Learning to manage when, how, and what I eat continues to pay big dividends for my health. In my initial days on my path to wellness, I didn’t really know how to begin improving my eating habits. However, given my misery, I figured I could stick with something for 60 or 90 days. I knew I had to start with something very simple, concrete, and measurable to stay motivated.
Based on what I knew, I made a vow to swear off sugar. In 75 days, I lost 23 pounds. Dropping sugar was the only thing, absolutely the only thing, I changed. I cut out sodas, desserts, sugar and sweetener additives in foods, and sugary cocktails. This alone wouldn’t change my whole healthpicture, but it was a major start.
Today, I’d like to chat about sugar’s infiltration into our food system, how it feeds inflammatory diseases, and what you can do to stop its negative effects on your body…and your longevity. Stay with me…I’m going share some cool, geeky science, but its laying important groundwork.
Our Health Foundation: Understanding the Sugar Roller Coaster and Blood Sugar Balance
Yes, your sugary diet lifestyleis like building your house on a foundation of sand. Julie Starkel, a leading holistically-oriented registered dietitian nutritionist based in Seattle, Washington, observes food and eating like an architect studies form, function, and place. With her approach, managing sugar (including grains and both sweet and starchy carbohydrates) and getting our blood sugar in balance is the foundation of our house of health.
Did you know…Until our blood sugar is in balance, the body will send all of its healing energy to try to balance it. The body will do this at the expense of working on any other damage, illness, or other imbalances in the body.
There’s a reason for this. The glucose derived from carbohydrates is the body’s primary fuel. For instance, table sugar is broken down into fructose and glucose. Other carbohydrates, like grains and starchy vegetables, are broken into glucose, fiber, and other nutrients. If we don’t have enough fuel in our bloodstream, our bodies will shift gears to metabolize energy from our body fat. But, if there’s too much fuel—too much glucose—our bodies go into overload.
Sugar is highly damaging because it moves into our bloodstream so quickly and can easily overtax our body chemistry. Carbohydrates with more fiber (think lentils, sweet potatoes, avocados, raspberries, etc.) are digested more slowly because the body’s enzymes don’t break down fiber. So the higher the fiber in the carbohydrate, the better, because it will be broken down more slowly.
Fats and proteins, on the other hand, require “active transport” through the digestive system, and they can act like a block to faster-acting carbohydrates. Why is this important? Because it helps avoid a fast rise in blood sugar. Proteins and fats don’t break down fully until they reach the small intestines. This is the main reason I eat 3 or 4 bites of protein first when I have a meal or snack. It helps me keep my blood sugar and insulin levels in check.
Sugar, Inflammation, and Cholesterol (Oh My!)
Insulin… Its job in life is to open up the cell membranes to allow the body to move glucose—your fuel—from the blood stream into your cells to feed them. When your body secretes too much insulin in response to eating too much sugar and too many low-fiber carbohydrates, this natural hormone, that is supposed to help you, instead behaves like an inflammatory chemical.
To understand this inflammation, imagine pouring sugar into a hot glass of water, pouring and stirring, until it eventually turns into syrup. If you have a lot of glucose running through your bloodstream, and a lot of insulin as a result, your blood will become thicker—like syrup.
Now, imagine this “syrup” pushing both the glucose and insulin along the interior lining of your blood vessels. Because this blood has become thick (like syrup), it’s harder to push through the body and it creates microscopic injuries, or little fissures, in the lining of your blood vessels. The damage sets off an alarm so the body can respond and try to repair it.
And that’s what inflammation is: a response to some problem or damage in the body. The damage from inflammation triggers an immune response, which sends a horde of white blood cells to try to fix the problem.
The roller-coaster ride of sugar imbalance is at its peak when high levels of glucose and insulin start to cause damage to the arteries. The damage triggers the body to respond, but not with white blood cells; instead, it responds with cholesterolto begin the repair process. Unfortunately, the “repair” builds up gooey plaque on the walls of arteries, narrowing them.
High cholesterol is something we hear a lot about and worry about, but high glucose seems to be the major underlying cause of it, or so a growing number of experts believe. Hmmm…
More Things that Make You Go Hmmm…A Few Truths About Sugar Over-consumption
Sugar over-consumption…a term you’ll hear more of as you begin to take charge of your health. One definition of “sugar over-consumption” is this: eating sweetened or processed foods every day.
