I’ve written a bunch of posts on the health effects of various foods such as red meat, soy, fats, wheat, gluten, dairy and dietary cholesterol, but somehow put off writing one on sugar. Even though it is still one of the prominent causes of the unhealthiness of most western nations, I figured the majority of people reading this are already highly conversant in the ins and outs of why it isn’t good for us. That said, most of us still eat too much of the stuff. So here’s the sugar post.
Before I continue, I would like to remind you that sugar is not just the white powder you add to your coffee in the mornings. It is found in MANY different forms and snuck into just about every processed food item found in the supermarket. It is referred to by many different names, so is often hard to even spot for those people trying consciously to avoid it as much as possible. Here are just a few:
Dextrose, Disaccharide, Fructose, Glucose, Galactose, Lactose, Maltodextrin, Maltose, Monosaccharide, Polysaccharide, Ribose, Saccharose, Sucrose, and then the “Natural” Sugars: Agave Nectar, Coconut Nectar, Coconut Sugar, Date Sugar, (Evaporated) Cane juice, Fruit Juice, Honey, Maple Syrup, Molasses, Rice Malt (extract), (Sweet) Sorghum, Treacle.
In addition to these sweet forms of the stuff, it is also worth reminding you that grains such as wheat are treated by the body in much the same way (only worse) than sugar. In fact, all simple carbohydrates are essentially sugar to the body. So people who say they don’t eat (or feed their kids) a lot of sugar but then eat wheat-containing foods, such as bread, pasta, cereals etc, are completely deluding themselves. These foods actually have a far worse effect on the body than sugar because they are, not only higher in glycemic index than a candy bar, but also contain many other harmful compounds about which I go into a lot more detail here and here.
Just to illustrate this point, I know someone who hardly eats any sugar, but eats a diet that is loaded with carbohydrates. She was recently diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
In addition to the sugars and refined carbohydrates listed above, non-caloric sweeteners really are not a whole lot better. In fact, in many cases they are far worse.
So here are a few reasons you may want to limit sugar consumption:
1. Sugar consumption (both caloric and non-caloric) promotes fat storage and weight gain.
As we learnt a while back, all calories are not created equal. The calories you ingest in fat are treated very differently by the body to those contained in sugars/carbohydrates. Every time we eat sugar (or even something sweet tasting – i.e. sweetened with Truvia/Aspartame/Splenda etc) an insulin release is triggered in our bodies. Insulin is the hormone that tells our body to store nutrients, instead of burning them. This means if our insulin levels are continually elevated, we are more likely to hold onto, and store fat. This same process does not happen (contrary to popular belief) when we eat fat.
2. Sugar plays a huge role in aging. Excess sugar leads to the formation of AGEs, and AGEs have been shown to amplify the aging process. This not only affects the outward signs of aging we see in the skin, but also affects internal structures such as the arteries, gut lining and brain, significantly contributing to issues such as atherosclerosis, age-related memory loss, cataracts and diabetic complications.
3. Sugar stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol, much like a stress response. This causes the blood to thicken.
4. Sugar disables the immune system by impairing the functions of white blood cells.
5. Sugar decreases the body’s production of leptin – the hormone responsible for regulating appetite. Ever wonder why you have sugar cravings not long after eating it?
6. Sugar induces oxidative stress in the body.
7. There is growing evidence to show that sugar fuels cancer cells.
8. Sugar disrupts muscle growth and repair by inhibiting the transfer of amino acids to muscle tissue.
9. Sugar consumption over time leads to insulin resistance, which results in Type II diabetes and all related health issues.
10. Sugar is HIGHLY addictive – more powerful than many drugs.
Reasons enough to avoid the stuff? I’d say so.
Now, I am not suggesting cutting it out 100%, but I am suggesting keeping it to a minimum in your diet, and when including it, sticking to whole food sources such as fruit, raw honey or maple syrup. Having said that, even these should be eaten in small amounts (eating lots of grapes, pineapple or honey-sweetened treats are unlikely to help you lose weight).
Where possible, refined sugar (of all kinds), wheat and any other processed grains should be avoided.
You’ll thank me when you effortlessly hit your ideal weight, when your bloated tummy disappears, and when your energy levels remain pleasantly high throughout the day!
Some further reading: