The Sugar Breakdown: What Are the Sugar Health Risks?
Ok, so we’ve busted the myth that fat makes you fat. It doesn’t.
The real culprit of America’s expanding waistlines? Sugar.
And it’s not just the root beer floats, either. Sugar has found its way into your spaghetti sauce, canned peas, and “health food” hummus.
Does “good sugar” exist? Which sugars are the worst? What are the sugar health risks?
With the food industry and nutrition experts constantly contradicting each other, it’s hard to know what’s safe anymore. Here’s some straight talk on the sweet stuff.
Are the Sugar Health Risks Really That Bad?
Are you thinking, “Don’t touch my frappuccino, dammit!”?
Guarding your Starburst stockpile with a growl?
Case and point. Sugar makes us addicted, anxious, and erratic.
Before you start your morning off with a bowl of high fructose oaties, consider what sugar is doing inside your body:
The food industry is playin’ you, bro. Our bodies evolved to covet vital building blocks like salt, fat, and sugar. Food manufacturers know this. They engineer foods that are “hyper-palatable,” which amp up the sweet, fatty, salty profiles to get our bodies hooked.
When we eat foods that contain a lot of sugar, a massive amount of dopamine is released in an area of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens. When we eat these foods often and in large amounts, the dopamine receptors start to down-regulate. Now there are fewer receptors for the dopamine. This means that the next time we eat these foods, their effect is blunted. We will need more junk food next time we eat in order to get the same level of reward.
A high-sugar diet stimulates lectins, an anti-nutrient that hardens cell walls and raises insulin resistance. Insulin, which is released into the blood stream to bring sugar levels back under control, stores this excess sugar as fat; whereas under normal circumstances, sugar should be used immediately as energy.
Chronic Adrenal Stress & Mood Swings
Sugar gives you a rush of energy and feel-good hormones, followed by sugar crash. This causes you to crave more sugar to bring you back up, triggering a cycle of highs and lows that exhausts your adrenal system, releases high amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone), and makes you feel moody and anxious.
Watch this great TED-Ed video from Dr. Nicole Avena explaining the neuroscience behind the sugar addiction, cravings, and mood swings:
Sugar Health Risks: The Long-Term Health Effects
There is growing evidence that sugar intake is not only related to obesity and diabetes, but a myriad of other terrible health problems:
Increases free radicals and fuels cancer cells
Increases triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, while decreasing HDL (good) cholesterol, directly linking sugar intake to heart disease
Impairs white blood cells and hampers your immune response
Disrupts transfer of amino acids to muscle tissue
The Chemical Breakdown
In its chemical form, sugar is the most basic unit of a carbohydrate. Organized into monosaccharide and disaccharide configurations, these molecule chains make up the sweet taste in foods.
Glucose is the most important carbohydrate in human metabolism. It is sent everywhere in the body, from brain cells to muscle cells, to give you immediate energy. The body also stores it in the liver or muscle (as glycogen) for later use. In plants, glucose is formed through photosynthesis and stored as starch.
Different from glucose in its number of carbon molecules, fructose is frequently derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn. Fructose is poorly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract; it is metabolized in the liver instead. Science is finding increasing evidence that fructose consumption results in alarming health effects (more on that below).
This molecule is composed of equal parts glucose and fructose. This disaccharide occurs naturally in fruits and plant syrups (such as maple, honey, and molasses). Refined varieties of sucrose include granulated white sugar, cane syrup, and raw cane sugar—all of which have varying levels of processing, but are molecularly identical at 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose.
The Breakdown in the Body:
The Dangers of Fructose
We thought fructose was good for us. Because it registers low on the glycemic index, it was sold as diabetic-friendly and all-natural. We were so wrong. It’s now the most dangerous sugar of them all. Here’s why:
It’s Too Pure
Fructose isn’t dangerous when it’s found naturally in whole foods. An apple, for example, contains about 7 percent fructose, but it also has a slew of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber to aid absorption.
But when fructose is commercially extracted, refined, and concentrated into sweeteners, our insulin response freaks the eff out. Sugars that pure don’t exist in nature, and our bodies haven’t evolved to metabolize that level of potency.
It Raises Insulin Resistance
High levels of fructose in the body can raise insulin resistance, increasing the risk of diabetes and promoting obesity.
It Makes You Hungrier
Fructose doesn’t suppress ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone, meaning foods high in fructose don’t make you feel as full. Fructose doesn’t ever tell your brain “that’s enough” – so we just keep eating.
It Promotes Fat Storage
As Precision Nutrition reports, “Once in the liver, fructose restores liver glycogen and then enters pathways that provide compounds for fat production. Any fructose that isn’t needed for liver glycogen will spill over into the blood as fat.”
Blood fat. Gross.
It Messes With Your Cholesterol
Fructose changes the ratio of blood fats, acting to lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels while increasing small, dense (and more dangerous) LDL particles.
It Burdens the Liver
Because fructose can’t be absorbed in the digestive tract, it is processed directly in the liver. This is a huge added burden, and has been linked to the development of fatty liver disease.
So while fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar like glucose, what it actually does is far worse: besides increasing liver inflammation, fructose ultimately gets repackaged as fat, which stores nicely along your midsection.
Ok, got it. Sugar is really bad for us. It’s making us fat, sick, and metabolically stressed. And more importantly, fructose is scary sh*t.
But that doesn’t mean all sugars are toxic. After all, sugar appears naturally in fruit, right? Next in our sugar breakdown, we’ll evaluate the most common sugars in the American diet, and where the dreaded fructose is hiding.