Why is Sugar Bad For You?
5 reasons why sugar isn’t doing us any favors…
When I was a little kid, I remember having Pop-Tarts and orange juice for breakfast before school. According to the commercials, those were part of a “well-balanced breakfast”. Unfortunately, I was just eating a glorified candy bar and hummingbird nectar (aka sugar water). Except for the camouflaged nutrition facts amongst the cereal box games, nothing addressed the dangerous issue—sugar is bad for you.
When my sister was born, and my mother’s gestational diabetes took a turn toward type 2 diabetes, things changed. The lifestyle shift was slow, though. Diabetes can affect you silently, so sometimes there’s not enough urgency. Continuing to eat poorly is easy because diabetes manifests in other problems way down the road, so detaching from reality is a natural response.
High blood sugar (the iconic symptom of type 2 diabetes) creates a domino effect in your body’s function. High levels of sugar in your system leads to a higher triglyceride count (high-fat levels in the blood). This translates into heart disease. Other long-term effects include vision problems, circulation problems, and liver disease.
So what did my family do to adjust to this new diagnosis, this new and unwelcome member of the family? Over time, we tried to cleanse our home from the abundance of processed sugar. We also started grinding our own wheat and only eating whole grains (later, I’ll discuss why whole grains are essential in managing type 2 diabetes).
Let’s confront this decadent enemy and learn exactly why sugar is so bad for you.
Sugar can wreck your pancreas
I figured this was a great place to begin, but it’s also important to debunk some myths about type 2 diabetes—excessive amounts of sugar doesn’t necessarily cause diabetes. There are other contributing factors. One overlooked factor is predisposition. If there is a history of diabetes in your family, this could increase your chances of being diagnosed.
Another thing that makes you more susceptible to type 2 diabetes is being overweight. Since sugar consumption and obesity go hand-in-hand, it’s easy to see the correlation. When sugar enters the bloodstream, the body has 2 options: burn it or store it. But how is this decision made?
Insulin is like the air traffic controller of the human body. This hormone signals the body and tells it what to do with sugar in our bloodstream. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body builds a resistance to insulin and blood sugar levels stay too high. Thus, your pancreas (where insulin is produced) kicks into overdrive, ultimately destroying its function.
Sugar is bad for your teeth (and your overall health)
I can hear my grandmother now. “Candy will rot your teeth,” she’d say when I was growing up. It seems cliche to even mention this, but this old adage still rings true. The mouth is full of helpful bacteria, but once there is a large sugar presence, the two combine to create a pretty gnarly acid. This acid will eventually eat away at your enamel.
Oral health is linked to your entire body and is an accurate indicator of your overall health. Rotting teeth don’t just wreak havoc in your mouth; they affect your gums as well. Gum disease has not only been linked to heart disease, but it has also been discovered to adversely affect type 2 diabetes (we’re really coming full circle, here.)
Sugar saps your energy
If there’s such thing as a “sugar high” then how can this be true? Well, when you eat sugar, the increased insulin levels and blood sugar do give you a spike in energy, but it’s followed by a crash. Why, you ask?
The culprit has to do with something called the glycemic index. This scale measures the glucose-raising potential of certain foods you eat and categorizes them in low, medium, or high categories. Remember earlier when I mentioned that my family began to grind wheat and eat more whole grains? This decision was all about the glycemic index, and here’s why.
High glycemic index foods like sugary cereals, candy, and white flour have a low or nonexistent fiber content. Fiber is the magic behind the index. It causes a more gradual rise in blood sugar instead of that quick absorption. That’s why whole grains are so important. If grains are stripped of their fibrous shell and made into white bread, our body ingests it the same way as it would sugar.
The key to sustaining energy is to eat low glycemic index foods like non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits, seeds, and legumes. Check out this article for a more exhaustive list of low GI foods.
Before moving on, it’s necessary to discuss the importance of the glycemic load as well. A good way to remember the difference is to think about the index as quality and the load as quantity. For example, a carrot has a glycemic index count that’s similar to a candy bar. Why would you ever pick a carrot over a candy bar?! Answer: glycemic load.
The glycemic load charts the amount of carbohydrates in the food. The carrot has a GL of 1 and the candy bar has a GL of 23. There’s the differentiation. The low load of carbohydrates still makes the carrot a much better choice—sorry guys!
