Is Sugar a necessity, a toxin, or a superfood? Is it really that addictive?

This podcast examines sugar from the lens of two conditions that children are increasingly experiencing:


Check in to hear about how sugar can impact a child already struggling with these symptoms.



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Disclaimer: The information in this Podcast is for educational purposes only. Vaishnavi Sarathy, Ph.D. is an educator, not a doctor, specifically not your child’s doctor. Please consult your physician before implementing any supplement or diet recommendations.

Audio Transcription: 


Hello everyone, you are listening to functional nutrition for kids. A short sweet, always under 20 minute podcast hosted by me Vaishnavi Sarathy. I go by Vaish. I’m a chemist, educator, TEDx speaker, and functional nutrition practitioner. Of course, I’m also mom to two very unique kids, one with an extra chromosome and one without I attempt in this podcast to move perspectives from old research and dogma, and new traditions, to new research and ancient food traditions. This is a podcast that talks about food, the gut, especially the gut, brain axis, and how these factors can affect conditions from anxiety to attention. And from Alzheimer’s to allergies.

Today, the topic is a hot one and the basic, what’s the basic? Well, we’re going to be covering five basics, at least, basics are non negotiables. They are changes that often need to be the very first step before we can actually see any progress. And we’re going to be discussing everyone’s favorite trigger sugar. Alright, what is the deal with sugar? Let us start by looking at the seven major areas there are at least seven, right? But we’re going to look at seven major areas where sugar has faced some serious accusations and equally enthusiastic defenses. We’re not going to talk about all of these seven areas, but let’s start by listing them out. Number one, energy or fatigue.

We all know this right? You’ve observed hyperactivity, perhaps in children that have pinched on sugar. Or maybe you’ve observed fatigue in yourself a few minutes after eating a high carb or a high sugar meal. Number two is sugar a toxin or superfood? Dr. Robert Lustig a pediatric endocrinologist is a famous game changer whose video on the topic in 2009 has now garnered over eight and a half million views. Maybe you’ve seen it. And along with his book Fat chance, he has probably spearheaded this change of public opinion with respect to sugar. Question number three is sugar cancer causing this? Does it feed cancer cells? Question number four. And this is actually not a question this is almost well known at this point is that sugar causes blood sugar imbalances, spikes, and further dips in blood sugar.

What about the role of sugar in traditional cultures? The role of sugar in attention and hyperactivity. And the very last question for today is the role of sugar in cat dysbiosis. Now obviously, we don’t have time in a 20 minute podcast to talk about everything we are going to do is to look into the world of sugar through two lenses. The first lens is picky eating, and the second is attention deficit, or lack of focus. Note that we’re not necessarily looking at labels, but at symptoms of a child in the case of picky eating symptoms of a child restricting their intake to a very short spectrum of foods.

I have seen children that don’t eat more than six different foods totally, there’s a high likelihood that you have as well, right. We’re also seeing sugar through the lens of children that are unable to focus. Now, here’s a pet topic of mine, a pet peeve actually, often focus is correlated with intelligence and a more erroneous correlation I haven’t seen in my TEDx talk, I talk about the folly of confusing expressive skills like speech signs, eye contact, for cognition, right? If you’re curious about my TEDx talk, you can go to YouTube and search for an eye quote, who decides how smart you are?

Now, in my years of experience as a chemistry and calculus tutor, I must say this, that confusing focus for intelligence is the most unintelligent thing a therapist or a teacher, or even a parent can do. I teach and I have taught numerous sharp, witty and quick students who lack retention and focus, but that’s the only thing they lack. And that is impermanent either, but coming back, letting my soapbox go for a minute and coming back to topic, how does sugar play into all of this? You may have heard of the primary reward neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical secreted in your gut and brain that signals the primary reward system in your body whatever causes The dopamine release makes your brain light up figuratively, and makes you want to do that activity again. And dopamine is involved in most addiction biochemistry, and it’s released every time you eat sugar. Whether the sugar is refined or unrefined.

