What’s so wrong with sugar?

Believe it or not, the holiday season is nearly upon us. Almost everything has changed this year, but I’m willing to bet that the amount of sugary treats we indulge in during the next few months won’t be changing. If anything, we’ll use the stress of the year to excuse those extra slices of pecan pie. And we might be justified in doing so. I’m not here to judge.

Lifestyle improvements aren’t easy. The first step is a proper awareness of the likely consequences of what we choose to put into our body. In the end, we may still decide to make the same decisions, but at least we’ll know what we signed up for. If we don’t like the consequences, we can then make the simple changes that will have the most impact for us. That’s our philosophy at Reframe Wellness.

During the holiday season, pie, cake, cookies, fudge, candies, and all other manner of sugary goodness are omnipresent. Weight gain during the next few months is the major concern for most adults. Let me respond to this with some rare good news. According to a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the average weight gain of 195 Americans between Thanksgiving and New Years was only about 1 lb.

It turns out that despite it being #1 on everyone’s mind, weight gain is actually pretty far down on the list of reasons why sugar is bad.

We could be forgiven for not understanding this though, since the US government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans says there’s no problem with “sugar”, only with “added sugars”.

Here’s an excerpt:

That’s right folks, according to the government, the only problem with sugar is that it doesn’t have lots of healthy nutrients. If only that were true.

I was impressed to find that on the website of the American Sugar Association, they admitted there’s evidence sugar contributes to cavities. Some things are too obvious even for those accomplished obfuscators to get around. Don’t get your hopes up about them admitting to a connection between sugar and weight, diabetes, or any other health concern, though. I’m not exactly sure what kind of “experts” they’re consulting with, but they certainly can’t have any endocrinologists or, you know, honest medical professionals, on their board. Their website says, I assume with a straight face, that sugar only contributes to weight gain in as far as it contributes calories, and of course diabetes is simply a matter of being overweight, right? They also say “A major review of studies… demonstrates no effects of increasing sugar intake on diabetes risk.” Meanwhile in the very next sentence, “This review as well as others have identified an association between sugar-sweetened beverages and higher risk for type 2 diabetes.” But of course it couldn’t have been the sugar in the sugar-sweetened beverages that lead to higher risk, that would be absurd.

Now that I’ve gotten out my sarcastic frustrations at the ability of powerful institutions to ignore obvious findings and confuse the public about how to take control of their own health, let’s talk about some real reasons that sugar is bad and why you should avoid it as much as you can if you care about your health. Not just added sugars, but all sugars.

Realistically, sugar is everywhere and it doesn’t make sense to try to eliminate it 100% forever, but the more aware we become of the ways in which all forms of sugar can impact our health, the more wise we can be with our own decisions.

Reason #1: Sugar exacerbates every chronic condition.

All of them. Name one, there’s a study linking it. Here’s a review showing that sugar (specifically fructose, of course) has a “unique ability” to contribute to obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, Type II Diabetes, kidney disease, and gout, far beyond what would be expected from the amount of calories it adds to the diet. Sugar makes IBD worse.  Sugar impairs cognitive functioning.  At the risk of repeating myself, sugar makes every chronic condition worse.

It does this by increasing systemic inflammation, which then exacerbates every other problem in the body. This 2017 study articulates this in their abstract: “Fructose and its metabolites directly and/or indirectly cause oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, endothelial dysfunction, autophagy and increased intestinal permeability, and then further aggravate the metabolic syndrome with tissue and organ dysfunctions…. This review addresses fructose-induced metabolic syndrome, and the disturbance effects of direct and/or indirect dangerous factors on the functions of liver, adipose, pancreas islet, skeletal muscle, kidney, heart, brain and small intestine.”

The science is clear. It’s not a matter of “if” sugar is a dangerous factor in your body, it’s a matter of “how”.

Reason #2: Sugar is the #1 contributor to Type 2 Diabetes.

The Sugar Association doesn’t want you to believe it, but it’s a fact. A reliable way to induce Type II Diabetes in lab rats is to feed them large amounts of fructose and the same effect has been shown in humans. Here’s a study from 1971 demonstrating how drinks sweetened with  fructose reliably induced diabetes in humans. This isn’t new or groundbreaking information, it’s just unpopular and misunderstood information.

Fructose is a type of sugar that has a generally good reputation in the nutrition community, because it’s in fruit. Therefore, they say, it must be good. Nobody gets diabetes from eating too much fruit. That much is true, but it isn’t the clear acquittal of fructose that they want it to be.

Sucrose, aka table sugar, the most common added sugar, is half glucose and half fructose. In the human study I linked above, it was shown that pure fructose induces diabetes, but pure glucose has no impact on health. Since 1971, this result has been replicated many times. Naturally occurring fructose, in fruit, does not exist in high enough concentrations to induce illness. In sucrose form, it does.

It’s widely known that foods high in glucose, the less sweet form of sugar found naturally in grains and vegetables, causes blood sugar spikes. A candy bar or a slice of bread will flood the bloodstream with readily useable glucose, which then results in a corresponding insulin increase. In those with insulin resistance or diabetes, that can lead to what’s known as a “sugar crash”. Most of us are familiar with this scenario and we’re often cautioned about eating things with too much sugar for just this reason. The part we aren’t told, but we should be, is that fructose is worse for insulin. Fructose causes insulin resistance. This is how insulin resistance “sneaks up on us”: The initial problem is not as noticeable because there’s no initial spike in blood sugar.

But how? Fructose, unlike glucose, cannot be used by your body so it has to go through a process in the liver to be converted to useable glucose before it will enter the bloodstream. This conversion takes time, only a small amount can be converted at once, so the glucose that results from the fructose you just ate enters the bloodstream in a slower, longer procession. This may make you feel better initially (no spikes or crashes) but it requires a lengthier period of insulin production, which over the long-term, leads to and exacerbates insulin resistance and diabetes, and it makes weight loss impossible.

Table sugar, aka sucrose, aka half glucose and half fructose, aka the yummiest and most common sweetener, is the worst thing you can eat if you’re concerned about insulin resistance, diabetes, or even just weight gain. Ingesting glucose creates an immediate need for a large amount of insulin, then the fructose makes sure that insulin sticks around for a long time. That’s a recipe for increased insulin resistance and worsening health.

For anyone who wants to read more into the science behind sugar and insulin related disease, here’s a special paper published by the Mayo Clinic expounding on the dangers of fructose.

Reason #3: Sugar makes you hungrier and triggers cravings.

Again, this is because of the increase in insulin. Insulin is the major regulator of hunger in the human body, and sugar increases insulin production. Insulin is a storage hormone. Its main purpose is to move glucose from the bloodstream into cells for use, or for storage. This is an important task. If too much glucose builds up in the bloodstream, we’ll die. For this reason, insulin is the most powerful hormone in the body. In fact, it takes precedence over all other hormones. If insulin is present, everything else takes a back seat, because without insulin, we die and then there’s no need for all the other hormones. Ok, there are some other hormones involved in hunger regulation such as leptin and ghrelin, but insulin (or more accurately, insulin resistance) can override those hormones and make you feel hungry all the time.

As we now know, sugar increases insulin levels more than anything else you can eat, which explains why we always have room for dessert. Eating sugar isn’t satiating. It makes you hungrier. In a world where we’re so many people are sick and the vast majority are trying to lose weight, this is the last thing we need.

Sugar causes far more damage than just empty calories and cavities. 50 years of science has demonstrated that it can literally induce disease and at the very least will increase the symptoms of any illness we already have. If reducing sugar intake is the only change you ever make to your diet this holiday season, it will be well worth it.

Just have one. I dare you.

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