published in the Fall issue of Health Action Magazine
The idea that sugar is not good for you is not going to be news for most people. Ask someone why sugar isn’t good for them though, and it becomes a little less certain. Once we get beyond the pop and candy that we often consume sugar in, is there anything intrinsically toxic about sugar?
When my family was trekking through southern Costa Rica a few years ago we saw kids from our village walking home from school one day chewing on, what looked like big fibrous stalks. When I asked what it was, they told me it was sugar cane. When we tried it, I was surprised by the fact that it isn’t sickly sweet; it is tough and stringy and as you chew the stalk the tasty juice is extracted producing a sweetness much more mellow than a candy would be.
In the same way that much of the nutritional value and all the fiber of an apple is lost when it is processed into apple juice, so the fiber and nutrients that help keep sugar cane a little more balanced are lost in factories. Even if you are eating cane sugar, you are still consuming a highly processed food that would be very difficult to eat to much of in its natural form.
Why is sugar so bad for us? Let’s move past the things we have all heard before; past empty calories leading to malnutrition, past weight gain, past type 2 diabetes. Let’s talk for a minute about how your body actually processes sugars and what that means for you. Your digestive system breaks sugars down into glucose and fructose. Your cells need glucose to function and your body will pull glucose from pretty much anything you eat. We tend to think of fruit when we hear the word ‘fructose’, but in actuality most of the fructose in our diets comes in the form of table sugar (basically half-and-half glucose/fructose) and high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks and prepared foods (roughly 55-45%). Unless you just finished a good workout, your liver tends to turn fructose into fat and the store it. Some of this fat gets sent out into the blood stream as VLDL cholesterol (also known as; the very bad kind) and some stays in the liver. This can lead to Fatty Liver Disease, a collection of symptoms which used to only be seen in alcoholics but is now occurring due to metabolic syndrome. Just as type-2 diabetes used to be called ‘adult onset diabetes’ but we had to change the name as children with horrendous diets began to develop the disorder, so too the name of this liver condition has had to be changed to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. The Canadian Liver Foundation estimates that almost 10% of children now have NAFLD, which will lead to serious health consequences. This has been found in children as young as four.
While a fatty liver is a health concern the real risk is in the affect this VLDL cholesterol can have on the heart. As study after study has shown us over the last 15 years, we got it wrong in the 80’s. It’s not too much saturated fat that clogs your arteries and creates heart disease; it’s sugar. A rather comprehensive study following 88,520 women over 24 years published by the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition in 2009 showed that: “Regular consumption of SSBs (sugar sweetened beverages) is associated with a higher risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) in women, even after other unhealthful lifestyle or dietary factors are accounted for.” Large amounts of fructose have been shown to increase both triglycerides and abdominal fat in as little as ten weeks, both of which are risk factors for heart disease for both men and women.
Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled multiplication and growth of cells. Insulin is one of the key hormones that should regulate cell growth and division, therefore many are beginning to think that consistently elevated insulin levels might be contributing to cancer. In fact, Insulin Growth Factor (IGF) not only seems to promote tumor cell proliferation, it actually can interfere with allopathic cancer treatments like chemotherapy. It seems like a gross exaggeration to say that all the sugar people are eating could give them cancer until you read some of this research. In one study for instance, consumption of sugar proved to be more of a risk factor for colon cancer than consumption of any other substance, including alcohol, meat and fat. Keeping your body more alkaline and reducing acid-forming foods is generally regarded as important for cancer prevention and sugar definitely is acidifying in the body (see sidebar).
In early March the World Health Organization published new guidelines urging adults to keep the ‘free sugars’ in their diet at less than 5% of total daily calories. They define free sugar as added sweeteners, as opposed to the sugars that are naturally occurring in the food. For the average adult, this would be less than 6tsp of sugar. There is an understanding that this will be very difficult for people who are unused to cooking meals from scratch to do, since basically all processed foods contain free sugars, but it gives us something to reach for as a goal.
Sugar has an acidifying effect on the body. Metabolism of sugars creates alcohol as a by-product, which is even more acidifying, and damages the liver which would normally screen toxic elements from the system, making them a bit of a triple-threat. They feed candida and other bad bacteria and parasites in the digestive system creating an even bigger pH imbalance that is self-perpetuating as these beasties then cause you to crave even more sugar. Rather than spending a lot of time trying looking up lists of which foods are acid and which are alkaline, take comfort from the fact that if you consciously try to avoid sugar as much as possible you will, by default, end up eating a much more alkaline diet, thus saving your body from the huge compensations it has to make to keep your pH steady. Unless, of course, you replace all your sugar with bacon.