In the ever-shifting hierarchy of nutrition, fat and carbs tend to slide up and down the ladder of virtuous and evil foods, depending on the dietary whims of the zeitgeist or latest body of scientific data. But sugar has had it tough of late—real tough. The way we eat it nowadays, sugar is pretty much guaranteed to be bad for you.
Not that you couldn't fault the sugar industry for trying to convince us otherwise by repeatedly lying to the general population and encouraging doctors and dentists to claim that sugar is part of a balanced diet. (Which it is, in moderation. Putting sprinkles on top of your 1,400-calorie sweetened coffee smoothie is not "moderation.")
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But a recent study from the University of California at Davis, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, may shed some light on why exactly sugar is so damn evil.
Turns out, we love it because it's a stress reliever.
"Stress can increase selection and consumption of palatable (comfort) foods, which are typically high in sugar and fat," the authors write in the study. "Although approximately 40 percent of people report eating more in response to stress, an estimated 80 percent report that they eat more sweets per calorie, regardless of whether they report eating more or less in response to stress. Consuming sugar to cope with stress is likely a difficult habit to break and one that may increase risk for chronic overeating, obesity, and related conditions."
Sure, that sounds obvious. How many times did you break for SweeTarts and cigarettes when you were studying for your undergrad finals?
But there's actually some neurological machinations at play. The study enlisted 19 women, who were split into two groups. One group drank sugar-sweetened Kool-Aid three times a day for 12 days with their usual diets; the other group did the same with a fruit-flavored drink sweetened with aspartame. At the end of the 12 days, all of them were subjected to a task that "induced stress using a timed mental arithmetic task and negative feedback," followed by blood tests and brain scans.
The results? The sugar-drinking group had significantly lower levels of cortisol—a stress hormone—than the artificial sweetener group. The brain scans from the sugar-drinkers also revealed decreased activity in the part of the brain related to anxiety, fear, and stress.
The researchers claim that this study is one of the first to present evidence linking sugar consumption and decreased levels of stress-induced cortisol. "[Both] dysfunctional stress system responsiveness and overconsumption of sugar are growing health concerns," the study authors write. "We speculate that the stress-dampening effects of sugar may promote the behaviorally entrenched daily sugar consumption that may increase risk for obesity and may explain differences in disease subtypes, such as major depression."
The next time you reach for the candy bowl to cope with stress, remember that.