Sugar – It’s Complicated
(Video Version can be found on my Facebook Page – Peggy Smith Wellness, November 3, 2018)
I recently did a presentation and admitted to the participants a little bit about my complicated relationship with sugar. I said that if I had to choose a relationship status on social media I would have to choose “It’s Complicated”. Based on their reactions I felt like I was at a support group meeting and we were all encouraging one another in how to best handle a troubled love life! It’s so easy to love sugar, but it is also so obvious that it is not always good for us.
I know that when I eat too much sugar I’m going to feel anxious, if I eat it too late at night I’m going to have trouble sleeping but if I eat it during the day I won’t be able to concentrate and I’ll want to crawl under my desk and take a nap. I should probably just declare myself “intolerant” to this class of sugar but when certain things cross my path (like cookie dough and pie) some kind of amnesia comes over me and I forget all the yucky ways I’m likely going to feel and the brain fog that is inevitably going to set in. I just want the treats! I’m sure you’ve all heard the studies about the mice and sugar and cocaine and how often the mice go back for the oreos rather than the drugs! There’s something going on here that we can’t ignore! Let’s spend our time together getting down to some basics on sugar in its different forms and the different names we have for it and whether or not these distinctions make any difference for our wellness.
First I think it’s important to go through a tiny little science lesson on how our bodies respond to sugar. When we digest sugar enzymes in the small intestine break it down into glucose. This glucose is then released into the bloodstream where it is transported to tissue cells in our muscles and organs and converted into energy. The body is constantly monitoring the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and the pancreas releases insulin to control those levels. If you consume more sugar than your body needs right away for fuel, it can be stored for later to keep your blood sugar levels constant. If your body stops producing any or enough insulin or if your cells become resistant to it, this can result in diabetes which will leave blood sugar levels to rise to dangerous levels. If we eat more sugar than our energy levels require, our bodies have to find something else to do with it. Excessive sugar consumption is one of the leading causes of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Sugar addiction is a real thing and it’s because of what is going on in our brain in response to it. When we eat sugar, the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, and these are hormones that boost our mood. This is similar to what happens in drug addiction. Regular sugar consumption can also inhibit dopamine transporters which can lead to us needing to eat even more sugar to eat the same pleasure as before! And lastly (as it relates to the brain) fructose which is used to sweeten many foods and beverages doesn’t suppress the hunger hormones meaning our bodies are unable to tell when we have eaten enough!
The word “natural” as it relates to sugar means that the sugar comes from a source that was produced in nature, like the sugars in fruit and vegetables. And if this was the only place we ever got sugar from we would likely all feel better and suffer less from headaches, brain fog, fatigue, and cravings. Fruit sugars are superior to all others (and I’m not at all referring to fruit juices) because we need the fibers from the fruit to help fill us up and also to help feed our friendly gut bacteria. “Natural” is also used to refer to the types of sugars present in things like honey and maple syrup. Calling honey and maple syrup natural only really refers to the fact that they are products that come from nature. We must bear in mind that the sugars (fructose and glucose) in honey are no different than those in table sugar or high fructose corn syrup and so we are going to be broken down quickly by the body and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
If the sugar that is in an item didn’t arrive there by the grace of God then it is an “added sugar.” It’s recommended that we limit added sugars in our diet, in large part because eating a diet too high in added sugars makes it harder to get all the nutrients we need without eating excessive calories because most foods high in sugar are not also high in nutrients. And to make matters more confusing, sugary foods often don’t make us feel full which leads us to consume far more calories than if we had eaten natural sugars rather than added sugars in the first place! An apple a day people!!
When you see the USDA Organic label on food packaging, it means that a product meets the Department of Agriculture’s criteria for being certified as organic. Any food with this label must meet certain production and labeling requirements. But what does the term organic mean for sugars? Nutritionally speaking: not a thing. Organic sugar provides the same number of calories as non-organic varieties and causes all the same body responses.
Raw sugar has a rustic sound and look to it, so you might assume that it’s “healthier” due to its darker color, larger crystals and name. Raw sugar (which might also be called turbinado sugar) gets its faint brown color from the naturally-occurring molasses found in sugar cane and sugar beets. The molasses is only partially removed in raw sugars, whereas it is fully removed from white sugars. While raw sugar is less processed than other sugars, that doesn’t make it healthier. We digest it in exactly the same way that we do other types of sugars.
This deserves a session all of it’s own – so tune in next week as we dive into the different kinds of artificial sweeteners and to hear my opinion about the whole confusing truth behind them!
What this all boils down to is the fact that added sugar is added sugar. Regardless of its name or source, the amount of added sugars we eat should make up less than 5 percent of our calories. And to make our guts happiest we should make it our goal to get our sugars from whole fruits almost without exception (Halloween being one of those exceptions). So enjoy the kids York Peppermint Patty’s or Almond Joys – or whatever it is they will share with you – and then plan to be back to apples and strawberries in a day or two!
With sugar, as with all of our relationships, I think it is important to be mindful of what triggers certain behaviors and responses (in this case, are there stressors that lead you dive headfirst into the cookie dough)?? As I’ve mentioned in other episodes, food tracking can be really helpful in this area as it will give you a clearer picture of when and why you might feel inclined to eat more sugar than you know is good for your health.
If I can answer questions you have on this topic or provide any additional insight on how I personally navigate the triggers – let me know.
Until next time friends –
XO – Peggy