Sugar. The food item we hate to love and love to hate. It is often deemed at least partly responsible for the obesity epidemic and various health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Studies have continually shown the impact of proper nutrition on health. In the U.S., 90% of type 2 diabetes, 80% of cardiovascular disease, and 70% of stroke and colon cancer occurrences are deemed preventable by proper diet and exercise! (Willett 2002) But is it sugar that is really that bad??
Sugar exists in many forms. The average American eats about 15 teaspoons of sugar every single day but is often “hidden” so most people don’t realize they are even eating it. Food companies have gone to great lengths to disguise the term for sugar in foods. There are countless names for sugar- some include: high fructose corn syrup, evaporate cane juice, cane sugar, beet sugar, black strap molasses, golden syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, sucanat, caramel, cane juice crystals, agave nectar, golden sugar, barley malt, corn syrup solids, glucose, dextrin, malt syrup, d-ribose, maltose, maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, and the list goes on and on. Added sugars account for over 14% of total daily calories from people ages 6 and over. Added sugars are defined as any sugars that are not naturally occurring in food (such as in fruit) and are added during processing. The World Health Organization recommends an upper limit of only 10% of calories from sugar and emphasizes that less than this optimal. So what gives? Why is sugar so detrimental?
The definition of food is “Material that contains essential nutrients, which are assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth and maintain life.” (Food, n.d.) Refined sugar, quite blatantly - is not food. It is void of fiber, minerals, protein, fat, enzymes, vitamins. It is only empty calories, which in turn causes your body to utilize vital nutrients from tissues stores or from nutrients found in other foods. Sugar, at the same time, actually increases your nutritional requirements.. such as B vitamins which are necessary in order to break down sugar. This means, as you eat sugar, your body takes nutrients such as calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium from healthy cells, to use process the sugar. Basically, the more sugar you consume, the more nutritionally depleted you become! (DiNicolantonio & Berger, 2016)
Sugar, we know, has some definite links to obesity. Obesity has often been described as taking in too many calories- which then causes weight gain. Research shows that obesity can also result from a hormonal imbalance that causes food energy to be shuttled into adipose tissue for storage (fat cells), which in turn causes less satiety, a bigger appetite and increased calorie intake. In an essence, obesity is actually a state of both nutrient and energy DEFICIT. Sugar plays into this by providing calories- but void of nutrients- so in turn the body can’t produce energy properly. Sugar also causes damage to the powerhouse of cells, the mitochondria, which also interferes with energy production. So, diets high in sugar, although they may be calorically dense, actually result in “internal starvation” in which the body does not obtain the proper nutrients it needs, in turn the increases the hunger signals. When you combine this with the fact that sugar also depletes nutrients that are in the body- you have a real problem on your hands! Sugar never fills you up, so you need more food to quench hunger, and it contributes to leptin resistance- which is a chemical that communicates to your brain when you are full.
In addition to sugar affecting the way the body takes and utilizes nutrients, sugar also causes hormone response in the body that increases cravings and the desire to over-consume it. Sugar actually affects dopamine receptors in the brain… in a similar way that drugs do. When we eat sugar, dopamine surges, and we feel good. In turn, our brain tells us, yum.. let’s eat more! In turn, cravings increase, loss of control occurs, and increased tolerance to sugar begins. Some studies show that over-eating sugar can actually change the brain and our behaviors in a similar way that addiction does! Have you every noticed when you eat a lot of sugar, it is hard to get back off it?! Over time, weight gain and sugar dependence become a real thing, and a habit that is hard to break. (Avena et al, 2016)
So sugar causes weight gain, interferes with essential nutrients, and impacts brain chemistry. In addition, sugar plays direct roles in disease-states in the body. Sugar increases triglycerides in the blood which puts you at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, fatty liver and diabetes. Sugar stresses the body, in particular the liver and pancreas. The pancreas works overtime releasing insulin trying to regulate blood sugar levels. In addition, fructose is a liver toxin (the sweet part of sugar). Fructose is metabolized by the liver to fat- which also drives the pancreas to make more insulin. As more insulin is released in attempt to keep blood sugar levels normal, sugar is converted to fat cells for storage. In time, liver cells are slowly replaced by fat cells leading to fatty liver disease. Sugar causes inflammation in the liver- which impacts the liver’s ability to process and detox toxins. This affects the immune system, making it easier to get sick, harder to fight infections. When the liver becomes sluggish, toxins can stay in the body and damage tissues and organs, affect the body’s ability to burn fat (and increases storage of fat), drive cholesterol levels up, increases blood pressure, contributes to heart disease, up-regulates cell division (which can lead to cancer), and of course sugar causes insulin resistance and eventually diabetes. (Belle, 2017) As you can see, the effects of sugar on the body are quite serious!
