We all know sweets can be addictive. Mice studies show they light up the same parts of the brain as opioids, after all. But getting too much of the ingredient also can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even some types of cancer.
That’s why it’s fortunate that NBA star Dwight Howard’s former coaches intervened to help him kick a sugar habit that led him to binge daily on the equivalent of 24 candy bars for nearly a decade.
In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, Los Angeles Lakers’ nutritionist Cate Shananhan stunned readers when he revealed Howard once horded sweets like Reese’s Pieces, Twizzlers, Snickers and Skittles — and gobbled up nearly 5,500 calories worth of the candy per day. Howard, who now plays for the Atlanta Hawks, played for the Lakers from 2012 to 2013. His previous sugar habit eventually led him to experience tingling in his hands and legs, which affected his performance on the court, Shananhan told ESPN.
Thanks to Lakers’ strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, the 6-foot-11 basketball player is now getting his sugar fix by noshing on PB&J sandwiches with low-sugar jelly. But Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, HHC, and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Fox News there’s a chance Howard’s long-term sugar habit may have done some permanent damage.
Eating too much sugar can throw off the balance of the good and bad bacteria in our digestive tract, which comprises what’s called the microbiome, she explained.
“We all have bacteria, yeasts and other types of microbes living in our digestive tracts and many strains of these actually provide a benefit — that's why fermented foods and probiotics are so healthy,” Foroutan said. “But excessive sugar intake can throw off the balance leading to an overgrowth of normally occurring yeast and pathogenic bacteria. This can have a negative effect on our energy, skin, immune function, mood and many other consequences.”
When we consume too much sugar, we increase our risk of insulin resistance, which is the hallmark characteristic of type 2 diabetes, she said, and the tingling Howard experienced may have been the result of nerve damage or nutrient deficiencies.
“When your blood sugar is elevated, it negatively affects your nerve cells — specifically nerve endings on your hands and feet. That’s a really big problem that diabetics have,” Foroutan said.
And although Howard weighs 265 pounds and must consume more calories than the average person due to athletic demands, the National Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 10 percent of your calories come from added sugar, and the World Health Organization recommends that people limit their sugar intake to less than 5-10 percent of total calories. Because Howard was consuming over 5,000 daily calories from candy alone, it’s unlikely Howard was getting proper nutrition.
The good news is, following a healthy diet low in sugar and refined cabs can help combat the negative effects a long-term sugar habit may have on the microbiome, Foroutan said.
Although PB&J isn’t totally sugar free, it sounds like Howard is already making better decisions for his health and performance.