Let’s get into SUGAR. It’s a hot topic! There are a lot of opinions out there about how addictive it can be and what kinds we should avoid.
I am someone who does NOT touch processed sugar. I know firsthand the negative impact it can have on one’s health.
So let’s get into the science and then I’ll share a bit more of why I personally avoid it towards the end.
What is sugar?
When we think of common sugar we think of white table sugar. You know, those one pound bags our mother used in all of her baking. Sugar is referred to as sucrose.
Sucrose is a molecule that is composed of:
-12 atoms of carbon
-22 atoms of hydrogen
-11 atoms of oxygen
Something you may not know is all carbohydrates are made from these three elements. We can find sugar in plants, especially the sugarcane plant and sugar beets.
Sucrose is two simple sugars that are stuck together: glucose and fructose.
Natural sugar vs. Refined sugar
There is a big, big difference between natural sugars and refined sugars. By the way, you can also think of “refined sugars” as “processed sugars”-- the two are interchangeable.
Think of refined sugar as a simple sugar. Or a simple carbohydrate.
Think of natural sugar as a complex sugar. Or a complex carbohydrate.
What is a simple sugar?
Simple sugars are carbohydrates with molecules that contain either single or double sugar molecules. These are referred to as saccharides. They are four calories per gram. What we often see is the singular sugar molecule. Our body cannot properly break these down. Disaccharides (two molecules) must be broken down in order to be absorbed
Simple sugars are found in sodas, candy, processed baked goods, common cereals, store-bought desserts, and in things with added sugar in them- like bread, tomato sauce, etc. Unfortunately, these are everywhere. High fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, and agave is another example. What can be tough is the many names processed sugars can be found under.
What is a complex sugar?
Complex sugars, aka complex carbohydrates, are made up of three or more sugar molecules. They provide a much slower, sustained release of sugar into the body. This is easier on the liver and the body as a whole. A slower absorption rate means for less of an insulin spike.
Complex carbs/sugars are found in fruit and honey and vegetables. What’s beautiful is complex sugars are whole-food plant based, and there are no hidden names out there to confuse consumers.
How addicting refined sugar can be
The problem with refined sugar is that it can be incredibly addicting. To be addicted to something that does nothing positive for your body is not a good thing. Processed sugar can even be MORE addicting than cocaine. I know this is a big claim but I’d love to share this quote from this study:
“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”
Simply put, intense sugar cravings (and when you get that sugar) can produce more of a dopamine spike than cocaine. This is so serious and is why many people say we should classify sugar as a true DRUG.
An analysis paper from New Hall Hospital goes on to talk about the reward loop that refined sugar can give a person. It is incredibly easy to stay in this loop if you reach for refined sugar all the time. At some point, the chain needs to be broken. Moving from refined sugars to natural sugars will impact mood and other qualities of life. Here is the quote from the New Hall Hospital paper:
“In studies on rats, it has been found that there are significant similarities between eating sugar and drug-like effects such as bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, dependence and reward. The research scientists claim that sugar alters mood and can induce reward and pleasure, in the same way drugs such as cocaine affect the brain.”
Lastly, this study claimed that in animals, sugar produced even MORE symptoms than what is required for something be determined “addictive.” It goes on to say there are substantial parallels between animals and humans.
How does the body metabolize sugar?
The bodily process of digesting sugar is interesting. Basically when we digest sugar, there are enzymes in the small intestine that break it down into glucose. Once broken down into glucose, the glucose is released into the bloodstream (ideally in slow amounts, which is why natural sugars are better for us). When glucose is in the bloodstream, it’s then transported to tissue cells (think organs, muscle, etc) and is converted into energy that our body can use.
In natural sugars, which have fructose (fruit sugar), fructose is broken down by the liver. Fructose does not raise blood sugar like glucose does.
The Negative Health Effects of Refined Sugar
The problem with being addicted to refined sugar is that it comes with so many potential negative health side effects.
Sugar can wreak havoc on your immune system. How? By lowering the effectiveness of your valuable white blood cells for hours after consuming.
Sugar excess can lead to cancer. How? Cancer loves sugar. Sugar in excess causes huge spikes in insulin which feeds cells- fine for healthy cells, but not for cancerous or pre-cancerous cells that could be lurking in the body. Also if your immune system is often compromised, you are losing your first line of defense against cancer.
Sugar can harm the liver. How? Half of table sugar is fructose, which is fine to get from natural sugars as it absorbs slowly. But you get in too much white table sugar, that fructose is absorbed quickly and it’s the liver that has to deal with it. Overburdening the liver is never a good thing.
Sugar can cause rapid aging. How? Because sugar molecules can attach to proteins within your bloodstream. This results in something called AGEs or Advanced Glycation End Products. These AGEs can damage collagen and elastin production which is directly correlated to the integrity of your skin.
Sugar can lead to mood disorders. How? It spikes our dopamine levels. When we experience a withdrawal from sugar, we can experience terrible crashes. When this is ongoing it can be horrible for the brain and body.
Sugar excess can affect your cholesterol levels. How? High sugar consumption can lower the levels of good HDL cholesterol that help remove the bad cholesterol from artery walls. We need good cholesterol and we don’t want those levels being compromised. Sugar compromises the good cholesterol.
How to avoid refined sugar
There are things you need to be doing on a regular basis. Here are a few easy bullet point tips:
1. Read your ingredients labels. Always. Get familiar with the names refined sugar falls under. There are many but you’ll start to notice patterns. Avoid them as often you can.
2. Find out where you commonly use white table sugar and make a swap. For instance, instead of white sugar in your coffee, swap it for lucuma or honey!
3. Start using lucuma, honey, maple syrup or dates in your baking. I promise you, the taste is so wonderful and your body will thank you for using natural sugars!
4. Avoid things like soda and store-bought candy. 99.99% of the time it is NOT worth it.
5. Educate those around you so you can all start on a new beautiful, life-giving way of looking at food together!
Simply put, I do not have processed sugar in my home. Protecting my immune system and staying cancer-free is so important to me and I know that sugar is a huge culprit.
My favorite swaps for sweeteners are lucuma (my all time favorite! A fruit from Peru, it’s an incredible flavor), maple syrup, honey, and other fruits! Lots and lots of life giving fruit.
I promise that when you make the switch, you will find that natural sugars are just as satisfying. In fact they will be even more satisfying because you will see just how more optimized your body performs when it is not on processed sugar!
What are your thoughts? Let me know your favorite natural sugar!
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