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Can Sugar Make Us Happy?

The smell of freshly-baked cookies or a big bar of chocolate may put a smile on our face. But these sugary treats may not be the best way to turn that frown upside-down.
Can Sugar Make Us Happy?

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When we feel blue, sometimes the best remedy is reaching for the cookie jar or cuddling up with an ice cream cone. These treats can be a quick fix, but sweets may not be the healthiest solution to happiness.

Sweet Surrender — Why It Matters

Photo by Justin Singh

Sugar is found in a range of foods: from a batch of homemade holiday cookies to a bottle of ketchup. Many of these foods contain processed sugar (also known as sucrose), which causes significant spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. Processed sugar also increases endorphins that can boost mood and provide a temporary chemical “high” [1] [2]. (Sugar’s effects on blood glucose vary in different people, so it’s unclear just how much sugar it takes to cause a high. [3] ) And sugar may not be the only substance to lift our spirits— one study found a bit of chocolate makes people more willing to help others [4].

For some, it may be harder to steer clear of the sweet stuff. It turns out we can blame genes for making us wish it were Halloween everyday, as certain people may be genetically predisposed to crave sugar [1]. Plus, recent research suggests people who prefer sweets are more likely to be friendly, compassionate, and yes— sweeter [5]. But a bag of Skittles probably isn't the healthiest route to kindness.

Sugar Highs and Lows — The Answer/ Debate

Forget friendliness— research has linked sugar consumption to higher rates of depression [6]. In terms of physical effects, concentrated sugar sources (like candy and fruit juice) can cause blood sugar spikes and drops, which can leave us extra-sleepy [7]. After a few weeks, even low to moderate sugar consumption (as little as 40 grams, the same as a can of coke!) can decrease the size of LDL particles, and smaller LDL particles are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease [8]. Other researchers pinpoint excessive sugar intake as a cause of obesity and diabetes. Makes those sugar cookies seem a little bittersweet, right?

And unfortunately, sweetness isn’t even a short-term solution to a sour mood. In meals that also contain protein (yup, that includes the protein in ice cream), the carbohydrates in sugar don’t have their usual mood-boosting effect [9]. And chocolate addicts, take note: Researchers found indulging in some cocoa-therapy general fails to brighten people’s moods [10]. Guess sex might be better than chocolate, after all.

So the next time the stomach goes a-grumblin’, try eating some healthful foods instead, like oatmeal, eggs, or low-fat milk. A dose of nutritious fuel can also make us smile with low-sugar sweetness!

The Takeaway

A sweet treat can provide a temporary high, but that happiness boost will quickly fade. Excess sugar can potentially do more damage than good to our health.

Do you reach for something sweet when feeling down? Does it really make you happier? Tell us in the comments below!


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Works Cited +

  1. Sweet preference, sugar addiction and the familiar history of alcohol dependence: shared neural pathways and genes. Fortuna, J.L. Department of Health Science, California State University, Fullerton, CA. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2010 Jun;42(2):147-51.
  2. Differential effects of honey, sucrose, and fructose on blood sugar levels. Shambaugh, P, Worthington, V, Herbert, J.H. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 1990 Jul-Aug;13(6):322-5.
  3. Is glycemic index of food a feasible predictor of appetite, hunger, and satiety? Niwano, Y., Adachi, T., Kashimura, J., et al. Carbohydrate Task Force, International Life Sciences Institute Japan, Tokyo. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, 2009 Jun; 55(3):201-7.
  4. Sweet taste preferences and experiences predict prosocial inferences, personalities, and behaviors. Meier, B.P., Moeller, S.K., Riemer-Peltz, M, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011 Aug 29.
  5. Sweet taste preferences and experiences predict prosocial inferences, personalities, and behaviors. Meier, B.P., Moeller, S.K., Riemer-Peltz, M, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011 Aug 29.
  6. A cross-national relationship between sugar consumption and major depression? Westover, A.N., Marangell, L.B. Depression and Anxiety, 2002;16(3):118-20.
  7. Aspartame- or sugar-sweetened beverages: effects on mood in young women. Pivonka, E.E., Grunewald, K.K. Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1990 Feb;90(2):250-4.
  8. Low to moderate sugar-sweetened beverage consumption impairs glucose and lipid metabolism and promotes inflammation in healthy young men: a randomized controlled trial. Aeberli, I, Gerber, P.A., Hochuli, M., et al. Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Clinical Nutrition, University Hospital Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011 Aug;94(2):479-85. Epub 2011 Jun 15.
  9. Carbohydrate ingestion, blood glucose and mood. Benton, D. Department of Psychology, University of Wales Swansea, Singleton Park, Swansea, UK. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2002 May;26(3):293-308
  10. Mood modulation by food: an exploration of affect and cravings in 'chocolate addicts'. Macdiarmid, J.I., Hetherington, M.M.Psychology Department, University of Dundee, UK. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1995 Feb;34 ( Pt 1):129-38.