The Bitter Truth About Sugar

The health consequences of eating too much sugar (simple carbohydrates) can be ruinous. And while you need a modicum of carbohydrates in your diet for optimal wellness, consuming them in the right proportions is a key to better health.

Carbohydrate Simplicities And Complexities

Carbohydrates are typically classified as either complex carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates (sugar molecules). As a general rule, simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly into the body and quickly increase your blood sugar level.

The glycemic index is a measurement of the relative rate at which the sugar of any food enters the human blood stream, thereby raising the amount in the blood. The slower sugar is absorbed into the blood stream, the better for your long-term health. For example, on the 0 to 100 glycemic index scale, table sugar (sucrose) rates closest to 100 (very quick absorption). Most often, high glycemic index foods are 70 or more; medium foods are classified from 55 to 69; and low glycemic index foods fall below 55 on the index. These rankings are important: Scientific literature demonstrates that low glycemic index diets can reduce coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

The Ins And Outs Of Insulin

You should be aware of how the hormone insulin affects your physiology. This potent hormone helps the body use blood sugar for energy or store it as glycogen for later use. When a meal or snack causes a rapid rise in blood sugar, the pancreas is quick to secrete insulin. If insulin is secreted too quickly into the bloodstream, it causes sugar to be too rapidly conveyed into the cells of your liver, muscle, brain and other organs. Consequently, when blood sugar drops precipitously as sugar leaves the blood, this abnormal cycle triggers hunger again, which can lead to a cycle of overeating.

Sugar is the molecule that cells use to provide energy for the body. However, dumping sugar into the bloodstream intravenously to provide fuel for the body can cause serious problems.

An excess intake of high-glycemic carbohydrate food spikes your blood sugar. Depending on your metabolic characteristics, this process can send blood sugar abnormally high and demand abnormal amounts of insulin secretion. That can lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which insulin loses its ability to maneuver sugar out of the blood and into cells for energy or into glycogen for storage.

Because whole foods include a comprehensive collection of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, dietary fiber, antioxidants, healthy oils and other micronutrients that enable the body to derive energy from sugar, whole foods are the preferred method for obtaining nutritious energy, much more advantageous than merely consuming straight sugar.

Sugar’s Guises

Sugars are present in foods in many different forms. To make wise food choices, you need to recognize their names and know a bit about their effects on health.

The least healthy sugars are refined and nutrient-poor. A primary member of this sugar type is sucrose, the white and refined table sugar you probably know best. Also included in the refined sugars are powdered sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose (made from cornstarch), invert sugar (consisting of the sugar molecules glucose and fructose) and brown sugar.

A wide range of scientific research confirms the fact that simple (refined) sugar in excess leads to numerous health problems. There are more than 100 adverse effects from sugar documented in the scientific literature. These include: immune system suppression,[1] impaired mineral absorption,[2] advanced skin aging, decreased skin elasticity,[3] accelerated cancer growth[4] and weakened eyesight.[5] That’s why I believe so strongly that it’s time to find better alternatives to refined sugar. We need a healthier alternative for sweetening ice cream, shakes, pancake syrups, fruit juices, cakes, pies and cookies. This may be difficult to accomplish when it comes to sweet treats like donuts, candies, sodas and all the other refined, high glycemic flour foods that are so highly popular.

Sweet Contrast

Contrast the refined sugars with the relatively healthier sugars that are closer to their original whole food form.

These include raw honey and grade B maple syrup as well as blackstrap and un-sulfured molasses (made from the juice of sun-ripened sugar cane). These sweeteners contain vitamins and minerals and even antioxidants. Other alternatives include evaporated sugar cane juice that has been re-crystallized, xylitol from wood sugar or birch sugar and some forms of agave nectar from the agave plant. Agave nectar often has a much lower glycemic index than table sugar (depending on the manufacturer). You can also obtain fruit concentrates from apples, dates or kiwis. However, these have largely been depleted of their vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

Another helpful sweetener that rates an advantageous 0 on the glycemic index (with no sugar molecules) is the sweet herb stevia, which is not an artificial chemical like aspartame. But all of these sweeteners must be balanced with nutrient-rich foods to sustain long-term health.

Next week, I will discuss complex carbohydrates and inflammatory foods.

To your best health,
Michael Cutler, M.D.
Easy Health Options

[1] Sanchez, A., et al. Role of Sugars in Human Neutrophilic Phagocytosis, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Nov 1973;261:1180_1184. Bernstein, J., al. Depression of Lymphocyte Transformation Following Oral Glucose Ingestion. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.1997;30:613

[2] Lemann, J. Evidence that Glucose Ingestion Inhibits Net Renal Tubular Reabsorption of Calcium and Magnesium. Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1976 ;70:236_245.

[3] Cerami, A., Vlassara, H., and Brownlee, M. "Glucose and Aging." Scientific American. May 1987:90. Lee, A. T. and Cerami, A. The Role of Glycation in Aging. Annals of the New York Academy of Science; 663:63-67.

[4] Takahashi, E., Tohoku University School of Medicine, Wholistic Health Digest. October 1982:41:00
Also: Quillin, Patrick, Cancer’s Sweet Tooth, Nutrition Science News. Ap 2000 Rothkopf, M. Nutrition. July/Aug 1990;6(4). Also: Michaud, D. Dietary Sugar, Glycemic Load, and Pancreatic Cancer Risk in a Prospective Study. J Natl Cancer Inst. Sep 4, 2002 ;94(17):1293-300. Also: Moerman, C. J., et al. Dietary Sugar Intake in the Etiology of Biliary Tract Cancer. International Journal of Epidemiology. Ap 1993.2(2):207-214. Also: The Edell Health Letter. Sept 1991;7:1. Also; De Stefani, E."Dietary Sugar and Lung Cancer: a Case control Study in Uruguay." Nutrition and Cancer. 1998;31(2):132_7. Also: Cornee, J., et al. A Case-control Study of Gastric Cancer and Nutritional Factors in Marseille, France. European Journal of Epidemiology 11 (1995):55-65.

[5] Acta Ophthalmologica Scandinavica. Mar 2002;48;25. Taub, H. Ed. Sugar Weakens Eyesight, VM Newsletter; May 1986:06:00.

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Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.