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-Sugar – The Body’s Preferred Fuel For Stress

Mission22 October 25, 2021

Key takeaway:

Sugar feeds stress responses in our bodies and brings instant comfort we crave at the expense of our future health. The better fuel we provide to our bodies, the less we crave sugar and the less we feed our stress.


It’s lesson two on the sugar topic. We’ve decided to dedicate two lessons to sugar because it’s worth taking an honest evaluation of this particular topic due to the wide-ranging consequences for our health.

On average, Americans consume about 150 pounds of sugar a year per person as of 2011 (total, both added sugar and sugar from natural sources like milk and fruit). That’s over a third of a pound of sugar every day.

If you look back at the diets of our great grandparents or even grandparents, they were not consuming so many heavily processed foods. So far, we’ve explored the negative effects of changes in our diets in the last 50 years or so, and how we’re actually designed to eat in order to thrive in our bodies. While other pieces of knowledge you’re receiving in R+R Elements might be mind-blowing and eye-opening, you’re probably already aware of sugar’s bad rap according to most studies, especially after the previous lesson. Now, we’re going to further investigate sugar and touch on stress eating, since many of us use something sweet as comfort during turbulent times or emotional distress.

Sugar is omnipresent. Do you know how much you consume? When was the last time you looked at the ingredients label and researched the unpronounceable things along with sugar on it? (Trick question! That was your last assignment.) But really, even stuff like pasta sauce has to have sugar added for it to be remotely palatable to the modern taste. We’ve become increasingly habituated to having an edge of sweetness to everything we eat, even if the original design of the dish either wasn’t meant to be sweet to begin with, or used the natural sweetness of, say, a tomato to allow the flavor to shine through. Now, due to heightened demand and availability of sweetener, that frozen dish doesn’t have to be made with great ingredients so long as it’s loaded with enough sweet and salt to cover its “multitude of sins.”

When I moved from Russia to the United States, I couldn’t eat American yogurt because of its overpowering sweetness. White bread tasted sweet as well and made me crave more of it all the time. I was so used to the plain and tart palate, it was shocking to my system that sugar was literally everywhere. I got hooked on it pretty quickly, though!

Here are some things you need to know about sugar consumption and its effects on your body:

  • It causes significant oxidative stress on your body (an imbalance of free radicals that can damage fatty tissue, DNA and proteins in your body and antioxidants that protect you). Remember, the bloodstream doesn’t like excess sugar. 
  • It promotes fat storage.
  • It decreases the production of leptin, the hormone that regulates your appetite, which causes more craving of… you guessed it, sugar!
  • It messes up your blood sugar regulation and can lead to insulin resistance that increases your risk for type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
  • It provokes unnecessary cortisol and adrenaline release in your blood (we’ll talk about this in a bit).
  • It fuels some cancer cells

The list goes on.

Sugar can take on many forms and as of the time of this writing, you can find 61 different names for it (check out the full list here). It gets masked under the names that don’t mean much to us, such as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, maltodextrin, and more. Evidently, we were misled into this massive nutritional mess we’re in, but I also believe we’re intelligent enough to take a few minutes and educate ourselves on what we’re actually putting in our mouths.

Why are we so drawn to sugar?

It has addictive properties and its consumption is often linked to old memories of us being comforted as children, adding a layer of complication when trying to detox.

Here are the basics of what happens when you eat sugar:

Short-term effects: You eat something sugary, you feel a boost of energy since your blood sugar goes up. 30 minutes later or so it wears out and its effects ease up. You may experience a “sugar crash” or desire to munch on something (that something is often carb-heavy).

Long-term effects: Sugar creates excess insulin production which promotes fat storage. Your body starts relying on the bursts of energy you get from glucose derived from those sweet foods. Hormones like ghrelin (which stimulates your appetite and promotes fat storage) fail to be suppressed, while the hormone leptin (which makes you feel full and also regulates fat storage) is being suppressed. This results in your body storing more calories as fat.

The up and down roller coaster of blood sugar levels can be stressful for your body, especially when it hasn’t had a chance to “fat-adapt” or to become metabolically flexible. It signals the imbalance of fuel to your brain and other systems. Your body screams for help, but since you’re not aware of the complexity of this, all you want is to eat more sugar, and the cycle continues. These fluctuations strain your pancreas and lead to reduced cell sensitivity of the produced hormones. This process can result in the onset of metabolic syndrome and eventually diabetes and/or other chronic diseases. Coach Chris will explore this in the next lesson.

Did you know that sugar fuels your stress? One of the roles of cortisol is to release stored sugar so you can prepare to fight or flee. See, under duress, the body must act extremely fast; sprint or be eaten! The biomechanics of that type of effort are “glycolytic,” which means sugar-burning. Fat is turned into fuel less quickly than sugar. A 100-meter sprinter is burning mainly sugar because the rapid rate of muscle contracting is fed by “glycolysis,” a fancy word which here means the conversion of sugar into quick energy. But when we’re not actually sprinting, it’s much better for the body to burn mostly fat.

