by Allison Aboud Holzer

What’s sugar got to do with living a purposeful, meaningful, and blissful life? Both the presence and absence 250px-agave_tequilana01of it impacts how we feel. Scientific research shows that refined sugars and simple carbohydrates temporarily elevate mood (Prasad, 1998; Horton, 1987). The key word here being “temporary.” As many of us know, refined sugar treats quite effectively provide a short-term mood fix or bliss-boost.

Children seem to understand this intuitively. In my work at Yale, I visit multiple classrooms a year to see how students are learning and implementing Emotional Literacy in the Classroom (ELC) (Brackett & Rivers, 2008). This program teaches students how to develop strategies to regulate their emotions. Initially, before they learn more effective long-term strategies, students often voice eating ice cream or other sweet snacks as a way to feel better.

In the short-term, sugar provides a boost – but ultimately we crash and then need to consume more to quick-fix again, creating an unhealthy cycle of highs and lows. Long term sugar dependency may lead to mood swings, depressive feelings, and rumination about cravings, much like addictions to caffeine or other chemicals. Some people argue an abstinent approach is necessary to kick the sugar addiction, much like an alcoholic trying to stay sober. And for some, this strategy might work. Just the taste of sugar (refined or artificial) initiates cravings to eat more, making it even harder to resist.

For most people, however, this all-or-nothing approach is unrealistic and perhaps unhealthy. Psychologists who study goal setting report that repeated failures to meet overly ambitious goals ultimately reduce self-esteem and motivation. While “stretch goals” may be highly effective motivators, usually this is the case in areas when some level of motivation and confidence already exist. When feeling stuck or unmotivated, it is a more effective strategy to break goals down into small, concrete, and achievable benchmarks that enhance our self-esteem and motivation as each benchmark is achieved.

The long-term benefits of reducing sugar are clear: lower risk for disease, fewer cravings and mood swings ultimately contributing to a more balanced, content and serene life! So, without making Bliss Tip #16 an unrealistic “stretch goal” to make an extreme lifestyle change, instead I recommend simply reducing refined sugar in your regular diet in three new ways this year, like committing to use agave nectar to sweeten your coffee. If you don’t know how, order the book Get Sugar Out!

Breakey J (1997). The role of diet and behavior in childhood. Journal of Pediatric Child Health, 33: 190-194.

Horton JR & Yates AJ (1987). The effects of long-term high and low refined-sugar intake on blood glucose regulation, mood, bodily symptoms and cognitive functioning. Behavior Research and Therapy, 25: 57-66.

Prasad, C (1998). Food, mood and health: a neurological outlook. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 31(12) 1517-1527.

Yudkin J (1982). Pure, White and Deadly: The Problem of Sugar. Davis Poynter, New York.

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