By Wellness Mama
When it comes to consumption and the effects of sugar, I often hear things like: All things in moderation….
A little bit won’t hurt…
It’s fuel for the brain…
All justifications for consuming sugar in some amount. The question is: should sugar ever be consumed and if so, in what amount?
The Effects of Sugar…
Sugar exists in many forms besides just the white powdered (usually GMO) beet sugar we can pick up at the grocery store. There are effects of sugar in all of its forms (including corn syrup, honey, and maple syrup) and we are consuming more of it now than ever before. For instance:
…Consumption of processed foods (which are laced with sugar) cost the American public more than $54 billion in dental bills each year, so the dental industry reaps huge profits from the programmed addiction of the public to sugar products. …Today we have a nation that is addicted to sugar. In 1915, the national average of sugar consumption (per year) was around 15 to 20 pounds per person. Today the average person consumes his/her weight in sugar, plus over 20 pounds of corn syrup. To add more horrors to these facts there are some people that use no sweets and some who use much less than the average figure, which means that there is a percentage of the population that consume a great deal more refined sugar than their body weight. The human body cannot tolerate this large amount of refined carbohydrates. The vital organs in the body are actually damaged by this gross intake of sugar.
I often hear the argument that sugar is ok in moderation and that eliminating any “food group” is dangerous. Certainly, avoiding an actual macronutrient category completely (carbohydrate, protein or fat) would be problematic, but sugar in itself is not a food group. Though sugar in some form is naturally present in many foods, by itself, it contains:
- no nutrients
- no protein
- no healthy fats
- no enzymes
Just empty and quickly digested calories that actually pull minerals from the body during digestion. It creates a hormone cascade when consumed that starts a positive feedback loop in the body to encourage more consumption. In a time when food was scarce and needed to be contained in large amounts in the summer when available to survive the winter, this was a good thing. In today’s world of constant access to processed foods, this natural biological purpose highlights one of the negative effects of sugar. Here’s why:
“Dr. David Reuben, author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Nutrition says, “white refined sugar-is not a food. It is a pure chemical extracted from plant sources, purer in fact than cocaine, which it resembles in many ways. Its true name is sucrose and its chemical formula is C12H22O11. It has 12 carbon atoms, 22 hydrogen atoms, 11 oxygen atoms, and absolutely nothing else to offer.” …The chemical formula for cocaine is C17H21NO4. Sugar’s formula again is C12H22O11. For all practical purposes, the difference is that sugar is missing the “N”, or nitrogen atom.”
What’s in Sugar?
Most often, when we talk about sugar, we are referring to a mixture of glucose and fructose, both simple sugars that are contained in various amounts in different foods. As this article explains:
- “Dextrose, fructose, and glucose are all monosaccharides, known as simple sugars. The primary difference between them is how your body metabolizes them. Glucose and dextrose are essentially the same sugar. However, food manufacturers usually use the term “dextrose” in their ingredient list.
- The simple sugars can combine to form more complex sugars, like the disaccharide sucrose (table sugar), which is half glucose and half fructose.
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
- Ethanol (drinking alcohol) is not a sugar, although beer and wine contain residual sugars and starches, in addition to alcohol.
- Sugar alcohols like xylitol, glycerol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, and erythritol are neither sugars nor alcohols but are becoming increasingly popular as sweeteners. They are incompletely absorbed from your small intestine, for the most part, so they provide fewer calories than sugar but often cause problems with bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence.
- Sucralose (Splenda) is NOT a sugar, despite its sugar-like name and deceptive marketing slogan, “made from sugar.” It’s a chlorinated artificial sweetener in line with aspartame and saccharin, with detrimental health effects to match.
- Agave syrup, falsely advertised as “natural,” is typically HIGHLY processed and is usually 80 percent fructose. The end product does not even remotely resemble the original agave plant.
- Honey is about 53 percent fructose2, but is completely natural in its raw form and has many health benefits when used in moderation, including as many antioxidants as spinach.
- Stevia is a highly sweet herb derived from the leaf of the South American stevia plant, which is completely safe (in its natural form). Lo han (or luohanguo) is another natural sweetener, but derived from a fruit.”
Fructose especially is harmful as Dr. Robert Lustig explains in this lecture and the effects of sugar on the body, especially the liver:
Is There Any Safe Amount of Sugar?
In my opinion, there is no safe amount of processed or refined sugar. Naturally contained sugars in fruit and vegetables are balanced by the fiber, vitamins, enzymes and other properties of the fruit/vegetable which slow sugar digestion and help the body deal with it more easily. Processed varieties, on the other hand, provide none of these benefits and instead create these harmful effects of sugar in the body:
- Stresses the Liver: “When we eat fructose, it goes to the liver. If liver glycogen is low, such as after a run, the fructose will be used to replenish it (3).However, most people aren’t consuming fructose after a long workout and their livers are already full of glycogen. When this happens, the liver turns the fructose into fat (2). Some of the fat gets shipped out, but part of it remains in the liver. The fat can build up over time and ultimately lead to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (4, 5, 6).”
- Increases Bad Cholesterol and Triglycerides (source)
- Can contribute to Leptin Resistance (and then weight gain, cravings, sleep trouble, etc) –source
- Creates an addictive sugar response in the brain (source)
- Doesn’t fill you up and instead encourages you to eat more
I realize that in today’s world, it can be tough to completely avoid sugar since it is so readily available. Unfortunately, the widespread availability doesn’t reduce the effects of sugar…
Especially for kids who are still developing their nutritional foundation, metabolism, and hormones, even a little sugar can be harmful. As hard as it can be sometimes, we try to stick to whole, real foods as much as possible and avoid any processed foods (especially those containing grains and sugars.
For us, this means cooking at home almost all the time. We work to teach our children about healthy eating at home and about the negative effects of sugar, but I also don’t completely restrict unhealthy foods if we are away from home for a few reasons….
- While they are young now and it is easy to make sure they are eating healthy foods, especially at home, they will one day grow up and be away from home and exposed to all types of foods. I think it is important to let them start to make food choices on their own (and they usually make healthy ones) while they are still young and I can still help guide their choices rather than completely restrict them.
- When kids are used to eating a really healthy diet, even a small amount of processed food will usually make them feel *yucky* and discourage them from eating it again.
- Exposure to other foods often leads to conversations about different types of foods and which are good/bad for the body.
- My kids typically make good food choices on their own and have become rather adventurous eaters since they aren’t restricted or expected to only consume chicken fingers or hamburgers when we aren’t at home. For instance, my two year old loves broccoli, olives, sardines and other healthy foods. Make the good foods readily available and make the unhealthy ones few and far between…
We also don’t consume sugary drinks – even juice. The only thing we use sugar for is making Kombucha, water kefir and homemade sodas, and the great majority of it is fermented out and converted to beneficial bacteria before we drink it.
Our breakfasts usually consist of eggs or leftovers, lunches are salads or soups and dinners are often a baked or grilled meat with many veggies.
Sounds like a lot of work? It certainly is more work than a meal-in-a-box meal, but so worth it! We haven’t had to take any of the kids to the doctor in years, all but one have never had antibiotics and they are happily active and fit naturally. My hope as they grow is to nurture their own healthy eating habits and develop a lifelong foundation for healthy eating.