Here are some sugar facts that will wake you up to how serious and common over-consumption of sugar is:
- The Sugar Industry = The Tobacco Industry
The proven dangers of sugar were hidden from us until an exposé was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016 by Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He revealed in vivid detail how the sugar industry did just what the tobacco industry did, hiding extensive findings that proved, as early as the 1960s, the medical dangers of added sugar for heart disease and other conditions.
Watch the movie Fed Up and you’ll see the willful part the sugar industry plays in America’s sugar addiction.
2. The 150-pound Solid Chocolate Bunny.
Many scientists say that the surge in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, like type 2 diabetes, is related to all the sugar we are eating. Our pancreas can process 80 pounds of sugar a year before the sugar starts spilling over into our bloodstream.
On average, Americans now eat 150-170 pounds of sugar a year. That’s like of eating a 150-pound chocolate Easter bunny! To put this number in historical perspective, in the 1900s we ate 60 pounds a year, and in the 1800s we were only eating 18 pounds a year. Two hundred years ago, we ate 10 pounds annually, mostly because only the wealthy could afford it.
The high rates of sugar consumption began after World War II, when sugar rationing ended, and the making and marketing of sugary processed foods, soda, snacks, and sweets exploded in the 1960s.
3. More Than Your Scale, It’s Corroding Your Brain and Heart
Sugar is a potent oxidant, which means it has the potential to damage the circulatory, or cardiovascular, system—and researchers are now linking this damage to the development of Alzheimer’s and heart disease. For those who are modestly worried about sweets making them fat, concerns about corroding one’s brain or heart should be vastly more motivating.
4. High Blood Pressure – Yes, Really!!
Research is suggesting that sugar affects not only blood sugar levels, but also high blood pressure—maybe to an even greater extent than salt. The correlation between sugar and blood pressure may indicate that we have been worrying about the wrong ingredient. I thought my blood pressure was making it harder to push my blood through my body, but in reality, it was my blood sugar that was causing me to “inflate.” When my blood sugar issues went away, so did my blood pressure problems.
5. The Writing’s on the Wall—And the Label
You need to read labels and be alert to packaging trickery. Misleading labels make many foods seem more healthful than they are. For example, a snack food box will say it’s a “high-fiber treat”, but it doesn’t advertise how much sweetener it contains.
One piece of good news: Recent FDA food labeling guidelines finally require labels to reveal exactly how much sugar is artificially added—whether it’s called honey, agave, high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, rice syrup, or Flo-Malt.
6. Fake Sugar
Artificial sweeteners are dangerous, too. Research shows that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) and sucralose (Splenda) have been known to increase gut bacteria associated with type 2 diabetes and possibly cause weight gain, migraines, and gastrointestinal problems. And, the sweet taste keeps our bodies primed for craving more sugar.
7. All Sugars…Even Natural Sugars…Should Be Consumed Sparingly
Consuming too much sugar—even the naturally occurring kind found in fruit—can increase your insulin levels and lead to an inflammatory response that damages the lining of your blood vessels. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee urges people to cut back sharply on sugars to no more than 10% of daily calories, which is about 12 teaspoons. Just know that a 12-ounce can of Coke has about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Now, Wellness Warriors, you have to understand that I came out of the womb with a Jenny Craig membership card in my hand. I could never lose weight until my fasting blood glucose stabilized to under 90 mg/dL each morning, and I know I’m not alone. Until that stabilization happens, your body is going to think it is in starvation mode and won’t let go of the weight. But, once your body thinks things are stable, it can relax and release the extra weight because it doesn’t think it’s starving anymore.
Getting blood sugar balanced is not that hard. Once it’s achieved, other health steps can be added for a personalized plan. As part of your healthy habits, I always suggest people start with a “no added sugar” plan like I did—try it for even just 30 days, and I know you’ll feel better! Then follow my “10 Guidelines for Healthy Eating” … oh, that’s for our next time together.
Until then…Live Well, Live Long!
P.S. – Did anything I shared today surprise you? I’d love to know what! Please share below.