But it tastes so good… Yes. The reward center in our brain goes bonkers for sugar - and the more we activate this area in our brains- the more sugar becomes a craving during periods of stress, intense emotions, when we are fatigued or simply out of habit.
To combat this vicious cycle, steering clear of sugar is the best thing to do. Sounds easy in theory, huh? But in this day and age- our foods are riddled with sugar, known and unknown - so finding the culprits can be a lot of work in itself. To keep it simple: Eat real food.
A few practical tips to remember about sugar: 1. The more you eat it, the more you want it. That one cookie or piece of cake can easily become a nightly ritual if you aren’t careful! 2. The more you eat sugar, the less sensitive you are to the sweet flavor. Try taking a few days off sugar and all of sudden, that chocolate bar seems SO sweet! 3. Processed foods almost always = sugar. If it is in a package, it is has sugar added in some form. Read labels carefully and know that many “new” words are being used to disguise sugar. 4. Sugars add up through condiments (hello ketchup and salad dressings) and drinks (fruit juice and soda…). Be aware of what you are taking in. And steer clear of artificial sweeteners! Diet soda is no better than regular.. let’s save that discussion for another day! 5. Natural sugars (honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar), although a better choice than table sugar, are STILL SUGAR. 6. Staying hydrated, taking in healthy fats, and eating balanced meals- will help combat sugar cravings and help you step down your intake.
Remember, taste preferences can and do change! Your body is wise and adjusts as you begin making changes and reducing your sugar intake. The first few days without sugar can be quite difficult but stay the course and remember your health is everything!
Does this mean you should never eat sugar again? Of course not. Life is about balance and moderation. But for those of you out there that are struggling with binges and cravings, it is a good idea to stay away from sugar completely for awhile as your body resets. So what’s stopping you from reducing your sugar intake? Can I help?
Please comment with questions or reach out by email!
References: Daily intake of Sugar, (2018) National Cancer Institute: Division of Cancer Control & Population Sciences. Retrieved from https://epi.grants.cancer.gov/diet/usualintakes/pop/2007-10/table_a40.html Added
(2018) CDC. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/know-your-limit-for-added-sugars.html
Willett, W. C., Koplan, J. P., Nugent, R., Dusenbury, C., Puska, P., & Gaziano, T. A. (2006). Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle Changes. In D. T. Jamison, J. G. Breman, A. R. Measham, G. Alleyne, M. Claeson, D. B. Evans, … P. Musgrove (Eds.), Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (2nd ed.). Washington (DC): World Bank. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11795/
Willett W. C., Leibel R. L. Dietary Fat Is Not a Major Determinant of Body Fat. American Journal of Medicine. 2002;113(Suppl. 9B):47–59S.
Food. (n.d.) The Free Dictionary. Retrieved from http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/food
DiNicolantonio, J. J., & Berger, A. (2016). Added sugars drive nutrient and energy deficit in obesity: a new paradigm. Open Heart, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.1136/openhrt-2016-000469
Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019 Belle, L. (2017) Is sugar damaging your liver? Liver Doctor. Retrieved from https://www.liverdoctor.com/is-sugar-damaging-your-liver/