe watermelon can be very sweet.
Blueberries can incorporate a fun pop of color and add an antioxidant boost.
Chef Uma’s Oven-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Red Miso Paste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 cup red miso paste
salt and pepper to taste
4 medium sweet potatoes
Preheat oven to 425ºF (218ºC).
Create a marinade by mixing the olive oil, red miso paste, and salt and pepper.
Peel and cut sweet potatoes into equal-sized pieces or discs.
Toss the sweet potatoes in the marinade.
Place sweet potatoes on a sheet pan in a single layer.
Roast for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.
Chef Uma’s tips
You can substitute white miso paste for less of an umami flavor.
It may be easier to coat all the potatoes with the marinade if you put both in a Ziploc bag, then toss around.
Sweet potatoes are a healthy source of fiber and phytonutrients.
Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a Bachelor of Science in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.
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Last medically reviewed on June 23, 2020
Medically reviewed by Katherine Marengo LDN, R.D. — Written by Sara Lindberg and Erin Kelly on June 23, 2020