SHOULD I QUIT SUGAR?
When we refer to “sugar”, we are really talking about fructose.
Fructose is a problem because we don’t have an “off” switch for it. We can’t stop eating it. Excess fructose is not used by the body as energy, but is stored as fat.
Plus, fructose makes us sick.
Okay. Let’s be clear: When we talk about quitting sugar, we’re talking about quitting fructose. How does this fit in? Well, “sugar”, or sucrose, is roughly half fructose, half glucose. It’s the fructose component of sugar that’s the enemy; the glucose bit is fine and, in fact, forms the building blocks of most food we eat.
So if fructose is the issue, it’s worth knowing a little more about why this is the case. Let’s break down the key problems:
Problems with Sugar…
Problem #1: We can’t stop eating fructose
Our bodies are biologically wired to be able to keep eating fructose. Every molecule of food that we put in our mouths has a corresponding hormone that tells our appetite control system that we’re eating something. Our body’s satiety systems are quite complex but to put it simply, when we’ve had enough, these hormones alert us: “We’re full now, stop eating.” They’re our internal “off switch.” Our bodies are clever that way; we’re designed to eat only as much as we need. Every food molecule works this way, except fructose. Ever noticed how you can drink a 750ml container of juice or – gasp! – Coke? Try drinking that much yoghurt in one go – you couldn’t. That’s because the fat, protein and lactose in yoghurt all have corresponding appetite hormones that tell you when you’ve eaten enough. Fructose? Not at all. Therefore, our appetite for fructose is never satisfied. More about why this is later on.
Problem #2: Fructose converts directly to fat
Yep, now there’s a visual for you. It’s to do with how our bodies process fructose once we eat it. Every morsel we eat is metabolised by our cells and used as energy. Every morsel, except – yes, you guessed – fructose. Fructose is processed differently and most of the burden for metabolising rests on your liver. This is not the case with glucose, for instance. Nearly every cell in your body utilises glucose, so it’s normally used up immediately after consumption. But as fructose is metabolised in our liver, this means it’s converted directly to fat. When we drink fructose (in soft drinks and juices), this process is even more direct and much faster as there is no fibre to help slow down the absorption process. What’s more? It’s not just this metabolism process that’s cause for concern, it’s the type of fat that fructose is converted to. Our bodies store fructose as visceral fat – this is that stubborn fat that sits around your organs and is the most dangerous and hardest to shed. The effect is brutal and brazen. This is why the links between obesity and soft drinks are such a hot topic. Worse, recent studies show that eating fructose could be making us eat more.
Problem #3: Fructose makes us sick
The fact that fructose makes us fat and mucks so badly with our metabolisms sets off a domino effect of other health issues.
Here’s just a snapshot of studies that have explored links between sugar, ill health and disease:
Fructose has been linked to high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease, as it is converted into triglycerides (fat) in the liver.
Sustained fructose consumption and sustained cortisol leads to persistent immune issues. Fructose inhibits our immune system, making it harder to fight off viruses and infections. How? Fructose spikes our cortisol levels, the flight-or-fight stress hormone. When this happens our immune system is shut down in readiness.
Fructose interferes with mineral absorption. It upsets the mineral balance in our bodies, causing deficiencies.
It messes with fertility, causing hormone imbalances and inflammation in women and lower quality sperm in men.
Fructose causes skin aging. It depletes collagen and elastin in a process known as glycation.
Fructose can cause a rapid rise of adrenaline, leading to hyperactivity, anxiety and loss of concentration.
It’s been connected with the development of cancer of the breast, ovaries, prostate, rectum, pancreas, lung, gallbladder and stomach.
Fructose causes an acidic digestive tract, indigestion and malabsorption.
It leads to hypertension and kidney disease from the elevated uric acid it causes.
Then there’s the insulin-related issues. Studies are proving fructose to be the biggest cause of insulin resistance, which leads to fatty liver, which then causes metabolic syndrome. This is now seen as the biggest precursor to heart disease and diabetes. When our blood sugar levels are spiked over and over from sugar consumption, we wind up unable to produce enough insulin to remove the sugar from our bloodstreams, leading to insulin-resistance and type 2 diabetes. This phenomenon has also been directly associated with the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s .
Why not just eat sugar in moderation?
A very fine question. We’re all for balance and moderation. But when it comes to sugar, it’s biologically impossible. We can’t help but binge on it. We’re programmed this way. We are programmed to seek it out, obsessively so. Which leads us to our next point…
Why did we evolve this way?
An even finer question! Well, 10,000 years ago, fructose was rare – we might have munched a few berries here and there. So it made sense that we would evolve to a) obsessively hunt it down and b) be able to binge on it (with no off switch). Why? Because it’s such a fabulous source of instant fat. Yes! Perfect for back then when we needed fat reserves. Not so much now. Sugar is no longer rare (we’re virtually force-fed it) nor do we need to save fat reserves for famine or outrunning wildebeest!
One final reflection: Even as recently as 100 years ago we ate a little over a kilo of sugar per person each year. Now we eat about 46kg a year. Our biology hasn’t changed in 10,000 years, let alone 100 years, but our diets sure have.
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