Sugar has become a controversial topic. Does it cause obesity, heart disease, cancer, and inflammation? Is it just sugar or is it more complicated? Let’s find out….
After a very fun 2017 that included midnight monster cookies, alcohol, and processed carbs, the D2D team decided our New Year’s Resolution would be to eliminate most added sugars altogether (and possibly drop a few pounds in 2018). More than that, we wanted to understand the risks associated with eating excess sugar. Exactly what is sugar doing to us and should we kick the habit all together?
Today, the average American eats between 90 to 110 grams of added sugar a day. This equates to about five cups a week or 130 pounds per year! This massive amount is 50+ grams more per day than recommended by the American Heart Association, which grants a daily allowance of 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Department of Health in England concur with sugar being no more than 5% of total calories, which is 25 grams based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Is it Fat or Is it Sugar?
Americans began to investigate the relationship between prevalent diseases and sugar when President Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955. To determine the cause, his doctors divided into two camps over what was to blame: sugar or fat. (It didn’t help that he smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day.)
Unfortunately for the American public, foods high in fat became the culprit for his health problems and sugar was deemed safe for consumption. The food industry took note and started creating “healthier” foods that were low in fat. In order to compensate for the bland taste and ‘mouth feel’ without fats, sugar was added.
Today, 31% of Americans are obese, one American dies every 40 seconds of cardiovascular disease, and 9.4% have type 2 diabetes (34% have prediabetes). This trend continues throughout the Western world. Is this a coincidence or is sugar to blame?
Today, sugar has been deemed the new poison. Books such as The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes; a book from 1972, Pure, White, and Deadly, by John Yudkin, as well as articles in the New York Times, The Guardian, and the New Yorker have all indicated that sugar is toxic. Additionally, documentaries such as That Sugar Film point to its adverse effect on our health.
Until it is possible to perform research that incorporates human trials, we will not be able to state these claims definitively. It is much easier to feed sugar to rats and see the results than perform the same experiments on humans. The National Institutes of Health has several studies which point to the adverse effects of sugar on our health, but has also published studies that indicate the exact results of fructose consumption are inconclusive.
Excess sugar certainly has health consequences, but let’s be honest – there are more factors to blame, as well. No one sits down and eats a plate of just plain cane sugar.
Sugar comes with extra calories. Second to Austria, Americans eat more per person than any other country in the world. The average caloric consumption per capita in the United States is 3,750 calories – a day. That is approximately 1,750 more calories than we need. In addition, we are sedentary. We sit, on average, 12 hours a day – this doesn’t even include sleep.
We are talking about added sugars. Many of our readers have asked about fruit and dairy. Well, you are not going to get fat by eating unsweetened yogurt, drinking milk, and eating 3-4 servings of fruit a day. The sugar found in naturally occurring dairy is called lactose. Lactose does not contain fructose. However, dairy products can have added sugars which do contain fructose. That sugar counts as added sugar.
Fruit is good for you as it has nutrients, water and fiber. The fiber will slow down the glucose and insulin peaks. Chewing fruit adds to your satiety and prevents you from overeating. Fruit juice, on the other hand, is packed with sugars and does not have the same fiber content, therefore it will count towards added daily sugars.
Breaking it down to Glucose and Fructose.
As we discussed in Sugar is Sugar is Sugar, a standard sugar molecule is approximately 50% glucose and 50% fructose. It is all the same: cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and even honey. On one hand, we need sugar. If we don’t have enough, our bodies will lack energy. But, there are consequences if we have too much.
Glucose is the energy of life. The glucose molecule is good for us and every cell in our bodies use it for energy. It fuels our muscles, brain, and tissues. The insulin effectively pokes a hole in the cell wall, which allows the glucose to enter the cell and give it energy.
But when there are strong fluctuations in the blood through a high sugar diet, the high glucose levels can make our muscles ‘insensitive’ to insulin over time, which leads to insulin resistance. This can be a precursor to type 2 diabetes. The insulin cannot keep up and the excess glucose is sent to the liver along with the fructose and eventually converted to glycogen – which is stored as fat for future energy use.
Fructose, on the other hand, is not used for energy. It is associated with the multiple health issues you hear about regarding sugar.
First of all, you get fat. Fructose is not metabolized by our bodies so it just gets stored in our liver as fat. When the liver can’t hold any more, it will send the fat to the organs in your body and around your belly. The triglycerides can also float through your blood stream and, if they are high enough, will attach themselves as plaque in your arteries.
Glucose vs. Fructose: How it works in the body to make you fat.
Second of all, too much sugar hurts your brain. Although glucose feeds our brain, the excess consumption is wearing on our brain signals. Our brain cells need about two times more energy – about 10% of our diet – than our other cells. Too much fructose reduces a chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This helps with repairing and protecting brain cells, forming connections and make new memories. A low level of BDNF causes all sorts of issues such as low concentration, limited memory, and even depression.
But most importantly, a diet high in sugars over the AHA or WHO recommendations is strongly associated with metabolic syndrome – which means that everything that your body regulates starts to fall apart. It is the precursor to heart disease, diabetes, and more recently diagnosed, inflammation. The first sign of metabolic syndrome can be something as simple as visceral fat – otherwise known as belly or back fat.
What are the signs of Metabolic Syndrome?
