Pour Some Sugar on Me: The Dangers of Hidden Dietary Sugar

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Are you addicted to sugar?

“Oh I never eat sugar.” (Said while eating a bagel.)

“I’m not overweight, I can eat sugar.”

“But honey is natural!”

“These cookies are paleo so I can eat them.”

Are you guilty of saying or thinking things like this? I hear them all the time along with many other excuses as to why people keep eating large amounts of sugar. So, let’s talk about why sugar, even natural honey in homemade “paleo” cookies, is detrimental to your health.

What Counts as Sugar?

When I talk about sugar, I’m not just referring to candy, cookies, and soda. Pasta, bread, oatmeal, baked goods, and potatoes all count as sugar. Anything made with flour, and all starches, are basically sugar to our bodies.

There are many types of carbohydrates but we’ll focus on three – monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. These are big words that simply tell us how many sugar molecules are in the compound. Monosaccharides are the most basic sugars. The mono prefix tells us that there is one saccharide (sugar). If two monosaccharides bond, we get a disaccharide (di = two). If three or more monosaccharides bond, we get a polysaccharide (poly = many).

Fructose, such as found in fruit and honey, is an example of a monosaccharide; sucrose, or table sugar, is a disaccharide; and starch, such as bread or cereal, is a polysaccharide.

When we eat a polysaccharide or disaccharide, our digestive system breaks the bonds and they become monosaccharides (glucose) in our bodies. So all saccharides become glucose when digested. While avoiding soda and candy bars will reduce your sugar intake,  you are still flooding your body with glucose if you are consuming fruit, bread, juice, pasta or other sugars at each meal.

What About Whole Grains?

We’re frequently told that whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, are healthier options than processed grains, such as white bread. The principle behind this is that the whole grain will need to be broken down by your system so it will take longer to become glucose. If it takes longer to become glucose, you won’t experience the dramatic spike in insulin that you would if you ate a refined starch. The measure of how long it takes for foods we consume to become sugar in our bloodstream is commonly referred to as the Glycemic Index. Unfortunately, this rationale is flawed for many reasons. (For the purposes of this post, I’ll ignore the issues with grains and gluten to keep the focus on the topic of sugar.)

When we eat whole grains that take longer for our bodies to turn into glucose, we avoid a large spike in insulin in exchange for a smaller, sustained increase in insulin. Rather than a short flood of insulin to our cells, we experience a stream of insulin bathing our cells for a few hours while we digest our meal.

Imagine you went on vacation and your basement flooded, would you care if the water filled your basement in one hour or if it took three hours? No, because the end result would be the same. The same is true for your body.

Insulin

We hear a lot about insulin, mostly as it relates to diabetics. However, diabetic or not, insulin wreaks havoc on your body so everyone should control their insulin by reducing sugar intake.

An increase in blood sugar above the normal level stimulates secretion of insulin. Most people believe that it is insulin’s job to regulate blood sugar when it is actually to facilitate the storage of fat.

According to Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas, we have six hormones, other than insulin, designed for blood sugar regulation. All six of those hormones are designed to increase blood sugar. Insulin is the only hormone that reduces blood glucose, and it does so by carting off that glucose to be stored in your fat cells. A small amount of glucose is used for immediate energy and some is converted to glycogen and stored in your muscles for use as energy later. Though if you haven’t done anything to deplete your glycogen stores, such as running a couple of miles, there’s no need to fill them up. So nearly all of the glucose in your blood will be shipped off to be stored as fat.

The fact that we have so many mechanisms for increasing blood glucose during times of famine, and only one for reducing it, indicates that we are not designed to be in a constant state of sugar saturation.

Insulin Sensitivity

I know…You aren’t diabetic and you don’t need to lose weight so you aren’t worried about insulin sensitivity, right? Well, have you noticed that the older you get, the harder it is to lose weight? Do you need caffeine to get through the day, and then don’t sleep well at night? The culprit may be insulin resistance.

When you regularly ingest large amounts of sugar, your pancreas has to excrete much more insulin than it is designed to. As you bombard your system with insulin, your insulin receptors lose sensitivity to insulin. Think about it like a nagging significant other. If someone nags you every day, at first you respond and try to fix whatever they are complaining about. Once you realize the nagging isn’t going to stop, you stop trying so hard and just tune out the complaining. Your insulin receptors do the same thing.

