What’s The Big Deal About Sugar?

So what’s the big deal about sugar anyway?  This really seems to be the nutritional buzz word for the last several years, and no one seems to be talking about saturated fat or cholesterol anymore, but is it just pop nutrition, or is there something to this?

Simply stated: yes, sugar is in fact the devil (No, really, we checked), and a lot of horribly done science and artificial conclusions were drawn from studies concerning cholesterol and saturated fat.  This isn’t to say saturated fat and cholesterol may have a role to play, whether it is more beneficial or harmful depends on various factors, but the matter of refined carbohydrates and sugar in particular (especially high fructose sugars) is a simple matter.  Let’s not leave you hanging though, what’s the big deal?

As so many of my discussions, lectures and articles do, it comes back to that two million years of ancestral human existence.  Animals change over time, but over great swathes of time with the most permanent and species wide genetic and adaptive changes happening over tens or hundreds of thousands of years or more to be the most able to survive the conditions that persist for the species.  This has a couple of repercussions.  One is that we have not yet been able to adapt genetically, biochemically, and biomechanically to the way we have lifted for the last ~10,000 years as farmers, let alone the last 60 years as ‘desk jockeys.’  The other side of this coin is that we are still ‘hard wired’ to live off the land in a particular fashion (i.e. we spent 2 million years as hunter gatherers so our bodies are still made for this).

Taking this discussion towards the issue of sugar, the ONLY time the vast majority of humans anywhere on earth had sugar was during the fruiting and blossoming seasons in spring and summer where sugary fruits and some higher sugar content vegetables were available.  Some areas in the world had some year round, but this was rare and some areas didn’t have really any at all!  The sugar we did have was all pretty fibrous as well and had loads of nutrients, both of which are a big deal in deciding how the body reacts to the sugar it does get.  The big thing to take home though was this cyclic nature to sugar during the year.  During the spring and summer we stuffed ourselves with it, but we had to forage for it, compete with animals for it, (aka work for it), what we did get was filled with fiber and we only got it during certain months of the year.

The rest of the year was much harder on us just to keep from starving, let alone the fact that sugar was pretty nonexistent except in miniscule amounts in some vegetables and very small amounts of fruit.  We lived this cycle very year as a species for two million years!  Our bodies know that come winter we will have a harder time finding food than during spring when animals are mating and plants are putting out food like it grew from trees…okay bad joke out of the way, but our bodies knew that in the summer it was time to pack away all the energy we could and convert it to fat so that come winter we would be warmer and wouldn’t starve to death.

So what happens when our body eats sugar?  It thinks it’s spring/summer and time to put on fat!  Fructose in particular has a larger ratio of its energy converted to fat automatically regardless of any other factor when we eat it.  So you know those commercials paid for by the national corn conglomerates that say “Oh, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is just like table sugar, your body doesn’t know the difference!”  It’s a straight out conscientious lie. (<a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdMjKEncojQ” > Look Here For More Info On That.</a>)  This happens because your body after all these thousands of generations of ancestors knows that fructose means spring.  The more sweet a meal is (including when we have artificial sweeteners with no calories!  Calories are almost irrelevant, it is other mechanisms that are more important), the more insulin is stored and the more fat will be created out of anything you eat.

This mechanism is what has let our species survive so extremely well and spread over every continent (besides that cold one!) before modern times.  But today we no longer live based on the seasons.  We did in a notable way as farmers instead of hunter gatherers, but for the last few decades the changing of the seasons has zero impact on the Western world in a survival fashion.  We have no shortage of food at any time of the year and we even still have the same foods because of being shipped globally or being grown with artificial methods so there is no seasonal eating.  We also have no fasting and no seasonal shortage of food.  Not that the latter is necessarily a bad thing (the former is very appropriate when done properly) but every single meal we eat is a veritable feast by the standards that were applicable for two million years of our existence and biologically is still the case.

So adequate and regular fuel is awesome but lets get at where the real problem rests.  The issue is that our bodies are still based off this cyclic annual seasonal model that has certain natural cues from sugar intake to light and heat, among other things.  But we have artificial light whenever we want it we have permanent internal heating and the moment fall hits so too does pumpkin spice lattes, let alone the fact that our diets are filled with refined carbohydrates (only a step away from sugar really) and enormous before nonexistent levels of sugar (even more than cultures that lived on sugarcane territory!!).  Our bodies do not know how to handle this so it just goes with the flow and goes; “Oh! Sugar…and oh wait that’s fructose! I know what to do with that!” and starts body fat creation to get ready for the winter that will never come.  When we live in a perpetual spring we have written our own demise in our diet and our lifestyle.

