A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present two sessions at my school district’s Wellness Expo—one on Motivation and Mindset, and one on Sugar. I’ll post here what’s essentially the transcript for each, editing for reading as needed. I was allotted an hour for each session, and while I didn’t talk that long (I leave time for questions, and I’m not going to include my introductions here), these posts will be long. Enjoy!
I introduced myself, told a little about me (including my former incarnation as a sweets junkie), encouraged folks to take what resonates and leave the rest—especially if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the information—and let them know that the space for the next hour is judgment-free: we all have strengths and weaknesses and because of factors outside of ourselves, this healthy living thing is hard.
So a bit about language…
I do my best not to refer to foods as “good” or “bad.” Those words are loaded, and I think they distract us from the task at hand. Foods either move you towards you goal or they don’t. If you have no goals involving health in any way, physical or mental, then you don’t need to spend time thinking about your eating habits, because they’re irrelevant. Aside perhaps from what’s tasty.
But you’re here because you have health goals, or maybe your goal is to have health goals. Regardless, you’re on the path, so let’s talk about which direction to point yourself.
What is sugar?
Looking at the ingredients list on your prepackaged food, sugar can show up in any of the following ways.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. Fiber and starch are the other two.
Carbohydrates are important. They give us usable energy, both to be active and also for underlying body functions. A big chunk of this is brain power. Brains use roughly 20 percent of our energy, by far the most of any organ.
We don’t specifically need sugar for these functions—any carbohydrate will do—but sugar does meet this need.
What about fruit?
In short: whole fruit is good. Partial fruit (juice, dehydrated, etc.) is a treat.
My nutrition professor told us: “Fruit is nature’s way of getting us to eat fiber.” Fruit in moderation is good!
Fruit is also sweet, if your taste buds aren’t calibrated to junk food, and makes a good snack or dessert.
As far as the not-whole-fruit goes, here are the problems.
Juice: Juicing removes the fiber, so we don’t get one of fruit’s primary benefits when we juice. That also means it doesn’t contribute much to feeling full (not any more than an equivalent glass of water). But we do get all of the sugar.
You could make a smoothie instead, using the whole fruit, and you’d have a drink that is still sweet but also retains more of the goodness of the whole fruit. (There is debate in the scientific community as to whether the insoluble fiber is made less useful/entirely useless in the blending process or not. Regardless, the soluble fiber is still there and just as useful.)
Dehydrated fruit: First, these tasty little gems have no water in them. That’s the point of dehydrating them, right? But there is a lot of water in fruit, and the water contributes to its bulk in your stomach when you eat it.
So an apple and a dehydrated apple (or grapes and an equivalent number of raisins) have the same calories and the same sugar content. But the proportion of sugar in the dried stuff is much higher, since the water is gone.
The other problem is in marketing, not inherent to the drying of fruit. Most dried fruit is sweetened. I have found only a few instances of dried fruit being only dried fruit.
Glucose vs fructose
Glucose is ready to use by your body; it’s metabolized in the small intestine.
Fructose can only be metabolized in the liver. Some of it is turned into glucose, but if there’s too much, it will be converted into free fatty acids, cholesterol, or triglycerides.
The liver can get overwhelmed by too much fructose, and, because it’s not in the stomach or intestines, consuming fructose doesn’t properly trigger hunger or satiety hormones.
This is why high fructose corn syrup and agave nectar aren’t good choices for sweetening. HFCS when tested has been shown to have far more fructose than advertised (80% vs. 55%). Agave has nearly as much.
Plain table sugar is roughly 50-50.
Free fatty acids, one of the metabolic results of too much fructose, accumulate in the liver as fat.
Which brings us to…
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Most of us know that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to fatty liver disease. But excessive sweets consumption can have the same effect.
Please let that soak in for a minute. Eating a diet high in sugar can lead to the same liver problems as being an alcoholic.
If all of our fruit consumption was via fruit, our bodies could handle it just fine; it totals roughly 15 grams per day. We’re designed for that.
But we eat between 70 and 100 grams per day, mostly in sweetened foods and sodas.
That is a path to liver disease.
(All of that sugar isn’t so nice to your pancreas, either, where you’re making insulin to deal with the onslaught.)
Type 3 diabetes
Another potential side effect of a diet high in sugar is Alzheimer’s Disease, which has, in recent years, been dubbed Type 3 diabetes.
Our brains need carbs to run. Also, our brains produce insulin.
Overdoing sugar leads to insulin resistance which reduces the body’s ability to use sugar. Most of us are familiar with this—Type 2 diabetes.
But we’ve recently come to learn that brain cells can also become insulin resistant, which makes them not function, which accumulates into Alzheimer’s.
What about mental health?
A diet high in sugar is linked (correlated) to anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Now, that is correlation, not causation, but…
Excess sugar causes inflammation, and recent research is seeing that inflammation is a cause (the cause?) of depression.
So if sugar causes inflammation and inflammation causes mental health issues, then it seems likely that sugar causes mental health issues.
Anecdotally, I feel much more balanced mentally when I’m off sweets. Less grumpy. Less sad. Less angry. I have had many other people tell me similar stories.
Speaking of inflammation…
What else is caused by inflammation?
Most if not all cancers.
If you have any of these conditions, it would serve you well to keep your sugar intake low.
This is the main one that keeps me away from junk food left in the teachers’ lounge (a label perhaps left over from a time when teachers had time to lounge?).
A shot of sugar—and I don’t know what the exact amount is—makes your white blood cells lethargic. They’re the foot soldiers in your immune system.
The effect is temporary—it only lasts a few hours—but if you’re eating sweets consistently through the day, then your immune system is chronically depressed.
Reduced brain plasticity
This one is significantly alarming, given the diets so many of our children have.
A diet high in added sugars reduces brain plasticity.
Brain plasticity is what allows us to learn. It’s how we make new pathways in our brains.
How does this affect us through the life cycle?
Babies (who don’t need added sugars at all) and toddlers (who, seeing things in the world, might start to ask, even if you never offer) are learning about the world around them, basic physical skills, language. Brain plasticity is critical.
School-aged children are still learning about the world around them, are still learning language, are still (hopefully) learning physical skills, and are also learning academics.
For adults of all ages, continuing to learn new things reduces the risk of dementia.
And we already touched on increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
A bit for the ladies…
Consuming sugar leads to water retention. It contributes to mood swings. Anecdotally, it increases symptoms of PMS.
Those sugar levels also reduce calcium absorption which affects bones and teeth, but cramps are often triggered by low calcium.
Other side effects that we’re often already aware of
Diets high in added sugars also can cause weight gain, dental issues, hypoglycemia/type 2 diabetes, headaches, and ulcers.
Eating sweet things releases dopamine—the feel-good brain chemical.
In low quantities of sweets, the dopamine response wears off.
In high quantities, it doesn’t, which means you need more sweet to get the same high.
Sweets are dressed in drug language and behavior:
- we eat it in secret (this is a running joke among parents of small children)
- we make deals with ourselves about what, where, when, under what conditions
- we steal (see: your children’s Halloween stash)
- “I can’t live without it” or “I can’t stop eating sweets”
- we say we need a sugar fix
None of this is to judge the behaviors—just to point out that they exist.
Tomorrow’s post: my advice on how to manage this beast, and what happens when you do.