Sweet slippery slope: the realities of sugar addiction and how it is affecting Thailand in a major way
Most of us consume it every day and it often sneaks into our diet via unexpected channels. Over-consumption of sugar is plaguing the globe and causing widespread health problems, but in Thailand, the situation is dire. Read on to find out more about Thailand’s sugar addiction and the potential impacts on public health if something is not done to kick the craving.
Natural vs. processed sugar
Before we can begin to understand what causes humans to crave the sweet stuff, let’s first take a quick look at what sugar actually is and what it does to our bodies.
You may not realize that there are many different kinds of sugar, each affecting the body in different ways. The two major types of sugar are glucose and fructose.
Glucose is the friendlier sugar. Glucose is a simple sugar that your body responds to well and processes easily. A lot of our energy comes from glucose. Also helpful, is that when you consume glucose, it triggers a reaction in your body that allows your brain to know when you feel satisfied and should stop eating therefore regulating your consumption and subsequently, your body weight.
Fructose is much less friendly. Fructose is the sugar that is found in fruits, but it is also found in high amounts in juices, sodas, and other processed foods. Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, leading to inefficient and incomplete processing – meaning a much higher percentage of bad cholesterol and fat makes its way into and onto the body. It also leads to a higher production of uric acid and other negative byproducts, which eventually may lead to hypertension or high blood pressure. Fructose also has the opposite impact on your body than glucose in that it blocks the chemical trigger to your brain to stop eating, therefore, fructose actually causes people to overeat.
The fructose in fruits, in reasonable moderation, is not only tolerable but quite beneficial to the body. Hence, it remains as a staple on the food pyramid and it is generally recommended to consume on a daily basis by health practitioners. This is not however because fruit contains fructose, but because it contains nutrients and most importantly, fiber.
Fiber sends direct signals to the body that we are full and nourished, making up for the tricks that fructose on its own plays on us. When we process sugar into those fine white crystals, it removes all the natural fiber from the sugar, leaving literally nothing that is of nutritional benefit to us. This is why processed foods, sodas, and products containing high fructose corn syrup should be consumed in serious moderation.
Impacts of sugar on the body
Some have even suggested that sugar is just as toxic and potentially more threatening to the body than alcohol and that warnings should be placed on food and drinks containing sugar just as they are on alcoholic beverages. Fructose and glucose both in excess can have a highly toxic effect on the liver and take similar metabolic pathways as alcohol. Many of the conditions that can occur from consuming too much sugar also echo those that occur from abuse of alcohol.
‘Sugar addict’ or ‘sweet tooth’ have become common adages of our time, but is there really such a thing as sugar addiction?
Some research suggests that ingredients such as fat and sugar contained within foods are not in and of themselves addictive, but the act of eating is. People may initially be drawn to certain foods and drinks by their sweet flavor, but they are not addicted to the substance of sugar itself. Instead, they become addicted to the feeling of enjoyment they get when consuming the product. They may develop a physical compulsion to eat certain foods that trigger positive feelings in the brain.
On the flip side, another recent study argues the opposite. This study showed that those who had genetic modifications of the hormone ghrelin had a tendency to consume more sugar than those without. It is believed that the genetic components that affect your ghrelin release may have a lot to do with whether or not you seek to enhance a neurological reward system by consuming sugar. Therefore, some people may be genetically predisposed to becoming addicted to the substances in sugar and the reactions that they provoke in the body. This would mean sugar addiction is real on both physiological and behavior levels.
Sugar: a dietary staple in Thailand
Sugar addiction has plagued Thailand for decades, but the problem is intensifying. According to recent reports, the average Thai consumes 26 teaspoons of sugar per day, around four times more than the recommended daily allowance. The majority of sugar is consumed via sweetened beverages, mostly from soda, iced green tea, and coffee drinks but it is also commonly added to otherwise savory dishes like Pad Thai or noodle soup.
Thailand currently ranks second among ASEAN countries in obesity percentage and this is largely attributed to their addiction to processed sugar. Obesity is most prevalent in Bangkok and urban areas while Northeastern Thailand reports the lowest occurrence. This may be partially attributed to varying income levels or class status or the differences between regional dietary regimes.
The ‘westernization’ of Thailand is also said to be changing Thai diets as cafe culture is booming and imported processed foods are popular among the younger Thai generation. A recent study by the Southeast Asia Nutrition Survey indicates an increasing number of Thai children will be overweight, shorter in stature, and have lower IQ ratings in the next ten years due to a lack of exercise, insufficient nutritional intake and consuming too much sugar.
Reportedly however, government and health officials in Thailand are taking notice of sugar addiction and this alarming trend towards poor health and taking measures to do something about it. The Department of Health is even considering banning certain soft drinks due to their high sugar content. Other public health campaigns have also been initiated warning against the dangers of too much sugar and associated diseases.
What to do if you can’t get enough of the sweet stuff
The first step in combating the negative impacts of sugar on the body and avoiding sugar addiction is to take a close and honest look at how much and how frequently you consume it. Remember, sugar has a way of sneaking into our diets through fruit juices, cereals, and other processed foods. Once you survey your diet, find small ways to reduce sugar intake like asking for no sugar in your iced coffee or opting for natural sugars like brown sugar or honey.
Learn to love water. Sodas and other soft drinks contain excess sugar. Replace soda and other sweetened beverages with water. Staying hydrated with water will reduce sugar cravings and nourish and cleanse the body.
It is still under debate whether the substance of sugar is itself addictive, but it is well known that the act of eating can be. As discussed earlier, sugar’s tendency to block the satiation trigger in our bodies may easily lead to over-eating or compulsive eating. Compulsive eating is a serious addiction and there is treatment help available.