I’ve got a wicked sweet-tooth. Many of my friends [especially my lady-friends] claim they suffer from the same post-meal craving. Lately I’ve been eating fruit to satiate the sweet urge, but healthy as that may seem I’m pretty sure I’m overdoing that, too. Limiting my intake of sugars [natural, refined, or completely human-generated] has not necessarily changed the way I feel about sweet foods – I just know the importance of maintaining my a] teeth, b] bod c] blood-sugar levels.
My interest in this phenomena spurred me to do a little research about sugar. After all, sugar is derived from a natural source, so how has it [like every other food] turned into the artificial [it’s in the name] junk in our drinks and low-cal foods? The research I did brought me to a very simple conclusion: sugar, like every other element of a natural-based diet, is important and productive when consumed with its natural counterparts. The sugar [or whatever you call it] we consume [all 170 lbs per person, per year] doesn’t do anything it’s supposed to because it lacks nutrients and assistance due to the way it is served.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Sugar comes from plants. This fact is sometimes forgotten when the final product is so far removed. Sucrose [common table sugar] breaks down into glucose and fructose [sounds familiar, right?] during digestion. Glucose is the primary sugar present in your blood [a la high/low blood sugar levels] and fructose is found in fruit and modern sugars like high fructose corn syrup.
To be clear, there are many different types of sugars. Added sugar [sucrose], also identified as granulated sugar, is described on everyone’s favorite source [wikipedia] as such:
Other sugars, like lactose found naturally in milk, are the kind we ingest through our daily diets. This crucial difference explains the many labels you see in the grocery store exclaiming “no added sugar!” – no sucrose is added, but naturally occurring sugars may be present.
We process sugar as starch that is broken down by cooking, chewing, and digesting. Once broken down, these starches separate into glucose molecules that enter the bloodstream. Glucose moderates energy levels and allows the body to function normally. The interesting thing is, though, that ingesting sugar is not essential to keeping these levels in check. Natural vegetation and animal-derived products keep our blood sugar levels normal [eliminating the “sugar high” aspect of life].
The following could be copied and pasted when discussing any aspect of the modern diet: the sugar we ingest does not contain the vitamins and minerals with which it is accompanied in the wild and therefore does not get digested the way it is supposed to. When refined carbohydrates are processed they actually deplete the body’s store of energy providing vitamins, enzymes, and minerals to simply metabolize them [sugar crash].
” Refined carbohydrates have been called “empty” calories. “Negative” calories is a more appropriate term because consumption of refined calories depletes the body’s precious reserves. Consumption of sugar and white flour may be likened to drawing on a savings account. If continued withdrawals are made faster than new funds are put in, the savings account will eventually become depleted.”
Consuming sugars in excess starts a dangerous cycle called glycation*, which means amino acids bond to sugar molecules when blood-sugar levels are abnormally high. What results is an unnatural protein structure that is incorporated into the body’s tissues, especially those in the eyes and in the protective coatings around one’s nerves.
Sugar today: As mentioned before, sugar consumption in the U.S. has increased to 170 lbs per person, per year. This is 1/4 of the average total caloric intake per person^. This fact alone is pretty shocking, but think also about the other empty calories we consume every day: white flour, refined vegetable oils, cheap beer, etc…If you don’t believe it, check out http://www.sugarstacks.com to see a literal stack of sugar next to America’s favorite foods and beverages. It will shock you.
The “sugar rush” – this sensation is caused by refined sugars entering the bloodstream in a literal hurry. This is because it is usually unaccompanied. Eating natural sugars with appropriate fats and proteins causes the sugar to enter the bloodstream slowly and create real energy, not just a high blood-sugar excuse.
Disease – I won’t go into too much detail – most people know the dangers of eating excess carbs and sugars. It is terrifying to realize, though, that diseases like adult-onset (type 2) diabetes is now a risk in those not yet considered adults. This is a direct result of the wrong type of sugar consumption – the kind that keeps your body functioning at a level upon which it is not designed to function. Diabetes results, and insulin shots are required to help the once healthy body function.
