Can sugar make you forgetful? Slow your brain? A recent study suggests sugar sabotages learning and memory. Whilst we are familiar with the ‘too much sugar causes obesity’ message, little attention has been paid to its impact on mental health. This is changing.
New Zealanders consume a whopping 57.5 kg of sugar a year1, more than double the intake recommended by the World Health Organisation. That’s about half a cup a day. Imagine pouring half a cup of sugar into a pile every day, for 365 days! You would have a sugar mountain.
So, what’s the link between sugar and memory? Neuroscientists have long known that short-term memory problems are associated with the slowing of blood flow to the memory-crucial hippocampus during the ageing process. Recently, Scott Small of the Columbia University Medical Centre discovered high blood sugar levels created the same problem. A consistently high sugar level causes the body to pump out excess insulin, causing inflammation and excess oxidants, stressing the brain. It’s true that coffee with sugar may have you up and running in the morning, but over the long term, consuming a large volume of sugar, or foods that are quickly converted to sugar by your body, will prematurely age your brain.
Look out for the hidden sugars – fructose added to soft drinks, in bread, condiments, sauces, and so on. Check those food labels. Nutritionists are particularly concerned, not about the naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants, but by the high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.
For brain health, look for low-sugar, nutritious and delicious alternatives. You will soon notice sharper, clearer thinking.
1 The New Zealand sugar (fructose) fountain: Time to turn the tide. Thornley, McRobbie, & Jackson (2010).