Maybe you’ve heard the news? Sugar is killing us. Several health experts have deemed refined sugar “toxic” and it has been linked to weight gain, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, depression, heart disease, arthritis, and a suppressed immune system. If you’re interested in particular diseases and an in-depth health explanation on the biochemistry of sugar, I would suggest this video from Dr. Robert Lustig.
On a cheerier note, you can drastically cut back on the refined sugar in your diet; even eliminate it and prevent yourself from all those nasty diseases and problems. It won’t be easy, you might cry, but your entire body will thank you for it.
We have history with sugar; our earliest ancestors had a thing for it too. When the earliest humans came across that hard to find piece of fruit, their brains rejoiced in sweet happiness. We evolved to seek out that sensation. Yet, our early ancestors rarely got to taste the goods, and in fact likely had about 20 teaspoons of sugar per year from fruit sources.
Our modern environment has given us the luxury of refined sugars on every corner. Yet, our brains still have the same response when they consume sugar as they did thousands of years ago. Unlike our early ancestors, however, we consume about 152 pounds of sugar per year, which is about 13.3 teaspoons per day.
Yikes. How did we get here? It’s simple. Processed foods and fast foods make up a great majority of the American diet. Bagels, granola bars, BBQ sauce, soda, salad dressings, salsa, every single kid’s snack, yogurt, sport’s drinks, and more; they are sugar bombs that have got us hooked.
Yes hooked; refined sugar is sort of like an addictive drug. Consuming refined sugar releases dopamine in the brain, the ‘feel good’ hormone. The same thing happens with nicotine, amphetamine, and cocaine. You’re launched on a sugar high, then the inevitable sugar crash, and the search for more of the good stuff. Big money food corporations have tapped into these drug-like effects to make their products more sugar-laden and more desirable. So we crave more, buy more, eat more, and get fatter and sicker.
So what’s the big deal with eating sugar anyways?
The sugar you find in packaged goods is refined. Refined sugar is extremely processed and has been depleted and stripped of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fiber, and anything else wholesome about it. What’s left is a refined carbohydrate that stirs up some issues once it enters the body.
When you consume refined sugar it is converted into glucose and fructose in the digestive system. Both of these molecules are digested and utilized in the body very differently.
Glucose is utilized as energy, stored in the tissues, or stored as fat. After you consume something sweet, your pancreas senses the rush of sugar and releases the hormone, insulin, to redistribute glucose to your cells for energy. If there is a lot of sugar in the blood a lot of insulin is released to combat it. When you consume a super sugary treat, glucose floods your body resulting in one crazy energized sugar high. Your brain counters this by sending off serotonin, the sleep-regulating hormone. Bring on the crash.
If there is more glucose hanging around your bloodstream than necessary it can be stored in various tissues as glycogen, which our body uses as short-term energy for later. When insulin still needs a place to put glucose after depositing some in the tissues, it stores it as fat cells, called triglycerides. Hello weight gain.
As insulin continues to create triglycerides, it begins to get in the way of leptin, the hunger hormone, which tells your brain when it’s full. Even though you just ate two cupcakes, your brain isn’t getting the message. The higher your insulin levels, the hungrier you will feel.
If you continue to load up on sugar your cells start to become resistant to insulin. When this happens, your pancreas pumps out more insulin to try to help, leptin resistance gets worse, sugar continues to float around your bloodstream, and serious diseases begin to occur including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, prediabetes and type-II diabetes. Yikes.
Let’s not forget about fructose. Fructose is converted to energy by cells in the liver, the only cells that can do the taxing job. A fructose-laden meal means that the liver spends a lot of time processing fructose molecules to other molecules and neglects some of its main functions. This can lead to depletion of uric acid, which is linked to high blood pressure, gout, and kidney stones. Overloading your fructose consumption leads to excess fat production in the liver, high level of circulating triglycerides, and chronic diseases like diabetes.
Getting off the sugar high.
Phew, take a deep breath. How can you get off this refined sugar addiction? If you’re a hard-core sugar junky, start small by eliminating a few things at a time. Get rid of soda immediately, candy bars, and baked goods too. Slowly begin to search through other processed good’s ingredient list and toss out the ones that have sugar lurking within.
Combing through the ingredient list won’t be easy, as sugar goes under many names these days. Look for these perpetrators: anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar), pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, white granulated sugar, carbitol, concentrated fruit juice, corn sweetener, diglycerides, disaccharides, evaporated cane juice, erythritol, Florida crystals, fructooligosaccharides, galactose, glucitol, glucoamine, hexitol, inversol, isomalt, maltodextrin, malted barley, mannitol, pentose, raisin syrup, ribose rice syrup, rice malt, rice syrup solids, sorbitol, sorghum, sucanat, sucanet, xylitol and zylose.
Artificial sugars (aka chemical concoctions) are usually found on packages labeled ‘sugar free.’ These are also terrible for your body, so throw them away immediately. They include aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet), neotame, acesulfame K, sucralose (Splenda), saccharin, and tagatose.
So, should you still eat sugar?
Try quitting processed sugar for two weeks. You’ll get cranky, irritated, frustrated, and moody. It’s the addiction wearing off. After two weeks, see if you still want the sugary stuff. Once you eat it, it will be too sweet for your taste buds. I guarantee it.
You can consume natural sugar in moderation. Local raw honey, maple syrup, date syrup, organic coconut sugar, and brown rice syrup are some of my favorites. I also love using dates as a natural sweetener in smoothies and desserts.
Maple syrup, raw honey, dates, and coconut sugar are great refined sugar replacements.
What about sugar from fruit? It’s OK! Fruit contains fiber, which slows the level of insulin being released and controls the overall digestion process in your body.
What about fruit juice? Fruit juices should be consumed in moderation. In juice, all the fiber has been stripped away, and the remainder is a sugar-laden tonic that spikes your blood sugar quickly.
Take it from me – your body is so much better without sugar. I used to be a sugar addict: Ben & Jerry were my boys and I had a long-term fling with Poptarts. Now that I’ve dumped those guys, any taste of a sugary processed food is overwhelmingly too sticky sweet for my taste buds. I would much rather have the natural stuff any day.
So, time to quit the sugar. You with me?