Bittersweet Lowdown on Sugar

Sugar is EVERYWHERE! And lurking where you least expect it: Ketchup, pasta sauces, salad dressings, sausages . . . . . These days, you don't even have to bite into a sweet treat to get a jolt because the foods with added AND hidden sugars is endless.

But it wasn't always this way. Back when added sugars didn't exist, fruits and honey were the only sweets our ancestors ate. These were nutrient-dense, whole foods with naturally occurring sugars. That didn't lead to sugar cravings.

So sugar was not a primary source of calories for our ancestors. Over time, however, sugary treats and the use of added sugar became hard-wired into our culture and food identity. πŸ‘‰πŸ½ "How the American Diet Changed Over Time".

And because sugar is a cheap form of flavor, food manufacturers spike their products and beverages with sugar to add flavor and increase profits πŸ‘‰πŸ½ "How Worried Should We Be About Sugar"

So remember all this when you read the Ingredients Labels. Even for products with marketing and advertising that promise improved health. And never again be a victim of these industry tricks πŸ˜‰

Our Love Affair with Sugar

Oh those deliciously, scrumptious treats associated with everything fun and fabulous and right in the world! Sweets are always available at parties, special events, and other celebratory occasions. Think back to when we were young too. Remember being β€œrewarded” with these comforting delights when we did something good?

Bet your fondest, happiest memories involve some sweet notes. My mother passed away a couple decades ago. But every birthday since, I have longed for her cakes. Simple yellow sheets. Made from scratch and intricately decorated with a layer of her butter icing. Handmade flowers, and other dreamy confections dotting the landscape of her homespun love. I have enjoyed sinfully decadent treats over the years, but nothing comes close to replicating these treasured memories and my emotional ties to these sweet thoughts!

Excessive amounts of sugar is bad for us though. There can be no debate about this, right? But with all that positive programming, emotional ties, and the pervasive presence of sugar -- breaking up is just so hard to do. Like walking out on your most intimate friend!

Nevertheless, I believe that there is a healthy space for sugar in our lives. But first, let's understand and respect its power.

The Power of Sugar

There are two main types of sugar:

  1. Naturally occurring found in whole foods like milk, fruit, and some veggies (e.g., carrots and beets).
  2. Added sugars used in home baking or added during the processing of mass produced foods.

And there are two types of "added sugars":

  • Refined from cane that undergoes extreme refinement to eliminate all the fiber and plant nutrient to extract the sugar. Most commonly white cane (table sugar) and brown sugar.
  • Chemically produced sugars like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that food manufacturers add to food products and beverages. These sugars are the most refined.

A Neurotransmitter is a chemical that delivers messages to your brain. The two neurotransmitters that have starring roles in our sugar cravings:

  1. Dopamine -- Associated with the pleasure centers of the brain. Any time we have feelings like falling in love, great enjoyment, intense pleasure or reward or motivation that's due to an increase of dopamine in the brain.
    • Conversely, a lack of dopamine in the brain causes feelings of low energy, depression and lack of motivation.
    • Dopamine is released for many healthy reasons, including physical touch and exercise.
    • Also released in response to ingesting certain substances, like caffeine, narcotics, and our sweet friend --- Sugar.
  2. Serotonin -- Helps regulate mood, irritability, pain levels, impulse, obsession & memory.
    • Serotonin helps us sleep, recharge, relax and generally cope with everyday life.
    • So lack of serotonin may cause sleeplessness, a general feeling of emotional emptiness and paranoia or fear.

Eating sugar, regardless of type, increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin. But the more highly refined a sugar or sweetener, the worse for you. Because our bodies metabolize naturally occurring sugars differently than refined or chemically produced.

Whole foods like fruit & honey contain both naturally occurring sugars AND naturally occurring nutrients that help metabolize sugar in a healthy way. In other words, whole, nutrient-dense foods are synergistically balanced. When we eat whole foods, we still feel pleasure from the naturally occurring sugars. But we also receive enough nutrition from the naturally occurring nutrients in the whole food to calm the desire for more.

Food products with added sugar (whether refined or chemically produced) are NOT synergistically balanced. So the effects of increased dopamine and serotonin are NOT calmed. The increased dopamine sends signals of pleasure and reward throughout our bodies that encourages us to continue seeking these feelings. Hmmm...Is this why it's so hard to stop with just one sugary treat πŸ€”πŸ™ƒ

Also recall that serotonin regulates mood. Most typically responsible for calming and elevating our moods. So when serotonin is increased, we feel better about ourselves both physically and mentally. This is why we think of cookies, ice cream and other sweets that increase serotonin as comfort food. And another reason we have a hard time resisting sweets.

Glucose => Glycogen => Fat

So now you know why foods spiked with sugar cause cravings for more -- even while still eating. But before we are lulled into a blissful slumber of these sweet dreams. Here's a dose of reality.

All sugar, regardless of the type, is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. The body's digestive system starts as soon as we chew. This triggers the release of enzymes that break food down into smaller "pieces". And starts breaking down carbs into usable forms of energy called glucose.

Glucose is either used or stored. The body can store up to 4 grams of glucose in the bloodstream at any given time. The liver and muscles are also "storage bins" for glucose. But when glucose is stored in the liver & muscles, it is stored as glycogen.
 
The liver & muscles have limited capacity to store glycogen. The exact amount varies from person to person. But here's the punchline. And it's hardly a joke: While the body has limited storage for glycogen, it has unlimited storage for fat 😱😨😰

That really sucks, right??

Now -- allow me to introduce you to insulin πŸ‘‹ Insulin is a storage hormone. Insulin's job is to send messages to our cells that nutrients and glucose are on the way. And to let in what they (the cells) need for normal activities or exercise.

Glucose that is not used -- because our cells already have enough. And not stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles -- because storage space there is at capacity too. That excess glycogen is converted to fat!

And -- as discussed earlier -- the body has unlimited capacity to store fat. YIKES!! If that doesn't just suck the wind out of our sails.
 
And as more carbs are eaten, the body will respond with more and more insulin to help store that glucose for later use. So yes -- around, around, around she goes. And where she'll stop nobody knows.

Because once again, if the body's cells don't need the glucose. And the liver and muscles are hanging out the "no vacancy" signs. The carbs that were converted to glucose and then to glycogen becomes fat. And the fat just keeps on keeping on, if you know what I mean.

Sorry -- hate to be the grim reaper here ☠ But this is what happens to carbs (i.e., sugars) in our bodies.

Real Food => Empowerment

There is good news, however. We can break this crazy, unappetizing cycle by eating more Real Food and less processed food!

YES -- Real Food is your friend. These are synergistically balanced to allow nutrients to be absorbed, metabolized and used efficiently and effectively by our cells for normal body functioning.

Our cells want the nutrients in Real Food!

So how does this translate into empowerment? Well -- here's what you now know about Real Food vs. Processed Foods:

Real Food = Nutrition = Energy = Life

Hungry? ==> Eat for Energy. NOT for pleasure.

Because the more often you choose pleasure, this is what happens to that added sugar in processed food:

Glucose => Glycogen => FAT!!!

Doesn't mean you can never enjoy sweet treats. Just be mindful that there is a difference between special occasions and daily occasions (or even every few days even). Limiting your sugary treats for those special, rare, times is the better road towards lifelong health.

Additional Sources