By Dr Vanessa Ingraham, Naturopathic Physician.
As a Naturopathic Doctor, people often ask me, if there was ONE thing I could recommend to improve their overall health, what would it be. While I love Vitamin D, fish oils, and green drinks, if I had to suggest only ONE thing people could do to become healthier, it would, without a doubt be to eliminate white sugar from the diet.
The average North American consumes over 10lbs of sugar a month, 4.5 cups a week, and 30-33 teaspoons of sugar a day! Refined sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) is 99.4-99.7% pure calories, with absolutely no nutritional value. Therefore 20% of the daily caloric intake of every North American is spent on refined food with absolutely no benefit to the human body. Not only is sugar devoid of any nutritional value, but it is also a dangerous substance that upsets the body’s basic biochemistry and contributes to numerous diseases.
Have you ever wondered why kids who eat a lot of candy have constant runny noses? This is because sugar suppresses the body’s immune system. It predisposes us to infection (bacteria also have a sweet tooth) and weakens our defenses once we get sick. Sugar also depletes the body of essential vitamins and minerals needed for health. Every enzyme in the human body is dependent on minerals. Without proper enzyme function, every biochemical reaction in the body slows down or stops- leading to a host of clinical symptoms depending on which enzymes are involved. The body needs Chromium, manganese, cobalt, copper, zinc, and magnesium to digest sugar, and uses up its stores of these minerals in order to process it. Studies show that the more sugar we consume, the more chromium, the body excretes in the urine. Many Diabetics are chromium deficient, and without chromium, the body becomes insulin resistant.
We all know that to have strong and healthy bones we need adequate amounts of calcium and magnesium. Sugar decreases the body’s absorption and increases the elimination of calcium and magnesium from the body. While that piece of cake may be good for the soul, it sure isn’t good for the bones! Excess sugar can also cause hyperactivity, anxiety, concentration difficulties, and crankiness in kids. The huge increase in ADD/ADHD diagnosis may be in part due to the massive amounts of sugar kids consume today. To make matters worse, sugar also increases triglycerides, lowers good cholesterol or HDL while raising LDL, and increases “stickiness” of the blood. This predisposes us to heart disease and increases the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes. These unfavorable changes in blood lipids are one of the reasons diabetics have more serious heart disease at a younger age than non-diabetics. Even more heartbreaking is the fact that sugar also directly increases ischemic heart disease risk, and can increase systolic blood pressure as well.
Sugar feeds cancer! This is probably one of the most serious consequences of a high sugar diet. Cell mutations that give rise to cancer cells commonly occur in the body. A healthy immune system however can easily detect and destroy these cells before they become a problem. Not only does sugar interfere with immune surveillance, but it also directly promotes the growth of cancers. Cancer cells mutate and often lose their ability to process fuels, so they must depend on a simple source of energy-like sugar to survive. Cancer cells are covered with insulin receptors (which allows them to take up lots of glucose) and thrive when the diet is high in simple sugars. Breast, prostate, and colon cancers are especially linked to a diet high in sugar.
Sugar also causes significant weight gain through various mechanisms. By providing the body with empty calories, causing insulin spikes, and decreasing growth hormone secretion people who consume excess sugar gain weight. The growth hormone not only helps us build and maintain muscle while burning fat it also increases immunity and builds strong bones. To make matters worse ladies, long-term use of sugar results in free radical damage to the collagen in our skin thus contributing to wrinkles and is the number one reason women develop cellulite. Excessive sugar consumption causes protein glycation. Glycation results in the deterioration and aging of proteins in the body. Given that all the connective tissue in the body is composed of proteins (skin, blood vessels) you can see why sugar affects the youthfulness of skin. Cellulite is characterized by poor blood/lymph vessel function (which results in water retention), loose skin, and deformed connective tissue, and glycation plays an important role in the causation of all these (22).
To make matters worse, the sweet seemingly harmless substance we all know and love has also been shown to cause and worsen rheumatoid arthritis and decrease tendon function and repair. Sugar increases the risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases like Cohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis, causes constipation, and increases fermentation by bacteria in the gut, which results in gas and bloating. Finally, on another note, sugar may exacerbate symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
In addition, and in case you are still reaching for that doughnut, you should know that sugar causes fatty liver disease, can contribute to gallstones as well as kidney stones, and may give you a migraine.
