What’s Causing Your Inflammation?

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

Sugar and Inflammation
A newly understood phenomenon, inflammation underlies modern health scourges, from heart disease to obesity to diabetes. “Sugar can play a role in inflammatory diseases,” says Dave Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Poor regulation of glucose and insulin is a breeding ground for inflammation.”

Under normal conditions, inflammation helps the body rebound from injury. For instance, if you cut yourself shaving, white blood cells race to the scene to mop up the wound, destroy bacteria and mend tissue. But when the injury is deep inside the body, such as inside the blood vessels of the heart, hidden inflammation can trigger chronic disease, and experts are only beginning to understand how sugar fans the flames.

In the development of heart disease, the type of carbohydrate in your diet may be as important as the type of fat, says Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and author of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy (Free Press, 2005). The more refined carbs you eat, the more likely you are to be supplying your body with more sugar than it can handle with healthy results.

That point hit home when Willett and a team of HSPH nutrition researchers looked at diet and health history data from more than 75,500 women who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study. At the start of the study in 1984, all the nurses were given a clean bill of health. Ten years later, 761 had either been diagnosed with or died from heart disease. When researchers distilled the numbers, they found a telling parallel between women eating a high-glycemic diet of refined carbohydrates and those with heart disease. An even more disturbing trend was within the group of women at risk for heart disease: Those who ate the most carbohydrates – including sugars – doubled their risk of heart attack compared to those with diets only moderately high in carbohydrates.

Nutrition experts stress that there’s no point avoiding the carbs that come from eating a balanced, healthy, whole-foods diet. But there is plenty of good reason to avoid the refined carbs that quickly turn to sugar in the body.

Such sugars deliver more excess (and mostly empty) calories, which the body then con verts to triglycerides, a key indicator of heart disease.

Sugar-rich diets stress the heart in other ways, too. When blood sugar is high, the body generates more free radicals. Rogue molecules that pinball through the body damaging cells, free radicals stimulate the immune response, which can inflame the lining of the blood vessels leading to the heart. And the damage doesn’t stop there.

From Sugar Comes Fat
Until recently, the connection between sugar and obesity was murky. Dietitians assumed that in the battle of the bulge, sugar was a lesser foe than dietary fat. But new studies reveal sugar may play a bigger role in weight gain than suspected. And carrying excess body fat further reduces your body’s ability to manage its sugars effectively.

When scientists want to measure the effects of sugar on health and weight, they turn to the biggest source of sugar in American diets:soft drinks. A pilot study published in the March 2006 issue of Pediatrics showed for the first time that simply cutting back on sugary drinks can reduce excess body fat. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston enrolled 103 sugar-guzzling teenagers, divided them into two groups (an intervention and a control), and measured the effects of the drinks on their weight. For almost six months the intervention group got weekly home deliveries of their choice of noncaloric drinks, including bottled water, iced tea and diet sodas. The scientists called the teens monthly to check in and cheer them along. The control group went about their normal drinking habits. In the end, the teens in the intervention group cut their intake of sugary drinks by 82 percent and lost weight.

Although the average weight loss was “modest,” the teens who weighed the most at the beginning saw the biggest losses, roughly a pound a month. This study goes to show that reducing sugar intake, particularly sugar-sweetened beverages, is one of the best ways to improve one’s diet, Harvard’s Willett says. “Sugar is an important source of excess calories in the American diet – a serious problem given the obesity epidemic.”

Cutting Back
The best way to reduce unhealthy sugars in the diet is to consume fewer processed foods and drinks in general, and refined carbs and sugars in particular. Fuel your energy demands with a slower-burning balance of proteins, healthy fats and whole-food carbs.

For a healthier alternative to sugars that you add at the table or kitchen counter, dietitian Grotto suggests switching to sweeteners that are higher in naturally occurring fructose, such as agave syrup or malted barley, which have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar and insulin. Still, you should limit your intake to no more than 3 teaspoons a day. “These sweeteners won’t elicit the glycemic responseof table sugar,” he says, “but you shouldn’t eat them by the gallon.”

‘ For sweetening tea or cereal, you might also try stevia, a natural calorie-free herb made from a South American shrub. It’s sold at health-food stores as a dietary supplement and is widely available in both powder and liquid forms.

