It’s often been called the silent killer, a toxin, and a drug. Most people know that sugar is not good for them, yet it’s consumption is at an all-time high.
In the 1800s that average American consumed around 2 pounds of sugar per year. In 1970 that number rose to 123 pounds and today it is a staggering 152 pounds per person. That equates to almost a cup of sugar per day. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons a day for men.
Some people do a good job limiting their sugar consumption, but as a whole we consume way too much sugar and that can have some disastrous effects on the human body.
What is a sugar?
Basically sugar is a carbohydrate that is a common additive to many foods to increase it’s sweetness. Some sugars are very sweet and some are not sweet at all.
When looking at a food ingredient list anything that ends with “ose” is sugar. Examples of this are sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose and maltose. (There are some exceptions to this. Sucralose is a sugar substitute, also known as Splenda, but it is technically not a sugar.) Some are not that bad but some can have some seriously detrimental effects on our bodies.
Sucrose is another name for refined table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar or whatever else you want to call it. This is definitely a bad one that you want to avoid. When you say “sugar,” sucrose is what most people are thinking of.
Sucrose is a disaccharide which means it is a compound that combines two monosaccharaide molecules. Sucrose combines the molecules of fructose and glucose. It is normally made from the sugar cane or sugar beet plants.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener that is cheap to produce and is a common ingredient in soft drinks, breads, cereals, and salad dressings. HFCS also combines fructose and glucose which chemically makes pretty much the same as table sugar.
While sucrose combines the glucose and fructose molecules in a 50/50 ratio, HCFS most commonly combines them in a ratio of around 55% fructose and 45% glucose. (There are also less used HFCS formulas that use a 42/53 ratio and a 90/10 ratio.)
HFCS is sweeter than sugar since it has a little more fructose, so to reach the same sweetness level you would need to use less. Unfortunately the makers of soft drinks and other food items use the same amount as the sucrose which leads to slightly more fructose entering our bodies in each serving.
When it first became popular in the mid-70s, HFCS was marketed as a healthful alternative to sugar. It was a lot cheaper to produce than sugar so companies began using it in many food products. It’s hard to go to the grocery store nowadays and find a processed product that does not contain either sugar or HFCS.
There has been a shift in that in recent years in the perception of HFCS, but not matter how it is how much the food producers say one is better than the other, HFCS and sugar are the same thing and can produce the same negative health effects.
The Rise of Obesity
Not so coincidentally as the rates of sugar consumption have increased so have obesity rates. While exact records were not kept in the 1800s, it is estimated that the obesity rate was well below 10%. The Centers for Disease Control estimated the U.S. obesity rate between 1960 and 1962 as 13.4%. That number steadily increased to 23.2% between 1988 and 1994. Between 2005 and 2006 that number was an astounding 35.1%. In 2010 they reported that number as 35.7%
(Just a side note before I continue, the CDC as well as many others determine obesity by the BMI number. While this is not the most accurate way to determine someone’s body composition at an individual level, it is a effective way to track a large population. I am not an advocate of using the BMI for an individual but in large studies like this I do agree with its use. I still disagree with using it for an individual person but that’s a whole other topic.)
So what the heck happened and how did America become so fat? Is sugar really the culprit? Many including myself believed that the cure for obesity was simple. Eat less and move more. Why weren’t people able to burn off the extra sugar?
I thought about my past clients. While I helped a lot of people lose weight, there were still a few clients of mine that ate very little calories and exercised a lot that did not lose weight or saw very minimal results.
At the time it made me wonder if what was going on. Were they cheating on their foods? Well they told most were pretty honest and told me all the crap that they ate so when they said they were eating well, I believed them.
I knew they were working out because I was working out with them. So it had to be something else. The Law of Thermodynamics was a basic physics law that was behind the reasoning for calories in and calories out.
Could the physics be wrong? I am no physicist but I would say the chances of that are low. It still made me wonder how some people could see great results and some would struggle. To see what happened in the country, let’s go back a few years.
Giving People the Misleading Information
In 1980 the government released it’s first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It gave 7 tips for eating healthy. I believe this was one of the major triggers that shifted people’s attitudes about fat. (There were many events before this, but this was the first time the government gave their low fat recommendation.)
Not all the information in this publication was bad though. They said things like don’t eat too much sugar, and don’t drink too much alcohol.
One of the things that they wrote that really lead America astray was to avoid too much fats, saturated fats and cholesterol. The reasoning was that it leads to heart disease and high blood cholesterol even though there was and still are no studies that demonstrate this.
Well, even though they said to avoid sugar in the same publication, this is where America’s low fat craze really took off and so did it’s consumption of sugar. Companies were coming out with all sorts of products that were low fat. The problem was that these did not taste good without the fat so they were loaded up with sugar.
Another thing they wrote was if you are trying to lose weight, you should to replace the calories from fat with carbohydrates because carbohydrates have fewer calories per gram. It seems that many didn’t read the part about reducing sugar though since the consumption of sugar has steadily risen since this.
It is true that carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and fat has 9, but this calorie restriction recommendation is based on the assumption that all calories are processed in the body the exact same way, which they are not.
All calories are not the same and some can be downright dangerous.
Is Fructose, the Cause?
Dr. Robert Lustig is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. In 2009 he gave a speech entitled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” where he outlined the dangers of fructose and compared it’s effects on the body to those of toxins such as alcohol.
