With our mental health being tested every day (hello, global pandemic and quarantine fatigue), it's understandable that our emotions may have felt more up and down than usual throughout the last year. "In times of stress, we typically reach for sugary, feel-good foods," says Marysa Cardwell, RD. "In fact, studies have shown that our overall sugar intake increased 53 percent at the start of quarantine."
Unfortunately, a 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that this uptick in sweet indulgences may be negatively impacting the mood, sleep cycle, and both physical and mental health of the average American more than we'd necessarily prefer to acknowledge. "Research shows that consuming too much added sugar can lead to chronic health issues like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, yes, but it's also highly correlated with mood imbalances and can even lead to depression in the long run," Cardwell says. We asked her to break down the ways that sugar impacts our emotional wellness and how we can stop the cycle.
The Sugar Rush Myth
Have you ever reached for a sugary snack hoping for a quick "sugar rush" between Zoom meetings? Because I sure have. "The short-term effects of high glucose levels (the main sugar found in your blood) caused by consumption of sucrose (aka table sugar) on one's mood are that they may decrease alertness and cause higher levels of fatigue within the first hour after eating," Cardwell explains. According to a study from Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, sugar does not usually improve any aspect of mood, challenging the idea that sugar could offer a temporary 'high.'
"High sugar consumption has been linked to depression and negative mental health symptoms after several years," Cardwell says. Research shows that intake of added sugars over time can have an impact on long-term mental health, whereas lower intake of added sugars may be associated with better mental health.
Cardwell explains that some current research outlines several potential reasons for why added sugars intake may impact mood, including:
The consumption of added sugars has been associated with increased blood pressure and inflammation, which have both been linked to depression.
High sugar diets can lead to rapid blood sugar spikes and crashes, leading to fluctuating hormone levels and mood states.
The addiction-like effects of sugar on dopamine (the pleasure and reward chemical in the brain) levels might connect frequent sugar intake with depression.
How Much Sugar Is OK?
So how much sugar should we be eating? Americans are currently consuming an average of more than 13 percent of added sugars per day, exceeding the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to consume less than 10 percent of added sugars in total daily calories. (BTW, we think the American Heart Association's sugar recommendations are far more healthy, clear, and useful—see their recommendations here.) "Major sources include sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, sweet snacks, and sweetened coffee and tea," Cardwell says.
But knowing that added sugars can negatively impact mood doesn't mean you have to swear off the sweet stuff entirely. Humans are born with a preference for sweet taste, and there are healthy ways to cure your sweet craving while keeping blood sugar levels and your mood in check.
"Instead of that sugary beverage or snack bar, aim to keep your total daily added sugars below 6 percent of total calories," Cardwell advises. She explains that if you eat 2,000 calories per day, that means you should aim to keep total added sugars below 120 calories, which is equivalent to 7.5 teaspoons of table sugar.
Cardwell shares that instead of a sugar-sweetened beverage, try infusing water with fresh citrus fruit and herbs, such as lemon, orange, and mint, for a refreshing and hydrating option. "Or swap out a sugary snack bar for something higher in protein and healthy fats to help stabilize blood sugar and help keep you feeling satisfied. Hummus and crackers, peanut butter and sprouted grain toast, or a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit are great options," Cardwell says.
According to Cardwell, fruit is naturally sweet and packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, in addition to fiber and water to help keep you hydrated and full. If you like to end your meal with something sweet, try blending frozen fruit like bananas or mango to make a delicious ice cream for a sweet treat, she recommends.
Tracking Sugar Intake
With added sugars hiding in unsuspecting places like tomato sauce and salad dressings, it can be hard to know how much you're really eating with every meal. Cardwell says that food diaries or tracking apps are beneficial for increasing mindfulness around food choices. "Because sugar sources are so challenging to pinpoint, I typically refer my clients to the tracking app Lose It!. It's a simple tracking tool that can help you learn about the foods you're eating every day and allow you to become more aware of your eating habits for a balanced body and mind," Cardwell explains.
She also recommends reading nutrition labels on packaged food products and looking for added sugars, especially when consuming seemingly healthy foods like breakfast cereal, granola bars, or nondairy milks. Knowledge is power, and you might notice that your go-to breakfast is packed with added sugar. Swap in alternative foods that contain fewer grams of added sugar and Cardwell guarantees you'll feel way better throughout your marathon of morning meetings.