Many studies** have been published linking intermittent sugar consumption to eating disorders, which, though initially this surprised me, makes perfect sense. The terms used in the study are scientific, but to put it simply: bingeing on sugar-laden foods (those that are the most palatable and readily available for mass consumption) makes you feel sick, unhealthy, and like you’ve made a mistake. This results in either purging or restraining oneself from the further consumption
(bulimia/anorexia), creating a dangerous expectation/consequence cycle that harms the body in so many ways. Though many people don’t experience this cycle to the extreme that it would be labeled an eating disorder, I imagine many people can identify with the feeling of regret or particular discomfort after consuming a large amount of sugary food and therefore make a mental note to, perhaps, not do it again.
Many authorities discuss sugar in the simplest of terms – that it is a calorie, just like those found in proteins and starches, and its consumption is of natural intent due to its ability to make foods taste better. It’s cheap, it lives forever on a shelf, and is a quick fix for many meals that are created in a kitchen stocked with artificial ingredients that have no taste to begin with. This exposes an implicit hole in this logic, though. Using sugar as a helping hand for foods that would have poor flavor without it proves that the ingredients are not truly and healthfully usable in the first place.
If you find yourself sprinkling sugar on your grapefruit or adding it to your oatmeal, maybe you’ve embarked on the wrong food path from the beginning. An in-season, ripe, local fruit needs no sugar because it will be irresistibly sweet and flavorful. Steel cut oats will be rich in texture and hearty flavor, and honey is a great sweetener for this type of meal.
There are myriad ways to avoid using sugar liberally in your diet. First, start with foods that taste good on their own. Whole foods that are minimally processed will yield the most flavorful meals and snacks. There’s a chance that making this switch will not be automatically well-received by one’s taste buds and/or gut. Trust me on this one, going cold-turkey on sugar will result in some sort of body process that might mean stomach aches, headaches, cravings, and moodiness (sugar detox, literally). Give your body at least a week to regulate itself to your new diet and I personally guarantee that you will no longer have the same sugar cravings you once did.
It’s also important to keep in mind that sugar is present in nearly all pre-packaged or restaurant foods. Check the labels on your grocery goods and try to stick to foods that are wrapper-less and come in their own natural form. You’ll be surprised by the amount of sugar present in breakfast cereals, smoothies, and flavored oatmeal, among other things. If you’re feeling sluggish, eat a piece of fruit, go for a quick walk, or have a big glass of water. If all else fails, drink a cup of coffee. This might not be what you are craving, but it’s important to reverse the cycle, the nation-wide eating disorder to which every American easily falls victim.
Here are a few images from around my house – some of these are products in which you’d expect to find sugar, some are a bit surprising:
Artificial sweeteners are an entirely different ballgame, so to speak. I will be writing a post about these interesting concoctions in the next few days. Turns out, original and the imitation are much too fascinating to combine in to one post. For now I’ll just say – the skinny vanilla frappuccino is no better than the regular. Don’t let big-box companies fool you into thinking they’ve fixed your diet problems, stick to what makes sense and needs as little modification to taste good as possible.
Please contact me if you have any questions about modifying your diet to become more sugar-conscious. I will try to help as best I can! Oh, and, as a bit of an epilogue: I just want to say, don’t keep yourself from what you love. Just make sure it’s of the best quality, and in a controlled portion. If limit your intake, the times you do eat it will be…that much sweeter.
** Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake – Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/
^ This shocking fact found in the following literature, as cited in Nourishing Traditions:
Beasley, J. D., Swift, J., & W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (1989). The Kellogg report: The impact of nutrition, environment, & lifestyle on the health of Americans. Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y: Institute of Health Policy and Practice, the Bard College Center
As with most of my posts, this one was derived from the Carbohydrates section of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, pages 21-25.