Yes I am being a bit dramatic, but not by as much as you might think.  The sugar gets stored as too much fat and after a while chronic sugar intake and its resulting insulin spikes (not to mention all of the artificial sweeteners and other chemicals that contribute) can cause diabetes.  With or without the diabetes (though it heavily contributes) obesity can easily occur which DOES NOT EXIST in human history until the modern days except in kings and nobles or other evolutionary cultural exceptions.  Our bodies do NOT know how to handle it.

Our adipose tissue (fat) is very rarely known for its role in the endocrine system (hormones), but it actually secretes the body’s most important hormone: leptin.  Leptin goes to the brain (as well as every other tissue in the body) and informs it how much energy is on hand in case of a famine or just the winter to come.  Lots of leptin and the brain knows it can let the body grow and repair itself quickly, let the immune system kick some ass and let the brain be as power hungry as it wants (the brain takes up 25% of our energy and uses more when we learn or think a lot!).  If not much leptin comes in the brain doesn’t let metabolic processes such as the above go quite as full bore and it releases hormones that lower the metabolism and simultaneously make you hungry and seek out food.  Food that comes into the system automatically goes more to fat than usual because of low leptin.

So where’s the disaster in this, it sounds like a good system to me?  Well it is a good system…except that after two million years of daily fasting and annual starving without a single bit of obesity in the lot…our body doesn’t know how to deal with too much leptin.  When too much leptin piles up (from obesity) it just shuts it out like crazy talk and gets on with its business…but it makes its decisions based on the leptin that gets through, which may now be virtually none.  The brain thinks you’re starving and you start shutting down the metabolism and trying to store more fat quickly even though you’re already coated in far too much!  This is why caloric restriction diets are actually counterproductive and don’t work, by the way. This also means the energy doesn’t go to your muscles, brain, and some organs nearly as much which means eating makes you tired and you seem to have less energy all the time.

So while we’ve taken this article beyond its basic intent, I think you can see why sugar is such a big deal in a bad way.  The body takes it as a signal to start storing fat and having high fructose makes it worse, having no fiber makes it worse, having lower nutrients (even if its 100% juice most of the nutrients is in the pulp and skin by the way and the vitamins in it are added and usually artificial and hard to absorb!) makes it worse, and the artificial sweeteners are among the biggest culprits.  In a chemical and nutritional perpetual spring our bodies suffer enormously and sugar is the modern foundation of this problem.

So what’s the take away at the end of the day? I’m not necessarily suggesting we be severe in our attempts to keep sugar cyclic but that is the general notion. Sugar desperately needs to be filtered out of our diets to the vast majority of the time only coming from whole fruits and veggies (seriously, juice should be kept to 4oz and under most days and only fresh real juice. If it doesn’t have sediment and pulp, it’s not real enough) and mostly seasonally so. Come the spring and summer enjoy your fruit! But ditch the white breads and pastas most of the time, avoid sodas, anything with HFCS and artificial sugars at all cost. Enjoy yourself when celebrations come through, eat that piece of cake and have a beer! But don’t do this every day, that’s what gets us and keeps the perpetual Spring working against us! Eat fibrous foods and keep refined carbs low, and sugars real (dates, whole fruit, REAL honey [did you know most honey bottles have no honey in them? Yup, you guessed it, it's HFCS and colorings+chemicals] and so on) but still limited.

To Juice…Or Not To Juice

Juice has long held a special place in pop nutrition and pop health as a holy grail of vitality. In a certain sense, this is true, being rich in some vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients. However, it’s not this simple by any measure and as the oft quoted phrase goes, it can easily be “too much of a good thing,” if what you’re drinking is really a good thing at all. At the worst, commercially made juices are mostly water and heaps of sugar, with a scarce amount of fruit juice (if any) and a smattering of artificially created vitamins and minerals that our body doesn’t absorb well, that may even cost us more vitamins and minerals to digest that we absorb, on top of artificial chemicals of all kinds (preservatives, color packets [which aren't generally listed on the ingredients] food coloring, etc.). Most of the time, these juices are even made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which despite the ridiculous ad campaign by the corn industry that without actually directly claiming anything, try to suggest that HFCS is the same as table sugar, and that our body doesn’t know the difference. To those that have any nutrition background with biochemistry knowledge…this is ludicrously and laughably insulting. On top of it’s use as a health product, we overload our children with juice boxes and 5% fruit juice in general, which just kills me to see.

