Friday, November 13, 2009

Supersized addictions?

I recently watched Supersize Me (2004), a documentary starring Morgan Spurlock, filmmaker, producer, and screenwriter.  For readers who haven't seen the movie, Spurlock, in response to a lawsuit against McDonald's involving two teenage women who blamed McDonald's for their obesity, decides to eat solely on McDonald's--for three meals each day--for thirty days.  Prior to the experiment, Spurlock is in above average health, but by the end of only thirty days, the doctors who examined him all said they would diagnose him as sick, due to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and other outrageously off-the mark blood test results.  Spurlock gained some twenty pounds in one month and also reported feeling tired, irritable, depressed, and sick much of the time.  Click below to watch a short clip from the movie:

Besides the obvious decline in Spurlock's health over an extremely short period of time and the research Spurlock conducted about the overwhelming influence the food industry on our choices, what struck me most about Supersize Me was the addictiveness of McDonalds's products, and more generally, processed, sugary, and salty foods.  By the end of the 30-day period, Spurlock reported feeling tired, irritable, and sick most of the time.  Strangely, when Spurlock ate a McDonald's meal, he would feel fantastic while eating and for a short time afterward, only later to be confronted with the negative physical symptoms listed above.  It was like Spurlock's body and mind were in withdrawal from McDonald's foods, namely the salt, sugar, and other refined or processed ingredients.

I got curious and decided to investigate the effects sugar and salt have on our bodies.

1.  Salt is an essential nutrient and is important for acid-base balance in the body, potassium absorption, and aids in digestion.  However, humans only need one level teaspoon of salt per day.  That's 2000 milligrams, and you don't have to look at too many canned food labels to realize that that's not a lot.  Basically, unless a person have some sort of salt-deficiency, salt occurs naturally in so many foods that humans don't really need to worry about not getting enough salt.

Too much salt can be detrimental to overall health.  Negative effects of salt include hypertension, high blood pressure, and water retention.  Therefore, eating too much salt can be bad for your heart and can make it difficult to loose weight.  Finally, from a strictly taste-based perspective, salt makes you crave sweets (consider the case of McDonald's fries going so well with an ice-cold Coke).

2.  Sugar is among the most basic nutrients we require.  Sugars fall into the carbohydrate family.  We can divide this category into two types: complex and simple.  Complex carbohydrates are naturally-occurring and include brown rice, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Simple carbohydrates include table sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup, alcohol, and any other refined complex carbohydrate, such as enriched wheat flour, white rice, white bread, and high fructose corn syrup.  The problem with simple carbohydrates is that the fiber and other nutrients in complex carbohydrates that tell your body when you've had enough to eat are either absent or removed.  Consequently, you can eat a large quantity of simple carbohydrates without feeling full.

When you eat a simple carbohydrate, your body absorbs the sugar very easily and your blood sugar rises very quickly.  This causes your body to release a hormone called insulin to lower the blood sugar.  Next, your blood sugar becomes extremely low and you feel tired and hungry again.  In contrast, carbohydrates are absorbed slowly and your energy level remains more constant for longer periods of time.

The health detriments of simple sugar are not as consistent among sources.  Among the broadest effects of sugar I found include:
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Hyperactivity, anxiety, and depression
  • Rise in triblycerides
  • Drowsiness and apathy
  • Reduction of high density cholesterol (good cholesterol) and elevation of low density cholesterol (bad cholesterol)
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Kidney damage
  • Increased risk of coronary heart disease
  • Mineral deficiencies, including calcium
  • Increased fasting glucose levels
  • Tooth decay
  • Acidic stomach
  • Weight gain (particularly around the middle)
  • Increased risk of osteoperosis
  • Insulin sensitivity
  • Increased fluid retention
  • Hypertension
  • Inability to concentrate
So is it possible to be addicted to sugar, salt, and other food additives? I'm proposing the answer is yes. If the feelings of intense satisfaction--and even euphoria--Spurlock describes and exhibits in Supersize Me happen to most of us in some way when we eat sugar and salt, I think it is possible to feel emotional withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, apathy, and even depression when we don't have our daily fix.  It's very clear from Spurlock's experiment that sugar and salt contribute to more measurable effects on our health such as increased cholesterol, triglyerides, blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and weight gain.

After watching Supersize Me and thinking through Spurlock's experiment, I've decided to try and experiment of my own.  I'll be the first to admit that I have a sweet tooth, and sometimes get very strong cravings for sweets.  I've noticed that when I eat sweets, I feel great, but feel a letdown in physical, mental, and emotional energy very soon after consuming sweets.  So for the next month, I am going to try my best to eliminate simple carbohydrates from my diet.  This means:
  • as little as possible: refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, alcohol, and desserts
  • and replacing the above with: complex carbohydrates including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits
I know this is going to be a challenge for me, and I'll be checking in with all of you as to my progress over the next month.

Thank you, as always, for reading, and please feel free to post any comments!