Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Dangers of Refined Sugar

"What's so bad about sugar? It's natural, right?""What's wrong with a little bit of sugar now and then?" "Our bodies need sugar for energy". These are all questions and statements I've heard about sugar, and I thought it would be good to talk about them since it is such an important issue when it comes to our health.

First of all, we are genetically programmed to like sugar. It makes us feel good, adds flavor to food, and if you are truly consuming it in very small amounts and eating a healthy and balanced diet, then it is probably not much of an issue. However, one of the problems with sugar is that we are mainly consuming refined sugar, which has been stripped of its vitamins and minerals, leaving only an "empty" calorie that our bodies cannot process properly. Eating refined sugar is actually worse than nothing because it has to leech vitamins and minerals from your body (that would normally be present in it naturally) in order for it to be metabolized.

The other big problem is the amount of sugar we consume. Most people in Western societies consume far too much sugar - in energy drinks, sodas, piled into tea and coffee, sweets and deserts and so on. This is compounded by the fact that sugar is added to almost EVERYTHING these days, including soups, crackers, "healthy" cereals, yogurt, pasta sauces, canned vegetables...again, the list goes on. Obviously sugar does not need to be included in these foods, but food companies know that if they add sugar, it will taste better (if you're used to eating it) and that people will buy more of it. They know it's addictive, and they are taking advantage of your health so they can make a higher profit.

Another question or argument that seems to come up is that we NEED sugar - our bodies need sugar for energy. This is of course true, and all carbohydrates are a form of sugar which is the body's primary energy source (once metabolized and broken down into glucose). However, there is a problem with this as well. Because all of these vitamins and minerals have been stripped with refined sugar, the sugar goes into your blood stream much more quickly than if you ate say, a piece of fruit or another type of unrefined carbohydrate that has fiber in it to naturally slow it down. When you eat a type of sugar that immediately goes into your blood stream, your body has to produce more insulin to compensate, and then you "crash", feeling low on energy, and your body tells you you need more sugar to bring your blood sugar back up again. You get stuck in a cycle of highs and lows, which is not healthy or natural and can have a negative impact on your health, including your immune system.

This leads me to the issue of Diabetes, which is probably one of the main health consequences that people think of when it comes to sugar. When the pancreas constantly has to compensate and produce more insulin to control blood glucose levels, down that road this can cause the pancreas to basically start to burn out until it can't produce enough insulin. This is what can eventually lead to Type 2 Diabetes (and this is a simplified explanation of it, as there are other factors that can contribute to Type 2 Diabetes as well), but evidence does show that increasing the consumption of sugar puts you more at risk for Type 2 Diabetes. Sugar can also lead to Diabetes by weight gain, as the insulin has more difficulty getting through fat around cells to help glucose enter the cell which is how our body cells get the nutrients from the food we eat. Then, the glucose stays in the bloodstream which leads to a multitude of negative effects. There is also evidence that excessive sugar consumption is linked to certain forms of cancer and many other diseases and degenerative conditions. It has also been linked to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis as asthma.

Most people probably know that sugar is bad for your teeth and can cause tooth decay- so if sugar does that to your teeth, what is it doing to the rest of your body? In the book "Sugar Blues" by William Duffy, he notes that "dental researchers have proven that the teeth are subject to the same metabolic processes that affect other organs of the body". Meaning the acid that destroys tooth enamel is also essentially destroying other parts of the body.

Now lets talk about ways to cut down on sugar consumption and better alternatives to refined sugar. When I first tried to cut down it was pretty hard, and I wasn't even eating as much sugar as a lot of people. Once you try and cut down you truly realize how addictive it is, but when you get to the "other side" it feels so much better. I started with not having sugar in my coffee, and diluting fruit juice. Now when I drink a coffee with sugar I think it tastes horrible. Another good tip is to drink a lot of water so you don't get thirsty and crave a sweet drink, and to eat small amounts regularly to keep your blood sugar levels stable. The worst is to let it drop really low and then you will definitely crave sugar and it will be very hard to resist. Another thing you can do that is very important both for overall health, is to read food labels carefully for added sugar. Also watch out for "hidden" terms for sugar, such as corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, sorbitol and high fructose corn syrup. Another thing you can do it switch to some healthier sugar alternatives, and here are some examples:

Agave Nectar: It is the raw nectar from the agave plant which tastes a bit like honey but has a lower glycemic index, and you can use it the same way you would use honey or also use it as a sugar substitute in baking. You can find it in most health food stores.
Stevia: A natural herb that is very sweet and doesn't have any calories, and you only need a very small amount.

Honey: Honey is a simple sugar, so this one is still with caution/moderation, but if you buy it in its natural/un-pasteurized form then it will contain a lot of healthy enzymes. Heating can destroy the enzymes, making it almost as bad as refined sugar.

Whole Cane Sugar: Unrefined sugar that comes from the sugar cane. It contains the molasses that is normally removed during the refining process (which give refined sugar its white color) so cane sugar has more flavor.

Lastly, here is a link to a site that can be very useful, where you can look up the Glycemic Index of a certain food.The Glycemic Index, or GI is the measure of the effects of carbohydrates in food on blood sugar levels, and estimates how much a certain food will raise a person's blood glucose level after eating it, so ideally you want to aim for foods that have a lower GI.

1 comment:

Mel said...

I've noticed that when I cut out refined sugar from my diet, my acne disappears completely after a few weeks and my skin feels smoother. I think this is because sugar causes inflammation in my body (because it's so hard to process), which in turn irritates my skin - allowing bacteria to get in and cause acne. Cutting out sugar is very difficult, but so worth it!

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