Do you know what (most) peanut butter, pasta sauce, and breakfast cereals have in common? They all contain sugar! A lot, if not most, processed foods do.
Sugar consumption has increased insanely during the last couple of centuries. Two hundred years ago, Americans ate around 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today? We're at about 152 pounds per year!
What's the problem, you ask? The problem is, we've also seen an increase in metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes. Sugar is also nothing but empty calories. A lot of empty calories. And with a rise in obesity as well, it’s worth taking a closer look at sugar and our consumption.
Welcome to our Sugar Series, helping you understand and improve your relationship with sugar!
Before you throw out every last bit of sugar in your house, keep reading to learn what you need to know about sugar, some sweet alternatives, and how to consume it safely.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate and contains no proteins, fats, or micronutrients. In other words, it is empty calories with no nutritional value.
And while plants produce sugar (sucrose) naturally through photosynthesis, the sugar most people consume today results from a more extensive chemical process.
The tricky thing about sugar is that it's not always listed as sugar on the ingredient lists of various foods. Look out for labels that include:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- corn sweetener
Pay attention to things that are sweetened with honey. While it is not the same as raw sugar and provides some nutrients, its effect on blood sugar is similar.
Fat-free foods such as cookies or ice cream are also often sweetened with sugar as opposed to full-fat options. Remember that fat-free does not mean sugar-free.
If it has no nutritional value, why do we crave something sweet when we're hungry?
Our affinity for sweet foods goes back to our hunter-gather days. Fruits are ripe and perfect to eat when they are sweet. Our brain still makes this connection to this day, even if we don't even realize it. Sweet = good to eat.
Sweet also usually means a quick energy boost. Even when you're getting nothing but empty calories, you still feel a quick (and short) boost of energy.
You may know it as a sugar rush. It is the moment when your blood sugar rises, giving you a feeling of energy. If you were also hungry or in a hypoglycemic state (translation: low blood sugar), this quick blood sugar rise will feel even better.
Foods with a higher glycemic index (a rating system for foods containing carbohydrates) will provide a quicker blood sugar spike. They will also make you crash just as quickly.
There's also the fact that sugar is addictive. Some studies even compared sugar addiction to cocaine addiction! No wonder it's so hard to give it up.
Adverse side effects of consuming too much sugar
Blood sugar highs and lows
As we've already established, sugar and high glycemic foods, in general, will give you a quick blood sugar spike.
That spike in blood sugar will give you a boost of energy. Under the right circumstances, such as before an intense workout, this effect is desirable. Many energy drinks designed for athletes have a high glycemic index for this very reason: to boost energy and help the person power through their workout.
But if you go through this blood sugar spike daily, sometimes several times a day, the effects will eventually become disastrous. There's also the fact that most people who consume such high sugar meals do not work out. So the empty calories just pile up and mess up your health.
Plus, a sugar crash will always follow a sugar high. Can you guess what happens when you experience such a crash? That's right; you’ll want more sugar!
Chronic diseases associated with sugar
Sugar causes more than tooth decay. You may be familiar with type 2 diabetes, a condition commonly associated with high sugar consumption. But did you know heart disease, hormonal imbalances, and even Alzheimer's are all impacted by sugar?
Most issues usually start with insulin resistance which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, but it also stands behind hormonal issues such as PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).
Each time you eat a high sugar meal, more insulin is made in your pancreas to help your cells convert sugar into energy. But when you consume too much sugar, this transformation becomes more and more difficult. The sugar left is stored in your body as fat, which your body should use later as energy.
But before your body can break down the fat as energy, you eat more sugar! And then your pancreas takes the signal to make more insulin. In time, your cells become increasingly resistant to insulin. This means they can no longer efficiently convert sugar into energy.
From here, a myriad of problems follows, including:
- high estrogen in men
- high testosterone in women
- thyroid issues
- increased gut permeability
- high levels of cholesterol
- heart disease
Not all sugars and sweeteners are created equal
By now, you're probably wondering if you'll ever be able to eat anything sweet again. Have no fear; you will!
If you want to replace sugar, you have a lot of options. Up until recently, if you wanted a 0-calorie sweetener, you had to look at artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. While these may help manage blood sugar, they also have many risks and side effects.
Studies are still being conducted, but many scientists believe there's a link between artificial sweeteners and diseases such as Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and even systemic lupus. They also alter the gut microbiome and can lead to digestive issues such as diarrhea, malabsorption of nutrients, dizziness, headaches, and more.
Safer alternatives come in the form of natural sweeteners such as Stevia. These are free of calories and carbs, they don't spike your blood sugar, and they're not addictive. Overconsumption could lead to digestive issues, but that's true with most foods.
Finally, sugar alcohols such as xylitol or erythritol are popular sweeteners because their taste feels closer to sugar. They have few calories, are blood-sugar friendly, and have no side effects when consumed in moderate amounts.
Simple vs. complex carbohydrates
Sugars aren't all equal, and neither are carbs. Simple carbohydrates such as bananas, or oranges, produce a quick and short blood sugar spike.
Complex carbs do not raise your blood sugar as suddenly, and they won't make you crash either. Complex carbs include but are not limited to sweet potatoes, broccoli, grapefruit, and spinach.
Consuming fruit is not the same as eating white sugar
A common misconception is that fruit counts towards your total sugar intake. Most fruits are indeed simple carbs, but they also contain micronutrients and our favorite, fiber.
Fiber makes you feel full quicker, and it is generally beneficial to your health. Studies also show that problems arise when we consume free sugars, not fruit.
The problem with sugar-free foods
Sugar-free foods aren't necessarily healthier. First of all, start by reading the label and make sure the sugar isn't replaced with artificial sweeteners.
And just like some fat-free foods are high in sugar, some sugar-free foods may be high in fat. In other words, pay close attention to all processed foods that are "free" of whatever ingredient. There's a high chance you'll find another ingredient in there "compensating."
The sweet spot
The CDC recommends no more than 10% of our daily calorie intake comes from sugar. So for a standard diet of 2,000 calories per day, you can get a maximum of 200 calories from sugar. That's roughly 12 teaspoons. The WHO agrees, but they also recommend cutting the intake to about 5% if possible for increased health benefits.
If you want to curb your sugar cravings, the easiest thing to do is replace sweets with fruit or a few small pieces of dark chocolate. Eating a balanced meal rich in nutrients, protein, fat, and complex carbs will also keep your cravings to a minimum.
The bottom line
Sugar has become our sweet problem. It can be found in foods you'd least expect, and it provides nothing but empty calories. On top of that, it can cause many health issues such as insulin resistance, diabetes, heart conditions, and even Alzheimer's.
Some alternatives exist, but they should be used in moderation. Reducing processed foods and choosing fruit for dessert are a couple of things you can do to limit your sugar intake.
Now we want to hear from you! What are your biggest challenges when it comes to sugar? Did you manage to cut back on your intake? How did you do it? Follow the Silver Solution Facebook page and let us know.
This blog post does not provide health or medical advice. This blog post is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health or medical advice. Before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate medical and healthcare professionals. We do not provide any kind of health or medical advice. The use or reliance of any information contained on this blog is solely at your own risk.