For more information on how fructose specifically affects us differently than glucose, sucrose, or other sugars, and how it’s really a toxin…take a look Here. I have covered at length elsewhere how refined carbohydrates, especially sugar, are among the biggest scourges to our health, and this is one of the biggest problems with juice. Fructose is essentially a toxin to our body, requiring our liver to digest it (our main detoxing organ) and the very epitome of a ‘hollow calorie.’ In nature this isn’t a serious problem because sugar always comes with what is essentially its antidote: fiber, and we didn’t have constant heaping amounts of it in ancestral times, just a sizable amount during seasonal periods of availability. In juice, whether it’s homemade or from the store, fiber has been almost entirely removed unless you used a high grade blender and didn’t remove the skins. I won’t go into the topic of fiber here beyond to say that fiber is immensely important, and is crucial when eating such foods as those that are heavily saturated in fructose. Our diets are already terribly low in fiber as almost all of our modern carb sources are heavily refined (their fiber removed). We spent hundreds of thousands of years only getting fructose from fruit and vegetable sources that were encased in fiber.

Aside from the fiber, as I said at the beginning, most of the nutrients in fruits and veg are in the skin and pulp. When juiced, almost all of this is removed, and with it most of the nutrients. I will not deny there are some in the juice, but the majority are now gone and must be artificially added via elemental sources which are not derived naturally. These ‘fake’ vitamins and minerals are not the ones your body has evolved to digest, and so the body has a lot of problems ‘recognizing’ them and taking them up for use; they have low ‘bio-availability.’ The real problem with this comes from the fact that to absorb minerals, a large amount of minerals are used in our intestines to digest and absorb our food. If our food is without more vitamins and minerals than we use to digest our food, we become nutrient deficient over time (think of it as constantly investing in a stock that only goes down in value). Again we can easily see how juice can be ‘hollow calories,’ quite similar to soda in most respects (and almost identical if it is low in actual fruit juice, and uses HFCS).

Another nail in the coffin is the common practice of using preservatives and other strong chemicals in commercial juices as mentioned above. Some are known carcinogens, some are endocrine disruptors or hormone mimickers (as too are the plastic containers they come in as well, quite commonly) which wreaks havoc on our metabolism, mood, energy levels, reproductive function, and really pretty much every aspect of our health. Regardless of their specific effects, the chemicals present can be considerably dangerous. So too can the chemicals in the commercial fruit fertilizer, the pesticides used, the irradiation process on most fruit that kills many of the nutrients before even being juiced, and so on and so forth. Local organic non-GMO or home grown with organic non-GMO seeds and methods gives you a better chance, but still doesn’t alleviate many of the problems we have here, mostly just those concerning chemicals.

So is juice a total write-off? While I certainly haven’t covered all of the reasons to not drink juice, I’m not going to tell anyone to go completely cold turkey. At least…not for homemade or other quality organic non-GMO juice. I personally go for Good Belly juice, an ounce in the morning and again in the evening with a pro-biotic. This juice is an organic super-food and pro-biotic packed blend, and I suggest you find a similar juice to enjoy when you fancy, or make your own in a high speed blender that includes the liquefied skin and pulp, but try to keep it to a small glass a day of good quality juice regardless of its source (Never anything less than 100% fruit/veg!) and taken with a decent fiber source (as in not in-between or before meals, have it with food) and also preferably only in a diet that has done well to avoid other simple carbohydrates in any abundance (don’t have a diet high in sugar and then just pile on more with your juice, no matter how nutrient filled!). In this way juice can be something to be enjoyed, just as any other treat, but it has to be seen with the knowledge that it isn’t a magic shot of health without any qualifiers. All things in nutrition in balance, juice certainly not being an exception.

But unhealthy foods taste so good!

In a big way this can be very true, and it is no mistake. I haven’t had a McDonalds egg and cheese biscuit in over 10 years and I still start drooling every time I drive by with my window down. Fast food, “reduced” fat or sugar foods, and really just about any processed food (which is more than you think) are designed for appeal on the chemical level.  Manufacturers do a lot to alter how food tastes and feels so that anything else just won’t cut it for us any more, making many people dislike healthier, less processed, foods. These chemically manufactured foods much more strongly affect the pleasure centers of our brain. But how do they manage such mind control?

