Do you think of sugar as only empty calories? Sugar is an indelible part of our diets and our cravings for it are very real. But what we don’t realise is just HOW MUCH of it has crept into our food supply. In the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup started being adopted as a replacement to starch in processed foods. Now it is so ubiquitous in our diets that the average consumption of fructose has increased since the 1970s from 0.5lbs a year to 43.5lbs a year in 2010. (Ref1)
Fructose naturally occurs in fruits and is also found in regular sugar. A sugar molecule is made up of one glucose and one fructose. The glucose is quite happily accepted by the body and is transported to cells for their energy requirements, etc but the fructose can only be processed by the liver which is where it kicks off all its nasty.
What is the deal with Fructose?
Fructose is what gives the fruits their sweetness. How can something that nature has given us be so bad? Right? The researchers have discovered that fructose in the body has the same digestion process as alcohol. They can both only be processed by the liver and both of them increase triglycerides and VLDLs (Very Low Density Lipids; the plaque forming fat which can lead to cardiovascular diseases).
The main difference between them is that the alcohol affects the brain but fructose does not. This might seem like a good thing but what really happens with fructose is that the brain doesn’t get a signal that the body has had too much of it (fructose has little to no effect on the hunger hormone- ghrelin; Ref2). Meanwhile, the liver can get severely overloaded processing the extra fructose as a result of which its other functions suffer.
So even if you don’t drink a lot of alcohol, by consuming fructose from packaged foods, you might still suffer the ill-effects of a semi-functional liver – fatigue, inflammation, abnormal metabolism of fats which can lead to weight gain, inability to lose weight, sluggish metabolism, hormonal imbalances, etc.
When you consume fructose in the form of fruits, the fibre in the fruit communicates to the brain that your digestive systems are busy and to stop eating. Also the amount of fructose in an orange will not be much of a bother for your liver to process. But squeeze the juice from 4 oranges which will make about half a glass and you could easily gulp it down without feeling full. The amount of fructose that your liver now has to deal with however has increased four times!
Take any bottle of packaged drink and you know how you can easily drink can after can of these without feeling ‘full’. It is very easy for our systems to get overloaded on fructose with these drinks.
Also if your energy requirement is low, the fructose gets broken down by the liver into fatty deposits that it stores in and around itself, especially around the belly (aka visceral fat).
Fructose is a part of any kind of sugar, not just the sweet-tasting kind but also all the ones hidden in savoury processed foods like pasta sauces, ketchups, cereals, etc. Even low fat ‘anything’ is loaded with sugar.
The Many Names of Sugar
(Check the packaged foods in your house and try to spot one of these!)
Aspartame, Brown Sugar, Corn sugar, Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup Solids, Crystalline Fructose, Demerara, Dextrose, Dextrose Anhydrase, Dextrose monohydrate, d-glucose, Fructo-Oligosacchrides, Golden Syrup, Grape Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Icing Sugar, Invert Sugar Syrup, Juice Concentrate, Liquid Glucose, Maltitol, Maltodextrin, Maltose Syrup, Mannitol, Maple Syrup, Rice sugar, Saccharin, Sorbitol, Stevia, Sucralose, Sucrose, Sugar, Wheat sugar, Xylitol and many more
Fructose must take years to show its effect on the body?
Various studies confirm triglyceride and VLDL increase in healthy adults in only a short period of time (Ref3). In a study, medical students were made to have a sugary sports drink everyday along with their regular diet. Their insulin resistance and triglycerides doubled in 6 days. VLDL and the uric acid in their body also increased, as expected. All this will weaken cardiovascular health, digestive health and also cause increased blood pressure.
In short, an overdose of sugar especially the ‘fructose’ creates havoc in your body in only a short amount of time. The good thing in all this is that your body can get back to its normal, healthy state also quickly if you reduce your its intake.
Other problems related to high consumption of sugar
Chronically high levels of sugar can overwhelm the pancreas in its ability to produce insulin. Overtime it can cause insulin resistance and is the leading driver of obesity, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, cardiovascular diseases and especially type 2 diabetes.
This is something we all know, excess sugar leads to diabetes, but somewhere we think of ourselves as immune and continue with its high consumption. Consider this – In 2014, India had over 51 million people suffering from diabetes and this is set to increase to 80 million in 2025, making India the diabetes capital of the world (Ref: Diabetes Foundation of India).
Is sugar really addictive?
Our bodies have evolved to love and crave sugar. This was ok when its sources were limited to naturally occurring fruits. Slowly we started stripping it from its naturally occurring state and flooded our supply chain with it, our palates became addicted and we kept demanding more.
A lab experiment with rats showed that they displayed signs of sugar dependence over a course of 10 days. This suggests that it does not take long before the starve-binge behaviour catches up with the animal, making them dependent. Abstinence triggered withdrawal symptoms similar to drug addiction such as anxiety, chattering teeth and tremors. (Ref4)
Did you know that sugar and cocaine light up the same centres in the brain! (Ref5) Essentially sugar is addictive and our bodies build resistance to it slowly. Over time you need more and more to satisfy your cravings.
But does that mean that I have to cut it out completely from my diet, forever?
As with all foods, I don’t recommend cutting out anything 100% from your diet (unless you are allergic to it!). Having a restrictive diet leads to cravings and episodes of bingeing and starvation. Instead in the long run it is important to keep your body in good humour.
Eating sugar produces dopamine and reduces stress levels to an extent. No food is bad food and everything in moderation provides some benefit to the body. Unfortunately with sugar that level of moderation is quickly exceeded.
The WHO recommended sugar intake is 12 tsp (or 50g) per day whereas 6 tsp they suggest would provide ‘additional health benefits’. Eating processed food, you can easily find yourself consuming more than this in just one meal. A breakfast of 2 white breads with chocolate spread and a glass of supermarket bought orange juice will give you 13 tsp (or 55g) of sugar! Thats your daily limit finished during breakfast!
So read the labels when buying processed foods, add minimum to zero direct sugar in your tea or coffee, and detox (i.e. completely give it up) every few months.
Take the 5-Day NO sugar challenge to reset your sugar levels (next challenge starts Nov 30, 2015).
Ref1: Morse A, LeFebure. History of High Fructose Corn Syrup. 2012. http://cosmos.ucdavis.edu/archives/2012/cluster7/Morse_Ali.pdf Last accessed Nov 5, 2015.
Ref2: Page KA, Chan O, et al. Effects of fructose vs glucose on regional cerebral blood flow in brain regions involved with appetite and reward pathways. JAMA. 2013 Jan 2; 309(1):63-70
Ref3: Le KA, Ith M, et al. Fructose overconsumption causes dyslipidemia and ectopic lipid deposition in healthy subjects with and without a family history of type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009 Jun;89(6):1760-5
Ref4: Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence of sugar addiction: Behvioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurotic Biobehav Rev 2008; 32(1):20-39
Ref5: Colantuoni C, Schwenker J, et al. Excessive sugar intake alters binding to dopamine and mu-opioid receptors in the brain. NeuroReport. 2001 Nov 16;12(16): 3549-52