Sugar the master of disguise, why it's such a problem
Posted on 23rd November 2016 at 07:45
A couple of weeks ago we looked at why we love sugar so much – and, “yes” human history does play a large part in this (!) – as well as some of the many ways sugar is “hidden” in our favourite foods.
This week we’re going to look at why a high sugar diet is so damaging and how it’s associated with so many health problems. While some of these may be obvious – such as tooth decay and soaring rates of obesity – many others are less so.
To do this we first need to remind ourselves of a few basic facts about sugar and how our bodies are designed to deal with it.
To start with not all sugar is bad. It’s naturally found in many different wholefoods, in a variety of forms. These include lactose, found in milk and fructose, found in fruit.
Sugar is classified as a carbohydrate, one of the three basic food groups, along with fats and proteins.
The function of carbohydrates is to provide a quick and easy source of energy for the body. This is done by breaking them down into glucose – the main source of energy – along with small amounts of fructose. The ratio is about 90% of glucose to 10% of fructose.
Any glucose not immediately required by the body is sent to the Liver to be converted into glycogen and stored until needed. This process is controlled by the Pancreas, which releases insulin to keep the level of glucose in the blood within a safe range. More about this in a minute.
Unlike fats and proteins, carbohydrates are not essential for life. If no carbohydrates are available, fats and proteins are used to produce glucose. However, having said that, carbohydrates are the quickest and easiest way of producing glucose.
As an aside, this ability to switch from carbohydrates to fats and proteins to produce glucose is the one used by “low carb” diets to burn body fat and so lose weight.
Not all carbohydrates are the same. They are split into two separate groups, simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates, as the name suggests, have a simpler structure and so are easier for the body to break down into glucose. This leads to a sudden surge in blood sugar – and energy – as glucose hits the bloodstream.
In the modern diet, the main source of simple carbohydrates are processed and refined foods. Cakes, biscuits, bread, white pasta / rice, jams, processed cereals, many yoghurts, sauces and the like. And this is where the problems start. Not only are these foods high in calories, they also have little or no nutritional value. This is the reason that they are often referred to as “empty calories.” You may also know them as “High GI” – High Glycaemic Index – foods.
This is in stark contrast to naturally occurring simple carbohydrates, such as those found in milk and fruits. Not only do these foods also contain minerals and vitamins but fats, proteins and fibre too. This slows down the rate at which they’re converted into glucose and so reach the bloodstream. More importantly, they don’t cause the rapid increase in blood sugar associated with processed and refined foods.
Complex carbohydrates have a much more complicated structure, which takes much longer to break down. This means that they provide sustained energy over a long period of time. They can be found in foods such as whole grains, brown rice, pulses and oats. Like naturally occurring simple carbohydrates they also contain minerals and vitamins; as well as fats, proteins and fibre.
This brings us back to the Pancreas and the part played by insulin in maintaining a safe level of glucose in the blood. As previously mentioned, an increase in blood glucose levels triggers the Pancreas to release insulin into the blood stream. This reduces glucose levels by increasing the amount absorbed by muscle; liver and fat cells to use as energy; while reducing the amount of glycogen converted to glucose by the Liver.
Now let’s pull all this together and see how the modern diet, with its reliance on processed and refined foods, can unwittingly trigger a myriad of health problems.
(And we’re not going to even talk about the damage it does to teeth (!) as this should be obvious. Less obvious are the changes these foods make to saliva and the so called “internal environment” of the mouth, as it becomes more acidic. More about the problems of acidity in a moment.)
To start with, as we’ve already mentioned, processed and refined foods provide lots of calories but low nutrition. Or, put another way, they are “calorie rich, nutrient poor.” This can lead to weight gain and the running down of the body’s nutritional reserves, as the body is starved of the nutrients it needs. Ironically, poor nutrition can actually increase the appetite, as the body tries to get the nutrients it needs by eating more. So exacerbating the problem further.
They also change the balance of the digestive system, by feeding the so called “bad bacteria” naturally found there. Not only does this lead to Candida, but also reduces the efficiency with which food is digested. And so, again, impacts on the nutritional value derived from the food eaten. Candida is also linked to a large number of health problems, with the best known being Chronic Fatigue / ME.
At the same time a huge strain is placed on both the Pancreas and Liver as they try to control a constantly fluctuating blood sugar. Rapidly increasing when these foods are eaten, plummeting as the glucose they produce is so short lived. Insulin is repeatedly released by the Pancreas, while the Liver converts the excess glucose to glycogen for storage.
Over time the Pancreas becomes exhausted, so less able to produce the insulin needed to cope with the glucose surges. At the same time, cells become less responsive to insulin, so less glucose is absorbed from the blood. The end result is chronic raised blood glucose levels coupled with insulin resistance, which can then lead on to Type 2 Diabetes. In addition it’s now suggested that raised glucose levels also damage the blood vessels and this, rather than fats from the food we eat, are a major factor in cholesterol problems.
As the Liver becomes overloaded with glycogen – and the associated fructose – it starts to lay down fatty deposits which can then progress on to Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. These, in turn, impact on the Liver’s overall function. With the Liver responsible for a huge range of body processes, it’s no surprise that the effects of this can then be felt by the body as a whole.
High glucose levels also make the body more acidic which, in turn, reduces the level of oxygen carried by the blood and so reaching the cells. The body becomes more acidic overall. Increased acidity also affects many body processes, which require an alkaline environment to occur leading to so called Metabolic Diseases.
In addition, high acidity levels coupled with low oxygenation are the precursor of a huge number of long term health conditions including Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, Endocrine imbalances, Autoimmune Diseases and raised cholesterol.
As an aside, many cancer cells have insulin receptors and so use raised glucose levels to grow and spread. This makes a high sugar diet akin to pouring petrol on a fire and explains why obesity is seen as a marker for increased cancer risk.
So is it all “doom, gloom and despondency?”
No, of course not! We appreciate that this blog post has gone into quite a lot of detail, but it’s important to join the dots and understand how the simple lifestyle choices you make every day can have such far reaching implications for your health.
And, like so many choices, the ramifications often aren’t felt for years – or decades – by which time the links are lost in the mists of time.
As we’ve so often said, our bodies are incredibly adaptable and will make the best of whatever we do. However, sooner or later, there are going to be consequences…
The good news is that it’s never too late to make changes to your diet – or to start feeling the benefits of such a change. We’ve said them many, many times before and so won’t repeat them yet again, you know what they are.
As always, the choice is yours.
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