In my experience, refined sugar appears to cause a bigger increase, or a bigger addictive response than then unrefined sugar, which is why storebought cupcakes are way are often way more addictive than your maple syrup, almond flour cupcakes, right? So when you eat sugar, you are compelled to eat more sugar. That’s the end line right here. Now perhaps you’ve heard about the study on mice where they were exposed to both sugar and cocaine. And there are multiple such studies. But I’m talking about the specific one, where they found that mice at the end of the study preferred sugar to cocaine and that’s how addictive sugar is. We like these mice are caught in a sugar loop which is that much harder for young brain to get out of. This means that the sugar which comes to you nutrient depleted, and I’m talking about white sugar right here, which isn’t everything right, which comes to you the white of any nutrients. In the process of metabolic ism, it strips more nutrients from your body, you actually need nutrients to process sugar.

This is now the substitute for something healthier that you would have eaten, creating an indirect nutrient depletion that’s a three for one. So I’m going to repeat that because that’s important. You’re bringing it instead of something. It is nutrient deficient by itself. And in the process of being metabolized by your body. It causes further nutrient depletion. It’s actually a twofer. One honestly, if I’m going to be accurate, this nutrient depletion is especially problematic in the case of magnesium and zinc.

Zinc is responsible for many things, but also for taste and smell. Now in the case of severe zinc deficiency, your ability to taste is significantly impaired. When you lose your ability to taste, you don’t have to lose it. But when it’s impaired, or when your smell is impaired, what food do you think you would choose? Would you choose a whole nutritious meal that doesn’t really give you a kick? Or something that’s sugary, salty, fried or crispy? Right? Does that sound like you’re picky eater? Now, I hope I have shown to you that picky eating can be a vicious cycle when sugar is involved. Now there is no evidence that sugar starts the cycle of picky eating. In fact, it may not likely be the initial root cause. But there is evidence that picky eaters that are not infants sugar intake is significantly higher. Is sugar the only culprit in picky eating? Absolutely not.

There is muscle tone. There are oral motor issues, especially when you’re talking about children with disabilities, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, even autism. There’s tactile sensitivity, and there’s inflammation in the body and so on. Let’s talk about that last factor inflammation in the body. More specifically, inflammation in the gut, gut inflammation can lead to impaired digestion, significantly impaired digestion, right. This in turn can lead to bacterial overgrowth in the wrong places. Yes, we want diverse bacteria but in the right place, overgrowth of bacteria in the wrong place. Read in the small intestine can lead to pain and discomfort after eating and this can vary in degree. Do you see what I’m getting at? If this pain is the norm for a child, they may not express it in so many words, but the very process of eating can be difficult, uncomfortable and painful. How does sugar fit into this? In children with compromised digestion sugar can contribute to pathogenic overgrowth, overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast putting yet another turn in this vicious cycle of inflammation and picky eating and sugar.

Now there is no simple protocol on how to modulate or reduce sugar intake in a child with picky eating. It depends on your child. There are children who benefit from a slow transition. You go from refined to unrefined and then gradually reduce or stop and there are children that benefit from a cold turkey reduction in sugar intake. I hope to talk about this more in detail in another podcast. And since every problem is multifactorial, and there is no one course or one solution to a problem. Remember to work with your nutritionist to address nutrient deficiency nutrient density and gut inflammation. And with an oral motor therapist, at the very least or a speech therapist to address any tactile issues with food, we will do another podcast dedicated to picky eating in the future. But if there is one learning comes out of this it is that picky eating perpetuates picky eating.