The fact is, fats and sugar are already so appealing to our taste buds and mouth, they just taste and feel good. For millions of years of human and primate history, food has been scarce, and I’m not talking one meal a day, but maybe regular periods of not eating for days at a time. Our body and our mouth knows a good source of calories when it finds it; sugar and fat are a gold mine for calories. This isn’t a bad thing either; what would be bad is if our bodies didn’t like foods that offered the calories we need. If it didn’t then our species would have starved to extinction in its very infancy! The scientists who help design processed foods certainly know this, and have been designing foods with this in mind. They design foods that are chalked with high sugar content and loaded with fat, low in fiber (which can dilute the taste of sweetness), protein, and other ingredients that may be more healthy but more expensive, and may not deliver that mouth watery savory fat or sweet sugary taste they want to addict you to.

Now, I know most of you are aware of this. We like sugar and fat, and processed foods are full of it; no real news there. Sugar by itself isn’t very good for us (I’m not telling you to abstain from whole fruit), and too many of the wrong fats would certainly be a big step in the wrong direction. But it goes much further than this. These food scientists have made artificial ’0′ calorie sweeteners, like Sweet N` Low, Splenda, and other similar brands. Also there is a category of food additives generally referred to as ‘natural flavors,’ which enhance the mouth-feel of a food similar to fats, giving it a savory or creamy feel. Either one by themselves, or together, creates a biological appeal for our tongue that far surpasses anything ‘real’ food can realistically present. This has a number of negative effects, on top of the consumption of these ingredients that are by themselves quite bad for us as most are toxic or are known to contribute to cancers and other diseases.

Let’s start with artificial sweeteners. Our body has a slightly different digestion process for proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (including sugar). One of the things that tells the body how much food is coming into the digestive system and how to respond and prepare for its digestion, is how sweet our food is. The moment food hits our tongue, we start salivating and secreting specific amounts and types of enzymes to start digesting our food, in part depending on what our tongue detects. More than that, when anticipating food we already start salivating and releasing insulin and enzymes for digestion  All is good and well so far, right? Well, when we start eating something with artificial sweeteners; a can of ’0′ calorie soda for example, the sweetener they use is dozens or even thousands of times sweeter than the high fructose corn syrup that they usually use, which itself is sweeter than standard table sugar. Also remember that ancestrally, except for during the correct season for fruit, we did not eat sugar for 99.999% of our existence as a species. So what is the result? Your body thinks a massive banquet of food is being eaten, so prepares for eating a mound of food/sugar regardless of what is actually being taken in. When we eat huge amounts of calories at once, our body can only store so much for daily use in our cells, and thanks to eons of our body preparing for regular fasting and periods of short starvation, our body puts the excess calories into adipose tissue (fat).

So say we just eat a normal, or even a small meal, but the sweetness we experience tells our tongue it’s going to be a huge meal, prompting our body to prepare to digest and store it for later. When we have something like a ’0′ calorie artificially sweetened soda your body thinks it is going to binge on a huge feast and stores much more of the food as fat than it would if it wasn’t tricked by the artificial sweetener.  This makes it so you might store more calories as fat from a small meal because of the artificial sugar than you might from a medium sized meal without the artificial sugar.  You will probably store more fat from eating foods with artificial sugars, than normal sugars (table sugar/cane sugar being a better choice than high-fructose corn syrup as well, for this and other reasons, though it still shouldn’t be consumed). I would honestly suggest some one drink a regular soda rather than artificially sweetened one, and both are terrible for you.

On top of storing more fat, these fake sugars screw up our gut flora. Each of us has several pounds of healthy beneficial bacteria living in our intestines. These symbiotic bacteria help break down and digest certain nutrients and vitamins from our food, and possibly most importantly, fight off unhealthy bacteria that may want to rent a spot in our GI tract. When we consume artificial sweeteners it empowers bad gut bacteria and harms our beneficial bacterial, which has a host of negative effects on our system. Digestive health and even immunity may suffer. Just having loads of refined sugar, be it from high fructose corn syrup, or table sugar, is bad for our gut flora as it is, while artificial sugars can be downright disastrous.

