Sugar, sweet sugar... How can something so tasty be so bad for us? The truth is that sugar itself isn't a bad thing. In fact, the body's primary source of energy is glucose, which is sugar. The problem is that sugar is highly addicting by nature, but nature never intended for us to consume sugar in the forms or amounts that modern diets offer. Sugar consumption today is wreaking havoc on human health. In order to properly understand the sugar situation, how it's affecting our health, and how to fix it, we must understand what sugar actually is, its addictive nature, how it's handled by the body, and the history of sugar in the human diet.
Sugar is the term used to summarize substances called saccharides, components of carbohydrates. They are monosaccharides and dissaccharides which are known as simple sugars, and polysaccharides which are more commonly referred to as complex carbohydrates. Simple sugars have one molecule (monosaccharides) or two bonded molecules (dissaccharides) and are easily metabolized by the body causing quick spikes in blood sugar, short bursts of energy, and then the all-too familiar “crashes”. Simple sugars are found in breads and other baked goods, pastas, soft drinks, sweeteners, candy, dairy products, and most breakfast cereals. Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) have three or more bonded molecules and require more processing by the body than simple sugars, therefore offering a slower rise in blood sugar over a longer period of time. The sustained blood sugar release offered by complex carbohydrates is what we need from sugar(glucose) for sustained energy. Complex carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains (not processed foods claiming to contain “whole grains”).
Sugar is highly addictive, and there are scientific and evolutionary reasons for that. Sugar activates the same chemicals in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine, as do stimulant drugs (cocaine, heroine, nicotine). It's literally a “feel good” substance. It's a biological catch 22, because we're addicted to a substance that's harming us, but that we actually need and were designed by nature to crave.
The body gets energy from sugars and fats, but the preferred source is sugar because it's easiest to convert to energy. Humans were designed with a like for sweet foods as a mechanism for survival. Our ancestors would have had more energy for living and reproducing if they found foods with sugars, like fruits, vegetables, and grains from plants. Fruits would have been the least consistently accessible of those foods, so nature designed us with a steady desire for those foods so that we'd continue to find those energy sources with high sugar content. These foods also provided the macro nutrients that animal foods did not, and the animal fats which were eaten helped the body absorb the fat soluble vitamins from plant foods. So, therein was the balance needed for survival which laid the groundwork for modern sugar addiction that has stemmed from the chemical processing and extracting of sweeteners from the nutrient rich fruits that once housed them. We've processed out the nutrients and given ourselves unnatural and very unhealthy doses of sugar that we then continue to crave in the vicious cycle of sugar addiction.
When foods containing sugar are ingested, the sugars move through the digestive tract and are broken down by enzymes once they've reached the small intestine. All sugars are broken down into simple sugar (monosaccharides) and absorbed into the blood stream as glucose. Once the glucose reaches the blood, the pancreas receives a signal to start producing insulin, which then scoops the glucose from the blood and delivers it to the cells in your body for energy. If that energy (sugar) is not used, it is stored as fat. This is why insulin is called the fat storage hormone and explains why high sugar intake leads to weight gain. Many are starting to recognize high sugar intake as the biggest contributor to the American obesity epidemic.
However, humans historically ate a low sugar diet. Sugar consumption has risen by incredible leaps and bounds since the industrial revolution. As recent in history as 1700, the average American consumed 4 pounds of sugar per year, which more than quadrupled to 18 pounds per year by 1800. Consumption rose to about 90 pounds per year in 1900, and hit an all time high in 1999 when it reached an unbelievable 158 pounds per person per year. Humans were never designed to consume the amount of sugar that is eaten today, and unfortunately it's difficult to get away from.
Modern Americans eat a lot of highly processed foods, especially carbohydrates, a.k.a. sugars. This has been especially true since the low-fat craze of the 1980s, when fat was replaced with sugar for flavor. U.S. consumption of sugars added to food items increased by 23 percent between 1985 and 1999. Coincidentally, obesity and related disease rates have risen sharply since then as well.
Where is our motivation to fix this? The real problem with sugar is not just its addictive qualities, but its detrimental effects on our health. High sugar consumption causes inflammation, weight gain, elevated cholesterol, premature aging of the skin due to destruction of collagen strands, sleep disorders, and mood disorders, especially depression. It also makes women more prone to yeast infections, and feeds cancer as cancer's favorite food is glucose! There is absolutely nothing positive to be said about high sugar consumption. If we care about how we feel physically and mentally (and even about how we look), then we've got to fix the problem.
The only way to fix the sugar situation is to work on it individually by upgrading our food choices. Since we're not going to see sugar and processed food operations shut down any time soon (sugar is a BIG business!), we must choose a whole food diet that is mostly plant derived and reject processed foods as much as possible. One of my favorite quotes on food is by Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, who recommends that we “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By “food”, he means whole food, real food, eaten as nature intended, unprocessed. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats that are eaten in their natural form, either raw or cooked, never having had anything extracted or added to alter their natural state. White rice is an example of a processed food because the fibrous and nutrient rich hull has been removed, leaving just the starchy (sugary) center. Brown rice, on the other hand, is a whole grain, whole food because the hull is still intact as it was before the grain was harvested.
Our highly processed, modern diet is devoid of nutrients and high in sugar. One can see from the state of public health in America that this is not having a positive impact on the population. Whole foods that are eaten as they are produced by nature (no processing) offer nutrients in the correct proportions to one another, and contain the co-factors necessary for the body to first recognize and then properly absorb the nutrients. A whole food diet also contains lots of fiber, which, in addition to lowering blood cholesterol and cleansing the colon, also helps control blood sugar levels because fiber slows down the body's absorption of sugar into the blood. This explains why an apple, which is high in sugar, will cause a more sustained boost of energy than the same amount of sugar extracted from the apple and then eaten alone.
The detrimental effects of modern high sugar consumption are clear. A back to basics approach to eating will certainly solve the problem for individuals who want to feel good and enjoy life as they age, and who are willing to make the change. We must fully realize what sugar is doing to our bodies and our culture as a whole, return to pre-industrial levels of sugar consumption, and teach our children to do the same. It's our only hope for survival as a healthy, vibrant, competitive people in a world market.
I have struggled with sugar addiction my whole life! Because I understand the effects of sugar on my body and on society as whole, I work hard to educate people on the subject. As a Health Coach, I work with clients on their own battles with sugar and sugar addiction (you know who you are!). I am happy to support you in your health journey.