Sometimes finding the right team to help you is all it takes. That could be a functional nutritionist and our doctor and oral motor therapist or a speech therapist. Right? And no, I do not underestimate the enormity of that task. To tell you a secret. It has taken me 12 years of my son’s life to get what’s pretty close to the perfect team of people working with him. Let’s move on to the next lens. How does sugar impact a child with the attention focus and hyperactivity? We’re not going into diagnosis again here. And if you’ll allow me a minute on my soapbox, I want to tell you that a functional medicine doctor that I greatly admire and my friend Dr. Erica Pearson, is a huge advocate of avoiding something called diagnostic overshadowing. Which means situations when just having a diagnosis prevents you from receiving appropriate care why? It is because your child has the diagnosis. Because he has autism. He is screaming or he is in pain or he’s a picky eater.

There is no further cost than the fact that he has autism or he has Down syndrome, as opposed to looking at the problem independently and in detail, and not letting the diagnose come in the way of appropriate care. But to come back to this topic, this is an explanation of why I’m avoiding diagnostic words too much, and simply talking about symptoms of focus symptoms of Attention, low energy and hyperactivity. What’s the connection with sugar? When a child consumes refined sugar or high doses of sugar, especially when accompanied with an actual nutrient dense meal that has fat and fiber and protein, blood sugar dysregulation is a huge side effect. What am I talking about? A spike in your blood sugar followed by a dip.

You generally want a slow increase followed by a steady holding of your blood sugar, followed by a slow decrease. What are the symptoms associated with low blood sugar, craving for sweets, irritability, poor memory agitation anxiety, nervousness, feeling shaky or jittery? Even hyperactivity, sometimes, symptoms associated with high blood sugar can be fatigue after meals, general fatigue, craving for sweets constantly looking for things to eat, and so on. Does this sound familiar? If it if it does, this may be the first place you can address this is one of the most powerful things to address eating a meal that allows your child’s blood sugar to remain stable.

Before we jump to complex treatments and medications, working on blood sugar is an easy and powerful fix. We’ve already talked about the sugar and dopamine reward pathway. You know, this is why we all feel great after eating sugar. What happens when this becomes an addiction? What happens when you keep eating sugar? It is now well known that you need increasing amounts of sugar to achieve the same hit. You start down regulating your dopamine pathway. We know that there are some theories about going to talk about a label. But we know that there’s some theories about children with ADHD having a dopamine deficiency. And you can think about if there might be a connection there.

There is a likelihood we definitely know that sugar consumption has increased over 30% in the last 30 years, and diagnoses of a DD and ADHD have increased even more rapidly by about 40% In the last 15 years. It could be a correlation or causation or neither but it is something worth keeping in mind. Can you help your child with his energy hyperactivity, her focus or memory with just affecting the sugar in the diet? I’m going to flip tracks a little bit here and talk about ancient societies because that’s something I promised to do.

Now, I read the view of sugar in low amounts is that as a carrier molecule, many herbal decoctions are syrups in pace contain some amount of sugar in them to allow cells to receive benefits of these herbs. Sugar is thought to help digestion and assimilation but likely in amounts exponentially lower than what we consume today and inform significantly less processed and from sources pure than those we use. Now is sugar a toxin? What’s the end story here? Honestly, I can’t and I want demonise an ironic superfood. In fact, the harvest of sugarcane it characterizes key festivals in my home state with much joy and celebration. But I would caution against using sugar as a drug as stimulant and as an antidepressant, which nearly all of us do today in society action items, we’ve come to the end of the podcast, and my action item for you is to find sweet taste in foods that you have not thought about before.

A beat, maybe a carrot, or even rice. I have really good friend who thinks ginger tea unsweetened ginger tea sweet and even I haven’t gotten there yet. But I can offer one tip. The less you use sugar, the more you will awaken to the immense sweetness of this world around you as well your child. You are listening to functional nutrition for kids, where we address the gaps in health care from food and diet to respect and assuming competence. Let’s march on from all research new traditions to a new research respect and ancient food traditions. You can find us at facebook.com/functionalnutritionforkids. Do drop a comment our suggestions for new episodes there. Thank you so much for tuning in. And I will meet you next Thursday with a brand new episode. Stay tuned.