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Huge Review of 31 Studies Shows We Were Wrong About Sugar's Effect on Our Mood

MIKE MCRAE
5 APR 2019

It's 3 pm. Lunch was hours ago. Work is piled to the ceiling and you just can't. What better way to push through than to throw down a handful of carbs for a quick sugar rush? 

 

Only it's not a thing. Data collected from studies involving more than a thousand adults has found not only does sugar not give us a pick-me-up buzz, it actually makes us more tired and less alert.

Researchers from Germany and the UK pulled together 31 studies on the consumption of carbohydrates and physiological responses in the name of figuring out if simple sugars really lift our moods and make us feel energetic.

The question has been a tricky one to answer. There's a history of research supporting the belief that sugar affects the pleasure centres of our brain, making us crave its sweet, sweet goodness.

There's also evidence that we typically turn to sugar when we're feeling depressed, anxious, traumatised, and stressed, often to the detriment of our long-term mental health.

We humans simply love our sweet beverages and snacks. In the past half century, consumption of sugary drinks has more than doubled in the US, with the average citizen swallowing nearly three times the recommended daily amount.

While we all understand the benefits of moderation, the daily grind of everyday life drives us to look for a sneaky buzz where we can, especially when we're in need of energy.

 

Throw in a generous amount of flashy advertising reminding us how exciting life is when you've got a can of cola in your hand, and we can be forgiven for thinking the solution to our mid-afternoon slump is a dose of sugar.

"The idea that sugar can improve mood has been widely influential in popular culture, so much so that people all over the world consume sugary drinks to become more alert or combat fatigue," says psychologist Konstantinos Mantantzis from Humboldt University of Berlin.

Plenty of studies paint a picture of an immediate improvement in alertness, arousal, and clear-headedness following ingestion of sugar after an amount of fasting. But there are also a number of studies that show the complete opposite.

According to the researchers, it's because different methods are giving us different perspectives.

To get to the bottom of the debate, the team reviewed the literature and deconstructed the variety of studies using a systematised approach that took into account variations in sugar, fasting times, and dosages.

The 31 studies that were fit to use provided data on just under 1,260 adult participants. Sifting through their details, the researchers could come to just one conclusion.

 

"Our findings very clearly indicate that such claims are not substantiated," says Mantantzis.

"If anything, sugar will probably make you feel worse."

Not only will you not feel joy by downing that fizzy drink, your body will only be more lethargic and less awake than before. Any neurological triggers for pleasure simply don't translate into a happier disposition.

Admittedly, the study focussed on relatively healthy adults, leaving open the small possibility that individuals with a significant mood disorder might feel differently.

For the vast majority of us, though, the idea that we need to refill our reserves with a sugary shot needs to go into the bin.

"We hope that our findings will go a long way to dispel the myth of the 'sugar rush' and inform public health policies to decrease sugar consumption," says psychologist Elizabeth Maylor from the University of Warwick in the UK.

It's an optimistic hope. In spite of knowing for decades that sugar doesn't make the vast majority of kids hyperactive, parents are still concerned a few too many jelly beans are going to leave their brood bouncing off the walls.

Nobody says you can't have a cheeky chocolate every now and then. But it's time to lose the excuse that you need it to make it to 5 pm. It's the last thing you need.

This research was published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.