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Sugar: The good, the bad and the ugly


As a kid there was no downside, nothing negative about sugar; it was only good in my eyes. I was the ‘Candy Queen’ (for those non-Brits the ‘Candy King’ is a pick ‘n’ mix sweet station at the cinema. Now I’ve explained you can see the level of humour we’ll reach). I could comfortably finish the biggest bag of pick ‘n’ mix during a film, or otherwise, with seemingly zero consequences. A bag of marshmallows – annihilated. A giant Toblerone – not a problem. Re-sealable chocolate bags – why would you do that?! A dessert, or anything sweet, was obviously to be consumed. Sugar to me was a friend; a warm comforting friend. I stayed active, running a lot, cycling, playing football and competing in athletics, so all that sugar got burned off. That was, until the teenage years, when hormones kicked in and I was less active – this was when ‘the sugar hit the fan’. I had multiple diabetes tests and episodes of passing out (all linked, I now believe, to too much sugar).

Over the last ten years I’ve been fascinated with the effects sugar has on not only our bodies, but on our minds and emotions as well. Today, I want to address the dark side of sugar.

Firstly, a brief lesson in sugar. There are many forms of sugar available but here we will be looking primarily at glucose and fructose, which are simple sugars, and sucrose, which is a synthesis of the two.

Glucose is the most recognisable sugar to the body and is its primary source of energy.  Glucose is also referred to as blood sugar.  As soon as you take a mouthful of food, insulin is released into your blood stream to transport the glucose to your muscles and body cells to be used as energy or stored as fat.  Insulin is primarily secreted in accordance with the level of glucose.  Insulin resistance is when cells no longer respond normally to insulin, or stop responding all together.  When this happens, glucose can not enter the cells and so blood glucose levels increase.  The body will then send out more insulin, which still does not help the unresponsive cells – and now there is an abundance of glucose and insulin in the bloodstream.

Fructose is found naturally in fruits and vegetables.  When eaten in its true form, with fibre, speaks to your satiety (satisfacrion) levels where as fructose eaten alone and apart from fibre, doesn’t.  Fructose is not the body’s preferred energy source and has a different metabolic pathway to others, as it is only metabolised by the liver.  Once in the liver fructose can create glycerol, the backbone of fat and fat formation.  Due to the liver only being able to store a certain amount of fructose as glycogen at one time, the rest will be stored as fat and often end up around your middle.  Fructose does not stimulate leptin production, which tells the body when you are full, a key hormone for regulating energy intake and expenditure.  Leptin levels go up when our body has had enough and it signals us to stop eating.  A decrease in leptin is associated with high fructose intake and creating a harmful effect on regulating food intake and body fat.  Fructose’s ugly cousin, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) creates this decrease in leptin and subsequently no signals to tell the brain the body is full.  Sure, fructose is in fruit but there’s no need to panic if you’re eating it as whole food.  You need to consume over 8 pounds of most fresh fruit to get 2000 calories. Humans don’t usually eat more than 5 pounds of food a day.

Sucrose, or table sugar, is harvested from sugar cane and sugar beets.  It is made up of glucose and fructose.  When sucrose is digested glucose is taken up for energy and any left over is stored as fat.

The Good

Sugar, believe it or not, does have a good side.  As stated it’s our body’s preferred energy source, in glucose form.  If you’re an athlete, or train hard then sugar after a workout is obviously very good and necessary to restore lost energy.  It’s also tasty!  However, it’s benefits don’t go beyond this.  Sugar has no nutritional value nor does it contain vitamins or minerals.  Sugar is to help keep energy levels stable, but when it was originally consumed it would have been with fibre, ie. fruit or the sugar cane.  Don’t misunderstand me, I think that something being pleasing to the taste and with a side of social enjoyment is good and needed and part of “health”.  However, the amount of sugar we consume, partly due to our own choices and partly due to the food industry pumping our food with this white crystalised powder, has turned the good and necessary need for small amounts of sugar into an epidemic.

