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How Sugar Interacts With Your Body and What It Means for Your Health
Saturated fat has been the villain of the food pyramid for a long time, but sugar may be more deserving of that label. More and more doctors, specialists and nutritionists are agreeing that the major influx in metabolic syndromes, obesity and chronic disease can be traced back to the alarming effect of refined sugar in the North American diet.
It’s not only the calories in sugar that cause problems, but also the way sugar is broken down, distributed and processed through every system in your body. As it turns out, a momentary delight for your taste buds could easily turn into an unhealthy habit, and that could leave you with an array of serious problems that are difficult to reverse. Luckily, the sooner you learn how sugar is interfering with your body, the sooner you can make the changes that could save your life.
Understanding How Sugar Behaves in the Body
Sugar is pure energy. Once you consume it, your body easily breaks it down into glucose and fructose, basic compounds used to feed your cells. Unfortunately, that’s all it is — no minerals, vitamins, fats or proteins to sustain balanced, healthy cellular activity.
Since it contains nothing of nutritional substance, calories from sugar are known as “empty calories.” That may sound relatively harmless, but that “empty” serving of energy can spark a problematic chain of events.
Glucose is an important compound — it is what cells feed on, and your body absolutely needs it to survive. However, your body is also really good at making its own glucose from the foods you eat, so taking in too much extra glucose is simply unnecessary. As excess glucose builds up in your bloodstream, your hormones can begin to malfunction.
Unlike glucose, fructose is not made by the body, but that’s because the body doesn’t have any use for it. Although it’s not absent in nature (fruit is the most obvious source of fructose), it’s not necessary for cell function. When you take in fructose, the liver stores it as glycogen until you need an extra energy source.
Sugar is alright in small amounts from natural sources. It can feed cells with life-sustaining glucose, and quickly top up depleted energy stores after exercise. The relatively small amount of fructose that you take in through fruit is easily managed by your liver.
However, foods high in added sugar bring a huge amount of glucose and fructose into your body for processing; not surprisingly, the body will eventually fall behind, and that’s when hormones, enzymes and organ systems begin to malfunction.
Long-Term Effects of Sugar on the Organs
Too much sugar in one sitting will have quick, noticeable effects: first the rush of energy, then the achy fatigue that follows on its heels. Too much sugar over a long period of time will have deeper, chronic results that might not be so noticeable at first.
As your organs fight to keep up with the onslaught of glucose and fructose, some predictable — and problematic — patterns will emerge in the major organs and muscles of your body.
When you overload your body with fructose, your liver begins to store it as fat. Some of that fat is released as cholesterol, but some of it lodges in the liver tissue, which can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
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Since your liver is responsible for filtering out impurities, toxins can begin to build up in your body once the liver accumulates fat and loses its efficiency. So, how much fructose will push the liver over its healthy threshold? Studies have shown that people with fatty liver disease consume about three times more fructose than the average person.
The pancreas produces the hormone insulin to deal with the glucose in your blood, but taking in too much sugar can tax this insulin-producing process. In turn, your cells become resistant to insulin, and your pancreas can no longer keep up with the glucose demands, leaving you with toxic levels of blood glucose — also known as diabetes.
Diabetes is one of the fastest growing health problems in North America, and high-sugar diets are likely feeding the epidemic. However, experts are divided on whether sugar itself is the problem, or rather the fact that sugar leads to obesity, and obesity encourages the insulin resistance that leads to diabetes.
Not only does sugar increase you triglycerides (bad cholesterol), it’s also been shown to decrease your HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels. HDL protects the heart and promotes good circulation.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that eating lots of sugar could potentially triple your chances of developing low HDL levels, and in turn drastically raise your chances of developing heart disease.
Sugar can interfere with several hormones in the brain, resulting in mixed signals, obesity and addiction. Fructose doesn’t suppress the hormone ghrelin, known as “the hunger hormone,” like glucose does. When ghrelin continues to act on your body, leptin (the “satiety hormone”) isn’t activated. The result? Your brain doesn’t register the fact that you’re full, and you continue to consume more calories. Before long, you’ll start to gain weight.
Sugar also floods the brain with dopamine, a feel-good chemical that’s associated with addiction. You may not put sugar in the same category as cocaine, but the truth is, the addictive impulse is very comparable.
Research also shows that sugar feeds cancer cells, and while cancer cells occur naturally in everybody, problems result when they begin to grow and multiply. The problem stems from sugar’s effect on the metabolism: sugar keeps insulin elevated, which promotes inflammation, and chronic inflammation can potentially lead to cancer.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much Sugar?
There are all sorts of natural foods that contain sugar, and most experts agree they are not the problem. It’s not the fructose in fruit or the lactose in milk feeding the obesity epidemic and setting the stage for chronic disease; it’s the added sugars in everything from sweetened drinks to processed meals that’s causing the problem.
Metabolic experts say your body can metabolize six teaspoons of added sugar each day, but the average American takes in far more than that. Considering a can of soda contains about eight teaspoons of sugar, many people are easily quadrupling their recommended sugar consumption without even realizing it.
The first step is to find out how much sugar you’re eating. Keep a food diary to track everything you eat, and be honest — you’ll never improve your health if you make excuses for bad habits. Once you see where you need to make changes, it might be easier to start by switching out sodas for watered-down juice, and candy for fruit-based desserts.
Your ultimate goal should be to eliminate refined sugar completely, and when your sweet tooth acts up, enjoy some fresh fruit instead. If that seems all but impossible now, rest assured that once your taste buds adjust to a low-sugar menu, you’ll find a lot more flavor and fulfillment in wholesome foods.