Even one can of soda or glass of orange juice a day could have not-so-great effects on your brain health, according to a new study published in Alzheimer's & Dementia.
Scientists already know that high sugar consumption has been linked to Alzheimer's disease. This study focused exclusively on one sneaky way many of us consume sugar without really thinking about it: sugary drinks. Turns out this daily habit can age your brain and even worsen your memory.
Your brain on sugar.
The researchers compared data from 4,000 people who completed food questionnaires and divided them into two groups. One group contained people who consumed one or two sugary drinks each day, which included fruit juice, soda, and other soft drinks. The other group didn't drink sugary drinks. Compared to the non-sugar drinkers, those who consumed up to two sugary drinks daily had reduced brain volume, a significantly smaller hippocampus, and performed worse on memory tests.
Those who drank more than two sugary drinks daily experienced even more drastic results. Their brains aged and memory score performance was the equivalent to that of someone 11 years older. "Although we can't prove cause and effect, these data suggest that we should be cautious about drinking sugary beverages," lead author Matthew P. Pase told The New York Times.
RELATED: Breakfast cereals with more sugar than a scoop of ice cream
Breakfast cereals with more sugar than a scoop of ice cream
Breakfast cereals with more sugar than a scoop of ice cream
Could the solution be just swapping your daily soda for a diet one? Not so fast. The same researchers did a follow-up study focusing exclusively on diet sodas, and they found artificially sweetened beverages present their own problems.
People who drank at least one diet soda per day were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia, according to a statement issued by Boston University. It appears that neither diet soda nor sugary drinks are ideal for your brain. The daily habit of drinking either could have adverse long-term effects.
The researchers were careful not to claim these drinks actually damage your brain. There are a variety of other risk and behavioral factors to consider that could contribute to brain health. For example, the Boston University statement pointed out that many diabetics drink diet sodas to limit their sugar intake. This group may already be predisposed to other health problems due to their preexisting condition.
But the researchers still felt confident in suggesting these drinks probably aren't good for your brain. "It looks like there is not very much of an upside to having sugary drinks, and substituting the sugar with artificial sweeteners doesn't seem to help," senior author and professor of neurology Sudha Seshadri said.
Here’s the short Cliff Notes version: Sugar’s been implicated in everything from chronic, life-threatening health issues—such as diabetes and heart disease—to skin problems and good old stealthy weight gain.
When you eat sugar, your blood glucose levels spike, which results in a burst of energy—followed by a quick crash, Susan Blum, MD, explains. “You can run your blood sugar up and down all day,” she explains, “because when you crash, you go looking for more sugar to pull yourself back up.” Should you try and feed your fatigue with more sugar—which you may have noticed does not work—the vicious cycle makes you feel run down and cranky.
Plus, sugar is extremely inflammatory in the body, warn both physicians. “It triggers the immune system,” Dr. Blum adds. And chronic inflammation is believed to be the basis of pretty much all disease, which is why sugar’s become such a problem child of ingredients.
Who should cut out sugar?
Not just those at risk for diabetes, says Dr. Blum. Given the effect of sugar on everyone’s blood sugar levels and the breadth of illnesses it may trigger, way more people should consider kicking sugar to the curb, she suggests. Especially anyone who regularly struggles with feeling tired, moody, stiff, and/or achy (signs that sugar or inflammation is already having its way with you).
There are a lot of different ways to go about cutting sugar, but Dr. Blum recommends a three-day detox for its simplicity and efficacy. Her general rule of thumb? For three days, don’t eat any foods with more than 15 grams of sugar per serving. That means cutting out obvious sugar sources, like soda, alcohol, baked goods, and ice cream. But it also includes surprising sugar bombs, like most yogurts, juices, wheat bread, and, yes, even that acai berry bowl at your gym, Dr. Blum says.
How to do a 3-day detox
To help you get through, replace sugar with healthy fats. Think avocado, nuts, healthy animal proteins—whatever works for you, Dr. Blum says. “It feels like a wonderful, almost ‘cheating’ thing to eat healthy fat,” she adds, but it’s really not—so go ahead and enjoy that guacamole.
Then prepare for the likelihood that as your body adjusts to its new sugar-free reality, you’re going to feel like crap. (Sorry! We didn’t want to sugar-coat that news either.)
“It takes three days to get through it, and it feels rough. I’m thinking of one patient who told me, ‘I cried for three days,’” Dr. Blum says. “People don’t realize it has that kind of power over you, and they really detox. They get achy. They get irritable.” The more addicted to sugar you are, the worse those three days will be, Dr. Blum warns, with lots of cravings and headaches. But after that things just kind of…lighten.
The heavens open after a sugar detox
Okay, we’re exaggerating. But so many people swear they feel ridiculously good afterward. Why? If it really is sugar that’s driving your fatigue, mood swings, and so on, you should start to feel better immediately, confirms Dr. Blum. (If not, it’s time to figure out what else could be going on, she says, but she recommends sticking with a low-sugar diet anyway, because of all the other health benefits a low- or no-sugar lifestyle bestows.)
After three days, you can move into maintenance mode, which means reading labels super carefully so you generally stick to that no-more-than-15-grams-of-sugar-per-serving rule. (Ideally consumed with protein to slow its absorption and therefore decreasing the likelihood of a blood-sugar spike.)
And don’t go reaching for sugar substitutes, Dr. Blum says. They can just trick your body into gaining weight and continue to foster cravings for sweet stuff.
The cool thing about giving up sugar is that its effects are super obvious and long-lasting. You really should just kind of feel better overall. “It’s an eye-opening experience,” Dr. Blum says. “So many things you’re experiencing are because of sugar.”