The Problem With Sugar

(photo by Dennis Klein)

If I could give only one tidbit of health advice to everyone, it would be "cut out the sugar".
Actually, no.
It'd probably be "fix your sleep schedule" or "reduce stress". But sugar comes in third. So... close enough.
But that's how detrimentally serious I believe our consumption of sugar is. For the most part, sugar is not widely praised in our society. Most people know that it's "bad for you" on some level. But despite this, we're all eating it. All the time. And in crazy amounts. The nationwide average is about half a pound... a day... per person. And we wonder why obesity is rampant. That's about 180 pounds a year.
Now, I'm not a fan of completely demonizing any food or food group. But refined sugar is not a a macronutrient, (fat, protein, or carbohydrate) nor does it contain any sort of nutritional benefit (it contains no nutrients, minerals, or enzymes). So it's essentially just empty calories. And it only does harm.

Why sugar is so harmful and addicting 
No healthy ancient culture has ever consumed the large amounts of sugar that we do. Sugar has a hand in inflammation, tooth decay, gallstones, heart disease, and even possibly Alzheimer's. And since our bodies metabolize sugar the same way it does alcohol, through the liver, an overconsumption of it puts unnatural stress on the liver, which studies have shown can lead to fatty liver disease.
It's insane the amount of damage this stuff can do to our bodies. So why don't we stop eating it? Why is it so difficult for us to cut out something that's so detrimental?
Well, sugar is addicting. Now, something to note about addiction: it's not the substances that are inherently addictive, but the neurological reward response that happens that can cause certain individuals to become addicted. It's in our brains, not in the cigarette or alcohol. But, sugar, just like any other commonly abused substance, can create addictive responses in the brain. And since it's everywhere in our food, it's hard to escape. But it's put there for a reason. There's no need for that tablespoon of sugar in your salad dressing, but it's put there to illicit that obsessive response.
Dr Robert Lustig, a pediatrician who specializes in childhood obesity, and the author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar puts it quite bluntly:
The food industry has made [sugar] into a diet staple because they know when they do you buy more. This is their hook. If some unscrupulous cereal manufacturer went out and laced your breakfast cereal with morphine to get you to buy more, what would you think of that? They do it with sugar instead.

Sugar, like gnats in the summer
When I say sugar is everywhere, It's not hyperbole. Sugar is in everything. I'm not kidding. Ketchup, relish, sandwich meat, salad dressing, peanut butter, granola, bread, there's even added sugar in already sweet fruit juices. Just go to your pantry, read some ingredient lists, and you might be surprised. (this is a pretty cool site that stacks sugar cubes next to common food products, just to give you a clear visual of how much sugar is in our food)
But to make it even worse, manufacturers have learned to list sugar as dozens of different names, just to throw you off. But don't be mistaken, all of these are highly processed forms of sugar, and they'll all do the same thing in your body. But take a look at this list, and try to keep an eye out the next time you're scanning a nutrition label.

(photo from bariatriccookery.com)

Insulin resistance
One of the more serious things sugar can do to our body is make it insulin resistant. It's a term that you probably hear a lot, but let's actually break it down and talk about what happens when we become insulin resistant.
When we consume sugar (or carbohydrates that will break down into sugar) our bodies begin to produce insulin. Now, insulin is often portrayed in a negative light, but don't think of it that way. It's not the insulin itself that causes problems, but the chronic production of it. Insulin is just a hormone, a necessary one at that, doing its job. And its job is to pull that glucose (sugar, that Snickers bar you just ate) from the blood and transport it into other cells to be used for energy. And this process keeps your blood sugar in a healthy range. The problem arises when we intake too much sugar.
Think of it this way: Putting sugar into the body is sort of like setting off an alarm. Now, it's not a bad thing, but it's a signal to the pancreas to start producing and dumping insulin into the bloodstream. Now, when we're constantly consuming sugar in large high amounts (as most Americans do) our bodies start to become immune to that alarm going off. The alarm is constantly going off, and our bodies just used to it. And over time, the body stops responding to insulin as efficiently. And as a result of that, our poor, amazing bodies, crafted to maintain balance as well as it can, overproduce insulin in order to keep our blood sugar in balance. And that's how we become insulin resistant, which we know is one of the first steps to type 2 diabetes.

Cutting out sugar 
So we know that sugar is probably not the greatest thing for us, but cutting sugar out of your diet completely may seem like the ultimate task. But I can promise you from personal experience, it's not. It's hard, I'm not gonna lie. But it's worth it. It's not easy, but it's possible. It's amazing how your palate changes once you drastically reduce your sugar intake. Most candy, chocolate, or desserts just taste overwhelmingly sweet to me now. Which is so funny to me, since I have a real sweet tooth. But it's amazing how your body can change and adapt. Biting into a ripe peach tastes like candy to me now, and it's great.
But you don't have to go cold turkey. Taking small steps to improving your health is better than not taking any at all. So here's some practical ways to cutdown on your sugar intake:

  • Check the labels. Read the ingredient list. Be aware of what you're putting into your body before you take a bite. I've developed a natural instinct to instantly set a product back down if my eyes see the words "cane sugar". I ain't about that life. 
  • Quit drinking juice. We tend to think of juice as a "healthy alternative" to drinks such as soda. And yes, a glass of OJ is a far better choice than a Coke, but fruit juice is essentially sugar water. Separated from the natural fibers in fruit, it's practically pure fructose. 
  • Eat real food. The natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables, milk, etc. won't wreak havoc on your body's insulin response. And what kinds of sugar you're consuming is just as important as how much. (there's typically twice the grams of sugar in a ripe mango than a glazed donut, but I don't think we'd say the latter is the more health-contentious choice) When in doubt, eat real, whole foods instead of products. 
  • Avoid processed food. Obvious culprits like boxed cookies and sweets, but be leery of any other sort of processed products. It's most likely that there's some form of sugar in it. I mean, take a look at the ingredients in this popular "health cereal" and play a little game I like to call How Many Forms of Sugar Can I Count?

I hope this is helpful to anyone who's constantly hearing about the evils of sugar. Later this week I'll be going into more extensively about healthy alternatives to refined sugar (including artificial sweeteners) and how they interact with our bodies. So keep your eyes peeled!

Stay sweet,

(photo by Sylvanus Urban)

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