Sugar – Part 3: Hidden Sources of Sugar
Eliminating sugar, or at least significantly reducing it, could be one of the healthiest decisions you ever make. Sugar is now recognized as the primary cause of cardiovascular disease. It is a cancer cells favorite food. It may be one of the most significant causes of Alzheimer's Dementia. Diabetes and its many complications, such as heart disease, kidney disease, eye diseases, peripheral neuropathy and more, has only one cause – sugar. It used to be called “sugar diabetes.” Chronic inflammatory conditions, like arthritis, and other conditions ending in “itis” are all sugar related. One of the first things that people notice when they eliminate sugar is less pain.
Many people make an effort to reduce or eliminate added sugars. No honey in their tea or coffee, no maple syrup drizzled on their yogurt, or no organic fruit conserves or jam on their toast. That is a very good step in the right direction. But many people who think they have a low sugar diet or no sugar diet may still have unhealthy levels of sugar.
What is it about sugar that is problematic? It raises blood sugar levels which are pro-inflammatory and help promote all of the above conditions. A useful way of looking at a food and determining it's effect on the body is knowing its glycemic response. The glycemic index (GI) is a numerical system of measuring how much a rise in circulating blood sugar a carbohydrate triggers-the higher the number, the greater the blood sugar response. The GI is set using glucose to equal 100. The glycemic load (GL) is the glycemic index but with the serving amount of a particular food. So the GL is the more important number.
Most of those comfort foods we love like white potatoes, rice-brown or white, bread, even whole grain bread are equal to or sometimes have higher numbers than sugar. By understanding the glycemic index and load for particular foods, it can help us make more informed decisions about the foods we choose to eat.
Reading Nutrition Labels
First of all, any food that comes packaged with a nutrition label may be suspect. But the important thing to look at are the number of servings in a package. For example, a bag of corn chips may say 29 grams of carbohydrate per serving, but the little 6 ounce bag contains “2 servings,” but most people will eat the whole bag.
Next, look at the total number of carbohydrates per serving. Below that is listed the grams of fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate that will not become sugar, so subtract grams of fiber from grams of carbohydrate. The remaining grams of carbohydrate become sugar.
The label will also list grams of sugar. But this is deceiving because all of those non-fiber carbohydrates begin turning to sugar as soon as you begin chewing. People will say to me, “but my slice of rice bread is only one gram of sugar.” The real amount of sugar is the non-fiber carbohydrates.
We used to call whole grains “complex carbs” because we believed those carbohydrates turned to sugar more slowly. But organic brown rice, oatmeal and the slice of 100% whole wheat bread all rapidly become sugar. The glycemic index of whole wheat bread is the same as white bread, and both have a higher glycemic index than table sugar.
For hundreds of years, if not longer, humans have selected and bred fruits for sweetness. Today, one banana has 25 grams of sugar. One cup of orange juice is 25 grams of sugar. Dried fruits are even more concentrated sugar, and we tend to eat more dried fruit in a sitting than fresh fruit.
Many people eat lots of fruit, convinced that fruits are healthy food choices. That can add up to a lot of sugar, with very little of the nutrients that our cells, hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes require – which are protein and fat.
Other people will say, “I don't crave sugar, I like salty things.” This invariably means corn chips, potato chips, cheese doodles, popcorn and crackers, all those “salty” starches rapidly become sugar.
For infants and children up to the age of 21 protein should not be restricted. Same for women preparing for pregnancy, or who are pregnant or nursing. Protein deficiency is also common in elderly people. Heavy exercise physical labor or recovery from illness or injury can also justify increased protein. But for all other adults, protein beyond our daily needs can be converted to sugar, then body fat to store the excess.
How much is too much? Here the USDA guidelines for nutrients is pretty accurate – 45-50 grams of protein for an average 150 pound person. Protein intake is based on lean body mass, not total weight. This is about 8-10 ounces daily of preferably, high quality animal protein, such as grass-fed meats, wild caught fish, free range poultry or pork. This is about 3 ounces three times daily. About half of a usual restaurant serving of meat or fish. Three eggs, or two eggs and some meat for breakfast is about right.
Alcohol is a refined carbohydrate that can do all the damage that sugar does. Many diabetics never ate sugar. Daily excessive alcohol made them diabetic.
