Sugar…That word that sounds the alarm to the majority of people. “We need it to survive…No, we don’t need it…go keto…go vegan…blah, blah, blah.” I want to clear up some confusion in this blog about sugar and why it’s a good idea to limit the amount of sugar we consume in our diets. To be clear, our bodies will make their own sugar to survive. We don’t necessarily need sugar in our diets to survive. It’s just how the body works, in a really small nutshell. There are also many different types of sugar such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, fruit sugar, nectar, honey, and the list goes on.
So, what’s the point in avoiding sugar? I’ll just provide some reasons in list form:
• Sugar stimulates a physiological stressor-reaction cascade that provokes adrenaline and cortisol release and thickens the blood.
• Sugar effectively disables your immune system by impairing white blood cells’ functioning.
• Sugar decreases your body’s production of leptin, a hormone critical for appetite regulation…That’s why you always want more!
• Sugar induces significant oxidative stress in the body, which increases aging.
• Sugar appears to fuel cancer cells.
• Sugar promotes fat storage, weight gain, and obesity.
• Sugar disrupts the effective transfer of amino acids to muscle tissue.
• Sugar intake over time spurs insulin resistance, subsequent Type II diabetes, and the entire host of related health issues such as nerve damage, cardiovascular disease, gut problems, and more inflammatory conditions.
• Sugar is addictive.
Sugar was a reward for us “back in the day”…meaning our natural ancestors found it very valuable. We looked at sugar as a high caloric density food because we never knew when our next meal would come. However, we only had access to sugar during different seasons. There were no grocery stores available to us on every corner. The consumption of such foods promoted the storage of body fat, which in turn enabled us to survive periods of famine. However, in the modern world, very few of us experience hunger. Instead, we have constant access to sugary, processed foods. When consumed in excess, the health conditions mentioned above will begin to manifest. This biological wiring (sugar as a reward) is what results in the addictive, opiate-like property of sugar (2, 3).
Excess sugar intake can lead to Type II Diabetes, which is characterized by insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when our cells don’t respond as strongly to insulin, and you need more to produce the desired effect. Our pancreas releases insulin in response to sugar (and other things like cortisol) to lower your blood glucose levels after eating. In fact, postprandial blood glucose, meaning post-meal blood glucose, is the most common way to diagnose type 2 diabetes. If it’s too high, that’s considered hyperglycemia. Type II Diabetes is your body’s way of saying your pancreas is tired. Hyperinsulinemia means our insulin levels are always elevated. This inhibits you from releasing fatty acids from your body fat to be burned for energy.
The bacteria that inhabits our gut thrive on carbohydrates, which is good and bad. Complex carbohydrates, such as soluble fiber found in starchy plants like squash or sweet potatoes, feed beneficial gut bacteria, boost anti-inflammatory gut microbiota, and discourage the growth of opportunistic and pathogenic bacteria. This is good. The consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugar found in less nutritious foods, however, triggers the growth of harmful gut bacteria and promotes an inflammatory gut microbiota. This is bad…and sad (1). Because the health of our gut determines the health of our immune system, excess sugar intake can lead to an impaired immune response. This can result in things like autoimmune conditions, pain, skin rashes or acne, and other inflammatory conditions (4). Diets high in sugar can also lead to an increase in cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and coronary heart disease (5).
Perhaps, the most important reason to avoid excess sugar intake is due to sugar’s likelihood of promoting cancer growth (6). Why exactly does sugar promote cancer growth? It turns out that cancerous cells can rewire their metabolism so that they become very efficient at taking up glucose from the bloodstream to use as fuel. This is known as the Warburg Effect. Diets high in refined sugar and other processed carbohydrates supply the body with large amounts of glucose, creating an environment conducive to cancer growth. Use some raw honey, local if possible, if you want a “bit of sweet”. Honey is a real, natural food, is delicious and has also been proven to have numerous health benefits. Raw honey has antibacterial effects against gut pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Shigella, as well as, the periodontal pathogen Porphyromonas gingivalis. It is also a good source of prebiotics that promote the growth of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Honey offers some cardiovascular benefits, as well, because it has antioxidant effects and improves the function of the endothelium of the heart (8, 9)! However, don’t go drinkin’ a bottle of honey…that wouldn’t be good. There’s still sugar in honey, so use it in moderation.
Most of the time, I personally like to stay as low-carb, low sugar, or keto as possible. The reason being is that the ketogenic diet has been proven useful as an adjunct treatment for cancer in a handful of studies (7). The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate protein, very-low-carbohydrate diet that significantly reduces blood sugar and causes the body to rely on ketones, rather than glucose, for energy. Remember the Warburg Effect above? This is essentially the opposite of that!
I hope this helps in understanding sugar and why it’s a good idea to avoid it! Please see the references below for more info!
Adam Gloyeske, LAc