Even if you don’t get a headache, sugar causes an increase in the delta; alpha, and theta brain waves which can alter cognition. The primary fuel source of the brain is glucose, and you may have noticed that after a long day at work or hours of studying you can't wait for something sweet. However, an excess of sugar can cause depression through depletion of vitamins and alteration of brain function.
Phew! Now that we are aware of some of the nasty ways sugar ruins our health, you may be asking yourself; “How can I decrease my sugar intake?”. The first thing we need to be aware of is the hidden sources of sugar. Sugar is found in alcoholic beverages, luncheon meats, bread, salad dressings, and it is even added to hamburgers to prevent shrinkage! More than half of all the calories from ketchup and relish come from sugar, so a meal at that fast food place (even without the milkshake or apple pie) may be loaded with the dangerous white stuff. Low fat “diet” products often have added sugars and carbs to make up for the fat that is removed. This is completely a scam (in my humble opinion). These “low fat” products will not help you lose weight and will lead to many of the problems mentioned above. While we tend to think of sugar as white crystals it is important to note that simple carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and bakery products break down into simple sugars pretty much right after being consumed, thus it is pertinent to reduce your intake of these as well.
In theory it sounds great to have your sweets without the sugar and calories, but artificial sweeteners are likely even worse for you than the real thing. Aspartame is a compound composed of phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol. Methanol metabolizes to formaldehyde in the body (yep that’s the stuff we use to preserve cadavers with) and is toxic to neurons. Phenylalanine and the aspartic acid act as excitotoxins in the brain. These substances stimulate receptors meant to be occupied by endogenous neurotransmitters (such as glutamate) and may lead to depression in susceptible individuals. The body perceives aspartame as sweet but no calories come in which confuses the brain and can actually lead to difficulty losing weight when it is used in place of sugar. The FDA quit keeping track of aspartame side effects because they claim they did not have resources to process all of the complaints. Reported side effects of aspartame include dizziness, visual impairment, tinnitus, elevated liver enzymes, muscle aches, pancreatic inflammation, high blood pressure, ADD/ADHD, Hives, memory, loss, numbness of extremities, seizures, and headaches just to name a few.
Splenda is another common artificial sweetener. It begins as a normal sugar molecule but is modified so that 3 of its components are removed and replaced with chlorine molecules. Chlorine is very close to Iodine on the periodic table and it is known to interfere with thyroid function. Hypothyroid is a major cause of weight gain among women.
I recommend that if you must add something sweet, to consume organic, unpasteurized, honey ideally from local bees. It contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Local honey will contain tiny bits of pollen that when you consume orally can help you develop tolerance to inhaled allergens, and decrease symptoms associated with seasonal allergies.
Stevia and Xylitol are also natural sweeteners derived from plants. Stevia extract is made from the naturally sweet calorie-free leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It has no effects on blood glucose or insulin and has no known side effects. It is about 300 times sweeter tasting than sugar so use sparingly!
Xylitol is the naturally occurring sweet compound commercially made from the bark of the birch tree. It fights plaque buildup and may be used to decrease cavities. Xylitol has 40% fewer calories than sugar, and only a very minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.
Here are some more tips for decreasing your sugar intake:
- Exercise! Get out, walk away when the cravings strike.
- Try something sour, a glass of water with lemon often helps you get over the initial craving for something sweet.
- Reach for some low glycemic index fruit. Berries taste sweet and are loaded with antioxidants.
- Increase your protein intake and eat a few small balanced meals each day. If you keep your blood sugar stable, you will likely experience fewer overwhelming sugar cravings.
- Chew Xylitol gum.
- See a licensed ND, like me, to discuss which supplements can help you manage blood sugar, lose weight, and reduce sugar cravings ;).
Remember, no one is perfect and small amounts of sugar and sweet things will not be harmful to your health. Save desserts for special occasions and when you do eat them, sit down, be present, eat slowly, and truly enjoy (pretending you never read this article) ha ha!