Added Sugar = Added Problems

I talk a lot to my clients about choosing foods based on what they do for the body, it’s ultimately the easiest way to make good decisions. Most everybody knows that sugar isn’t healthy, but just what is sugar doing inside of our bodies? What’s taking place once we eat it? Most of us think about how the extra calories can pile up on the waistline, but there’s more to it…a lot more.  Read on and you’ll see that the sweet stuff really isn’t that sweet.

Your Body on Sugar

When you eat sugar, your blood sugar quickly rises and your pancreas immediately jumps into overdrive.

This increase in blood sugar causes the pancreas to secrete the hormone insulin, which is an important hormone in the body. It allows glucose (blood sugar) to enter cells from the bloodstream and tells the cells to start burning glucose instead of fat. If there's no demand for that energy, it gets stored as fat. If it stays in your bloodstream, it is becomes a toxic sludge and one of the reasons for diabetes complications, such asblindness. The body tries to counteract this by releasing both adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones). This chain reaction is a recipe for fat gain disaster and dramatically increases the risk of becoming overweight. Meanwhile, your heart rate may go up higher and you might feel a little flushed or slightly nauseous at this point.  Any "sugar highs" are followed by a "sugar crash" when all the sugar is finally out of your bloodstream, causing you to feel sluggish and tired. To add insult to injury, sugar also triggers the release of serotonin, a sleep regulator and can decrease the activity of orexin cells, which induce wakefulness and metabolism activity.

Your Immune System on Sugar

But it doesn’t stop there. The surge or glucose, insulin, cortisol, and adrenaline have sent your immune system into a tailspin. Free radicals have a heyday which lowers your immune system. Excess sugar can cause a drop in the ability of white blood cells to destroy bacteria. Result? You just became more vulnerable to things like the common cold.

Sugar may increase your risk of certain cancers. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled multiplication and growth of cells. Insulin is one of the key hormones in regulating this sort of growth. Though studies are not wholly conclusive, some research suggests that excessive added sugar is associated with higher levels of certain cancers, such as pancreatic cancer. Additionally, the metabolic problems linked to sugar consumption are a known contributor of inflammation, another potential cause of cancer.

Your Liver on Sugar

Sugar can cause fatty liver disease. Sugar can only be metabolized by the liver in any large amount. This isn’t a problem as long as we eat small amounts (like a piece of fruit) or we just finished exercising. Fructose is converted into glycogen and stored in the liver until we need it.  However, if the liver is already full of glycogen, the extra sugar can overload the liver, forcing it convert it into fat and causing the liver to store the fat in unusual places, which can lead to globules of fat building up around your liver. This effect can lead to fatty liver disease, which is a major risk factor for diabetes, heart attacks, and cancer. 

Sugar can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and metabolic disorders. When cells become resistant to the effects of insulin, the cells in the pancreas make more of it. Eventually, as insulin resistance gradually becomes worse, the pancreas can’t keep up with the demand of making enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels down.

Your Heart on Sugar

Sugar can lead to heart disease. Studies show that people who consume a lot of added sugar are more likely to have lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol), higher levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), and higher levels of triglycerides (blood fats). Bad cholesterol and blood fats clog up arteries and blood vessels, leading to heart disease.

Studies are finding a strong statistical connection between sugar consumption and the risk of heart disease. People with higher added sugar intakes have a marked increase in risk of heart attacks compared to those with lower intakes.

The American Heart Association recommends women only consume 6 teaspoons or 100 calories a day from added sugars, and 9 teaspoons or 150 calories for men.  The CDC reports that the average American eats between 13 and 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day.  For perspective, an average can of soda contains 12 teaspoons of sugar. There are 4 grams of sugar in 1 teaspoon.

Sugar can also raise blood pressure. Chronic high insulin levels cause the smooth muscle cells around each blood vessel to grow faster than normal. This causes tense artery walls, something that puts you on the path to high blood pressure, which increases the workload of the heart and arteries and can cause damage to the whole circulatory system. Eventually, this can lead to heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, kidney damage, artery disease, and other serious coronary conditions.

People who have diets where at least 25 percent of the calories came from added sugar are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who have diets where added sugars make up less than 10 percent of the food they eat .

