Learn how sugar impairs more than blood glucose levels
If you know what to look for, you can find sugar in some unexpected places. Pasta sauce, bread, milk and many salad dressings and condiments contain some form of sweetener, both natural and artificial. And while sugar in and of itself isn’t dangerous, it is a contributing factor to the high rates of diabetes and obesity in the U.S.
Research shows that too much fructose, a natural sugar found in fruit, can harm the body. A 2012 study conducted at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA showed that a diet high in fructose may also impair brain function. The good news is that same study showed that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids countered much of the memory impairment caused by the high levels of fructose in the test subjects.
Dr. Ian Smith says that sugar’s impact on the whole body is underestimated by consumers. Smith, a go to source for diet and exercise, is graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine as well as the author of the New York Times best seller, Blast the Sugar Out!
“It’s not just tooth decay or weight gain — sugar can affect our bodies at a cellular level,” Smith says. “Sugar has a kind of complicated neural pathway in the brain. It’s an addictive substance that affects our brain’s pleasure centers and the function of dopamine and dopamine receptors. Sugar can be a true addiction and it follows a pathway very similar to that of a narcotic pleasure loop.”
Even though sugar is found in so many products, information from the American Heart Association (AHA) notes that our bodies don’t need added sugars to properly function, and that overconsumption of sugar and sugar additives is creating multigenerational health problems.
The AHA’s daily sugar recommendations limit men to 9 tsp. (150 calories) and only 6 tsp. (100 calories) for women.
The biology of sugar
Regular exercise and a low-fat, low-added-sugar diet is one of the best combinations to combat many disease states. Insulin carries sugar throughout the body and stores it for future use in muscle, fat and liver cells. When insulin is low –– during rest or between meals –– the stored sugar is released into the bloodstream. During a meal, insulin is released by the pancreas to help disperse sugar throughout the body.
The UCLA study showed that a diet consistently high in fructose slowed brain function, hampering memory and learning. The excessive fructose was blocking insulin’s ability to regulate usage and storage of sugar in the brain.
When people stop consuming extra sugar, the body may react by triggering cravings, anxiety, shakiness, headaches and changes in mood.
“Some of the most typical reactions are headaches and a depressed or down mood,” Smith says. “Those side effects can last for a week, but they will decrease. I don’t believe in quitting sugar cold turkey.
Some people may be able to do it, but in some cases the body can go through strong withdrawals and some people just aren’t up for it.”
The three main carbs are sugar, starch and fiber. While many processed foods have added carbohydrates, carbs also occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, milk, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Smith, who specializes in combining fitness with healthy eating, says to focus on reducing the total amount of carbohydrates in your diet, being mindful of sugar and processed sugar consumption while incorporating an effective exercise regimen.
“Exercise is probably the most effective way to manage your blood sugar and lose weight,” Smith says. “Exercise increases the utilization of excess sugar and carbohydrates. The more you exercise, the more your body needs energy.”
If someone has one of the conditions influenced by sugar consumption, like diabetes, it’s important that they talk with their physician about changes in their diet. Medication treating these conditions may have to be monitored and adjusted to meet their body’s changing needs.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes approximately 47 pounds of cane sugar and 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup each year.
Sugar by other names
Look for these names on food labels and become aware of the added sweeteners in common products:
- Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruits and honey that is also added to baked goods and sodas.
- Sucrose, or common table sugar, is the most familiar form of granulated sugar.
- Agave is a sugar alternative that’s loaded with fructose.
- Dextrose is a simple sugar (quick absorbing in the body) that the body uses as a source of energy.
- Lactose is the natural sugar found in cow’s milk.
- Galactose is a derivative of lactose, commonly used in fast food.
- High-fructose corn syrup is one of the most common sugar additives used in processed foods (sauces, sodas, condiments, candy).
- Xylitol is a plant-based sweetener commonly found in sugar-free chewing gum.
- Sorghum contains dietary fiber and is used in the production of alcoholic beverages, cereals and baked goods.
- Stevia is derived from a South American plant and is touted as a calorie-free sweetener.
- Other names include: Treacle, sucanat, panela, evaporated cane juice, dextran and anhydrous dextrose.