Take heart: Enjoying a limited amount of refined sugar isn’t going to devastate an otherwise consistent healthy-living regimen – but that doesn’t mean you should keep swallowing it indiscriminately. “The sugar highs and lows brought on by high-carbohydrate foods create a dangerous addiction,” researcher Challem notes. And the sooner we break our addiction to sugar, the better off our bodies will be.

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit www.experiencelifemag.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter.

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Eric Babcock
Eric Babcock2 years ago

Not once did you define which sugar you are referring too. So I'm going to have to conclude that you are referring to all sugar. Which in turn makes this entire article bullshit.

In the future. I would suggest clarifying which form of sugar you are talking about.

Monosaccharide -- a simple sugar; glucose, fructose, ribose, galactose (galactose is also called cerebrose, brain sugar).

Disaccharide -- two monosaccharides bound together; sucrose, lactose, maltose.

Oligosaccharide -- a short chain of monosaccharides, including disaccharides and slightly longer chains.

Polysaccharide -- starch, cellulose, glycogen.

Glycation -- the attachment of a sugar to a protein.

Lipolysis - the liberation of free fatty acids from triglycerides, the neutral form in which fats are stored, bound to glycerine.

Mac C.
mac C.4 years ago

excellent. Thank you.

Shirley S.
Shirley S.4 years ago

For many years I have used raw sugar in recipes.But I have abstained from using any sugar in tea & coffee.

Rosemary B.
Rosemary B.4 years ago

This is an awesome article and I need to change me as quickly as possible if I want to see my grand-sons grow up!

Cassandra J F.
Cassandra F.5 years ago

Great article, thanks! I only eat wholefoods, my sugar sources are agave, malt, maple and a little honey. I hope lots of peope read this article because diabetes is on the up in the UK!

Pamela C.
Pamela C.5 years ago

Thank you for a thought-provoking article. I get a temperature rise every day in the late afternoon/evening and it can't be controlled. Doctors don't know what causes it and I seek answers. This information may be a piece of the puzzle.

Eliza D.
Past Member 5 years ago

Wow, great article! I did not know about the dangers of all these infections... I'm sure this information about silent inflammation will help many people.
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Caroline S.

I agree...homegrown is awesome and so are Farmer's Markets! I knew refined sugars and processed foods were bad and we have been trying to stay far away from them at our house...but I had no idea of the link with inflammation. I do recommend though for anyone suffering from inflammation that they try the Topricin pain cream. I love it- it is natural and I do not have to feel dependent on oral pain meds to help with aches and pains and inflammation! I hope this helps others and I am glad to see more things pointing towards a whole foods diet. Yay! Healthy yummy foods :)

Past Member
Past Member 6 years ago

Dee, you are fortunate indeed. Perhaps,as you point out, you are able to moderate, or you metalbolize quicker. Chubbier souls might fare better in a spare environment than you, or, they might indeed be slenderer too. Moderation is a relative term. Younger folks also tend to weigh less on more intake than when they age. If your temperment, sense of humor, humility and empathy are as balanced as your food intake, you are fortunate indeed, and an inspiration to those of us who only moderate moderation itself.

Shanni P.
Shanni P.6 years ago

To Jamie, Jennifer and anybody else who wants to know "what's left to eat":
A balanced diet needs carbohydrates (less simple ones like sugars and more complex ones like in whole grains), fats of the good kinds in moderate amounts (cold-pressed veg. oils or raw nuts, seeds, avocado, fish etc.) and protein, preferably from grains, legumes, and nuts and less from animal products. You don't necessarily have to go vegan, surely not "breathairian", but it is best to eat more plant-foods and less animal-foods.
Any extreme low-carb/low-fat/low-whatever (or high-whatever for that matter) can be more harmful than beneficial. If the carbs and fats come in their most natural form which also contains vitamins, minerals and fibers, the caloric part will be better utilized by the body and therefore less harmful.

The main problem with refined sugar is that it's an addictive but as opposed to cigarettes or drugs, people don't realize how harmful it actually is so they go on consuming it as if it had anything to do with food.