It is true that small to moderate amounts of alcohol can have some health benefits, especially red wine. But that 6-pack every night, the bottle of wine or those 3 mixed drinks, especially if made with sugar or fruit juice, add up to a lot of refined carbohydrates.
Milk has more sugar than protein, especially low fat milk. Plain yogurt has as much sugar as protein. Any flavored yogurt will have three times as much sugar as protein. Cheeses are much lower in sugar, and butter or cream have no sugar.
Many people quitting gluten will start using “gluten free” bakery goods, flours and pasta. These are usually made from potato starch and rice flour. Gluten Free is a code phrase for “high carb.” Any grains made into a flour is highly glycemic. Only coconut flour and almond flour are low glycemic.
Gluten free products may be a bridge for someone quitting gluten, but all of these are better replaced with vegetables which have a much higher nutrient profile.
A stress event, or chronic stress has the same effect as a carbohydrate meal. Stress raises blood sugar. How? The stress hormone cortisol tells the liver to release glycogen, a form of stored sugar. Cortisol also breaks down lean body mass, your muscles, tendons, ligaments, even your organs (except the liver) can be broken down to turn into sugar.
When we skip a meal, perhaps to reduce calorie intake to lose weight, the good news is that we really didn't deprive ourselves of calories. The bad news is that we cannibalized our bicep, our femur, or the lining to our blood vessels to produce sugar to keep the brain fueled.
For humans, sugar is an emergency fuel source. All of our cells, except one, run very efficiently on ketones, energy units made from fat. Only red blood cells feed only on glucose. But we don't need to eat sugar to fuel our red blood cells as we easily convert protein and fat to keep a stable one teaspoon of sugar in our total blood supply.
Some people can eat a very low carbohydrate diet and still have elevated blood sugars. These people may have a highly sensitized stress response, or hyper-vigilance, causing the liver to dump glycogen into the bloodstream.
Others may be highly active and involved, seldom resting, or have over-active imaginations, entertaining exciting or fearful events, activating cortisol induced liver dumping.
Seventy to ninety percent of the DNA in our body is not our own. It is from microbes that inhabit our bodies, inside and outside. One of the consequences of antibiotics and a high grain/sugar diet is candida overgrowth. Many women have experienced a yeast infection after a course of antibiotics. One course of antibiotics can kill half of the trillions of beneficial bacteria found in our guts, sinuses and urinary tract. These beneficials normally keep yeast and other unfriendly microbes under control. Some recent research are even looking at the human microbiome believe these organisms can effect our behavior and even our thoughts. The incredibly powerful cravings that some people with yeast overgrowth have, make me think that these organisms can whisper in our ears, “feed me carbs, feed me sugar.”
Black coffee, with no sweetener will raise blood sugar. Same for any caffeinated beverage, tea, diet soda, or energy drinks with caffeine. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant which will stimulate the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, which in turn, stimulates the liver to release stored sugar, called glycogen, into the bloodstream. These stress hormones also raise blood sugar by breaking down body proteins and converting them into sugar.
Of course there are long term effects of robbing body proteins by stress hormones. There is normally a lot of turnover in collagen in the body, breaking down, building up, but when the breaking down effects overwhelm the building up process, we lose collagen, and to some extent elastin. Both are important connective tissues found in arteries, organs and joints.
Sustained aerobic exercise sometimes called “cardio,” for its perceived vascular benefits, can increase the cortisol response. The blood sugar release, inducing insulin response, followed by reactive hypoglycemia, all lead to insulin resistance.
In addition, heavy exercisers may feel that at the end of the day they've “earned” those 4 beers and a bag of Doritos or that bowl of ice cream. For some, excess exercise is justification, or penance, for those extra carbs.
Understanding all of this helps us realize how much sugar we are actually consuming. We have to think of a potato as a lump of sugar; bread, as a slice of sugar; potato and corn ships as “sugar chips.”
Remember also, the potent effects of stress on raising blood sugar. This is from not only “stressful events” but also long term, chronic stress. Many of us are able to accommodate to chronic stress and may no longer think of our life as particularly stressful, we're “used to it.”
But the stress of managing relationships, raising children, caring for aging parents, and working a job means long hours, little rest, not enough recreation, not enough sleep, often fueled by coffee, stimulants, sugar and fast food, or eating while working, driving or “multi-tasking.”