Sugar 101 (+ The Dangers of a High Sugar Diet)
Sugar is the single most harmful ingredient in the modern human diet. Studies have shown time and time again that refined sugar is at the root of a long list of common conditions seen today (diabetes, heart disease and obesity, for example), yet it is found in most all processed and packaged form, and is often disguised under less-known names.
Sugar comes in many forms, some which are absolutely more harmful than others. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at what sugar is, exactly.
Sugar is a short chain carbohydrate that is made of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. There are many types of sugar, such as glucose, fructose, maltose and lactose, just to name a few. Some are naturally occurring, while others are produced in a laboratory and added to foods and food-products. This type of sugar (added sugar) is the one we need to watch out for most of all.
Types of Sugar
Glucose is part of the metabolism of every living cell on earth, and we could not survive without it. Aside from dietary glucose (glucose obtained from foods), the body also produces glucose on its own. Glucose circulates in the blood of all animals, which is why it is also known as “blood sugar.” Most dietary carbohydrates contain glucose, such as plant foods (vegetables and fruits) and milk.
Fructose is very different from glucose, as it is metabolised almost exclusively in the liver, which can create a major burden on the body’s detoxification pathways and overall health. When the liver becomes overloaded with fructose, it actually converts the excess into fat (leading cause of fatty liver disease), and can also lead to insulin resistance (1).
In fact, studies show that diets high in fructose can cause obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease (2).
Disaccharides are formed when 2 simple sugars combined, and maltose and sucrose are both examples. Maltose is a combination of glucose and malt, and is about 1/3 the sweetness of sucrose (and is also less commonly used). Maltose is most commonly used to distill alcohol, such as beer.
Sucrose is definitely the most commonly used sugar, and this is what we call white, table sugar. It is another disaccharide, and is a combination of fructose and glucose. Certain sweet-tasting plants contain a small amount of sucrose, but it is most commonly found in sugar cane, sugar maple and sugar beets. Sucrose is widely produced and used as both a sweetener and a preservative in commercial food products such as jellies, jams and a long list of processed foods.
Lactose is the sugar component (carbohydrate) found in milk, and up to 75% of the world’s population has an intolerance to it (3). Interestingly, many people who have an intolerance to processed milk might not react poorly to raw milk, as the enzyme, lactase, is removed in the processing of conventional milk. To learn more about organic vs. conventional and raw milk, check out this article.
Main symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, diarrhea and other digestive upset.
Dangers of a High Sugar Diet
Now that we have a better idea of what sugar is and some of the main types, let’s dive into some of the very real consequences of eating a diet high in sugar, especially refined sugar (those not found in nature, such as those in processed foods).
1. Sugar is an Anti-Nutrient
The term “anti-nutrient” refers to a nutrient that offers no benefits to the body, and actually decreases our body’s nutrient bank. Another common term for this is an empty calorie. In fact, we end up using up more nutrients in the energy it takes to process and assimilate refined sugar in the diet than any benefit it might give us. Sugar contains no protein, no essential fatty acids, and certainly no vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients.
2. A High Fructose Diet Harms the Liver
As mentioned earlier on, fructose can put a major strain on the liver. As opposed to glucose, which is found in nature and is a type of sugar that the body actually needs (to a certain extent), there is no physiological need for fructose. In his excellent documentary titled “Sugar, The Bitter Truth,” Dr. Robert Lustig explains that fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, which can cause serious problems if consumed in excess (4).
3. A High Sugar Diet Leads to Insulin Resistance
Insulin is the hormone that escorts glucose (blood sugar) into our cells, and sends our cells the message to burn glucose instead of fat. However, if you have chronically high blood glucose levels (which is actually toxic in and of itself) this can lead to serious complications like diabetes and metabolic syndrome (5).
4. Sugar Weakens the Immune System and Could Cause Cancer
Contrary to popular belief, a giant glass of orange juice when we are sick is not the best way to get better. In his widely known research conducted in the 1970s, Linus Pauling discovered that sugar and vitamin C have similar chemical structures, and the two (very different) compounds actually compete for space in our white blood cells (6). This means that the more sugar we eat, the lower our vitamin C content becomes. Vitamin C is a powerful immune-boosting and infection-preventing antioxidant, and is put directly in harms way when being forced to compete with sugar. As noted above, sugar also has devastating affects on our metabolism, which can also lead to cancer cell proliferation.
5. Sugar Makes us Fat
Plain and simple, sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption makes you fat. Sugar directly affects insulin and cortisol, two hormones that play a key role in fat storage. A study released by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition connects consumption of high-fructose corn syrup with America’s obesity epidemic, and other forms of sugar certainly have similar outcomes (7). A high fructose diet has also been linked to decreased feelings of satiety (fullness) and increased feelings of hunger (8).
General Rules About Sugar Consumption
1. All Sweeteners Can Cause Weight Gain or Prohibit Weight Loss
While certain types of sugar (such as fructose and sucrose) can be more harmful, studies have actually shown that any sweet taste can cause an insulin reaction in the body, which prompts the body to store fat. So, artificial sweeteners aren’t doing you any favors.
2. Sugar Found in Nature is Better
While the above is true, certain natural sugars are going to be a better choice than other, refined versions. For example, grade b or c maple syrup, raw honey, molasses, fruit juice or stevia are far better than white, table sugar or artificial, chemical sweeteners.
3. Minimizing All Sugars and Sweeteners is Key
In general, minimizing your intake of all sugars is best. Always read nutrition labels, and watch out for ingredients ending in “ose” or “tol.” Main examples include sucrose, sucralose, glucose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol (although there are many others, as well).
Also remember that on any ingredient list, the ingredients go in order of which are present in the highest quantities. So, if any sugar is listed as one of the first few ingredients, this product is best to avoid completely.
Sweeteners to Avoid Completely
- Aspartame (equal)
- Saccarin (sweet n low)
- White Stevia (truvia)
- Sucralose (splenda)
- HFCS (high fructose corn syrup)
Sweeteners to Use in Moderation
- Raw honey
- Maple syrup (grade b or c, preferably)
- Date or coconut sugar
- Natural fruit juice
- Green leaf stevia
[Related: Honey vs. Sugar]
Main Things to Remember About Sugar
- Diets high in refined sugar (especially fructose) are related to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
- Sugar comes in many different forms, some natural and some made in a laboratory. Always read nutrition labels and be on the lookout for ingredients ending in “ose” or “tol.”
- Artificial sweeteners can produce the same insulin response as regular sugar, and still lead to weight gain.
- Opt for natural sweeteners in moderation such as raw honey, maple syrup, molasses, natural fruit juice or green leaf stevia.