By Jaimi Jansen & Abby Harrison
“A sacred substance was made profane by our actions and intent. Consider the example of sugar. If we fail to recognize its sacred nature-which, as a culture, we do-then we’ll likely suffer the dark side of its power—tooth decay, obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, brain disease, heart disease…Without an awareness of the sacred, we strip sugar down and produce a highly denatured version of it. We overuse it. Manufactures pour excess amounts into their products to increase sales. Consequently we’ve become hooked on it and blind to its effects.” – Marc David
Healthy Sugar can be quite a sticky subject in nutrition. This quote from Marc David, author of The Slow Down Diet, perfectly describes our nation’s relationship with sugar. Healthy sugar, which is found in its natural form in fruits, veggies, and other carbs, is a part of our diet that has been around since nearly the beginning. However, the way in which we process, advertise, and consume food today is what makes this substance so harmful to our health.
Sugar and Daily Life
The World Health Organization recommends keeping the amount of added healthy sugar in your diet to less than five tablespoons per day; however, many of us reach up to 32 tablespoons per day! Educating ourselves on how sugar is utilized in the body, as well as eating the right portions and combinations of food, are simple steps we can take to end our addiction to sugar. Teaching ourselves, and generations after us, how to eat mindfully and be informed consumers can drastically change the way our bodies react to sugar.
What is a Sugar?
Understanding the way in which our body processes sugar and the different chemical makeups as it appears in our food, is crucial to studying its effects on the body. Sugars in chemistry have very similar chemical makeups, but a slight difference in chemistry makes a big difference once it’s explained in terms of human physiology. The suffix “-ose” is part of the chemical name of every sugar and it helps us to identify them. An example of this is lactose and cellulose, which are found in most dairy products and plant cell walls respectively.
Types of Sugars
Glucose and fructose have slightly different chemical makeups but it makes a big difference; glucose is the form of sugar that is most used by our bodies for quick fuel. As a matter of fact, table sugar, or sucrose, is known a disaccharide. This means that it is composed of two sugar units, one glucose unit and one fructose unit. Fructose is a form of sugar that can be manufactured in artificial sweeteners to be used in foods.
An example of this is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is chemically almost identical to sucrose (or table sugar), being composed of an almost even split between glucose and fructose in its composition. The difference lies in the concentration of fructose which is slightly higher and in the source from which it is obtained.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
As the name entails, HFCS comes from corn and is very cheap to manufacture, which is why many food companies prefer it over classic sucrose. As HFCS is added to almost every convenience food in the market, it greatly contributes to the increasing rate of obesity in the U.S. and the world.
Due to its inexpensive nature, it has found its way into a variety of food products—hamburger buns, pretzels, BBQ sauce, ketchup, and so much more. What’s unique about fructose is that the brain doesn’t metabolize it in the same way as glucose, which poses a major problem when you consider the amount of fructose that can be consumed from just one or two servings of a food with high contents.
High Fructose Products and the Brain
Fructose consumption changes the way your brain recognizes energy. High levels of fructose affects a particular hunger hormone that, if not suppressed, will not allow your brain to send you the signals that you’re full. If insulin levels don’t rise, the hormone leptin isn’t released to signal satiety, making it easier to overeat.
This leads to the next issue, which is sugar’s positive correlation with an increased risk of developing obesity, diabetes, and more. High insulin levels generate an increased appetite since leptin isn’t being released to provide a feeling of satiety. In turn we are likely to overeat, leading to metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by hypertension, inflammation, dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, obesity, and continued consumption.
The processed food products that contain excess fructose and other added sweeteners may be cheap, but the rising medical costs as a nation surely are not. So why do we settle for the cheaper, processed foods when we make a trip to the store? The reason is because food companies are strategic in how they advertise and who they advertise to.
Shopping Healthy Sugar
The best way to shop for healthier foods, especially if you’re trying to cut down on sugar, is to shop the perimeter of grocery store. This is where produce, dairy, meats, and fresh food are all located. The center aisles are where most of the processed foods are placed, packed with added sugars and preservatives for a long-lasting shelf life. Furthermore, colorful, attractive packaging is conveniently placed at eye level for children. The foods kids want to eat, based on how they are advertised and presented, is what can cause or worsen an existing sugar addiction.
Starting with Kids
Children are introduced to sugar in their diet at a shockingly young age. Sugar addiction can begin as early as in the womb if insulin resistance occurs from a mother’s excess sugar consumption while pregnant. Excess sugar can be hiding in many fruit juices babies and kids drink on a daily basis, or can even be transferred through breast milk.
Most kids drink a glass of juice, maybe even two or three, daily. One would think that juice is a healthy option, however several juice brands, even ones that claim to be the best choice, contain added sugars, flavors, preservatives, and more.
Sometimes this even starts as a baby or toddler; babies prefer juice because it’s sweet and is the obvious choice over water. Drinking juice then becomes a habit that continues into childhood, and even adulthood, when the juice habit turns into sports drinks or sodas with empty calories and unwanted pounds.
This is a habit that is totally preventable. When babies are allowed to fill up on sweet, sugary juice they aren’t hungry for solid, substantial food. However, by routinely giving them water to drink, they begin to expect it. This encourages healthier hydration habits from a much younger age. Juice is okay if used in moderation as a treat, maybe watered down, or consumed with pulp to ensure it is digested with fiber.
The Sugar Logic
So, is all sugar bad or considered unhealthy? Absolutely not. Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy carbs and fats is the best way to eat a variety of delicious food without feeling like you’re restricting yourself from enjoying treats.
This is also where mindful eating comes in. Fruits and carbs contain natural healthy sugars that the body is designed to tolerate in moderate levels and utilize efficiently; however, they are best paired with fibrous whole foods.
Eggs, coconut oil, avocados, legumes, beans, whole grains, and crunchy vegetables are all great examples of whole, unprocessed food. Eating a balanced diet on a regular schedule helps the body utilize food better, but due to our busy, fast paced lifestyle, this is where many people are lacking.
Preparing the body to eat, eating without distraction, and wholeheartedly enjoying your meal are all habits for practicing mindful eating. In addition, having pleasant emotions rather than guilty ones can actually alter the way your brain tells your body to metabolize food. Eating real, balanced meals on a regular schedule also helps you lose your sweet tooth, and can curb sugar cravings and addiction.
David, Marc. The Slow down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss
Leach, Penelope. “Juice. The Root of Our Obesity Problem.” Time Magazine
Lustig, Robert. “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.” University of California San Francisco, San Francisco.
Hartz, Ashlea. Personal Interview
3 Article Facts:
- High fructose corn syrup is cheap and therefore has found its way into most convenience foods.
- Added sugars to convenience foods is great contributor to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and the world.
- Most kids are introduced to a high sugar diet at shockingly young age.