Sugar can have a devastating impact on your health. Sugar most commonly refers to sucrose, which is a molecule made up of two parts: glucose and fructose. When talking about sugar in this article, I am referring to sucrose specifically.
GLUCOSE V.S. FRUCTOSE
Glucose is found in dietary carbohydrates, either on its own in starchy foods like grains, or combined with another molecule, as in the case of sucrose (in sweet foods) or lactose (in dairy products). Dr. Robert Lustig referred to it as the “energy of life”, as it is the primary form of fuel for all cells in the body. Our bodies are highly efficient, so if there is extra glucose left over when we eat, it is stored as glycogen in muscles and the liver.
Fructose is the other component of sucrose and is functions very differently. Fructose can only be metabolized in the liver, and excess is converted into fat which is then stored in the liver. Ever heard of “fatty liver?” Excess intake and storage of fructose is one potential cause. It is far less useful as a fuel because it can’t be used by most of the body and it creates waste products which must be eliminated to maintain health. This make it more of a toxin!
WHY IS SUGAR SO BAD?
Excessive consumption of sugar is a major health issue facing much of society today. Chronic over-consumption can lead to obesity, diabetes, lipid imbalance, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver disease, and many other chronic and even deadly health concerns. It is the fructose component in particular that poses the biggest problem.
Let’s take a look at heart disease, which is the number two cause of death in Canada and the leading cause of death in the United States. According to a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine people who get 25% or more of their calories from sugar have, TRIPLE the risk of dying of heart disease and people who get 10-25% of their calories from sugar increase their risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%.
Some of the top sources of sugar in the average modern diet are soda, sports drinks, sweetened juices, desserts (baked goods, cake, cookies, etc), and candy. In fact, drinking an average of one sugar-sweetened beverage per day increases the risk of dying of heart disease by 29% compared to drinking only one per week!
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Our bodies are complex machines that rely on a system of subtle inner signals to function at optimal health. It is these sophisticated and sensitive systems that are responsible for maintaining homeostasis (a fancy word for balance). Sugar interferes with your body’s ability to effectively communicate with itself, basically sending the wrong messages!
When we eat glucose, it suppresses ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates hunger) and stimulates insulin and leptin (hormones that tell you to stop eating). This makes sense, since once we have enough glucose, we don’t need to eat any more until the next time we need energy!
Fructose once again is different. It does not suppress ghrelin, nor does it stimulate insulin and leptin, so it doesn’t send the important signals that your body needs to know to stop eating. This signal interruption causes major disruptions in healthy function over time, eventually leading to chronic disease.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
The World Health Organization recommends you get a maximum of 10% of your daily calories from added sugar. Less than 5% would be ideal. However, most adults are consuming far more than that. The Globe and Mail reports that 10% of adults consume more than 25% of their calories from added sugar, while 72% consume 10-25% of their daily intake from sugar.
How do you figure out your numbers? One way would be to track your food intake via an app like Cook + Cure or MyFitnessPal. You can see how many calories you eat each day and calculate how many calories come from sugars by multiplying the grams of sugar by 4, which is the number of calories per gram of carbohydrates (which is what sugar is).
This figure will include all sources of sugar (even whole foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, etc) but it will give you a sense of how much sugar you are eating. Added sugars are hard to separate out, but a good guideline is to avoid packaged foods and the use of sugar when preparing food in favor of natural forms of sugar from whole foods.
WHAT ABOUT FRUIT?
When I talk to patients about sugar, this is a common question. Yes, fruit contains sugar, but the effect on the body is very different than sucrose! Fruit is food, sugar is not!
Dr. Robert Lustig says in his video “when God made the poison, he packaged it with the antidote.” Think about how you would find sugar in nature. It is always accompanied by plenty of fiber as part of a fruit or something like sugar cane.
Fiber protects your body from a huge spike in sugar because it slows down absorption, in addition to being incredibly helpful in many other ways. Sugar in nature is also accompanied by many essential nutrients that support good health and help our bodies maintain proper signaling and homeostasis.
Whole foods contain sugar in much smaller quantities than most processed and prepackaged foods (unless they have been processed, altered, and concentrated, as in the case of fruit juices and dried fruits). It is much harder to overeat sugar in the form of fruit for these reasons.
Finally, fruit doesn’t have as much fructose as you might think. Just because “fructose” and “fruit” sound similar doesn’t mean it is found in the great abundance there.
Here is a list ranking the sugar content of popular sweetened beverages and fructose in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. These are some of the foods highest in fructose:
Raisins, 1 cup: 43g
Dried figs, 1 cup: 34g
Coke, 355mL can: 26g
Prunes, 1 cup: 22g
Dried apricots, 1 cup: 16g
Mango, 1 fruit: 16g
Miso, 1 cup: 16g
Unsweetened apple juice, 1 cup: 14g
Cabbage, 1 head: 12-13g
Grapes, 1 cup: 12g
Keep in mind that sweeteners like sucrose, honey, maple syrup, etc are not included on this list. These are all high in fructose and would rank pretty high.
WATCH YOUR PORTIONS
It’s not surprising that dried fruit is high on the list, but look at the serving size. When was the last time you ate a whole cup of raisins? Most people consume smaller servings of these foods and they are high in fibre and nutrients, so still a much better choice than a can of Coke. It’s also interesting to note that miso (fermented soy) and cabbage rank so highly, although I don’t know anyone who is in the habit of eating a whole head of cabbage by themselves.
Many of us are accustomed to eating a lot of added sugar. It’s everywhere! In sweet foods as well as in many places you might never suspect! However, sugar is not necessary for enjoyment of life and, in fact, can detract from living a vibrant and fulfilling life by compromising your health.
Our caveman ancestors had to work pretty hard to get sugar and even though it’s always on hand nowadays, you don’t have to eat it! Ever wonder why they call it a”sugar high”? Because our bodies respond to sugar like a drug, and the sooner we treat it as such, the better off we will all be!
Well, there are a lot, but we’ve put together a brief list of some of our favourites. So, if you’re making a special meal for your delectable little dish, include some of the following foods and have fun!