Sugar. The sweet stuff is everywhere in our food supply and has been blamed for obesity, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, cancer, and diabetes. Though most people would say sugar is “bad,” there’s still quite a bit of debate on just how bad it is for your health. The majority says sugar is making us fat AND killing us. The other camp squarely proclaims that sugar does not cause diabetes and isn’t as bad as we all think because our bodies need sugar to survive. Who’s right?
Studies show that sugar increases your risk of heart disease because it causes inflammation, the causative factor in cardiovascular disease. It’s linked to numerous diseases. But is sugar really killing us?
Is Sugar Killing Us?
So first things first: yes, your body needs sugar, in the form of glucose, to survive. You always have a small amount (around a teaspoon) of glucose circulating in your bloodstream at any given time, and it supplies energy to cells from the food we eat.
Whether our body’s preferred fuel source is fat or sugar is up for debate. With the ketogenic diet boom, many professionals are saying the body thrives better burning fat for fuel. Regardless, your body works hard to regulate the amount of sugar in your blood stream at any given time. This is homeostasis. Too little or too much could kill you.
You get all the glucose you need from eating carbohydrates (everything that isn’t a protein or a fat is a carb. Just sayin.’ A lot of people aren’t clear on carbs). Your body then breaks down the carbs into glucose and uses it for fuel. If there is not enough carb available, your body can actually make glucose from fats and protein via a process called gluconeogenesis. On the other hand, too much glucose is converted to lipids and stored as fat. And that’s where we get into trouble.
If you eat too much for your body’s metabolic needs, you will gain weight. But here’s the thing: It’s difficult to eat too much chicken and kale. Sugar and starchy carbs, on the other hand (and fat, for that matter), are easy to overconsume, because we’re hardwired to crave them. Sugar tastes good because it’s a calorie-dense source of energy that our body knows will help us survive in times of famine. And in nature, sweet foods like fruits are often full of good stuff like vitamins, minerals, and energy.
But in modern, industrialized society, we face the opposite of famine. There’s too much food, and a lot of it is processed and engineered to taste good so that the pleasure center in our brain goes ZING! whenever we eat these foods. I’m talking about candy bars, soda, cookies, Cheetos, french fries, ice cream, pastas, bread, and processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. These foods are the problem.
We should be getting no more than 10 percent of our calories from sugar of any type, be it sugar added to food or already present in foods like fruit. Most experts advise no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, per day for women and 35 grams or 8-9 tsp for men (source). In reality Americans are consuming at least triple this amount averaging upwards of 80 grams daily. (source)
One teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams. An eight-ounce glass of orange juice has 5.5 teaspoons of sugar, over 20 grams. A can of coke contains 39 grams, or almost 10 teaspoons.
We’re eating too many processed foods that contain added refined sugars, including corn syrup, coupled with refined simple carbs (think white flour) that break down quickly into glucose. High sugar foods are empty calories that provide you with a quick hit of energy but lack nutritive value: They’re low in vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber that your body needs to thrive, and they’re high in refined sugars, chemicals, sodium, and hydrogenated or rancid fats. So these processed foods, engineered to act on your reward system so you overeat them, are contributing to deficiencies and malnutrition that set the stage for disease. Obesity or weight gain can actually mean your body is deficient in essential nutrients, usually from a diet high in too many nutrient void processed foods, which is driving you to consume more so that the body’s vital needs are met. (source)
Study after study (there is a good synopsis here) links too much sugar with diabetes, fatty liver, atherosclerosis, and heart disease. And remember, if you’re eating more sugar than your body burns for fuel, the rest of stored as fat, so excess sugar is making you fat too. And it’s not just white sugar; it’s the processed simple carbs like white flour, pasta, and white bread that break down into glucose that exacerbate the sugar hit to your system.
But the worst part about it is eating sugar makes you crave more sugar. You know the roller coaster. It’s 3pm and you want cookies. You eat 1. You can’t stop at 1 so you have 1 more. OK, 2 more. A few cookies later you’re feeling the high, soon to be followed by a crash that zaps your energy and leaves you irritable and craving more sugar because your body is screaming for that hit of quick energy. Too much sugar messes with leptin and your appetite regulation system and insulin, your fat storage hormone, that surges when you eat sugar, thus triggering fat storage.
But it may be misleading to state that sugar alone is killing us. What’s clearer is that sugar in EXCESS and combined with a poor diet causes disease, obesity, and contributes to diabetes.
So the bottom line is yes, sugar is contributing to disease because we are consuming too much of it, and in the wrong sources (like junk food), and often in the place of more nutrient dense foods our body needs to stay healthy, increasing disease risk. Then we crave more sugar. Then it becomes a habit and a regular part of our diets.
It may be true that some bodies are better fueled by fat and better suited for a ketogenic diet. But not everyone thrives from being fat adapted. We all have different physiological needs, and some of us, mostly women, have a greater need for carbs in the right forms (think starchy root veggies, fruits, legumes, gluten free whole grains).
Aside from the obvious candy and sodas at 39 grams of sugar a pop, sugar is hidden in foods like salad dressing, ketchup, cereals, canned foods, and breads (to name a few) to make it tastier. And sugar spikes dopamine release in the brain (similar to cocaine, hence the ‘sugar is more addictive than cocaine‘ headlines), creating a reward-pleasure cycle when you consume it that can trigger habit-forming and/or binge tendencies. Same is true for pasta and carb-rich meals. Ever notice you crave these foods as comfort foods when you’re upset or stressed? This cycle can become more pronounced with the more sugar and processed foods you consume because they lower your dopamine levels, triggering cravings for foods that increase it.
But to be clear, I am not demonizing all sugar. I think it’s perfectly fine to enjoy natural sources of sugar, healthy treats sweetened with honey or maple syrup, and even ice cream and cake once in a while. HOWEVER–>
- if you’re in the 80+ grams of sugar a day camp
- if sugar triggers binge behavior for you
- if it’s causing you to gain weight
- if it’s causing energy crashes and irritability
- if you find your fasting glucose, insulin, triglyceride, or cholesterol levels rising
then it’s time to examine your relationship with sugar and possibly eliminate it from your diet (save for starchy vegetables and some fruit) because it is adversely affecting your health and putting you at risk for disease. But we can’t make blanket statements about how a food singularly affects everyone. How we process and use sugar and foods that break down into sugar depends largely on our genetics, gender, and the rest of our diet and lifestyle.
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Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.