Halloween Candy Hazards: Your Brain on Sugar (Put the Snickers Down)

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Too much sugar not only is bad for your weight, but your brain. Image by Fritzs

Too much sugar not only is bad for your weight, but for your brain. Image by Fritzs.

Halloween hands out candy, Thanksgiving brings pumpkin pies, then the holidays drip with candy canes, cookies, and more treats and deserts than any other time of the year.

If we carefully look at our diets, this isn’t the only time of the year where we find sugar – it’s in almost everything we eat. Do you ever wonder, what is all this sugar doing to us?

Sugar Overload

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes 156 pounds of added sugar every year. What’s ‘added sugar?’ – that’s just sugar or syrups that we (or the manufacturer) add to food or drinks, like sugar in your coffee, or a sweetened granola bar. Added sugars don’t include sugars that occur naturally, so fruits and milk don’t count -unless it’s apple pie or chocolate milk.

According to the USDA, the main source of added sugars for Americans are found in soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pie, pastries such as doughnuts, fruit drinks, and dairy desserts like ice cream. With the average American eating about 30 teaspoons of sugar a day, what is this doing to our bodies; especially our brains?

Your Brain on Sugar

According to a study entitled, “A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning” shows that a diet that is high in added sugars reduces the production of a chemical in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is responsible for helping us remember things, form new memories, and learn new concepts. Without BDNF, we cannot do these things, or at least not very well. Low levels of BDNF  also contribute to insulin resistance, which in turns leads to pre-diabetes and diabetes.

You might want to rethink that next handful of candy corn. Image by Mindmatrix

You might want to rethink that next handful of candy corn. Image by Mindmatrix

In another study entitled, “Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and type 2 diabetes” researchers found a link between low levels of BDNF and depression and dementia. And the really exciting part? These low levels of BDNF may be the factor that triggers diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Will Too Much Halloween Candy Make Me Sick?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the following, “For most American women, …. no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, … 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons. The AHA recommendations focus on all added sugars, without singling out any particular types such as high-fructose corn syrup.” One teaspoon is about equal to a sugar cube – that’s about 1 square of Starburst candy and about 5 candy corn.

Now you know how much Halloween candy you can eat (not much) but what can you do to limit your sugar in general? The AHA recommends that you figure out how much sugar you normally consume and then cut that number in half. Once you have taken that first step, continue to wean yourself off of sugar from there.

When baking, cut the amount of sugar by one third to one half; you won’t even miss is. Or, you can substitute unsweetened applesauce for the same amount of sugar in most recipes. Instead of enhancing a food’s flavor with sugar, try other spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, or vanilla. Another recommendation from the AHA is to buy fresh fruits when possible, but if you do purchase canned fruits, purchase those canned in light syrups or without added sugar.

Don’t Eat Too Much Sugar This Halloween!

So the moral of the story? If you want to avoid depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s, one way may be by limiting the amount of sugar you eat and drink. Of course, there are a lot of other factors that can play into whether anyone develops these conditions, but if you could help reduce your risk, wouldn’t you?

Resources:

American Heart Association. Sugars and Carbohydrates. (2013). Accessed October 31, 2013.

Forbes. What Eating Too Much Sugar Does To Your Brain. 2012. Accessed October 31, 2013.

Krabbe, KS., Nielsen, AR., Krogh-Madsen, R., et al. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and type 2 diabetes. Diabetologia. February 2007. Accessed October 31, 2013.

Molteni. R., Barnard, RJ., Ying, Z., et al. A high-fat, refined sugar diet reduces hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor, neuronal plasticity, and learning. Neuroscience. 2002. Accessed October 31, 2013.

USDA. What are added sugars? Accessed October 31, 2013.

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