I remember thinking I was incredibly clever, when in college I realized that if what I really wanted for dinner was ice cream – from the self-serve, 10-flavor, cafeteria ice cream bar- then if I just skipped the main course and went right to dessert, it would be the same numbers of calories! Guilt-free ice cream eating. Brilliant. Why I had not thought of this before, I don’t know. My mathematical shrewdness lasted a few days, until I decided that I also wanted the lasagna. The ice cream though, that continued … screw the math.
This is what’s so cruel about evolutionary biology (or for the Creationist, this is what’s so cruel about what God did to us) – we are hard wired to want sugar, and before Double Stuff Oreos were invented, it actually served us well, because the sweeter the gooseberry, the riper the gooseberry (hence the easier to digest) and the less likely it was to be poisonous. What cruel irony that the very trait that once saved us from death, is now killing us. We lost our tails when we no longer needed them for balance, and our hairy bodies when we started wrapping woolly mammoth skins around them, why have we not lost our taste for sugar?! When will the next lucky batch of humans be born with a craving for green-leafy vegetables?
What happens when we live the sweet life
Here’s the 30k foot (highly abbreviated, highly simplified) view of what sugar does to us – if only it were as benign as empty calories! Sugars are made up of fructose and glucose (in fact all carbs are made up of either one or both.) Glucose and fructose are absorbed in the small intestine, but fructose is then sent to the liver. Fructose does not trigger insulin (hence why diabetics are told it’s ok for them) but fructose brings it’s own special destructive powers to the party.
What sugar does to us (especially – “too much”).
- Insulin shoots up (from glucose). Insulin tells the cells to take up sugar from the blood stream. Too much insulin-messaging though, and our cells just start to ignore it (like car alarms), which means the sugar does not get taken up, and goes on an out-of-control toxic joy ride. Too much sugar in the blood and we become diabetic and raise our risk for heart disease, hyper tension and other metabolic disorders.
- Our liver gets fatty (highly correlated with insulin resistance). We can largely blame glucose and fructose for this.
- Minerals (magnesium in particular), vitamins and enzymes get depleted because they are needed to digest the sugar.
- Bad moods happen. Sugar sends us soaring and crashing when the insulin lowers it.
- The bad bacteria in our gut is nourished. Candida (yeast) thrives on glucose. If abnormal flora in the gut gets out of control, toxins are produced in the body.
- Cancer cells may be more likely to grow. Scientists are starting to see a strong correlation between the growth of some cancers and high levels of insulin – believed to fuel the cells.
- And 20 more things…
But some “sugars” are better – right?
Marginally, but not really. Here’s my take on the sugar family….
Glucose easily spikes our blood sugar (fructose has less of an effect) and since table sugar is about 50% glucose, we get a flood of insulin.
It’s slightly higher in fructose than table sugar. Best is raw and unfiltered which not only has trace minerals but an enzyme which helps digest the honey. (Most commercial honey is boiled and filtered making it no better than table sugar.) Large amounts will still set off the metabolic alarm-bells, so don’t think of it as a health food with no risks at high levels.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
It’s highly processed as the starch from corn is treated with acid or enzymes to create syrup, but from a blood sugar and insulin standpoint, our body treats it pretty much the same as other sugars. (It ranges from 50-75% fructose). The biggest issue I have with HFCS is that the foods it’s delivered in (sodas, baked goods, sauces) usually have a huge amount of it, (it’s far less expensive than cane sugar and often sweeter) and they’re usually highly processed foods, mixed with a bunch of other not-very-good-for-you ingredients.
Agave got the rap for being the “healthy sweetener” because it’s higher fructose (it ranges from 60-90%) means less insulin’s produced, but it does raise blood sugar and in large quantities, still has the power to damage the liver. It’s interesting that agave was able to claim the “good for diabetics” message, when if lower glucose is what you’re after, HFCS is your answer. (No, don’t put HFCS in your smoothie! I’m just saying that agave is not as innocent as we’d like it to be.)
Extracted directly from an herb so it’s relatively pure with zero glucose, fructose or calories. It’s so sweet that when I drop a light dusting into my coffee, I can taste the powder particles in the air. Only downside I can see to using it frequently, is that our taste buds never get trained to loose their “taste” for sugar. So even though stevia has no impact on blood sugar or insulin, it has a big impact on keeping the sugar-bar high in our mouths.
By this point, we all know they’re pure chemicals, but the question is – Do they harm us? There is no conclusive evidence saying they do, but also no conclusive evidence saying they don’t. At minimum it’s one more foreign object we put into our body that it can’t use and has to eliminate and whenever our body has to get rid of things that serve no purpose, it’s extra wear and tear. I was addicted to them and my best advice if you’re looking to drop the habit – go cold turkey. A 1/2 tsp of sugar in your coffee adds 7 calories (or try stevia).
The bigger issue I have with them, though, is the same one I have with large amounts of stevia – if we never train our mouths to crave less sugar, then we will never be able to eat unsweetened foods without missing the sugar, we will constantly need more sugar to meet the ever-rising sugar-bar and we will feel deprived when we don’t give it to our bodies.
Personally speaking, I use a touch of honey in my tea, some stevia in my coffee, and chopped fruit to sweeten my plain (whole milk) yogurt. I don’t keep processed sugar products around the house, not because I don’t want them, but because I do! But it’s amazing how you can train your mouth. It’s not that I’ve trained it to not want sugar, I’ve just trained it to detect “sugar” in more subtle places – like in almonds, cashews, roasted squash, roasted anything …
And then every once in a while, I’ll come face to face with hot berry crumble with vanilla ice cream melting down its sides. And I will stare at it and it will stare back. And I’ll cave. My only hope then, is that my gut will forgive me for what I am going to blame on God and/or my Paleolithic ancestors.
Share your own tortured experiences in the world of sugar! Any great tips for overcoming a sugar addiction? Success stories with cutting back?
PS: You probably noticed that this post was delivered “whole” (ie you didn’t have to click to the site to read it). I’m experimenting with this, so feel free to share your views. But please click over to the site to leave a comment and read others comments! (Click here to go to the site, or click on the the title at the top or go to www.thesweetbeet.com)
Grains Don’t Want You To Eat Them (This explains why so many people have trouble with grains and gluten)
Next Time You Have To Choose, Don’t (How I get a touch of sweet into breakfast without going over board)
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