Nutritionist calls for ‘radical shift’ in sugar mindset

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By Amal Fathima Haneef 

UNIVERSITY CITY, SHARJAH – Students concerned about mental health and good nutrition in general should steer clear of products with high sugar concentrations and beware of artificial sweeteners in soft drinks and other food products, warns a clinical nutritionist who works at the American University of Sharjah.

Interviewed in October, Nathalie Curabba, a coordinator in the Sustainability office who is also a nutritionist, chef, and author of two books, advises students to pay special attention to the ingredient list in the food products they buy. The first component listed usually indicates the highest concentration in a given item, she says. Consumers should avoid the product entirely if sugar is the predominant component.

She also notes the deceptive nature of product labels, the presence of artificial sweeteners in soft drinks labeled “zero” or “sugar-free,” and how these are particularly damaging to our gut and mental health. 

Sneaky sugars

Added sugars, Curabba says, are sugars that are “literally added to various food products, and they can be particularly sneaky.” They are commonly found in highly processed foods, which often lack vital nutrients that help the body gradually metabolize glucose. Sweetened drinks like sodas and fruit juices, ketchup, salad dressings, and flavored yogurts are common examples of products containing added sugars. 

“It is crucial for individuals to be mindful and read ingredient labels to identify and reduce their intake of added sugars,” adds Curabba. “Some common names for added sugars include dextrose, fructose, fruit nectars, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup.”

Unmasking “Zero” and “Sugar-Free” Labels

When it comes to soft drinks labeled as “zero” or “sugar-free,” Curabba said that they typically contain artificial sweeteners, which can have detrimental effects on the body.

“Artificial sweeteners mimic sugar but are metabolized differently, often leading to negative health outcomes,” she says. “Natural sweeteners like coconut sugar and date sugar, which are less processed, are preferable alternatives.”

In contrast to natural sugars found in whole foods, processed sugars lack important micronutrients and fiber, leading to sudden blood sugar spikes without any nutritional benefits, she adds. 

The link between sugar and health 

Curabba explains that sugar is an excitatory food, and consumption of it causes the release of dopamine, or the reward hormone, causing the body to seek more of it to achieve a feeling of excitement and reward.

The gradual rise in dopamine release caused by regular sugar consumption leads to increased tolerance, necessitating more consumption to get the same dopamine level, making it an addictive substance. Excess sugar consumption leads to inflammation, which affects various systems in the body, including the central nervous system and the endocrine system, she says. 

Too much sugar causes quick fluctuations in blood sugar levels, making you crave more of it. Additionally, it also disrupts the balance between healthy and unfriendly bacteria in your gut, negatively impacting your immune system. This imbalance can also lead to health issues such as Type-2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic disorders, and hypertension, Curabba adds. 

Strategies to reduce sugar intake

Curabba suggests avoiding processed and sugar-free items containing artificial sweeteners, which can impact gut-brain access and have a negative impact on general health, and to start reading labels and making informed decisions. 

“Eat whole foods and move away from processed foods,” she says. “We’ve been told that we should prioritize work and all other pursuits around us, without ever thinking about our health, and that we would be OK. But that simply isn’t true. We’re not OK. We have convenience all around us and we’ve gotten used to that instant gratification, but it is not nourishing our bodies or minds and we need a radical shift in our mindset so we can start taking care of ourselves.”