We know much more about nutrition than we did 20 or 30 years ago. We've learned to cut back on processed foods, scrutinize labels, and emphasize organic produce. But then there's sugar. And as we've come to learn, added sugar and health don't mix.
We've known for a long time that sugar is not our friend, but for many people it's as hard to quit as an addictive drug. This is no coincidence. Refined sugar does cause addiction in the brain, making it seem impossible to control our cravings.
The statistics are alarming. The average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Children eat 32. This massive addiction is growing, too. In fact, sugar and sugar substitutes are found in many more foods today than even 10 years ago. Around 1990, the average person ate about 70 pounds of sugar each year. In 1999, U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that number to be over 150 pounds, much of that from high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar has gone from being a special treat to a daily part of our diet, and it appears sugar is toxic at these high levels. And the massive rise in diseases related to unhealthy blood sugar levels, from obesity and metabolic syndrome to diabetes and Alzheimer's, among others, certainly seems to mirror that increase. Is this a coincidence? Hardly.
Sugar and Insulin
Naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not a real concern. These foods have fiber, vitamins, minerals—the complete package that allows your body to process the sugars in a healthy way. Refined sugar, on the other hand, is basically a chemical extract, separated from all the healthy aspects of the original food, be it sugar cane or sugar beets, from which it was derived.
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Refined sugar has zero nutritional value, but it can sure wreak havoc on our bodies. First off, it spikes glucose (blood sugar) levels. Insulin, the hormone that tells cells to take in glucose, spikes as well. Increased insulin levels tell the body to form fat and release more cortisol, a stress hormone that damages immunity and increases inflammation. These increases can also lead to insulin resistance in cells, causing excess circulating glucose. And this triggers a cascade of harmful effects, fueling chronic inflammation and wreaking havoc through the body. Left unchecked, this process can directly lead to metabolic syndrome and, later on, to type 2 diabetes.
Glucose spikes are one of the reasons sugar is so hard to quit. The increased production of insulin, cortisol, and even adrenaline they cause has an addictive quality. The brief high is followed by a rapid drop. We want more sugar to sustain our energy after the glucose crash.
Sugar's Multiple Dangers
If the only worriesome effect of sugar were that it disrupts our glucose metabolism, that would be enough to warrant reducing our consumption, but it goes far beyond that.
Refined sugar also has a bad relationship with cardiovascular health. For example, one study showed that people with high sugar intakes had much lower levels of HDL good cholesterol, as well as high triglycerides. In addition, the chronic inflammation caused by increased cortisol has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and other conditions.
Sugar consumption also has a suppressive effect on the immune system that lasts for hours after ingestion. So if you have some sugar with each meal, you are effectively suppressing your immune system all day long.
Your Brain on Sugar
One of the scariest aspects of sugar toxicity is its relationship to cognitive health. One study, conducted by the Mayo Clinic, found that people over age 70 who ate lots of sugar dramatically increased their risk for cognitive impairment.
This is not an isolated finding. A UCLA study found that fructose damaged memory and learning. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that higher glucose levels are linked to dementia. Other studies have made similar findings. In fact, some researchers are even calling Alzheimer's disease type 3 diabetes.
As if that weren't enough, sugar can help unbalance the levels of good to bad bacteria in our guts, leading to chronic infections. Undesirable organisms like yeast and other fungi enjoy feeding on the sugar we've eaten and flourish when there's plenty to go around. These imbalances are also linked to allergies, ADD, skin conditions, hypertension, and manic depression.
If you were to ask me how much refined sugar is allowable, I would say none. However, that's not a realistic goal for most people. The idea is to cut back on sugar and, when we do indulge, to maximize our body's ability to process it.
Try not to eat sweets by themselves. Instead, combine them with foods that are high in protein, healthy oils, or fiber. These help the body metabolize the sugar, and that can reduce glucose spikes. It's definitely better to have a piece of cake after a healthy meal than as a snack on its own.
Probiotics are also important because they digest sugars for their own fuel, so they can minimize glucose spikes after a sugary meal. By adding friendly probiotic bacteria to our diets in the form of fermented foods like sauerkraut and yogurt as well as supplements, we also improve nutrient absorption, glucose metabolism, and overall digestive health.
Natural Glucose Control
There are a number of botanicals that have been shown to help control glucose spikes and improve digestion. Lipoic acid raises insulin sensitivity and can also help lower blood pressure, and alginates, which are derived from brown kelp, slow down sugar absorption. Medicinal mushrooms have also been shown to control blood sugar. In fact, a couple of recent papers have indicated they might be useful in managing type 2 diabetes. The herb fenugreek has received attention from the research community for its ability to regulate blood sugar. American ginseng and holy basil leaf can be helpful, as well.
Look for a metabolic support supplement that includes these and other ingredients to balance glucose and insulin levels. Getting those levels in balance moderates cravings because reducing glucose spikes helps prevent the inevitable crashes that make us reach for more sweets. A balanced metabolic support formula is an excellent way to reduce the impacts of sugar and help lessen cravings.
While sugar can be classified as an addictive substance, there is a relative upside to this equation: The less sugar we consume, the less we want. This is a great advantage as we try to cut down. We eat less, crave less, and feel much better. Now, that's pretty sweet!