Let me get this out of the way…Sugar in itself is not bad! Every cell needs it. It is the simplest form of carbohydrates and carbohydrates are important to all living things for storage and transport of energy and structure in the body.
Nowadays when someone uses the word “sugar” they are mainly referring to what most people are adding as their sweetener of choice — table sugar — or, as it’s commonly known, sucrose. Commercially-produced sucrose (table sugar) is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose and it comes either from sugar cane or sugar beets. But sugar in general can also come from fruit, honey, sorghum, maple syrup, and other sources.
Sugar’s role in the body is to be burned as energy in the cell. If that happens efficiently and without a glitch, your body works well. If insulin, which I like to call the “doorman of the cell,” can’t unlock or open the door for sugar to get into the cells to be burned, bad things start to happen. Specifically, the rise of blood sugar in the body forces the pancreas to keep secreting insulin in an attempt to try to “open the door” of the cell so the sugar in the bloodstream can get inside to be burned as energy.
If the sugar taken in is a simple sugar it will generally get absorbed rapidly causing the pancreas to respond quickly (which it does very well) to the demand for insulin. If, over time, there’s just way too much sugar in the bloodstream, the process overtaxes the cells in the pancreas, they start to wear out and the pancreas fails to produce insulin adequately. Usually a precursor sign that insulin-dependent diabetes will occur is when a person first shows signs of “insulin resistance” which simply means the body is less able to control the sugar in the blood with the insulin the pancreas has released. Once full on insulin-dependent diabetes occurs, a person must take insulin via pills or shots to help them lower their blood sugar as the body is no longer capable of doing it on its own.
The chronic ingestion of added sugars in our diet (which leads to excess calories, weight and excess fat in the cell aka “intramyocellular fat”) can aggravate insulin resistance because it results in higher circulating insulin and blood sugar levels in the body. A key issue to note is that while it is important to eat low glycemic carbohydrates it’s also important to keep your total calorie and fat levels down to fend off insulin resistance.
Another thing to keep in mind is that not only does excess insulin in the body put you at risk for insulin resistance but it also increases your cholesterol and subsequently exposes you to cardiovascular risk. I’m sure you don’t know this, but insulin is actually an inflammatory hormone. Since almost all chronic diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, bone loss, stroke, hypertension, and degenerative eye and brain disorders) come from excessive inflammation, having excessive insulin in the body is not good. What’s more, insulin is also a growth-promoting hormone. In addition to increasing your cholesterol and exposing you to cardiovascular risk, inflammation in the body as a result of too much insulin can also increase your risk of cancer. So it’s important that you control your blood sugar by keeping your insulin levels low to reduce your risk of chronic inflammatory diseases and also slow the aging process.
With so much of the food consumed today being “processed” food that contains added sugars like sucrose and corn sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, is it a wonder that type 2 (insulin-dependent) diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in the United States and worldwide and accounts for about 85 to 95 percent of all diabetics?
When you see high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) on your food labels you should become alarmed as this type of manufactured sugar is absolutely no good for the body. The problem is that HFCS refers to any of a group of corn syrups (pure glucose, a monosaccharide) that have undergone enzymatic processing to increase the fructose (monosaccharide) content. The enzymatically enhanced corn syrup, now fructose, is then mixed with pure corn syrup, which is 100 percent glucose, in varying percentages, and is what you find in virtually all processed foods and beverages in the marketplace, including soft drinks, cookies, crackers, salad dressings, snack foods, soups, etc. to add sweetness.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the most common types of high fructose corn syrup and where they’re used:
- HFCS 42-which is approximately 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose. It’s mainly used in foods and baked goods.
- HFCS 55-which is approximately 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. It’s primarily used in soft drinks.
- HFCS 90-approximately 90 percent fructose and 10 percent glucose. It’s made in small quantities mainly to increase the fructose content of HFCS 42 to 55.
I know you’ve heard it many times before but it is important to repeat that these added sweeteners commonly found in our (processed) food supply are no good! They contain neither phytochemicals, fiber nor nutrients to help metabolize the extra calories and protect our bodies from internal and external insults. They also don’t contain important plant compounds that give our genes the right message about proper cellular functioning.
