Sugar – Part 1
The story of sugar is a long one, and it is not as sweet as it may seem to be. Sugar can be both friend and enemy, depending on the source and volume consumed. There are two issues with sugar that you must consider: concentration and refinement. Not too long after the sweet taste of sugar leaves your mouth, the bitter consequences set in. In this first part of our sugar series, lets peek under the sugar bowl lid to see exactly what is hiding there.
A long time ago, before we started creating our food in factories, when we consumed only what nature intended us to eat, flavors were an indicator of nutrient density for the most part. If something was sweet, it was ripe and safe to consume; it gave us energy, like fruit and vegetables. Salty and fatty flavors belonged to meat and fish and satisfied our hunger. A bitter taste was a sign of something not very palatable or possibly even poisonous. That was about it. No artificial flavoring, no sneaky ingredients, no chemical enhancers, no brain stimulants or neurotoxins. Just natural, nutrient dense food. Fruit was not available all year round, and of course there were times and places where it was difficult to hunt for meat. The bottom line is that our ancestors consumed far less calories from sugar than we do today.
The human body needs sugar, but it is important to know the difference between naturally occurring carbohydrates from whole foods, and processed, nutritionally empty, highly palatable products. Our brain needs sugar to function, our muscles need it to move, and even our liver needs a fair amount of sugar to do its job properly. Sugar is the primary fuel for nearly every process in our body because it is a source of quick burning energy. Not enough sugar can be as dangerous as too much of it. Sweet tasting things are very stimulating to the human brain and you might actually be aware of the fact that eating sweet things usually makes you crave even more (stay tuned for more on this in section 3). To understand why, we have to talk a bit about science, including the microbiome as the bacteria living in our gut thrive on sugar.
Sugar is not just the white powder, crystals, or cubes that first come to mind. Sugar is the building block for carbohydrates. Everything we eat contains protein, fat, and carbohydrates, in various ratios and combinations. We call these macronutrients. Carbohydrates are broken down into starch, fiber, and sugar. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that is responsible for the sweet taste of fruit and vegetables, and of course processed foods and drinks. Sugar is metabolized into glucose, simple sugar that is absorbed into our bloodstream and then stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Glycogen can be released back into the bloodstream and turned into glucose when needed. This is all regulated by two hormones: insulin and glucagon. (We are going to learn more details about these hormones and their function in part two of this series.)
There is a big difference between consuming sugar from a natural source versus processed food. For our body to be able to metabolize sugar, we also need to consume certain micronutrients, in particular B vitamins, magnesium, iron, zinc, vanadium, and chromium. Naturally sweet, whole, unprocessed foods contain these nutrients, but processed sugars don’t. If you ever heard the term empty calories, this is what it is referring to. Eating 4 teaspoons of white table sugar gives your body about 60 calories, no nutrients, no vitamins, no minerals. Our self-regulating system works smoothly, so when the carbohydrates we eat come from natural, nutrient dense sources, we benefit from the nutrients too, but it can create a mess when overeating the wrong types of carbohydrates. Its the difference between snacking on an apple with a handful of nuts versus a doughnut.
Natural sweeteners like honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, or maple syrup can be well tolerated, if your digestive tract is perfectly healthy. But if you still struggle with any kind of health issue, autoimmune disease, SIBO, Candida, or gut dysbiosis, you should consider keeping your sugar intake low as sugar fuels inflammation, and feeds the unhelpful bacteria. Don’t limit your vegetables though, raw or cooked, as they are whole foods, nutrient dense, and important for digestive healing. Don’t stay away from fruit, but treat it as a dessert if you want to regain control of your blood glucose regulation and keep it well balanced.
Carbohydrates are very important for our health, but we should do our best to get them from non-refined natural sources. Reading labels (or eating foods that don’t need them) is the best thing to do in this case, because as you might learn on your next grocery store visit, added sugar is almost everywhere. Every time you see the words HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), dextrose, fructose, lactose, galactose, maltose, ribose, basically everything that ends with -ose, remember it is a simple sugar that was added to your food. Brown sugar, cane sugar, and beet sugar are still heavily processed, nutritionally empty sugars. High fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, or malt syrup are processed sugars as well. Removing the empty, processed sugar from your diet should be the very first step.
Your individual carbohydrate intake depends on your own health status and also activity level. Very active workers and athletes will need more carbohydrates in their diet than those who are mostly sedentary as they need more sugar to restore muscle glycogen than inactive people. Always be aware of your own needs and your health concerns before experimenting with different levels of carbohydrate intake. Balanced blood sugar levels and balanced hormones create the well balanced, healthy human beings we naturally are and should be. Even in todays modern world full of dangers like colorful cereal boxes and highly palatable processed food-like substances, with good information we can navigate ourselves towards sustainable health.
Intrigued by what you just learned? There is way more you should know! If you are interested in more details about how sugar messes with our brains and bodies and what to do to break the vicious cycle of sugar addiction, head over to parts two and three of the sugar series!
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