Sugar: Between a rock and a sweet place

Written by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

I remember a few things about childhood better than others: summer vacation, creek stomping with the neighbors and mom’s chocolate chip cookies. The cookies especially stand out. Hot from the oven, the melted chocolate making a mess of my hands, and the sweetness that lingered in my mouth and instantly widened my smile. When we were good kids, mom rewarded us with fresh cookies.

These childhood associations of sugar as a reward or as a universal expression of love, stay with most of us throughout our entire life. But sugar has its dark side. Sugar is physically addictive, operating in our brain in a similar fashion to opiates. This is why people with a sweet tooth get grumpy when they go without their sugar fix. Some science says that sugar and other sweeteners are the single biggest cause of illness in the world. It is a subject that I have been studying lately. I recently read two very well written opinions on the topic: National Geographic August 2013 issue and Mother Earth Living November/December 2013 both have featured articles on sugar. Both of these articles mention that consumption of sweeteners worldwide has dramatically increased over the past 100 years, especially in the USA. It is no surprise that during this time the incidence of sugar related illnesses has also increased.

To truly understand sweeteners and their effects on our bodies, it is helpful to discuss a little of the science of food. Sugar is fuel, period. It is what a body uses to power every function. A healthy body produces insulin, which grabs sugars in the blood stream and pulls them into the cells. Any sugar that is needed as instant energy is used by the cells, anything that is left over becomes fat. Fat is the body’s way of storing energy. Carbohydrates are essentially chains of sugars that are held together by simple chemical bonds. Once inside the body, they are readily broken down into sugar and have the same effects on the body as eating sweets. If you doubt this, try putting a cracker in your mouth and chew it for a minute without swallowing it. After a short time the carbohydrates in the cracker become sugars in the mouth and become quite sweet. Since carbohydrates are basically sugars, and excessive sugars in our body becomes fat, you can see why diets that are helpful for weight loss recommend eliminating or greatly reducing carbohydrate intake, as well as avoiding sugars. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains or vegetables are slower to digest and absorb because the presence of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and amino-acids. Since there is more variety of parts in these foods they are slower to absorb, thus slowing the release of sugar into the blood stream.

Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

If you look at the evolution of human beings over time, sugar was rarely plentiful. Fruits were the main source of dietary sugars and since they were only available at certain times of the year, they were not over-consumed. Nature had a way of balancing out our desire for sugar. The seasons when natural sugars were more readily available (summer and fall) were times when our body could more readily use the sugars in fruit for our functional needs. In summer we are more active, so more sugars are used as fuel for our body’s cells. When sugar is used instantly as a form of fuel, it is not converted to fat. As the weather turns colder in the autumn, our bodies prepare for winter by storing more energy as fat that is meant to help us get through the lean winter months. This was especially important when food was more difficult to come by. So people who were more drawn to sugar and ate more of it were more likely to survive difficult winters and then pass these sugar-craving genes on to their children. Thus the craving for sugars is what often times kept humans alive.

The problem with sugars began when people began finding more ways to collect and preserve sugar for future use, thus making sugars available throughout the year. Processed sugars derived from sugar cane, beets or corn have become the most commonly used sweeteners. Unlike whole fruits and their more slowly absorbed sugars, processed sugars are sweeter and enter the blood stream quickly, flooding the body with an excessive amount of sugar that the body frantically works to clear from the blood stream before it causes tissue damage. Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which the body can no longer process dietary sugar effectively, so there is more free sugar in the blood stream. Sugars in the blood stream cause or worsen tissue damage contributing to diseases such as: macular degeneration, neuropathy, non-healing ulcers, hypertension. Sugar also influences brain chemistry and can worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety and ADHD.

Natural sweeteners such as agave, maple syrup and evaporated cane juice don’t have as high of a sugar content as processed white sugar, however they are still very sweet and potentially harmful if over-consumed. Stevia and xylitol are both natural sweeteners that are gentler on the body and can be used without the same negative effects of sugar.

So what does a person do to maintain a healthy relationship with sugar? As with most things moderation appears to be the key. It is helpful to know the types of sugar that you are eating, and what else that particular food is offering nutritionally. I recommend getting most of our sugars from fruit, which also provide fiber and vitamins and minerals. Processed sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, white sugar or beet sugars should be avoided as much as possible. I also recommend limiting or avoiding simple carbohydrates such as a bread and pasta, since these are essentially sugars in disguise without much nutritional benefit. I would also recommend using less sweeteners in general in cooking and baking. My wife and I find that if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, we can usually make the item with half that amount without sacrificing taste. We often use xylitol as a sweetener if we are baking. We also have found that if you begin to limit the intake of sweet foods, the craving for sweets begins to wane, making it easier to limit sweets.

Like any other changes to our habits, redefining sugar in our life can be a little challenging at first. With a little bit of effort hopefully you can find a way to have your cake and eat it too.

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