- Waistline (just above the hipbone)– 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men
- Triglycerides – fasting blood triglycerides are 150 milligrams per deciliter or higher
- Low HDL cholesterol – lower than 50 for women and lower than 40 for men
- High Blood Pressure – greater than 130/85
- Elevated Blood Glucose – 100 mg or higher
If you can answer yes to three of the above criteria than you need to talk to your doctor and seriously adjust your diet! Once your doctor sees these signs, he or she will warn you to STOP eating sugar. You are on the verge of major health issues.
Finally, we would be remiss to leave out a new study from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center which showed a link between breast cancer and sugar. Mice on a sucrose diet, containing fructose, were approximately 60% more likely to develop mammary tumors.
Sugar, Appetite and Cravings…..
Now it gets even more interesting. Eating a high sugar diet makes you want to eat even more! Because it doesn’t take as much energy to process sugars as it does protein and fat, your body processes them much faster. So fast, in fact, that you don’t know that you are full. In addition, too much fructose in your system will alter the hormones called ghrelin and leptin so your body does not send the right signal that you are full. High peaks and lows in both glucose and insulin create a craving for more food about two to three hours after you eat a high glucose load. Have you ever had a soda with 20 grams of sugar along with a fast food hamburger and french fries…and gone back for seconds? We have – and now we know why! The snacking continues – the calories build – and weight gain follows. Now we know how we get to 3,750 calories a day!
Ever heard of a sugar high? Sugar rushes energy through your body as the insulin enters through your blood stream. This is often followed by a fast decline because there was so much glucose in your blood stream that insulin can’t keep up and your cells don’t get the energy they need. This motivates you to eat even more sugar in order to get more energy and more…. Bliss! You immediately feel better. It is a never-ending cycle that most people are on throughout the day: up and down and up and down.
The negative effect of sugar is not an overnight phenomenon – it is a slow progression. Maybe it starts with eating too many sweets with not enough exercise. Maybe your HDL (good cholesterol) is not high enough and your LDL (bad cholesterol) is too high. Keeping a poor diet for a longer period could then cause you to develop a prediabetic condition of insulin resistance. This, combined with a high level of triglycerides, will start to take its toll on your health. Continuing this bad diet over a period of several months or years would then begin to deteriorate your health. (Visit our post on inflammation for more insight on the link between unhealthy digestion and cancer.)
What can you do?
The good news is that all the negative effects of sugar can be reversed once you ‘quit the habit’.
Be mindful in the grocery store
Quit soda pop
If you are not exercising regularly, then start. Exercise burns the triglycerides before they turn into visceral fat. Exercise also reduces stress, which makes you happier and helps reduce your cravings. Not to mention, stress and obesity are linked.
If you regularly walk out of the grocery store with a cart filled with overly processed food and no vegetables, start writing and sticking to a shopping list, and stay away from the center aisles. Going to the grocery store is even more fraught with unexpected purchases. 60% of grocery store purchases are unplanned – and most of those are in the center of the grocery store, where all the processed foods are kept. Added sugar is literally everywhere. If you removed all the items from the shelves in the grocery store that have added sugar, you would eliminate 80% of the food in the center aisles.
If you regularly crave sugar sweetened drinks, then start to wean yourself off them. Sugar sweetened drinks are a major culprit because they pack so much sugar into one small product. Meta-analysis have shown that drinking two 16 oz sugar sweetened beverages a day can cause diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. They are a companion to a meal, they don’t fill you up, and you can quickly exceed the recommended allowance sugar. We associate sugar drinks with sodas such as Coke, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper, yet they are found even in ‘healthy’ drinks such as fruit juice, ice teas, expensive cleanses and sports drinks. Energy drinks are particularly fraught with sugar.
How to cut out sugar?
Our research led us to a great book, I QUIT SUGAR, by Sarah Wilson. There are also a lot of self-help blogs on the internet— we like Rachel Good Eat’s Sugar Detox. However, we found it is just easier to stop altogether. When you are craving sugar, go for a serving of fruit instead. We like snacking on frozen red grapes or apple slices. Or leave the kitchen for 90 seconds, think about something else, and the craving will stop. Also, consider moving your cereals, chips, cookies and breads off your counters and into a cabinet – out of sight, out of mind!
From the D2D team: Recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth without added sugar!
The Bottom Line:
Sugar is now believed to be the root of many long-term diseases for which fat was wrongfully blamed. We understand that sugar consumption is hard to control but you must be a mindful consumer, or you will find it incredibly easy to exceed the AHA daily recommendation. Try cutting it out of your diet for a week— we promise you will feel better and smarter.
Ahmed, S H, et al. “Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-Sugar analogy to the limit.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23719144.
Avena, Nicole M., et al. “Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.” Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/.
Bray, G A, and B M Popkin. “Dietary sugar and body weight: have we reached a crisis in the epidemic of obesity and diabetes?: health be damned! Pour on the sugar.” Diabetes care., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24652725.
DiSalvo, David. “What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Aug. 2012, www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/04/01/what-eating-too-much-sugar-does-to-your-brain/#61c6eaa74a19.
Johnson, Richard J., et al. The sugar fix: the high-Fructose fallout that is making you fat and sick. Pocket Books, 2009.
Taubes, Gary. The case against sugar. Anchor Books, 2016.
That Sugar Film, http://thatsugarfilm.com/
“WHO guideline : sugar consumption recommendation.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/.
Wilson, Sarah. I quit sugar: the complete 8-Week program. Pan Macmillan, 2012.