Sugar has been part of our diet forever. Sugar was first discovered back in the 18th century. Eating sugar once was a luxury rather than a daily commodity.
Sugar was expensive up until the mid 20th century, By the 1990s, there has been a tectonic shift in our consumption of sugar. And now It is virtually found in every processed food available.
The question is why sugar is bad for our health? after all, sugar contains only 20 calories per 5gm, Seems pretty harmless right? Wrong
At least once in your life you may have heard the notion that every food can be part of a healthy diet even sugar, but in moderation. Since its all about the calories we consume.
The general consensus about calories is that, if you eat more calories than you burn the result is weight gain, Hence it doesn’t matter if the calories come through sugar or a salad as long as you aren’t lazy and burn those excess calories through exercise.
The problem with this theory is that, all calories are not equal. Calories from different food also gets metabolized differently by the body. Some calories causes more disease than others.
For example 50 calories consumed through a sweet beverage as compared to 50 calories consumed through eating a broccoli will invoke massively different biochemical reactions in your body.
The point is all calories are not the same, the body needs to produce different biochemical and hormonal reaction to different foods.
Coming to back why sugar is bad for your health. I will explain this in a detailed and nuanced manner.
1. Sugar causes accumulation of liver fat
The table sugar which is commonly consumed around the world is extracted from cane, beet or corn. The end product of extraction is refined sugar. Which is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
You may have heard the term glucose all the time. Glucose is the energy source for all cells in our body. It can be easily absorbed through the food we eat and converted into energy for the cells.
However, fructose on the other hand cannot be used by any cells for energy and mainly can be metabolized by the liver.
Consuming too much fructose in your meals overloads your liver and the mitochondria (energy burning factory in the cells). Thus the liver has no choice but to store them as liver fat.
Hence, you might be eating a low fat diet, but if your diet is high in sugar, its basically a high fat diet as well because most of it will end up as liver fat.
2. Sugar creates addiction.
Whenever you eat or drink something that is high in sugar, your body produces a hormone called Dopamine, which is an excitatory neurotransmitter.
Dopamine is a chemical that is responsible to induce feelings of pleasure in a person. Dopamine is also released during activities like sex.
Whatever your brain perceives as pleasures dopamine will be released during that activity.
The problem with this is that chronic stimulation of dopamine can also lead to addiction, the reason being, the more dopamine is released the more it downregulates its receptor.
Which means when you keep on indulging in an addictive activity such as watching pornography, gambling, social media scrolling, shopping, chronic alcohol and sugar consumption all eventually leads to addiction.
The reason being the more you indulge in hedonic activities, the more dopamine you release and the more you have to do that particular activity next time to get that same amount of excitatory response from dopamine, because the receptors get downregulated over time leading to addiction.
Studies have shown that sugar causes a big rush of dopamine in your brain, giving you that addictive feeling of wanting more the next time.
For example lets say you have a glass of sweetened soda or a fruit juice, the sugar (fructose) in them lights up the limbic system in your brain, stimulating dopamine and leading to addiction over time, making you crave more again and again.
3. Sugar consumption leads to metabolic syndrome
In a nutshell metabolic syndrome means a number of risk factors for different type of diseases, like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease etc.
How does sugar play a role in this? As stated above, when sugar (fructose) is consumed in excess, it is converted into liver fat which leads to insulin resistance in the liver.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for glucose regulation. Whenever you eat a meal, your blood glucose level goes up, insulin is released from the pancreas and it stores that glucose in the blood in all the cells of the body.
Although, When insulin resistance occurs in the liver it means the cells of the liver are no longer responding to the usual amount of insulin to store that blood glucose.
Hence the pancreas has to work harder by releasing even more insulin every time you have a meal leading to type 2 diabetes and fat storage around your organs commonly referred as belly fat.
One of the waste products that is produced from excess sugar (fructose) consumption is uric acid.
Uric acid is the reason for diseases such as gout. Although one of the other damaging aspect of uric acid is that it blocks nitric oxide production in the blood vessels which is responsible of vasodilation (unrestricted blood flood).
Thus leading to constriction in the blood vessels and increasing chances of hypertension.
4. Sugar and Alcohol causes similar damage to the body
What does alcohol has to do with sugar since they are both quite different and cannot be compared right? Well, not quite.
Ethanol is the active chemical ingredient found in alcohol. Ethanol is naturally made when the sugar is fermented by yeasts.
Chronic alcohol consumption causes a disease known as fatty liver. Why does this happen? Similar to sugar (fructose), the cells in your body cannot directly use alcohol for energy.
Hence the job rests on the liver to metabolize 80% of the alcohol consumed. And what is the result of it? the liver gets overwhelmed and it turns the ethanol into liver fat causing fatty liver.
The only difference between sugar (fructose) and alcohol is that you dont get the same intoxicating effects from sugar as one gets from consuming alcohol, since the brain does not metabolize fructose.
Sugar also causes a disease known as NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). More and more children are now being diagnosed with NAFLD due to their excess sugar (fructose) consumption.
Fatty liver also increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases because when the liver turns the fructose into liver fat, it also converts some of the fructose into LDL (low density lipoprotein) to get stored in your muscle and fat cells.