Recurring traumatic memories can also activate these sugar-based glycolysis mechanisms. Remember the discussion about just-in-time stress from the first module? Each of those “hits” of stress, whether they’re coming from our thoughts or an actual physical stressor, all signal to the body to BURN SUGAR NOW AND FLEE! This releases more sugar into the bloodstream. And, as we have learned already, chronically elevated blood sugar levels — whether from sugar-heavy diets and/or cortisol’s signal to release stored sugar – eventually lead to metabolic disorders.

Indeed, metabolic syndrome (the precursor to type 2 diabetes) is highly co-morbid (happening at the same time) with post-traumatic stress. The SAD and chronic stress response are making the bloodstream a toxic place, they’re pumping our veins and arteries full of sticky sugar molecules. Yes, even down to the molecular level, the sugar molecule is sticky and causes something called “glycation” which also contributes to that oxidative stress.

Sugar provides an instant dopamine hit – a very pleasant feeling within our bodies – that we may not derive from eating a bowl of chicken and broccoli, lending to its addictive properties. One of my mentors often assigns “joy points” and “pain points” to something that brings us pleasure and something that makes us suffer. So if eating a pint of Häägen-Dazs gets 10 points on the “joy” scale, and feeling “blah” after it gets five or six… it makes sense to go for ice cream when you’re stressed because the joy points outweigh the pain. But if you think long-term, you’ll know that sugar consumption won’t promote your optimal health, healing, or nourishment. The pain of that might feel distant but it’s a great reality check to look at it closely from time to time and make your choices accordingly.

Sugar is often our first resort when we’re emotional or stressed. When we feel those uncomfortable emotions of aggravation, frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, and so on, we can use sugar to temporarily drench that flame. Wanting to feel differently, we don’t care to identify exactly what’s bothering us, we just want our needs met and the negativity to go away. Of course, it’s much faster and easier to eat a bag of M&M’s than look into painful things like trauma, loneliness, feeling unsafe, etc. Using sugar as a crutch to get through a negative emotion is like taking out a high-interest loan on a boat. It can pay off instantly because, hey, you have a boat, but the bill collector will come eventually and it’s going to cost you far more than what you initially bargained for.

Let’s spare a thought for the roughly nine percent of our population struggling with eating disorders.

I can’t tell you how many people in my coaching practice felt massive relief when they found out they don’t need to eat 1300 calories of low-fat, bland food to lose weight and feel good. We’ve been bombarded with ads and stories telling us that fat is bad and that a significant caloric shortage is the only way we can lose weight. While it’s true that you can lose weight by eating fewer calories, so-called low-calorie foods often have much higher sugar content to make them taste better, and there’s little nutritional value to sugar other than immediate energy.

One of my former clients was a registered nurse who worked night shifts and ate lots of sugary foods upon waking and before going to work. She wanted to get quick energy and forget about all the worries and stresses of her life by eating something delicious. And because she didn’t know better, she avoided healthy foods because they didn’t seem appealing. It was all fun and games until she started bingeing uncontrollably and realized that sugar was a crutch to get over the loneliness she experienced. This crutch turns from what seems like a harmless habit to a draining addiction. Fortunately, taking things one step at a time, we were able to work through this habit by replacing those indulgences with foods that matched her lifestyle but still stayed within those nutritional parameters we have discussed earlier.

Does this mean moderation is the key? That line is often praised as the cure-all for someone working through a life change. Well, let me ask this, do you want to be moderately successful? Do you want to have moderate relationships and moderate energy levels? Forget that! So don’t aim for “moderate” amounts of sugar. Aim for a dietary pattern that is fully aware of when and where sugar shows up and the potential consequences of over-indulgence. 

When it comes to sugar, eating it moderately, in my opinion, is not the answer. Setting clear boundaries and only indulging in those times in life where the tradeoff is worth it, that’s closer to the mark.

Always cheering for you,


Today’s Assignment – Sugar Awareness Challenge

  1. Recognize your patterns. Asking yourself questions like “What do I need to be truly nourished?” “Am I eating because I’m bored or hungry?” are good starts. Your inner voice may tell you that you need some sugar, but go deeper into yourself and identify what you really need. Is it comfort? Love? Joy? Being pain-free? What void are you trying to fill?

  2. Do a sugar-free challenge for the next 24 hours. Go hardcore and avoid even natural sugars from fruit. Check the labels of everything; this will help you have a greater awareness of how sugar may be slipping into innocent-looking foods and condiments. If you’re feeling like crap 12 hours in, congratulations! Challenge identifies change! Push through with a sugar-free electrolyte beverage with some pasture-raised meats and organic vegetables.

  3. Next time the temptation to stress eat comes around, hit “pause” and walk away from that situation. Take 10 minutes to take some deep breaths, and ask yourself “What do I actually need?” or “What feeling am I unwilling to feel?” Now is a good time to open that journal.

Today’s Exercise

In module one, you learned about the fundamental movement of the squat. Today, we’re going to introduce a new challenge to that movement: the goblet squat.

As the picture above shows, the goblet squat is the same motion as an air squat except you’ll be holding a weight out in front of you. The weight should stay close to your chest, and you should have a firm grip on it with your hands. You can use a dumbbell, kettlebell, your cat, or a sandbag.

Pick a weight that you can do at least 10 repetitions of with more left in the tank, then do:

4 x 12 reps Goblet Squat
4 x 24 reps Push-Up
4 x 12 reps Air Squat

Have fun!