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The dangers of sugar

Sugar is a beloved natural ingredient, deep-rooted in our diet for thousands of years. It is adored for providing an immediate boost of energy along with instant gratification.

June 26, 2017  By Isabelle Sauve

Nonetheless it is not without consequence to our health. Problematically, we have no “off switch” for sugar, repeatedly keeping us going back for more. This addictive characteristic incites many food producers to enhance the taste of their products by adding sugar despite it being at the expense of our health. Chronic sugar overconsumption is unhealthy and can be particularly detrimental for all of us and especially for shift workers.

Technically speaking, sugar is a generic name for delectable sweet and water-soluble carbohydrate derived from various plants used to provide energy. Simple sugars are part of many processed foods and include glucose (dextrose), fructose, maltose, and galactose. Also known as table sugar or sucrose, simple sugar is a combination of glucose and fructose.  

Sugar intake causes a ‘feel good’ dopamine release in our brains somewhat akin to those experienced by drug addicts. It is estimated that the average North American swallows 130 pounds of added sugar per year, much of which is unknowingly consumed. That is approximately 22 teaspoons per day.  Sugar is hidden in many foods and drinks, such as yogurt, beef jerky, bread, frozen dinners, ketchup, granola, smoothies, and sauces. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of processed food contains added sugar. Therefore, cutting down on processed food will inadvertently reduce sugars from one’s diet.

Part of controlling the intake of added sugar is to understand it is disguised under many names. Put simply, ingredients that end in ‘ose’ are sugar. Ingredients ending as ‘sweetener’ or ‘syrup’ are also likely sugar. Beware of foods labelled “fat free” or “low fat” as they may be designed to give the illusion of being healthier products. The truth is they tend to contain a high concentration of added sugar.


The danger is that sugar disturbs our micro biome (bacteria in our digestive tract), which plays a significant role in regulating our metabolic, immune, and nervous systems. In other words, it affects our emotional behaviour and consequently our response to stress. This is of particular importance for first responders frequently exposed to stressful situations. Recent research suggests sugar actually promotes anxiety. Thus, excessive sugar intake may be correlated to and affect one’s ability to adequately respond to challenging and stressful situations.

Sugar overconsumption has also been linked to cancer and heart disease. Unused sugar in the human body becomes fat and therefore, is a primary contributor to obesity. Further, it primes the body for diabetes, by diminishing the functionality of the immune system, suppressing the release of human growth hormone, stimulating inflammation, reducing the body’s ability to heal, and accelerating human cell aging.

In addition, it takes less than 30 minutes to go from a sugar boost to a sugar crash. Consequently, sugar is fully capable of making us energy deficient ‘zombies’.

Night shifts invite fatigue by nature while simultaneously increasing levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger. To make things worse, the body’s natural ability to process sugar declines drastically at night. Therefore, night shift workers should favour easy to assimilate low-sugar meals and sugar-free drinks.

The aim is not to entirely remove sugar from one’s diet. It is about moderation and balance. Some foods like fruits and dairy products also contain natural sugars. These are not single-handedly the problem but they must factor in when looking at overall sugar intake.  

Thankfully, a number of healthier and tasty alternatives to sugar are available for those looking to moderate sugar intake. For instance, bread containing added sugar is now replaceable by sugar-free bread. Healthier sweeteners are also available such as dates, raw honey, stevia, molasses or maple syrup. Another tip is to consume clean protein or to drink a large glass of water as this can communicate satiation to the brain and potentially eliminate cravings. Walking or engaging in an active interest for 15 minutes can also abolish an urge to reach for something sugary. Another fundamental factor to consider is the timing of sugar consumption. Sugar can in fact be processed by the body very efficiently after a workout making it a good time to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Patience is of the essence when embarking on a quest to reduce sugar intake. It takes a few days for the taste buds and the body to adjust, but as a reward, this will take inches off the waist, contribute to energy level equalization, and promote better health.

Isabelle Sauve is a 10-year OPP veteran currently with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) at the Almaguin Highlands Detachment in Burks Falls, about 300 km north of Toronto. She can be contacted at:

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