Once your insulin receptors become less sensitive to insulin, your pancreas has to produce more insulin to get the same effect. This only works for so long before you become pre-diabetic and suffer from sugar highs and crashes throughout the day. Diabetes is not just a disease for the obese. Being fat doesn’t make you diabetic. In fact, gaining weight is your body’s way of trying to prevent diabetes by removing glucose from your blood and storing it as fat.

Eating excessive amounts of sugar (remember this includes bread, pasta, and other starches) can make you diabetic eventually. Before you get to that point you will have thrown your hormones so out of whack that you may not sleep well, can’t concentrate (ADHD anyone?), feel like you need a nap every afternoon, have severe carbohydrate cravings, have dramatic mood swings, feel less capable of dealing with stress, and much more.

Advanced Glycation End Products

Advanced glycation end products, abbreviated AGEs, sound like something that happens in a science lab, and they kind of are. AGEs are the result of glycation, which is just a sugar molecule bonding with a protein or lipid (fat) molecule. When glucose is in your blood stream, it comes into contact with your cells, which contain proteins and fats. Those proteins and fats become cross-linked (bonded) during glycation.

When you sear a steak on the grill, the hardened black marks on the side of the steak are AGEs as the sugars in the steak cross-link with the proteins and fats. This same process is happening inside your body. The result is hardened, inflexible tissue in the place of normally soft, pliable tissue.

This inflexible tissue from AGEs causes hardening of the arteries, which leads to high blood pressure as the arteries cannot expand and contract in response to the volume of blood being pumped by your heart. Limiting sugar intake will have a much greater effect on reducing blood pressure than other common measures, such as reducing salt intake.

AGEs have also been implicated in a wide range of age related conditions ranging from cataracts to athritis to Alzheimer’s Disease (which is being called Type 3 Diabetes in some circles). Virtually all chronic inflammatory conditions can be improved by reducing sugar consumption.

The high instance of diseases such as heart disease in diabetics supports the research proving that chronic high blood glucose results in AGEs, which cause a wide range of health conditions and accelerated aging.

At normal levels, your body can and will dispose of AGEs. However, when there are excessive levels of AGEs your body cannot keep up with the cleanup and you accumulate AGEs in your tissues. AGEs also have a long lifespan so if your body is unable to remove them, they will do damage for an extended period of time.

If arterial health isn’t much of a concern, consider your appearance. AGEs travel to all parts of your body, including your skin. Collagen is one of the most predominant proteins in your body. It’s also what keeps your skin soft and wrinkle-free. If sugar binds with collagen, you’ll develop more wrinkles than you would have if you didn’t consume sugar. Don’t just take my word for it.

Cancer

Yep, I said the “C” word. There are many factors that are involved when someone develops cancer. However, just like not smoking reduces your chances of getting lung cancer, reducing sugar consumption reduces your chances of getting many cancers.

All cells require energy to replicate. This process happens all day, every day in our bodies. Cells die and are created on an ongoing basis. Studies show that cancer cells are actually inefficient at multiplying, and have high glucose energy requirements. Prostate, breast, and colorectal cancers have all been tied to sugar consumption.

Our bodies will produce the amount of glucose we need to function from the nutrients we consume. We do not need to supply extra glucose for energy. If we do, we are potentially feeding cancer cells which would normally be starved of their energy supply and would not survive.

The number one thing you can do for your health is to reduce sugar consumption from all sources. Carefully look at what you are eating, even if you think you aren’t eating a lot of sugar, you probably are. Just because you don’t eat cookies and ice cream doesn’t mean you eat a low sugar diet. If you have granola or cereal for breakfast, a sandwich and fries for lunch, and pasta or pizza for dinner, you’ve dramatically exceeded the amount of sugar your body can comfortably process. If you drink juice or soda with those meals you are doing even more damage. If you do this on a regular basis, without question you will develop insulin resistance and increase your chances of getting cancer and a host of other diseases (and wrinkles) much earlier than you should.

Even if you are already diabetic, or pre-diabetic, cutting out excess sugar will dramatically improve your health quite quickly.

Challenge yourself to remove excess sugar from your diet for just 30 days. You will be surprised at how quickly your body responds. At the end of the 30 days, you will feel better and be motivated to continue your new lifestyle. If you want help getting started, I recommend the 21 day sugar detox from Balanced Bites.

Your body will thank you and your wallet will too. Even if you spend a bit more money now on healthier food, you will spend much less money later on medications and visits to the doctor.

Categories: Nutrition