Oh, sugar. My most beloved companion. And worst enemy. Every February, there’s a product that gets released. You know those little chalky hearts with the messages on them? Pure sugar? Most people hate them, but oh, they were my weakness. I used to buy pounds of them every year around this time. Literally, pounds. And the boxes of chocolates….girl it is ON if I get ahold of one of those. I’m a candy manufacturer’s dream customer. Give me all the candy.
So with that said, I’m dedicating this February to a series all about sugar. Researchers over the years have gotten paid big money to downplay the harmful effects of sugar, while letting fat take all the blame. Meanwhile, America gets sicker and obesity rates are higher than ever. You can see why I get frustrated.
New research has shown that Americans are eating 150 lbs of sugar on average a year. What’s even more startling? For those of you out there thinking, “No I only consume 5 lbs a year!” ..someone else out there is making up for that 145 lbs. A day, that is around 1.25 lbs.
How does this compare? In the early 1800s, the average person was only eating 4-5 lbs a year. Whoa!
Where’s all this sugar coming from? My first thought- soda. Let’s break it down. One pound of sugar has 120 teaspoons. The average can of soda has 8 teaspoons of sugar. Four cans later and you have 1/4 a pound of sugar! To many, this is a daily habit and it can go well beyond 4.
What else? There are the obvious culprits- cakes, cookies, pastries, candy and doughnuts. We all know these.
The unfortunate truth, though, is food manufacturers seem to add sugar to EVERYTHING these days. Ketchup, barbecue sauce and other condiments, breads, salad dressing, crackers, peanut butter…you name it. Even certain packaged veggies can sometimes have added sugars. For Pete’s sake! WHY! Well, to make it taste good, of course. That, and its addictive (some studies have been done showing it is more addictive than cocaine). If its addictive, you’re going to want more. And when you want more, you buy more. And those companies’ profit margins go up. Simple.
What makes sugar so bad?
So now that we’ve established that its in basically everything, what’s so wrong with consuming it?
- Bad for your teeth. We love whitening our teeth to get sparkly pearly whites, but consuming sugar feeds that bad bacteria in your mouth and causes tooth decay. No thanks!
- Fructose can overload your liver. Your body breaks down only 2 types of sugar: glucose and fructose. Our bodies will make glucose if it doesn’t come in our diet. Fructose, on the other hand, is not in any way necessary, therefore, our bodies do not make it. If you consume only a small amount (like from fruit), or right after exercise, the body can turn it into glycogen and store it in the liver for later use.
- If the liver becomes too full of glycogen, which is pretty common, fructose is thus stored as fat, which can lead to fatty liver and other problems.
- Does this apply to fruit? This is debatable- some sources I’ve read said no, but avid believers in the Paleo community will only consume up to 20g of sugar a day (approximately a piece of fruit or a glass of wine) for this reason. This also depends on this person- an active person with a good diet can usually tolerate more fructose than a person who is more sedentary and eats the standard American diet- high carbs and processed foods.
- Empty Calories- Foods high in sugar are packed with calories, but absolutely no nutrients. This can block nutrient dense calories when we eat empty calories! (If you’re filling up on junk, you won’t save room for healthy foods)
- Sugar can lead to insulin resistance and other metabolic problems. Unless you’re a diabetic, you probably haven’t heard too much on the topic of insulin, but its actually a pretty important hormone. One of its main functions is to allow glucose to enter cells from the bloodstream, and to instruct the cells to burn glucose instead of fat.
- A healthy response a person can have with insulin is ‘insulin sensitivity.’ Lifting weights, for example, increase your insulin sensitivity. The opposite response is insulin resistant, which is when our pancreas makes more of it. As it progresses, the pancreas won’t be able to produce enough insulin to keep the blood sugar levels down. Enter type II diabetes.
- Risk for type II diabetes increases approximately 1.1% per 150 calories of sugar a person consumes a day.
- Sugar is a known cause of cancer. I remember a few years ago, a coworker of mine developed a large tumor (happy ending though- it was non-cancerous and he is healthy and thriving today!) and since he couldn’t eat, the doctors had a glucose drip. The sad irony was that if it had been cancerous- that glucose drip he needed was also feeding the cancer. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells. Insulin plays a big role in regulating this growth and many researchers have come to believe that having continuously elevated insulin levels can lead to cancer.
- Increased Fat Mass. The key to gaining or losing weight isn’t simply “calories in, calories out.” To an extent, yes, but not all calories are equal- because of the different effects different foods can have on our hormones. Going back to glucose vs. fructose, satiety levels can vary, leading to overeating. Different studies testing fructose- or glucose-sweetened foods have resulted in the fructose testers to have increased hunger afterwards. What does this lead to? Overconsumption and then obesity.
- Did I mention sugar is addictive? Thanks to a release of dopamine in the reward center of our brain, we often relate sugar with pleasure and happiness. I can 100% confirm this from personal experience! So for all of the reasons above and below, this addiction can become a serious problem if it’s not confronted. I’m a firm believer in “all things in moderation,” but for those who truly get addicted, this may not work for them.
- Risk of heart disease- For over 60 years, people have given saturated fat a bad name and blamed it for heart disease. I’ll save it for another blog post, but the initial study done in the 50s was actually found to be completely unfounded.
- Instead, it is sugar that is one of the leading causes of heart disease- going back to the effects fructocse has on the metabolic system.
- A study in 2014 showed that people who ate 17-21% of their calories in added sugar were 38% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease compared to those who consumed 8%.
- Raise in blood pressure- we know sugar (and carbs break down into sugar) causes inflammation, and more and more studies show that inflammation is not good for the heart.
I know this is a lot to consume! In the next few weeks, I’ll cover the different types of sugar (did you know there are 50 names for sugar?!), the differences with using ‘natural’ sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and how to wean off of sugar.
This article may be a bummer to some you and I get it, I totally have a sweet tooth myself. I just want my chocolate and leave me alone about it, thanks bye. But part of loving yourself is making healthy and informed decisions for your body! Since I became a mom, I’ve become hyper-aware of how much I want to be around for my son, now and when he has grandchildren even, and it affects all of my decisions. I challenge you to think of the big picture when that doughnut at the office party is tempting you, or that Coke is calling your name. And like I mentioned earlier, I still enjoy sweets every once in a while. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and sit here and tell everyone never to touch a drop of sugar again, but it has to be a treat, not an everyday thing that consumes you. Big difference!
What’s your experience with sugar? Do you have a sweet tooth like me? Comment below, I would love to hear what you think!