Fructose elevates uric acid, which decreases nitric oxide, raises angiotensin, and causes your smooth muscle cells to contract, thereby raising your blood pressure and potentially damaging your kidneys.  Increased uric acid also leads to chronic, low-level inflammation.

Your Brain on Sugar

Type 3 diabetes is a title that has been proposed for Alzheimer's disease which results from resistance to insulin in the brain. There is a link between insulin resistance, high-fat diets, and Alzheimer's disease. In this case, the brain's ability to use glucose and produce energy is damaged.

A diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps the brain form new memories and remember the past. Levels of BDNF are low in people with an impaired glucose metabolism (diabetics and pre-diabetics) and low BDNF has been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows that eating too much sugar can cause impair cognitive function and reduce proteins that are needed for memory and responsiveness.

It’s addictive. Sugar triggers the release of chemicals that set off the brain's pleasure center, in this case opioids and dopamine. Just like drugs, people develop a tolerance for sugar. You become "sensitized" to sugar and more sensitive to its toxic effects as well.  In rat studies looking at sugar addiction, they experience chattering teeth, tremors, shakes, and anxiety when it's taken away, classic signs of withdrawal.

Sugar can make you think you are hungry when you are not.  Eating too much sugar can scramble your body's ability to tell your brain you're full, because it can cause lepin resistance. Leptin's job is to say, "I'm full!” Over-consumption of sugar also triggers the over production of ghrelin, that signals to your body that it’s hungry.  As a result, you keep eating without necessarily realizing you're full. Your brain still thinks you're still hungry.

Sugar is linked to depression.  A study published in Public Health Journal involving nearly 9,000 people established a link between depression and eating sugary and junk foods. After six years, those who ate the most junk faced a 40% greater risk of developing depression. In another study, older adults who drank more than four servings of pop per day were 30% more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who drank unsweetened drinks.

Your Mouth on Sugar

You’ve heard this before and it’s true. Eating too much sugar can promote cavities and gum disease. Sugar also provides a quick food source for bacteria so they can reproduce quickly, causing plaque buildup and that disgusting morning breath.

Your Skin on Sugar  

Sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These invaders attack nearby proteins, damaging them, including protein fibers in collagen and elastin (the components that keep your skin firm and elastic).  The outcome?  Dry, brittle protein fibers that lead to wrinkles and saggy, dull skin.  AGEs also promote the growth of fragile collagen and deactivate your body's natural antioxidant enzymes, which makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage.

Sugar also has an effect on the severity of acne because of the hormonal fluctuations it triggers.  The inflammation caused by excess sugar has also been linked to other skin conditions, like psoriasis.

All Sugars Are Not Equal

Dextrose, fructose, and glucose are all sugars. The primary difference between them is how your body metabolizes them. Glucose is the form of energy you were designed to run on. Every cell in your body uses glucose for energy.  If we don’t get it from the diet, our bodies produce it. This means that complex carbohydrates are useful when not eaten in excess.  

Fructose is different. Our bodies do not produce it in any significant amount and there is no physiological need for it. Keep in mind that this doesn’t apply to natural, whole foods, like fruit.  It is almost impossible to overeat fructose by eating fruit. Whole fruits contain vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber that reduce the hazardous effects of fructose. Fiber is necessary in curbing sugar intake. Basically, fiber and fructose need to work together. Fiber is fructose's useful partner.  Fructose helps with sweetness, while fiber helps make fructose useful.  So how do you eat fiber with your fructose? Get your fructose from fruit or other sources that contain built-in fiber.  

The real problems start up when sugar is added to foods during processing, which is more common than you may realize. Think of processed foods as being items that have been already put together to produce a completed, eatable food product, and yes, processed foods are used in restaurants too.  There is a crazy amount of added sugar to things, even savory (not obviously sweet) foods.

Processed foods are a Pandora’s box of potential problems. The solution? Buy real food in the grocery store and prepare it at home. Take control.

It should also go without saying, that obvious sugar sources (candy, cake, chocolate, donuts, etc.) should be avoided. Unless it’s growing naturally, it’s probably crap, and the last time I checked I have never seen a donut tree.

It all comes back to a simple premise. Eat healthier and you’ll be healthier.