There are two types of LDL, particle A and particle B, LDL A is reportedly neutral in its morphology it is not as dense as compared to LDL B and does not increase the risk of a cardiovascular event (heart attack).
LDL B on the other hand has shown to be the trouble maker, because it is dense in its chemical structure and sticks on to the endothelial cells in the blood vessels leading to plaque formation causing atherosclerosis (narrowing of the blood vessels) leading to heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease etc.
Lastly, sugar (fructose) can harm your liver and cause the same diseases as done by alcohol.
5. Sugar accelerates aging process
There are enough studies out there linking excess sugar consumption and accelerated aging.
The reason being the sugar from the food we eat binds to hemoglobin in the blood known as glycation which causes something called the maillard or browning reaction.
Its the same reaction used to brown the meat using barbecue sauce except its heated over 300 degrees.
Our body’s temperature is usually 98.7 degrees therefore in a normal scenario it takes several decades for aging to occur through glycation.
However studies show that the fructose in sugar drives the maillard reaction seven times faster than glucose.
This small difference can cause the cells in your body to age rapidly than it should leading to accelerated aging, wrinkles, cognitive decline etc.
6. Sugar is virtually found in every processed food
Go into your kitchen, pick up any food item that came in a package. Read the nutrition label behind it and in most cases you will find sugar in the first three ingredients.
Its found in every processed product, whether its bread, flavored yogurt, chips, tomato sauce, soy sauce, you name it and most possibly it will be there in one of the listed ingredients.
The question is why? why is there added sugar in so many packaged food nowadays? the answer is like i mentioned above, sugar (fructose) is addictive especially when you combine sugar, salt and fat you get a delicious and addictive combination that you cant get enough of.
And the food industry is indeed aware of this fact hence you will find sugar in 90% of the items in your grocery store. They know if they put it in there you will come back for more and that has been the case.
What are the simple things you can implement right now to jump off the sugar wagon?
1. Eat your sugar with fiber
By “eat your sugar” i mean naturally available sugar like the fructose which is found in fruits along with fiber. If fructose is poison, fiber is its antidote.
When you drink sweetened soda’s, fruit juices and smoothies, they are stripped of their fibrous content leaving only the sugar behind which overloads the liver.
Fiber slows down the absorption of sugar in your intestine, which allows your liver to not get overloaded by it and function properly.
Fiber also feeds the good bacteria in the large intestine which maintains a healthy gut and limits any ill effects of fructose.
Therefore keep your consumption of sweetened sodas, fruit juices and chocolate to the absolute minimum and eat your fruit rather than juicing it.
2. Increase muscle mass through exercise.
Exercise is a useful tool, not because it burn off the calories from any junk food you ate. The body doesn’t work that way.
Exercise increases the number of mitochondria (energy burning factory in the cells) in the form of muscles and increased muscles mass means you burn more energy while you rest.
This is why exercise is a wonderful way to boost your metabolism. When you exercise you set up the building blocks to burn more energy in the form of muscles. thus muscles burns energy even at rest.
According to a study in Taiwan, exercising even for just 15 minutes a day (92 minutes a week) extended the overall lifespan by 3 years.
15 minutes of exercise is basically simply walking. Imagine if you truly exercised for 1 hour a day few times a week that involved strength training and muscle building exercises as well.
Exercise is not just about movement and cardio. Building muscle mass also improves the quality of life as you enter the later stages of life.
How do you want to feel while you are in your 70s or 80s? No one would like to feel old and weak and be dependent on others, most would like have a good quality of life even in the last years of your life. Which means being in good shape mentally and physically.
Maintaining adequate muscle mass will significantly improve the chances of you being disease free and maintaining the quality of life as you did in your younger years.
3. Change your relationship with Sugar
If you have a “sweet tooth” for desserts, start thinking of them as something that is only eaten at special occasions like weddings, birthdays, etc i.e once is in a while.
If you still crave something sweet everyday substitute for real and whole foods like fruits, smoothie bowls or unflavored yogurt mixed with fresh fruits.
Replace low fat and flavored milk with full fat milk (Unprocessed milk) – Similarly replace any flavored yogurt with normal yogurt without any added sugar.
Get into the habit of reading labels while buying anything in your grocery store to seek out any hidden added sugars.
Avoid or limit using any bottle sauces or make your own. Tomato ketchup, mayonnaise or any barbecue sauces are usually loaded with sugars. Replace them with homemade chutneys or yogurt dips.
Even though I advocate everything can be eaten in moderation. i believe the consumption of sugar and any process food should be kept to the absolute minimum.
The goal should be to eat within the realm of real and wholesome foods such as fruits, yoghurt, green leafy veggies, whole grains etc.
Finally, Never buy your groceries while being hungry, you will most likely end up buying things that gives you the instant gratification – meaning processed food.
If you are someone who is having a hard time staying off processed food. While grocery shopping stick to the edges of the grocery stores, where you will find fresh produce and avoid the middle aisles since that’s where most of the processed food are stacked, that way you give yourself less chances of being tempted of anything sugary.