Sugar: Your Sweet Enemy
Information about the dangers of sugar has been out there for decades, but all of us can use a little refresher now and then. Sugar is a cruel mistress, delicious, addictive, and really bad for you. There's a reason for all that. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived uncertain feast-or-famine lives and the ones who stored energy best survived the famines to pass their troublesome genes on to us. So, by evolutionary design, we store sugar easily as fat. Cut to today when 40 percent of American adults are not just overweight, but obese. If you include the Centers for Disease Control's definition of overweight, you get 70 percent of all American adults. As for kids, 28 percent of children aged six to 11 are obese.
That's partly because eating lots of sugar is one of the most effective ways to put on weight. It was an effective strategy back when our ancestors were gorging on berries, but berries, largely water and fiber, are inefficient in terms of supplying condensed energy. Our ancestors didn't have access to the highly-processed, energy-packed refined foods that dominate the American menu. You have to eat a whole lot of berries to equal the calories in a large Dominos pepperoni and pint of Ben & Jerry's. Aside from causing those extra pounds to appear on your body, consumption of refined sugar, and also white flour, increases the risk of insulin resistance, which means the bloodstream is so overcome with sugar that the pancreas works overtime to pump more insulin than needed.
What about fructose? That is sugar too, BUT if you get it from actual fruit, the fiber in the fruit makes us work harder to break down the food, slowing the entry of sugar into our bloodstream so our bodies have time to handle it better. And the fiber helps us stay satiated longer, too. On the other hand, most of the sugar in a Snickers bar goes straight to our bloodstream, like mainlined heroin. As noted above, another ingredient to avoid is white flour, a carbohydrate that essentially turns into sugar as soon as you digest it, with the same terrible health effects as regular sugar. Both of those ingredients are hard to sidestep come mealtime, at home and in restaurants. Most prepared foods available in the middle aisles of any supermarket are filled with unrefined carbs. Mayonnaise, ketchup, and many prepared salad dressings contain added sugar.
Your best defense is to be an informed consumer. Read labels. Look out for misleading terms. Even if you see the term "wheat flour," understand that white flour is made of wheat, it's just had many of its nutrient milled away. Flours are produced by crushing grains into fine powders. Flours made from refined grains retain the fiber in the original grain, the outer husk of the wheat and the outer husks of rice, for example. Refined flours (not made from whole grains) are generally whiter than flours from whole grains, which is why whole wheat bread is a darker color than white bread.
. That's why white bread packages often tell you how the product has been "vitamin-fortified." Whole wheat flour will be a better choice because fiber and vitamins are already packed into the whole grain. A package of hamburger buns claiming to be made of "wheat flour" is just a package of regular old white flour buns, trying to make you think whole grains are part of the mix. "Multi-grain" products don't promise whole grains, either, just more than one type of grain. A multi-grain product might contain white flour and white rice flour, two refined grains completely devoid of the fiber and vitamins that have been removed from whole grain versions. And beware as many bread products contain added sugars. Honey wheat breads are common. High fructose corn syrup, basically sugar, is another common additive in baked goods across the board.
Breakfast is a carb-fest in many homes featuring toast, bagels, and cereals. Lunch is often built around sandwiches, wraps and pasta. And dinner may come with its very own breadbasket. The best choices are whole grain breads, pastas and even wraps. Whole oat oatmeals and granolas are great cereal choices. Use whole grain flours for pancakes, and whole grain bread for French toast. That white flour bagel you are eating every morning with coffee? Not only are you hungry two hours later, but that is essentially eating a teaspoon of white sugar as far as your insulin response goes, causing your blood sugar to spike and all the metabolic chaos that results from that.
All the sugar we eat causes serious chronic illness. A diet high in sugar also increases inflammation. When blood sugar spikes, glucose builds up in the blood like so many standby passengers on a flight. When glucose lingers in the blood, it gets into trouble by attaching itself to nearby proteins. The result is a chemical reaction called glycation, an inflammation-promoting process that plays a role in a multitude of diseases — everything from autoimmune diseases to type 2 diabetes, to arthritis, liver damage, and heart disease. Sugar causes extra insulin in the bloodstream and that can inflame your arteries, make them grow thicker and stiffer, ultimately causing heart damage and strokes. If your joints hurt, chances are they will hurt more if you eat a lot of sugar from the inflammation. Inflammation also makes your skin age prematurely, like smoking. Too much sugar can lead to kidney damage. Kidneys filter wastes out of your blood. You don't want them to fail. And studies show that high levels of sugar in the blood can lead to impotency in men.
If you’re trying to wean yourself off of sugar, the first thing to do is be aware of the sugar already in your drinks, your yogurt, your energy bars. A can of Coca-Cola contains 16 teaspoons of sugar. The average American drinks 44.7 gallons of soda every year. (Another reason to quit soda: research suggests that carbonation leaches calcium from your bones. But that's a story for another day.) There are nine grams of added sugar in a Chobani fruit yogurt. If you ate one every day you'd consume 821 teaspoons of sugar a year. And that wouldn't count all the other sugar you consume from so many other sources. Do you put it in your coffee? Your tea? How about smoothies? How about cookies" Muffins? The sugar adds up. It's delicious and we are all hard-wired to love it, but try to cut sugar-infused items out one at a time. Have an energy bar twice a week, as a special treat, instead of every day. When you're reading a food label, it's fine to look for the calorie count, but gaze further down to the added sugar content and see what that number gives you. Then check the fiber content. The more fiber, the longer it will take for your body to send the accompanying sugar into your bloodstream. Start to be aware of how you are constantly bombarding your body with sugar and sweetness all day long. Not everything needs to be sweetened.
So although it may be painful to imagine a world without brownies, you are already taking steps in the right direction toward a healthier lifestyle if you look for alternatives – a piece of fruit instead of a bar, for example. Be more mindful of what you are putting into your body. After taking that first step, look for healthier alternatives to sugar. Maybe instead of white sugar, substitute honey, agave, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. Yes, these are all sugars, but a bit less harmful than white sugar. And make sure you stay on that path by eliminating excess sugar you may not even realize you’re consuming. It's hard to quit sugar cold turkey, but you can do it, one teaspoon at a time, if you try.