By Catherine Guthrie, Experience Life
Americans are on a bona fide sugar binge. During the past 25 years, the average person’s intake of sugar and other natural sweeteners ballooned from 123 to as many as 160 pounds a year. That breaks down to more than 20 teaspoons of the added white stuff per person per day. And our collective sweet tooth is growing. For the past decade, Americans’ sugar consumption has edged upward at the average rate of nearly 2 percent a year.
Why the sugar obsession? The vilification of fat may be partly to blame. During the low-fat frenzy of the past couple of decades, oils were squeezed out of processed foods – and sugar was pumped in to make reduced-fat foods tastier. It seems clear now that we effectively traded one dietary evil for another.
New research is revealing disturbing links not just between sugar and obesity, but also between sugar and inflammation. Inflammation, of course, has been implicated as a major factor in a number of vitality zapping diseases, from cancer and diabetes to atherosclerosis and digestive disorders.
Whether you’re concerned with managing your weight, your health, or both, it makes sense to evaluate the impact your sugar habit could be having on your body.
The Refined-Carb Connection
On the spectrum of dietary dangers, processed sugars are on a par with unhealthy fats. “High-fructose corn syrup is the primary cause of obesity in our culture,” says Elson Haas, MD, author of Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts, 2006, New Edition). “Our bodies simply aren’t built to process all that sugar.”
Still, to date, sugar doesn’t have nearly as bad a reputation as it probably deserves. One of the reasons it slips under the radar is that connecting the dots between sugar and disease requires widening the nutritional net to include all refined carbohydrates (like processed flours, cereals and sugars of all sorts). This may seem like a fine point, but it’s an important distinction.
Most dietary sugars are simple carbohydrates, meaning that they’re made up of one or two sugar molecules stuck together, making them easy to pull apart and digest. Complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grains, legumes and many vegetables, are long chains of sugar molecules that must be broken apart during digestion, therefore offering a longer-lasting surge of energy. The presence of naturally occurring fiber, protein and fat in many whole foods further slows the sugar-release process.
The more processed and refined the carbohydrate, as a rule, the faster it breaks down in the digestive system, and the bigger the sugar rush it delivers. That’s why refined flours, sugars and sugar syrups pose such a problem for our systems.
The body is exquisitely designed to handle small amounts of sugar. But refined carbs deliver a larger rush than our bodies were designed to accommodate, or even cope with. In ancient times, hunter-gatherers coveted the occasional piece of fruit or slab of honeycomb as a rare treat and source of rapid-fire energy for, well – hunting and gathering.
“Refined sugar is a genetically unfamiliar ingredient,” says Jack Challem, a nutrition researcher and author of The Inflammation Syndrome (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). “A lot of health problems today are the result of ancient genes bumping up against modern foods.”
To wrap your head around sugar’s destructive powers, it helps to understand how the body reacts when it meets the sweet stuff. With each gulp of a sports drink or soda, for instance, simple carbohydrates are quickly dismantled into simple sugar molecules (glucose) that pass directly into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar rises markedly. To bring levels back to normal, the pancreas releases insulin, which lowers blood-sugar levels by escorting glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells.
If energy needs are high at the time sugar hits the bloodstream, that sugar is put to good use. But a too frequent or too heavy supply of sugar pushes the pancreas into overdrive, causing it to release too much insulin – a spew instead of a squirt. And an excessive release of insulin spells inflammatory trouble.
Next: Sugar and Inflammation