Natural sugars, which can be found in fruit, grains, legumes and vegetables, are obviously better than the manufactured sugars I mentioned. The nutrients that come with these natural sugars that are found in these complex whole foods, assist in the metabolism of the sugar in the body instead of having to use or take nutrients from the body for other important bodily processes. Rather, they slow the release of the sugars into our systems, therefore making the metabolism of the natural sugar less stressful to our endocrine (adrenal glands, liver, pancreas, brain) organs over time. Do keep in mind that even though natural sugars are better than processed/manufactured sugars, they are STILL a calorie source when consumed in excess So they, too, can increase weight and inflammation like other calories. But it is harder to eat excess calories when eating whole, unprocessed foods with no added sugars of any type.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of HFCS in the marketplace has given the natural sugars found in fruit a bad rap because “fructose” is fruit sugar so many people have become paranoid about eating fruit. As you can see from the breakdown of the most common forms of HFCS above, HFCS consists of varying amounts of fructose and glucose in order to create the desired sweetness for a product. Conversely, the fructose found in a piece of fruit is held in its complex make up of water, fiber, and phytochemicals. With a piece of fruit your body 1) receives less of the tremendous sugar load it gets from a product made with HFCS; 2) a slower release of the sugar into the bloodstream; and 3) more protective compounds. So what does that mean? Don’t be paranoid of whole fruit. Have at it! It’s good for you.
Regardless of what type of sugar you’re consuming no matter whether it’s sucrose (table sugar) or HFCS, sugars are metabolized by the body similarly and, when consumed in small amounts they don’t cause disease any more than natural sugars found in whole foods. That does not give you carte blanche to go eat as much processed food as you want or add table sugar to everything! In fact, you shouldn’t eat these processed foods with their added manufactured sugars at all. They add to our caloric load and are not needed for our bodies to function optimally. All they do is effect our collective health significantly and adversely as we are seeing with the prevalence of diabetes and other chronic diseases in America and globally.
Bottom line: To watch your sugar intake just eat whole, unprocessed foods (vegetables, fruit, beans, raw nuts and seeds and whole grains) and you’ll be cutting out the unnecessary calories resulting from these added calorie sweeteners or sugars like HFCS or sucrose. You’ll also cut out the stress to the organs (adrenals, liver and pancreas) that have to process these added sugars. So eat whole foods several times per day when hungry. Be sure to avoid stimulants like caffeine, energy drinks and sodas and other sweetened stimulants. And don’t forget to move your body daily with exercise and also build lean muscle. If you do this, I guarantee you you’ll never have to read a food label or worry about the sugar by any other name that is not so sweet.
As a certified physician’s assistant specializing in nutrition, prevention and integrative medicine, KIRK HAMILTON maintains that if there’s one cure all for chronic disease it’s what you eat. With his emphasis on consuming more unprocessed, micronutrient dense plant-food along with simple cross-training and mind/body principles, Kirk has been instrumental in guiding his patients and clients toward the path of optimal health since 1983. He has also been a valued educator to health professionals. As the founder of Clinical Pearls Publications, Kirk provided summaries of nutritional research to practicing physicians and researchers around the globe until he sold the company to Tishcon Corp. in 2004. Since 2009 Kirk has hosted his own radio program/podcast titled Staying Healthy Today. He has interviewed hundreds of the top experts in the medical field including Joel Fuhrman, Dr. David Jenkins and Dr. Neal Barnard. Drawing on his 28 year career, in August 2011 Kirk self-published the book titled “Staying Healthy in the Fast Lane – 9 Simple Steps to Optimal Health.” His book serves as a guide for individuals, professionals and policy makers on how to create a new health paradigm that is focused on staying well and prevention instead of treatment.
The greatest medicine of all is to teach people how not to need it.
Read about how to lose weight and prevent chronic diseases by purchasing Kirk’s book, “Staying Healthy in the Fast Lane – 9 Simple Steps to Optimal Health.” Order your copy here. Enter code “RX40” and receive an automatic 40% off your book purchase.
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