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Jackie Oken

By: Jackie Oken on August 7th, 2018

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Science Explains How the Body Reacts to Sugar (hint: it’s not great)

Lifestyle & Wellness

While in the south, the word “sugar” may be an affectionate greeting, in the world of science and food, sugar can be both dangerous and deadly.

Before diving in, let’s briefly revisit grade-school science class. Plants manufacture the nutrients they need through photosynthesis, which converts carbon dioxide and water to sugar fuels (aka carbohydrates) with the addition of energy from the sun. Sounds good so far. So, what’s the big deal with sugar? Eating plants (aka vegetables) is really good for us.

Here’s the catch.

Simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, are plant-based foods that have been refined and processed into everyday edibles such as pasta, bread, cakes, cookies, and fruit juices. Pretty much anything made out of flours or sugar or the wide array of sugar equivalents (corn syrup, agave, honey, dextrose, fructose, and the like) will fall into this category. Sugar, when consumed in this form, does not bring with it any other essential nutrients, vitamins or minerals that you get when you eat an unprocessed food. These simple sugars are often called out by scientists and researchers as one of the primary drivers of the obesity epidemic in the US today.

Simple sugars are too fast for your brain

When the body consumes protein, the brain releases a hormone to signal that the stomach is full. You feel full and you stop eating. Simple sugars and processed carbohydrates circumvent this natural process of feeling full. You see, when the body consumes simple sugars, the food is absorbed quickly in the first two feet of the intestines. This happens so fast, that your brain can’t tell how much food has actually been consumed. You can end up taking in all the energy (aka calories) but you don’t feel full. This often results in eating more food than your body needs and too much sugar in the bloodstream.

The cascading health risks of too much sugar

Take a deep breath. We are about to explore all the damage high blood sugar can cause.

Hyperglycemia occurs when there is too much sugar in the blood. This condition can damage arteries and promote development of arterial plaques. Hyperglycemia also increases the risk for disruption of plaque on vessel walls, which can result in heart attack or stroke.

High blood sugar ages the blood vessels and over time can shrink the brain, damage vision and nerves, and increase the risk of developing depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

An increase in sugar consumption causes the pancreas to release more insulin -- insulin is also known as the “fat storage hormone.” (Yikes). Over time, an accumulation of fat changes hormonal signaling, and the body begins to ignore insulin. This condition is called insulin resistance.

When the body stops recognizing insulin, more sugar accumulates in the blood. This causes the pancreas to release even more insulin. Soon the body has too much sugar and too much insulin. This condition is called diabetes.

Sugar has also been found to cause premature aging and dementia, as well as many different types of cancers, including pancreatic, breast, liver, bladder, and colon cancer.

Let’s just say that too much sugar in the bloodstream is something you don’t want.

How much sugar is OK?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men. Yet, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) every day.

Remember, there are two types of sugars: 1) complex sugars or carbohydrates; and 2) simple sugars or carbohydrates. Complex sugars occur naturally in foods and can be found in vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and dairy. Simple sugars are found in processed foods and identified as “added sugars.” Simple carbohydrates, such as flours, fall into this category of simple sugars, too. Added sugars are EVERYWHERE in the average American diet.

Take a look at the ingredients list of most any food in a package and you’re likely see some kind of added sugar. Once you start reading labels and looking for added sugar, you might be shocked.

  • Flavored yogurt
  • Nut butters
  • Roasted and flavored nuts
  • Bottled salad dressing
  • Sauce (from marinara to BBQ)
  • Breads and crackers
  • Refried beans
  • Protein, granola, and health food bars
  • Packaged sides, such as bean salad, baked beans, macaroni or potato salad, or marinated cucumbers
  • Frozen meals
  • Sausages and deli meats
  • Dried fruit

And it’s addictive.

Eric Stice, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Oregon Research Institute used fMRI scans to conclude that sugar activates the same brain regions that are activated when a person consumes drugs like cocaine. In addition, he found that heavy users of sugar develop tolerance (needing more and more to feel the same effect), which is a symptom of substance dependence.

Robert Lustig is professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, a member of their Institute for Health Policy Studies and the president of a nonprofit known as the Institute for Responsible Nutrition. His research, Fructose: It’s Alcohol without the Buzz, compares sugar consumption with alcohol consumption.

In an April 2017 interview for Freakonomics Radio, Lustig says, “We started comparing what sugar did versus what alcohol did, and we realized, you know what, sugar and alcohol do the exact same thing, and it makes sense that it should, because after all, where do you get alcohol from? Fermentation of sugar. We were now seeing the diseases of alcohol without the alcohol.”

So, what can you do?

Few of us have the interest or discipline to track our intake of sugar down to the gram in order to meet or dip below the recommended levels. Thankfully, there are simpler ways to reduce your sugar consumption. Reading this article is a great start. As they say, knowing is half the battle. The other half, of course, is taking action and here are a few tips.

  • You always hear of “fruits and vegetables” paired together. Focus on the vegetables and then more sugary fruits. Also reach first for berries that are lower in sugar and higher in fiber than other fruits.
  • Read the ingredient labels for all packaged foods and watch out for added sugar and words that mean the same thing as sugar. Remember that naturally occurring sugar is good and added sugar is bad. When choosing between two similar products and both have no added sugars, compare the total sugar and select the product with the lower amount.
  • Opt for whole grains instead of flours. Anything ground into a flour or powder becomes a simple carbohydrate (sugar) whether it is wheat, corn, oats, rice, gluten-free, or bean.
  • Make a healthy switch from fruit juices and sweetened beverages to water, diet drinks or flavored seltzer waters.
  • Volunteer to be the designated driver and skip the alcohol.
  • Plan for treats. Let’s face it, sugar tastes good, it’s enjoyable to eat, and often served for special occasions. So go ahead and indulge now and again. An infrequent treat is savored all the more and ensures that you’re not feeling deprived.

Most people find that as they continue to cut back on sugar, their palette changes. They find the taste of sugary foods too sweet. In addition, cravings subside and walking past a box of donuts in the break room is a breeze.