Is eating high sugar food really all that bad for you?
If you’re like me, that’s a question that’s apt to rise whenever you find yourself in close proximity to some potentially diet- busting confection.
Of course we all know the answer is yes. But honestly I’ve always “known” it in kind of a common-wisdom, hazy-recollection-of-high-school-biology kind of way. That’s fine if the temptation isn’t all that tempting – old cookies, maybe, or a candy bar I don’t really like anyhow. But when I’m face to face with a fresh-from-the-oven pan of gooey brownies, I need more science to brace my determination.
What is sugar, anyhow?
The lovely little sparkly white crystals we all love are actually processed sucrose, a compound created when molecules of fructose and glucose stick together. Though there are a number of plants that produce sucrose, most of it starts as sugarcane.
The trip from canefield to sugarbowl is a multi-step process that includes milling, extraction, distillation, crystallization, and drying. While the end product is enormously efficient in terms of sweetening, all the processing has effectively stripped it of any nutritional value. Granulated sugar contains no vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, sodium, or fiber. All it does contain, in fact, are 11 calories per teaspoon and the ability to make things sweet.
It’s Not (Just) About The Calories
Anyone who has spent any time dieting knows that a single sugary slip can be a big setback. But it’s not just the empty calories that makes sugar a problem; it’s the way they’re delivered. Sucrose is very quickly and easily absorbed by the body. This rapid absorption causes an immediate rise in the level of sugar (glucose, medically speaking) in the blood. Since a healthy system will automatically attempt to stabilize the blood sugar level, the pancreas releases a corresponding amount of our built-in sugar regulator, insulin.
Insulin’s primary function is turning glucose into energy, which it does by stimulating the liver and muscle cells to draw up the glucose from the blood. That’s great when the sugar in question comes from complex carbohydrates, which the body absorbs at a moderate rate, but the rapid absorption of sucrose sets the system off on a blood sugar roller coaster.
You eat refined sugar, the body absorbs it instantaneously, and the level of glucose in the blood skyrockets. This sends levels of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals, soaring as well, and you get a blast of sugar euphoria. The effect is powerful, but relatively brief; within about an hour, it’s just about worn off.
Insulin, however, is a lot longer lasting. When the initial sugar infusion is all but gone, insulin is still working away, busily distributing glucose to organs and muscles to get it out the blood. The result? Over-correction. Blood glucose levels drop below normal and the endorphins quit firing. You feel lethargic and depressed, and almost certainly craving something sugary. It’s a vicious, and some medical experts consider addictive, cycle.
If this happens often enough, the body’s automatic balances can get seriously out of sync. Over time, excess blood sugar can contribute to cellular inflammation, heart disease, yeast infections, immune system problems, and of course, diabetes. A potentially fatal breakdown of the body’s ability to convert glucose to energy, diabetes is one of the most common chronic conditions in the world. The National Diabetes Association estimates that 25.8 million people, or about 8 percent of the US population, have diabetes. According to NDA, an astounding 79 million people can be classified as prediabetic.
But … don’t we need some sugar?
There’s good new and bad news on that; yes, we do need sugars. We absolutely require glucose that is released into the body via complex carbohydrates – fruits, vegetables, grains. But refined sugar? Nope. We don’t need it. Ever. And we’re actually a lot better off without it.
Of course, if you’re the type of person who can actually be moderate about something as powerful and possibly addictive as refined sugar, you can occasionally have one cookie or eat a tiny sliver pie and then simply let it alone. Your body will comfortably compensate for the mini sugar rush and you’ll be able to sit back and wonder what all the fuss is about. But if you’re among the millions for whom that bite of brownie is the first wave of a sugar tsunami, your best bet is to go for abstinence.