But what about agave, honey and maple syrup?

Unfortunately these also do not sit high on the good sugar table. The reason these have been considered as “healthy” is because they are “natural”. Well, so was the sugar on your table until it got extracted from the sugar cane. The confusion stems from the GI Index (glycemic index). Agave has a low GI because it is mostly made up of fructose, which goes straight to your liver to get metabolised and has little effect on your insulin. However, fructose without fibre (ie. Fruit) still works the same as other sugar – it enters your bloodstream quickly and spikes your blood sugar level. However when consumed as fruit it takes a lot longer.

Precision Nutrition states that:
– A 32 fl ounce soda sweetened with HFCS has about 50 grams of fructose.
– A 32 fl ounce soda sweetened with agave has about 56 grams of fructose.
You can see it’s easy to rack up sugar grams when you use sweeteners.

“However, with whole, unprocessed foods, it’s a lot tougher. For instance, you’d have to eat about 10 apples… or an unimaginably intestinally distressing quantity of red beets.”

(If you don’t know about Precision Nutrition you should, they are legit. Start following them!)

As you can see, consumption is the key – both the amount you consume and the form it takes.

The bad
Unfortunately the bad is pretty bad.  There are a whole host of negative side effects relating to sugar, too many to go into depth here but you should get the idea.  Obesity, hypertension, high triglycerides, diabetes, insulin resistance and aging are just a few.  It has also been cited as being as toxic as alcohol, it disables the immune system weakening it and causing illness, it creates a stressor-reaction effect and releases unnecessary cortisol and adrenalin, as said earlier it reduces leptin production which effects our appetite regulation, sugar spurs insulin resistance and heart disease and the list could go on.  A lot of these side effects come under what is know as ‘metabolic syndrome’, a group of risk factors and not an actual disease.

The Ugly

It is the hidden effects of sugar which make it ugly.  It is now in so many foods, and foods you’d never imagine, all to try and keep food production low.  Sugar is such a cheap commodity, and an addictive one, by pumping foods with sugar it keeps costs down for the manufacturer and keeps the customer coming back for more.  Yet ‘metabolic syndrome’ is causing far more of a strain on health systems, at least in the United States.

“Seventy-five per cent of all U.S health care dollars are now spent on treating these diseases and their resultant disabilities”

Great! So what now?

Well, in some respects sugar is sugar is sugar. Although they have slightly different make-ups and thus have a variety of effects on the body, ultimately there is not a lot of difference.  The main issue, as we’ve seen a little bit already, is the amount we consume and sugar’s presence in so many foods. Where once it was produced and controlled by nature it is now being produced and controlled by humans. The nature of our use has caused something intended for good to become deeply harmful – and not only for our health. The cultivation, harvesting and production of most products damages the environment in someway.  Sugar farmers are now starting to turn to greencane harvesting to help the environment and stop pre-harvest burning which is most sensitive to the environment and people.  As sugar became a highly sought-after cheap commodity, and now a cheap way to fill food, harvesting increased, as did slave labour. Today, perhaps honey and agave are the best for the environment as they are the least processed, but this doesn’t mean they have the least affect on our bodies. Ultimately knowing what you are eating, where it has come from and how much you have consumed is key.

Practical tips for seeing your waistline get smaller and the cortisol roller coaster level out:
– You don’t need to go cold turkey – become more aware of how your sugar is being consumed and cut back.

– Realise it’s not just the usual suspects which contain high amounts of sugar. Check those labels!

– Learn to read your body and know when enough is enough.

– Try to keep your sugar moments social only, and enjoy a glass of red and some dark chocolate if you need a treat when you’re alone.

– Consume more whole-fibre food, like sugar that comes from sugar cane. If you can’t get hold of that then grab a piece of fruit.

Check out this post for more on the history of sugar and a breakdown of sugar’s make-up.

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