How to kick sugar’s drug-like effect

29 Nov 2018
POSTED BY Ashlee Starratt

You’ve just sat down in front of the TV – work’s finished, dinner’s done, and the washing-up can wait. You’re 15 minutes into the latest episode of your favourite series, sleeve of cookies or bag of crisps within arm’s reach. Before you’ve hit the first commercial break half the bag’s gone and the crumbs on your hands and lips the only proof they were ever there. “How’d that happen?” you might think or “I didn’t even realise what I was doing”.

Case in point, the effect of sugar on body and brain. Since humans discovered its pleasurable source and ability to stimulate the deepest rewards centres of our brain, we haven’t been able to get enough of the stuff – figuring out ways to use it, refine it, find new sources of it; how to fake it, how to bake it, how to manipulate it – all the while as our bodies try to figure out how to process the overload.

As the sedentary lifestyle and prodigious diet of our 21st century jolts our pancreases into overdrive, so too do rates of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol/lipids).

Foods high in sugar (glucose) trigger reward responses in the brain and invoke greater sensations of hunger as compared to low-glycaemic alternatives. This in turn produces high blood sugar which drives an addictive response in the brain which can lead to further over-eating. And, much like drug addiction, over time greater amounts of glucose are needed to generate the same pleasure response in our brain’s reward centre. On top of that, high-glycemic foods are also generally associated with high fat and/or salt content.

To make it simple, all foods fall along the spectrum of a glycemic index – meaning how much glucose (or sugar) they contain. To reduce the harmful effects of high-blood sugar in those with diabetes or pre-diabetes, following a low-glycemic diet is key. If you think you might be at-risk of falling into one of these categories, reducing your intake of dietary sugar and going low-glycemic may be worth considering. Here’s what you should know.

Foods that turn to sugar in the body

  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas etc.)
  • Grains – especially those that contain added or refined sugars (white bread, bagels, baked goods, pasta, rice).
  • Though containing natural carbohydrates, they still cause a spike in glucose. These include certain fresh fruits, canned and/or frozen. Bananas for example rank as one of the highest sugar-converting fruits on the glycaemic index.
  • Dairy products that are flavoured or contain added sweeteners (chocolate milk, fruit-flavoured yogurts).
  • Sweeteners (found in soft drinks, jams, syrups etc).

Low-glycemic swaps

Try these easy trade-offs to help kick-start your journey towards low-glycemic eating.


  • White bread for wholemeal or rye
  • Potatoes for lentils or pumpkin
  • White rice for brown or wild rice
  • Instant noodles for soba or buckwheat varieties
  • Soft drinks or energy drinks for water or 100% fruit juice (50ml)
  • Full-fat ice-cream for low-fat yogurt or custard
  • Potato chips/pretzels for dry-roasted chickpeas or vegetables and hummus
  • Cookies for dried fruit and nut mix
  • Sugar or corn-syrup sweeteners for pure floral honey or maple syrup



Chickpea curry with pumpkin and baby spinach

This savoury crowd-pleaser is light on sweetness and lush on spice.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4


  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 500g (17½ oz) plain tomato pasta sauce
  • 1½ cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzos)
  • 320g (11 oz) peeled pumpkin (butternut squash), chopped into small pieces
  • pinch of salt, optional
  • 120g (4 oz) baby spinach leaves
  • 2 teaspoons freshly chopped coriander (cilantro)


  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan and sauté onion for about 5 minutes until soft. Stir in garlic and cook for 30 seconds.
  2. Mix in chili powder, coriander, cumin, tomato pasta sauce, and ½ cup of water. Stir well.
  3. Add chickpeas and pumpkin pieces and bring to boil. Adjust flavour with extra salt, if desired.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer for around 15 minutes or until pumpkin is tender.
  5. Stir through baby spinach leaves until they start to wilt, followed by coriander, and serve immediately.




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