Forget Freddy Kruger or The Joker. These guys look like saints when compared to the world’s worst villain: SUGAR. Yes, sweet, sweet sugar.
Ok, maybe this is an exaggeration, but it’s only a slight one. The health and wellness industry has been criticizing sugar for years. But is it really as bad as it’s made out to be? Spoiler alert: yes. So, put down the Rocky Road while I pinpoint why sugar is so evil.
The Western world has made small strides in terms of reducing its daily sugar consumption. We still consume too much, though research shows progress (and any reduction is better than no reduction, right?). The American Health Association (AHA) estimates that we consume about 90 grams of sugar a day, equal to about 22 teaspoons. That means that we consume the equivalent of six cups per week or 152 pounds per year, well above the AHA’s recommended six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men. So, if you’ve learned anything so far, it should be this: be sure to buy some stock in Hersey’s Food Corp.
Sugar appears in food in many different forms with many different names. I’ll be concentrating in this article on the type of sugar that is added to food, called free sugar. Free sugar is similar to the natural sugar in fruits and vegetables, but free sugar has been removed from its source and added to a different food item or drink. Free sugar has a different, more negative effect on the body, especially that which comes from high–fructose corn syrup, table sugar (sucrose) or other sources of added sugar.
Let’s talk about these negative effects (ignoring, for a minute, the positive, which is the feeling of sheer joy you get when you take your first bite of a sweet treat). Firstly, sugar causes your blood glucose levels to spike, which kicks your insulin into high gear to combat that spike. Then, you experience, shortly thereafter, a very notable dip in those levels. This is the spike–crash–crave cycle; a burst of energy followed by a crash followed by another sugary snack or drink to refuel, all of which perpetuates the cycle and leaves us tired and cranky. Not to mention all the work your insulin has just done to process this sugar, which contributes to fat storage, can lead to insulin resistance, and increase our risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.
a burst of energy followed by a crash followed by another sugary snack or drink to refuel
Sugar also affects our cardiovascular health. Studies show that sugar is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease (right up there with fat), given its role in increased fat accumulation, inflammation, and the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in the body (more on these later).
Sugar also raises your risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is caused by a build–up of fat in the liver. Researchers have studied the effects of drinking beverages that contain added sugar versus that of drinking those without and concluded that those who consume sweetened beverages have a greater chance of developing NAFLD. Sugar disrupts your gut flora by creating an imbalance between good and bad gut bacteria, providing bad bacteria with fuel and enabling it to proliferate more rapidly than the good. In English? Too much bad bacteria makes your, ahem, wind smell like the result of crash between a garbage truck and a cabbage farm. Beyond that embarrassment, a disruption in your gut flora can also lead to leaky gut syndrome, which leads to increased inflammation in the body and a higher chance of chronic disease.
It’s of course no surprise that too much sugar increases your risk of diabetes. (It’s important to note that I’m referring to Type 2 Diabetes, not Type 1. Type 1 Diabetes often occurs in childhood, independent of any external contributors; it’s a disease of the pancreas, in which no insulin is produced. Type 2, formerly called Adult Onset Diabetes, is different, though children today are more likely to develop Type 2, given the increase in childhood obesity rates.) Many believe that sugar is a direct cause of Type 2 Diabetes, but this is a myth. Instead, it indirectly causes an increase in your body’s insulin fat–resistance cycle. If we remember from above, when we eat something sugary, our blood glucose level rises, which causes us to produce and release insulin to combat the rise in glucose. The insulin sends the glucose to our cells for safe-keeping and this results in fat storage. It’s increased fat storage that plays a direct role in insulin–resistance––the major cause of Type 2 Diabetes.
Another one of sugar’s ill-effects is inflammation, also known as the gateway condition to a host of other health issues. Too much sugar ingestion can cause increased levels of C-reactive protein, cytokines and other pro-inflammatory molecules in the blood. Now, inflammation is actually a normal occurrence in the body and is considered protective at times. But too much sugar can put your body into a state of chronic low–grade inflammation, which increases your risk of other illnesses, like autoimmune disease, cancer and cardiovascular issues.
too much sugar can increase the rate at which we age, especially when it comes to the look of our skin.
Now for the heavy hitter: too much sugar can increase the rate at which we age, especially when it comes to the look of our skin. When sugar molecules react to certain fat/protein molecules, they form a nasty compound called advanced glycation end products (AGEs, briefly mentioned above) responsible for disrupting and damaging your skin’s collagen and elastin. And so, we develop more wrinkles and a saggy, hollow appearance.
Now, with all this negativity, can you believe there’s actually a caveat? A pretty important one, too. If you can recall from the beginning of this article, there’s a difference between added sugar and natural sugar, consumed straight from its source (i.e. fruits and vegetables). Getting your sugar from foods like apples and beets does not cause the same grim outcome outlined above. Stay tuned for the benefits of natural sugar, but in the meantime, step away from the Twix and dump the cola; it’s time to pick up some almonds and lemon water and defeat the sugar monster that lives inside us all.