Do people have a real genuine "need" for sugar sometimes, or is it psychological?
January 26, 2007 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Do people have a real genuine "need" for sugar sometimes, or is it psychological?

For example, occasionally I'll get really tired, slightly miserable, and low on energy. I'll think 'hmm, maybe I need some sugar', and I have some, and it pretty much always works.

Note: I think I'm talking just about refined (right word?) sugar, i.e., chocolate bars, confectionary, sweets. And when I say 'occasionally' I mean less than once every few weeks - it's not a regular thing.

And I'm aware it's only a temporary fix, but it does seem to be the fix I'm looking for.
But do I actually need the sugar, or does my body require something else? Yes, possibly sleep, obviously, but I'm just wondering if people do have a real 'sugar low', and whether you do need to up the dosage or if something like fruit can suffice instead (even though it never seems to have the same hit as, say, a bag of Skittles...)

Also if this is true and people do need the occasional sugar dosage, how do celebs (supposedly) live on diets of things like grilled chicken, fruit and vegetables? Where's their sugar coming from?
posted by angryjellybean to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
posted by interrobang at 7:15 AM on January 26, 2007

Where's their sugar coming from?

The fruit.
posted by oaf at 7:16 AM on January 26, 2007

Response by poster: Yes but, I meant where's their REFINED sugar coming from, oaf...
posted by angryjellybean at 7:18 AM on January 26, 2007

I don't think they have to have refined sugar. After all, we got along perfectly well as a species without it, didn't we?
posted by oaf at 7:19 AM on January 26, 2007

The fruit.
And the vegetables and the grains. Starches and larger sugars get broken down into glucose before they can be used by the cells.
posted by octothorpe at 7:22 AM on January 26, 2007

Best answer: I read that as "Do people have a real genuine 'need' for anger sometimes, or is it psychological?"

I was really looking forward to the answers, too.

What you're calling "refined" sugar is still the same sugars present in fruit/other natural sources: sucrose, glucose, fructose. Heck, what about milk: lactose? Chemically, same molecules.

So, yeah, we need sugars; sugars are carbohydrates, cheap fuel. But do we need the high-potency, high-purity version (HFCS, refined beet/cane sugar)? No, but it sure is good recreationally.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:25 AM on January 26, 2007

Response by poster: Okay sorry, ignore the last paragraph. That was a sideline to the original question

"do I actually need the sugar... and whether you do need to up the dosage or if something like fruit can suffice instead (even though it never seems to have the same hit as, say, a bag of Skittles...)"
posted by angryjellybean at 7:26 AM on January 26, 2007

I think the key phrase you're looking for might be glycemic index.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:51 AM on January 26, 2007

What I hear fiercecupcake saying is:

When my get up and go has got up and went, I hanker for a hunk of cheese
posted by soplerfo at 8:14 AM on January 26, 2007

The traditional Inuit diet had very, very little in the way of carbs. We can burn fat and protein for fuel if we have to, and if our micronutrients are taken care of, we can last a long time that way.

But I suspect non-Inuits would generally fare worse on such a diet than Inuits (and I consider Atkins to have been a dangerous fad that I'm relieved is pretty much dead.)

Something I expect we'll learn a lot more about in the decades to come is genetic and developmental bases for given diets being better or worse for given individuals, and maybe we can eventually stop hearing sweeping generalizations about diet X being better than diet Y. (This is in the category of things I believe, but cannot prove.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:15 AM on January 26, 2007

The glycemic index referenced above plays a part, but if you're eating foods with chocolatey goodness, don't forget that chocolate contains relaxing, mildly becalming substances.

Try comparing chocolate with non-chocolate snacks to see if this is the case.
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:40 AM on January 26, 2007

Sugar does perk you up. Refined sugars perk you up faster because they have a lower glycemic index (see prev link). You could get the same benefit from fruit, bread, or other sources of sugar/carbohydrates, but it wouldn't come as fast. (On the other hand, it would also sustain you for longer.) The way to avoid needing this fix is not to up your regular dosage of refined sugars but rather to keep your blood sugar from dropping to a point where your body craves sugar by eating regular meals that will release glucose into your bloodstream slowly (i.e. meals that include some fat, fiber, and protein with your carbs).
posted by nevers at 8:44 AM on January 26, 2007

I think that craving for the processed sugars (as opposed to fruit, etc.) just comes from habit. I'm not much of a sweet tooth, but I'll sometimes spend the last hour or so of a long bike ride fantasizing about all sorts of candy, cookies, brownies, and the like.

The body's asking for sugar and the mind is jumping to the sugar sources that seem most convenient to it.

A really healthy eater is probably thinking about apples and pears instead of junk.
posted by altcountryman at 9:47 AM on January 26, 2007

A lot of people believe that you can be physically addicted to sugar if you constantly use it for the effects it has on your mood & energy levels. One book that addresses this is Anatomy of a Food Addiction.
posted by tastybrains at 9:59 AM on January 26, 2007

Sugar is also certainly addictive. If you get used to having your blood-sugar spiked from an outside source, you get drowsy and crave it when you don't get it.

