Friday, March 27, 2009

Some Very Sweet Problems

Greetings again,

In my last blog I mentioned that sugar is one of the factors involved in diabetes (which most people already know) and that it's also a factor that increases risk for heart disease (which fewer people know). I will mostly address the latter point because it is indeed so little known, but before I begin I'd like to explain that when I say “sugar” I'm referring to table sugar. No adverse effect mentioned in this blog applies to sugar in its natural, non-refined state i.e. in fruits and vegetables. Most fruits and veggies are low on the glycemic index* and our bodies can handle their sugar content with ease. As soon as you process it and thereby concentrate it, you get into trouble. I'm pretty sure no one claims that sugar is good for you, but I think you may be surprised just how bad for you it is. So this blog entry won't be so much about clarifying misconceptions, but rather about expanding awareness.

During my sugar research I came upon a very fitting “analogy” and I encourage you to remember it because it pretty much sums up the gist of this whole blog—sugar is a drug. It's addictive. It gives you a high. It produces withdrawal symptoms/cravings when you don't have any for a while. And it destroys your health. Here is a list of 76 negative effects of sugar including interference with mineral and protein absorption, causing of varicose veins, messing with your DNA structure, causing headaches and migraines, causing depression, aiding emotional instability, contributing to obesity and degenerative disorders etc.

I'd particularly like to address the fact that sugar suppresses your immune system for hours after you consume it. The effect starts less than 30 minutes after consumption and can last up to five hours afterwards. What happens on the molecular level is that sugar interferes with your white blood cells and decreases their ability to kill germs. Drinking two soda cans (which contain about 20 teaspoons of sugar) can reduce your white cell efficiency by 40% (if you're really interested in the nitty-gritty details this site and this site are pretty reader-friendly). So with this in mind consider “health foods” like Vitamin water. It has vitamins and minerals that are supposedly going to help you stay healthier, but it also contains 8 teaspoons of sugar (4 g = aprox. 1 tsp) that are going to suppress your immune system and block your mineral absorption. Keep this in mind and it will help you make genuinely healthy choices. And also keep in mind that this immune suppressing effect does not occur with starches and complex carbs, that is whole foods that naturally contain sugar.

So in addition to making you more susceptible to infectious disease, sugar also causes inflammation which is its key link to heart disease. Basically the more sugar you consume, the more your body makes C reactive protein (CRP). CRP is an excellent inflammation marker. The more inflammation markers you have, the greater your likelihood of heart disease and consequently heart attack. This research is fairly new (2005 and on) and prior to this pretty much everyone in the medical community thought of cholesterol as a predictor of heart disease. However, you can have high cholesterol and as long you have low inflammation markers, you are unlikely to develop heart disease. More and more medical professionals seem to be catching on to the idea that cholesterol really isn't the tell-tale sign of heart problems. But even before this new research came out, doctors had some inkling about sugar's role in coronary heart disease albeit they couldn't pinpoint the problem. Here is an American Health Association statement from 2002 if you're like me and like to smile at gradual changes.

All right, so refined sugar is pretty much horrible for your body, but there is actually something worse than sugar—high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I learned that there are actually TV commercials advertising that HFCS is made from corn and is just fine for you in moderation. I looked up a couple of the commercials and have to admit that they're ingeniously structured and executed, but they are also misleading just short of outright lying so that, I'm guessing, they can't get sued. HFCS is made from corn in the same sense that your car tires are made from rubber trees. And it's not made from sweet corn, but from inedible corn that is chemically processed with three different enzymes, broken down and concentrated into something that is even sweeter than sugar and is nowhere to be found in nature.