Alcohol is an acute and chronic toxin though, so it has immediate as well as long-term effects. Sugar does not have the short-term negative effects since it is not an acute toxin. It does demonstrate all the same chronic toxin effects as alcohol which means it’s negative effects will be cumulative and add up over time.
Lustig describes the metabolic processes in the body and how calories are not just calories. The body will process calories from fructose, glucose and alcohol differently.
Glucose is used for energy and can be metabolized by all the cells in the body. Fructose can only be processed in the liver and if there is no fiber with that fructose it can hit the liver in large amounts very quickly. This leads the liver to turn the fructose into fat.
While most people don’t want to gain fat, adding a few extra pounds is actually the least of your worries. Too much fat stored in the liver can lead to something called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Another one of the dangers of fructose is that the fat that is produced comes in the form of triglycerides and VLDL (the dangerous type of LDL cholesterol) These are risk factors for heart disease.
When there is too much glucose in the blood the body will respond by signaling the pancreas to release a hormone called insulin. The insulin lowers the sugar in the blood by converting it to energy or storing it as fat. That is how the body is supposed to work.
When extra fat is stored in the liver, like when your body gets too much fructose, the liver will stop recognizing the insulin that is already in the blood. This leads to the pancreas producing even more insulin.
When to body is flooded with too much insulin, it’s cells become resistant to the effects of insulin. This eventually leads to too much glucose in the blood and is associated with a whole host of problems such as atherosclerosis (hardening of artery walls,) hyperglycemia (high blood sugar,) hyperinsulinemia (too much insulin in the blood,) obesity, and can cause the pancreas overwork and slow or stop producing insulin which can lead to diabetes mellitus type 2.
Increases Uric Acid Production
When the liver metabolizes fructose one of the waste products that are made is uric acid. The condition where there are excessive levels of uric acid in the body is known as hyperuricemia.
Having a high concentration of uric acid in the blood can lead to a form of arthritis called gout. This is a painful condition where uric acid crystals and deposits itself into joints, tendons, skin and other tissues of the body. Kidney stones can also be formed through an accumulation of uric acid crystals.
Uric acid has also been associated with hypertension (high blood pressure.) Uric acid blocks the enzyme that creates nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide is responsible for lowering your blood pressure. Without it, your blood pressure goes up and so does your risk for heart disease.
High levels of uric acid are also associated with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
Improper Food Control
Ghrelin is a hormone in the body that regulates and tells us we are hungry. It is often referred to as the “hunger hormone.” When our stomachs are empty ghrelin is secreted and it tells out brain that we are hungry.
Leptin is the opposite and is known as the “satiety hormone.” Leptin is created by the fat cells in our body and is supposed to tell the brain that we are full.
The more fat cells that we have the more leptin is released. This means that when an individual is obese, they will have more leptin in their bloodstream which usually causes leptin resistance. Just like insulin resistance, it means that the body becomes resistant to the hormone and decreases it’s reactions to leptin. This means the brain will never know that the body is full.
Fructose affects the release of both ghrelin and leptin. The body does not recognize fructose as a fuel so it does not release ghrelin to suppress hunger. This is why you can still feel hungry after ingesting a huge cup of soda.
In addition to making you feel hungry, fructose does not properly activate leptin so you do not get that “full” feeling after ingesting a large amount of fructose. Having high levels of triglycerides in the blood can also prevent the brain from getting the leptin and as discussed earlier fructose causes the liver to make more triglycerides.
As you can guess having both of these hormones out of whack means you will feel starving and not feel full when you eat. This cycle is a real disaster and can lead to excessive overeating and obesity.
Metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of symptoms that increase the risk factor for a variety of health problems like heart disease, diabetes and stroke. The American Heart Association estimates that 1 in every 6 people in the U.S. suffer from metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome symptoms include, hypertension, inflammation, insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, obesity and continued overeating.All of these are possible side effects of continued fructose consumption.
What to Do
Does this mean that we should avoid all sugar and not eat fruits anymore? Probably not, but as I said above the recommended fructose daily intake is about 6-9 teaspoons. The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons so consuming far less sugar and letting your friends and family know to do the same will be a good start at bridging the gap. Here are a few tips to help you lower your sugar and fructose consumption.
- Avoid products with a lot of sugar like soft drinks, fruit juice, energy drinks, desserts, dried fruits, canned fruits, and many cereals. All of these have a lot of sugars so they have a lot of fructose.
- Don’t add sugar to anything. Nutritionally, adding sugar to a food does nothing. One of the biggest criticisms of sugar is that it is empty calories. This is true. Sugar does not add any vitamins or minerals to your diet.
- Limit fruit intake. While a few fruits are not bad, too many fruits can give you too much fructose since it is the natural sweetener of fruits. While you should avoid juices, canned/ dried fruits, jams and jellies altogether, whole fruits also provide the body with some fiber, vitamins and minerals. These are all good things and the fiber can actually help alleviate some of the negative effects of fructose. It is also harder to overeat whole fruits than it is to over consume juice. This does not mean fruits are not an unlimited food, especially if you are trying to lose weight. Just don’t go crazy with your fruit eating and if you are not sure about how much you are getting, start tracking your calories.
- Share this info with your friends. It could help them lower their risk for many chronic deadly diseases. You can share this article on social media with the buttons below.
I hope this article has helped you learn about the dangers of sugar and has changed the way you think about fructose. (Glucose isn’t off the hook either, but that’s a topic for another article.) If you found this article helpful please recommend this site to a friend or join the email list. Thanks for reading.