Seriously, try going without the refined stuff for a week or two. You'll find you get drowsy and 'need' refined sugar a lot less.
posted by koeselitz at 10:13 AM on January 26, 2007

It depends on what you mean by "need."

Our bodies crave all sorts of things. I hypothesize that there's usually a physiological basis for cravings, but does that mean that you should always give in to them? Of course not - our bodies have evolved to seek short-term fixes, not long-term solutions. They're not great at seeing the big picture, so to speak. To use an extreme example, if you're addicted to heroin, you do very much "need" it in a physiological sense, and a shot of it will sure as hell pick you right up, but do you have a fundamental need for it in the sense you're asking? Is giving in good for you in the long run? Hell no.

Refined sugar perpetuates its own "need" in the same way that heroin does (but to a much lesser degree). Like nevers said, its low glycemic index causes a rush of blood sugar that raises your endorphins and gives you a quick shot of easy energy. The problem is, the end result of a blood sugar rush is a blood sugar crash, which again leaves you "tired, slightly miserable, and low on energy." The temporary solution is some Skittles, yes, but the temporary solution is also causing the problem in the long run.

So, again, like nevers said, the long-term solution is to focus on substituting refined sugar with more complex sugars that keep your blood sugar at a steady rate. Whole-grain foods, fruit, and vegetables will do this. No, they won't give you the quick fix that a bag of Skittles will, but that's the whole point. The quick fix is perpetuating the problem.

This is a much more complex subject than I've distilled it to here. Also, the reaction to sugars varies greatly by individual - some have more sensitive blood sugar than others. For what it's worth, I haven't eaten refined sugar, simple carbs like pasta, white bread, and white rice, and "sweet" fruit in nearly six years, and I'm not dead.
posted by granted at 10:18 AM on January 26, 2007

You can get by without sugar. I've done it for months at a time. And when I do eat sugar, it's in ncredibly small amounts. (Maybe 2 grams in my salad dressing as part of an otherwise sugar-free meal).

When you experience a sugar craving, it's a drop in blood sugar (glucose). Any food that doesn't leave the body is, ultimately, turned into glucose (blood sugar). So you can increase your blood sugar by eating fats or proteins or non-sugar carbohydrates instead of sugars (sucrose, fructose, dextrose, etc.).

You crave the sugar because it causes a greater and more rapid blood sugar increase than any other type of food; a spike. A blood sugar spike is quite pleasurable, so naturally your body would prefer to do it this way instead of the other.
posted by Clay201 at 10:22 AM on January 26, 2007

Everybody has given good information - I am going to annoyingly chime in with something more anecdotal-ly:

I went sugar-free this summer, and it took about 2-3 weeks for me to stop 'needing' it. I think that as a caucasian woman of Anglo-German descent, I am somewhat genetically disposed to want 'sweet.' So I replaced sugar with stevia. I make cookies, cake, fudge - all sugar free.

If I need a pick-me-up, I usually have a piece of fruit and some nuts (carbohydrate, protein, fat). No, it doesn't hit my system as fast as say, a Cadbury's Cream Egg, but because my blood sugar levels are so much more stable, I don't need a 'rush' from the food I eat. (See Granted's wonderful explanation)

My SO also went sugar-free with me. He certainly didn't need to, being pretty fit, but he prefers the more stable energy levels that come with cutting sugar out. Now if only I could convince my diabetes prone family members to join my cult. . .
posted by dirtmonster at 11:40 AM on January 26, 2007

I am not a doctor, or a Registered Dietician.

The brain. It likes sugar. The blood brain barrier is a handy thing that keeps bacteria and viral infections out of the brain (most of the time) but fat and protein are too big to get through that barrier. Since the brain is an organ that uses lotsof energy, sugar is that energy. If you are a typical American, a handy generalization is that you don't eat fresh fruits and vegetables and are unlikely to eat whole grains. The next reliable source of sugar is in refined crap foods. Which your brain knows. So, instead of saying "hey, give me an apple," your brain says, "find the ice cream."

If you learn to recognize this, you can trick your brain after a lifestyle change that includes more healthy foods and fewer crap foods.

So, it's not that refined beet sugar of high fructose corn syrup are a need for human beings, but that as long as the brain has energy, it doesn't care where the sugar came from, and will ask for sugar in the way it knows you will respond, because it doesn't really want you just to open the packets of sugar and pour them down your throat.

(I've given the brain a life of it's own and I think it's funny so I won't edit this to exclude that.)
posted by bilabial at 3:03 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

altcountryman: I don't eat a lot of refined sugar, so I crave dried apricots, honey (manuka honey especially), Nudie Juices, Kraft Creme Cheeze, fresh cold full cream milk, grapes, starfruit (my god! The starfruit!), plums, mangoes...

Er...I think my fridge is running...better go catch it...
posted by Jilder at 3:43 AM on January 28, 2007

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