Unmasking Sugar (The Good, The Bad and The Hidden)

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The end of October ushers in shorter days and chilly evenings.  The kids are knee-deep in school activities.  As our work and social obligations multiply, our stress levels climb…and, boo!!  We’re primed for a taste of sugar.

Happy Halloween!

To crave sweet-tasting foods is human. Primitive man was drawn to the naturally occurring sweetness in fruit and vegetables.  Sugar was part of a whole food, like berries; or, in a natural, unprocessed state, like unheated raw honey—sweet foods that contained vitamins, minerals, enzymes and proteins. And sweet food—berries or root vegetables—were only  available in season.

The sensation of sweetness makes us feel lighter, happier and energized in the moment.

But…are you at the mercy of your sugar cravings?

No judgment.  I’ve been there!  Domino’s pizza at 1am.  A bag of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos, polished off in one sitting. My daily muffin.  Super-sized chocolate chip cookies during deadlines.  Up until a couple of years ago…I headed out for a chocolate buttercream-frosted cupcake at 3pm, like clockwork.

After making some lifestyle changes and switching to a diet that follows a Paleo template, I’m happy to report what seemed impossible a year ago: my craving for sugar has diminished considerably.

And I understand: it seems almost impossible not to crave sugar when it’s everywhere and in everything.

Overconsumption of refined carbohydrates and processed sugars sets your body up for chronic disease. Consider this: in 1689, the first sugar refinery was built in New York City.  In 1700, the average colonist ate four pounds of sugar a year. Sugar consumption increased exponentially over three centuries.  By 2009, over 50% of Americans ate one-half pound of sugar per day—or 180 pounds a year— contributing to an epidemic of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Which begs the question: is sugar toxic?

Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist with a special interest in childhood obesity, thinks so.  He characterizes sugar, especially fructose, as a toxic substance that should be regulated by the government, like nicotine and alcohol.  In 2009, his lecture Sugar, The Bitter Truth went viral after being posted on YouTube in 2009.  His second book, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, was published this year.

In a recent editorial published in the British Medical Journal, well-known cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra caused quite a stir by stating that saturated fat is not the major issue in heart disease: “Recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk; instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective.”  Malhotra also pointed out that avoiding sugar is key in the prevention of metabolic syndrome, which he described as, ““The cluster of hypertension, dysglycemia, raised triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and increased waist circumference”.

Here’s the rub: We need sugar (glucose), our body’s basic source of energy, for survival.

Blood Sugar 101:  “Good Carbs” vs. “Bad Carbs”

Ultimately, your blood sugar should not be too high or too low. What we eat has a huge impact on our blood sugar:

Simple carbohydrates, often referred to as “bad carbs”, are found in refined and processed foods: white sugar, corn syrup, milk sugars, sodas, apple juice and white flour products, like baked goods.  Digested quickly, simple carbohydrates provide an instant source of energy for the body. They do not, however, contain nutrients or fiber.

Complex carbohydrates, or, “good carbs”, resist being broken down into sugar immediately. They are digested more slowly, and provide a slower and more sustained release of energy than simple carbohydrates. Whole unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and starchy foods, like root vegetables (onions, carrots, turnips, celery root, to name a few); some whole grains (quinoa and brown rice); peas, beans and legumes are complex carbohydrates that are digested more slowly, while supplying your body with nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, some fat, or protein) and fiber.

Refined carbohydrates or refined starches, a.k.a. “bad carbs”, are processed foods that have been denatured, stripped of nutrients, and structurally altered.  Think crackers, cookies, processed breads, processed cereals and pasta.

Because they are digested so quickly (no fiber), refined starches cause a spike in blood sugar, or a “sugar rush”.

When you consume any carbohydrate food—whether they are simple carbohydrates (diet soda), complex carbohydrates (lentils) or refined carbohydrates (Entenmann’s coffee cake)—they are broken down into simple sugars (glucose).

How quickly your body digests carbohydrates (the slower the better) affects your blood sugar level.
Once glucose enters the bloodstream, your blood sugar rises, prompting the pancreas to release insulin into the blood stream, thereby protecting your cells from the damaging effects of excess blood sugar.  Insulin is the “key” that fits into the “keyholes”, or the receptor sites attached to the surfaces of your liver, muscle and fat cells.  Insulin “opens the doors”, if you will, and sends any extra blood sugar to the liver and muscles for storage as glycogen.

Insulin also sends excess glucose into fat cells to be converted to and stored as fat.

Bottom line: The difference between eating a chocolate chip cookie and an apple?  The apple contains fiber, which helps slow digestion, limiting the amount of sugar that flows into your cells.  Refined starches and refined sugars, like cookies, can lead to weight gain because our cells can’t handle large amounts of glucose at one time.  And what doesn’t get used…is stored as fat.

Where sugar hides

Cheers!! In moderation…

Our sugar intake isn’t always as obvious as the usual suspects: pastries, candy, cookies and cake.

Sugar masquerades as “healthy”—in your Kashi “7 Whole Grain” cereal, in packets of Quaker’s instant hot oatmeal, in those “whole wheat” bagels from your favorite old-school New York deli; in those apple muffins you bought at the farmers’ market, and in the multi-grain toast that you’re having with your eggs. And alcohol, too; yep, most alcoholic beverages are high in sugar.

Added (hidden) sugars are found in most packaged foods, including the following:

♦   Fruit juices
♦   Fruit drinks
♦   Sodas, including diet sodas
♦   Iced teas
♦   Breads, including “whole grain” breads
♦   Hamburger, hotdog buns, rolls
♦   Crackers
♦   Breakfast bars / protein bars
♦   Dry cereals
♦   Canned soups
♦   Bouillon cubes
♦   Tomato sauce
♦   Condiments (like ketchup, barbecue sauces)
♦   Peanut butter
♦   Salad dressings (bottled)
♦   Yogurt
♦   Milk and skim milk (12-14 grams per 1 cup serving)
♦   Soy milk
♦   Any food labeled “low fat”

What is your relationship to sugar?  Have you had to kick a sugar addiction?

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

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