Moving on to the other side of processed food additives, we have what are usually referred to as ‘natural flavors.’ Sounds like a good thing doesn’t it, certainly better than artificial flavors? Unfortunately this is usually the accepted phrase for a range of chemicals used to add creamy textures and savory mouth-feel to food. You might see it in cakes, cookies, processed milks, and actually almost every other processed food on the market. The ‘natural’ part of the phrase only means it was in some form derived from something in nature, but this can be a compound that was from chemically treated animal hooves. Tasty, right? Also, just because it occurs in nature, doesn’t mean it’s inherently healthy.

The definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional”

This basically means a wide range of chemicals derived from some kind of actual living thing, which could be beef by-products, a highly processed extract, or other chemical that originally came from a natural source, but is not any healthier than an artificial flavorant. Half of the problem is you get foods that have an unrealistically creamy or savory qualities, making you eat more of a food than you need or want, without any beneficial health benefits, and indeed many potential harmful side effects. Carrageenan as one example, is used as a thickening agent in many foods, even certified organic health foods. The problem, however, is that studies have demonstrated that carregeenan can cause ulcers and gastro-intestinal cancer in lab animals. There are other potential complications as well, such as contributing to or causing inflammatory bowel disease. These are not ingredients we want to mess around with!

Except in rare cases, our digestive system should feel healthy and regular, but so many people have daily or weekly GI distress and discomfort, and a good amount of it is because of the processed and chemical ingredients we consume that hundreds of thousands of years of biological eating habits is not able to cope with. Changing our diet to more whole natural foods can heavily alter how healthy our digestive system is, and by that our whole body. Avoiding as much processed food as possible is a great step in the right direction. Another thing to watch out for in a lot of normal foods like mayonnaise and peanut butter which are labeled as ‘low’ or ‘reduced sugar/far,’ which tend to just replace that missing fat or sugar, with a disproportionate amount of fat, if sugar was reduced, and fat, if sugar was reduced. Alternatively artificial ingredients may be added in their place, and we begin the cycle again, killing our gut flora, packing on more body fat, and disrupting normal digestion.

So aside from being aware of what effect these foods may be having on your digestive system and indeed your whole body’s health, I would like to add an important point. We are not doomed to forever be craving these chemically and genetically engineered foods because of how much sweeter or creamier they may be compared to natural foods. Several years back, I went on a bodybuilders cutting diet (which I will immediately say you should not go on unless you know what you’re doing), where basically I abstained from almost all carbohydrates except fibrous vegetables. After about a week I happened to have a piece of imitation crab meat and it tasted like candy…I am not kidding it tasted as sweet as a Snickers! A glass of milk tasted like a can of soda. My tongue was so used to having heavily fibrous vegetables as its only source of carbohydrates that even the least powerful of sugars was over-poweringly sweet. As I got back into my regular diet, slowly transitioning in, my taste buds got readjusted to normal, but it was a surreal experience.

So what am I getting at here anyway? With adjusting to less sugary foods my taste buds adjusted to a new spectrum that was just as satisfying to me. I recently switched from Splenda in my tea to cubes of sugar, and aside from the slight taste difference, I really am quite happy with the change and don’t notice the decrease in sweetness now (since the time of this writing I have switched to small amounts of local, unfiltered raw honey). The same goes for our other foods. Take a small step away from these artificial and unrealistic foods, and a step towards more authentic less processed foods and not only will you adjust to the change, you will likely find yourself no longer liking the foods that are so unhealthy. Anytime I eat something approaching fast food or convenience, I don’t enjoy the flavors and it makes my digestion system quite sick, because now that it is no longer desensitized so such terrible ingredients, it just won’t stand for it. My body recognizes those food like products for what they are. I’ve felt so much healthier as I’ve taken one step after another away from processed foods and ingredients, and I can tell you that I’m not looking back. Those healthier and more whole foods also just taste better and better.

Sugar, The Bitter Truth

This is a fantastic video I found a couple years ago that really describes the functions and effects of carbohydrates, in particular Dr. Lustig speaks on sugar. This is an incredible eye opening lecture that shows you what damage sugar, specifically refined sugars, can have on our bodies, and the food culture and industry that perpetuates it. This is one of the best single lectures I have ever found. I am linking both the full version, and a short version other people have made to make it more digestible by laypersons. There are certainly some dense scientific portions in the full video, but I urge you to watch it when you find the opportunity, supplementing with the short version that cuts out the most detailed science.