It tastes good and lifts our spirits. It comforts us and quells our appetite. Yet we know it’s bad for us and sometimes suspect we may be addicted to it.
I’m talking about sugar – and the love-hate relationship many women have with it. Unfortunately for many of us, Mother Nature didn’t provide us with brakes when it comes to consuming sugar. In the wild, it’s probably a good thing to eat your fill of that berry bush because it may be awhile before you encounter another one. But we’ve become so good at refining and producing the stuff that it’s now freely available to us in virtually unlimited amounts. So we eat…and eat and eat, despite the fact that it’s loaded with empty calories (bad for our waistlines), promotes tooth decay (bad for our looks), and raises triglycerides and releases free radicals (bad for our health). In large amounts it increases insulin levels and in some individuals leads to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes.
Three hundred years ago, the average American consumed around four pounds of sugar per year, if that. Today, it’s estimated that we eat 90-180 pounds per year. Much of it is consumed in the form of sugar added to our coffee or in soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks, and desserts. But because sugar, in addition to being a sweetening agent, has other properties useful in food-processing (it cuts acidity, increases shelf life, adds bulk and texture, prevents clumping, moisturizes, changes the boiling point of water, caramelizes/browns, and promotes fermentation), it’s also found in foods you might never think of as sources of sugar – tomato-based products, bologna, pretzels, cheese spread, and Worcestershire sauce, to name a few.
You don’t have to be a smoker to love sugar but it helps. In a laboratory study we conducted nearly two decades ago, we found that significantly more smokers than nonsmokers preferred higher sucrose concentrations. And we know that when smokers quit, they tend to eat more – which, for those with a sweet tooth, means more sugar.
The link between smoking and sugar dates back at least to the 17th century, when they were obtained in the West Indies to satisfy the growing demand for both in Europe, in exchange for West Africans sold into slavery – the notorious Triangle Trade. This shameful chapter marks a low point in the shared history of sugar and tobacco, but the two are paired in other ways as well. For many of us, for example, candy cigarettes were our first introduction to “smoking.”
The problem is not sugar per se – as noted above, a little of it is a good thing. It provides a quick boost of energy. It helps the medicine go down. But we’re now in a situation of “too much of a good thing” – and that’s a bad thing. So how can you avoid excessive sugar intake when you quit? Here are a few tips.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.