Sugar is the main culprit in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
The liver is a pretty vital organ. It’s responsible for filtering toxins out of our bloodstream. So it goes without saying that taking care of your liver is essential to living a long, healthy life.
What happens when you consume too much sugar and low glycemic index carbohydrates? This signals the liver to produce fat, and it’s stored in the organ. This is a slippery slope toward liver disease (the non-alcoholic kind) and other chronic, inflammation-induced illnesses. And you guessed it— type 2 diabetes.
This increased inflammation can cause your body to become insulin resistant and put you at risk of pre-diabetes or even full-blown type 2 diabetes, further proving that diabetes silently affects your whole system.
Can anything reverse fatty liver disease? Oddly enough, consuming healthy fats coupled with complex (high GI) carbs can begin to reverse the inflammation. The body may be complex, but it’s forgiving. Even the smallest adjustments to your diet can do your body a world of good.
Sugar is calorie dense with no nutritional value
Another reason why sugar is so bad is that it has no real nutritional value beyond quick energy. Sugar offers our body what I like to call “empty calories”. If not burned immediately, they are stored as fat. “Empty” not only refers to their nutritional value, but it also describes how sugar leaves you feeling.
Without the added nutrients or fiber found in fruits in vegetables, we are left feeling satiated. Things like soda and food with added sugars just spike our energy and leave us still feeling hungry. What’s the solution? We must eat nutrient dense food to properly fuel our bodies.
Sustaining our energy is important, and this can only happen if we understand the good calorie versus the bad calorie rule. Remember the carrot and candy bar I mentioned earlier? Though they may have similar calorie or sugar counts, the density of nutrients is vastly different. Real food sticks with you longer and helps curb pesky cravings later on.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are fruit sugars okay?
A: You may be skeptical when you look at nutrition facts for an apple. 19 grams of sugar? Well, it’s important to understand the difference between natural sugar and added sugar. Added sugars are incorporated while processing a food to aid in taste and increase shelf life.
Natural sugars occur in real foods like fruit. The reason natural sugar is better for you is because it’s usually accompanied by fiber. Remember, fiber is the nutrient that slows our body’s absorption of sugar, making it less harsh on our pancreas and liver.
Takeaway: when eating an apple, don’t remove the peel—that’s the fiber!
Q: What is high-fructose corn syrup?
A: This is a buzz word in the nutrition world today. We often hear it associated with breakfast cereals (except for Cheerios—no HFCS is their claim to fame). But what’s so different and dangerous about fructose? What’s will all the “-oses”? Sucrose, glucose, fructose, etc.
Let’s back up to table sugar. This is called sucrose, and it’s derived from sugar cane and sugar beets. When the body ingests this, it’s broken down into units of glucose and fructose. Most times, these units are bound together, and glucose is the more predominant sugar absorbed by our body.
So what is high-fructose corn syrup? HFCS is a human invention in which glucose and fructose are chemically pulled apart. On its own, fructose is extremely harmful to our liver and can cause (you guessed it) non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Q: Are artificial sweeteners?
A: Artificial sweeteners have been concocted since the late 1800s in an attempt to replace the real thing—but it’s been under much scrutiny. Laughably, many chemists discovered their creations by accidentally licking their fingers during experiments! Risky.
There are 5 types of sweeteners that’ve been approved by the FDA, but proceed with caution. It all depends on what you believe the FDA’s special interests are, and if we trust the amounts of sweeteners used in test studies. For now, I’m proceeding with blind faith but still limiting the number of diet sodas I drink.
The dawn of artificial sweeteners was thought to be the saving grace for diabetics and those needing to lose weight, but a lot of studies show that they’re causing weight gain. How could this be? Research is inconclusive as to whether or not artificial sweetening chemicals are the culprit. Some believe it’s a false sense of security leading you to believe eating a whole pizza is okay if you’ve got that diet soda.
When my family made the decision to confront the diabetes disease that lurked in our family, life changed. Our eating habits changed, sure, but our level of knowledge increased dramatically. Education is key.
Take charge of your diet, begin reading food labels, and get acquainted with things you are putting in your body. Once you understand how certain foods and chemicals affect your system, it makes it easier to treat your body as a sanctuary. We were given a beautifully complex machine, and it’s essential that we fuel it properly.
What is your relationship with sugar? Do you have any questions for us? Let us know in the comment section below.
For more information and education about sugar and why it’s bad for you, check out these articles!