The first problem with HFCS is that it has a higher amount of fructose than glucose. Glucose is the sugar that gives you energy. Unlike glucose, fructose is digested differently and doesn't trigger insulin. Because insulin signals to your brain that you're full, you don't experience the feeling of satiety when you consume HFCS so you are not only consuming a concentrated drug, but you have to consume far more of it to feel like you've had enough. In short, it enables you to consume far more empty calories by circumventing your body's natural responses to too much food intake. The effect is absolutely worst when you're drinking HFCS (in pretty much every soft drink and most juices) because there is also no fiber to tell you you're full and should stop. So it's no wonder that HFCS is blamed for America's obesity epidemic amongst other factors (like the low-fat food craze).

The second problem with HFCS is that it has high levels of reactive carbonyls. Table sugar, because it has a solid molecular structure, while HFCS is liquid, doesn't have those reactive carbonyls. In gist reactive carbonyls are similar to free radicals and cause tissue damage that becomes a factor for diabetes. The levels of these molecules are worst in carbonated drinks though they are always present in HFCS regardless of its source. And speaking of source:

The biggest problem with HFCS is that it is everywhere. I challenge you to go to your pantry and pick up any box or can of something and check its ingredients list. I am willing to bet that unless you're a strict health fanatic (like I've become after a bit of this research) you'll find HFCS in your house. It's in breads and ketchup and foods that you'd never think would have sugar in them. I mean it's everywhere. So unless you don't eat processed foods, how are you supposed to eat HFCS in moderation like their ad recommends? Of course you shouldn't be eating HFCS at all though it won't kill you if it slips in now and then, (like small amounts of rat poison won't kill you either) but the problem is that it really is everywhere.

My main goal here is really just to make you aware that you're consuming far more sugar than you might think you are. The USDA says that we should not consume any more than 10 teaspoons of refined sugar a day. That's about 40 grams. If you're up for a challenge, I challenge you to see if you can manage to eat less than 40 grams of sugar a day. If despite reading all this you still aren't up for that challenge, I ask you to just wake up tomorrow and keep track of your sugar consumption. Don't even try to limit it, just observe it and see if you're surprised.

So now you realize how bad sugar is and that its uglier cousin has infiltrated all your food and you're wondering what your alternatives are. Well, I'll address sugar substitutes in my next blog, but as a little spoiler I'll tell you to stay away from aspretame and sucralose (Splenda). If you realized you're addicted to sugar and would like to get it under control here are a few tips by one of my favorite nutritionists. And I'd like to end this blog by saying that if you're frustrated about sugar being so bad, I completely understand. I know no one who has a bigger sweet tooth than I do. I mean I could eat half a pound of fudge and not get sick. Pretty bad. About 6 weeks ago, I stopped eating sugar/refined carbohydrates and have not craved it since I got over the withdrawal period. I feel that if I can stop eating sugar and be happy about it and not miss it, then I'm sure that the rest of the population can at the very least limit their sugar consumption.

My little sister is coming to visit me next week, so I'm taking that week off and won't be posting until Friday after next. But tune back in for some suggestions how to satisfy your sweet tooth and not risk diabetes or heart disease.

Till then,

Every patient carries his or her own doctor inside.”--Albert Schweitzer

*The glycemic index (GI) indicates how quickly foods raise your blood sugar/blood glucose levels. Foods are assigned numbers relative to table sugar and white flour, both of which are 100 and go practically directly into your blood stream because they are so highly processed that they don't need digestion. The result of eating foods high on the GI is a sugar high/energy rush followed by a crash. Foods lower on the GI are better for your overall health. There are few exceptions to this, like watermelons for example because although their GI is high, they are a nutritious and vitamin-rich food. But if you eat them by themselves, they'll cause the energy spike and crash nonetheless.


  1. I took your HFCS challenge and only found one source of it in my pantry, Maraschino cherries. I only use them in Manhattans which in turn I only drink rarely (the jar isn't opened and it's been in there for at least a month). I'm a label reader! I may still consume too much sugar, but I at least try not to stick too much crap in my body...


  2. Kudos Kas! You definitely fall into the upper 10 percentile of my health conscious friends. =)

  3. Is it bad that I was drinking hot chocolate while I read this? (Answer: Yes.)