Shifting away from Sugar

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We've all heard the advice to avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates, also known as refined carbohydrates. There is a clear link between high refined carbohydrate diets and diabetes, heart disease and many other conditions. But we've recently learned about another reason to cut the sugar and carbs: brain health.

High refined carbohydrate diets are consistently linked with greater age-related declines in brain health. Turns out that even high normal amounts of sugar can literally shrink the brain over time.[1] The area of the brain most affected was the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory.[2] People with elevated blood glucose performed poorer on cognitive tests as a result. Interestingly, people in these studies weren't diabetic, which suggests that even small fluctuations in blood sugar can negatively affect brain health.

But, there is some good news. Blood sugar is directly related to what we eat, yes. For this reason, it's a good idea for most people to aim for a whole-foods, plant-based diet that's low in refined carbs and sugars. But what we eat isn't the only thing that impacts blood sugar. It's also affected by how we eat. And when we give ourselves time and space for meals, we can have a positive impact on blood sugar, protecting our brains in the process.

It’s enough to make some of us want to swear off carbs for life. But, making changes is hard. Meal times aren't always just about the food. Consider how we eat, where we eat, who we eat with, and our lifetime of eating habits. All these things influence how easy or challenging it may be to make changes. Food is perhaps the most complicated piece of anyone’s lifestyle.

So don’t fret. Change is sustainable when it is slow and non-threatening. Here are a few tips to support sustainable shifts in diet.

  • Keep your treats hard to reach – if you’ve always kept sweet treats on hand, move them to a place that’s just a little harder to reach. Over time you can keep moving them to higher or farther-away nooks.
  • Involve your eating community – if you share meals with other people, explain your goals and your reasons. Maybe together you can set up some new habits.
  • Enjoy and pay attention to your food - When you eat pay attention to your food, how much you enjoy it and for what reasons. Notice how you feel before eating, while you’re enjoying your food and after.
  • Identify other needs – If you find you’re eating during times of stress or emotional pain, also ask “What else do I need? What other needs am I hoping to satisfy with these foods?”

Be sure to schedule an appointment if you’d like to discuss how to stay sharp into old age, or talk about nutritional strategies for health.

[1] Mortby ME, Janke AL, Anstey KJ, Sachdev PS, Cherbuin N. High "normal" blood glucose is associated with decreased brain volume and cognitive performance in the 60s: the PATH through life study. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(9):e73697.

[2] Kerti L, Witte AV, Winkler A, Grittner U, Rujescu D, Flöel A. Higher glucose levels associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure. Neurology. 2013;81(20):1746-52.

Katy Morrison, ND, LAc