Do you suffer from any of the following symptoms?
- - Constant hunger
- - Headaches
- - Low energy
- - Mood swings
- - High blood pressure
- - Mood swings
Then these can be signs you're addicted to sugar.
"Wait, Isabel, do I have to give up all sweets and desserts?"
"Can I use artificial sweeteners and still lose weight?" "What about raw or natural sugar?" "And what about all those other sweeteners available at the store these days... date sugar, coconut sugar, stevia, or xylitol?"
Clearly this is a complicated topic... but it doesn’t have to be confusing.
In this article we’re going to explore the ins and outs of sugar and other sweeteners and make some specific recommendations so that you can lose weight and enjoy long-term health without giving up the sweet things in life.
The first thing to understand about sugar is what – exactly – it is and how your body uses it. Sugar mainly comes in two "simple sugar" forms: fructose and glucose. Both forms can come from our diet, but glucose is the only one that’s also created naturally by our bodies.
Fructose from our diet usually gets stored in the liver as glycogen, a sort of back-up energy source for when we need it. Small amounts of fructose are not much of a problem for us, especially when it enters our digestive system with plenty of fiber, cellulose, and other good stuff. This is what happens when we eat fruit, which gives us fructose with natural "packaging" that slows down the metabolic process and keeps fructose from overloading the liver.
But fructose in large amounts, like that found in high fructose corn syrup (a primary ingredient in most sugary beverages and many processed foods), will overload the liver with glycogen and force it to convert that fructose in to fat.
Glucose is the "sugar" in "blood sugar" and it provides fuel for our cells. Just like with fructose, glucose from our diet isn’t much of a problem when it comes "packaged" with fiber, protein, and/or healthy fats, like in the form of leafy vegetables and other low-glycemic foods (those foods that are lowest on the glycemic index and do not raise your blood sugar numbers very much).
But high-glycemic foods can be a real problem. Pure glucose, like refined white sugar, takes the top spot on the glycemic index (GI) at 100. Refined carbs like white bread, pasta, and corn chips will quickly turn in to sugar in the body and also have a high GI (60 and up). But more complex carbs – sprouted grains, sweet potatoes – have medium GI and don’t affect your blood sugar as harshly. Most vegetables are low on the GI.
If your blood sugar spikes from eating something sugary or high on the index, you’ll end up with extra glucose floating around in your blood stream. To deal with all of it, your pancreas sends out extra insulin, a hormone which escorts all that glucose to various places in your body. Some of the glucose will be stored as glycogen, which can be used later for energy. If you’ve just finished a hard workout, some of it will be used up quickly as energy now. And the rest of it, all that excess created by eating something high on the index, will be stored as fat.
But the trouble doesn’t stop there. Repeated blood sugar spikes from eating sugar and refined carbs will eventually lead to insulin resistance (also known as pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome), which greatly increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
This is Your Body on Sugar
Understanding how glucose and fructose work inside the body is a good way to see how sugar becomes fat and can eventually lead to insulin resistance, but does not paint the complete picture of sugar’s damaging effects. It’s important to understand what sugar does to your health because the consequences of consuming too much of it can mean a significantly shortened lifespan and a lower quality of life for you and your family.
Your Brain: A 2009 study from the journal PLOS found a strong connection between glucose and rapid cell aging. Two other studies – one from Georgia State University and another from the University of California Los Angeles – both found links between sugar consumption and a decline in cognitive functions like memory. Sugar has also been linked to depression, schizophrenia and anxiety. On top of all that, sugar releases dopamine in the brain, which creates a pleasurable reward feeling that can lead to "sugar addiction."
Your Heart: Sugar is directly linked to an increase in the overall risk for heart disease, but that’s not where the problem ends. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found strong evidence that sugar can increase your risk for not just heart disease, but outright heart failure. Another study, published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine tracked participants’ sugar intake over 14 years and found that the risk for heart disease rose in proportion to the amount of sugar in the diet (whether or not participants were overweight). Other research has shown that consuming excess fructose in beverages like soda quickly leads to abdominal obesity and higher levels of dangerous LDL cholesterol (a primary risk factor for heart disease), and that the damaging cardiovascular effects of sugar start as early as adolescence.
Your Liver: The journal Nature published a controversial article back in 2012 that argued for regulations on sugar much like the regulations we place on alcohol. Their reasoning? Fructose and glucose have a toxic effect on the liver similar to alcohol, and overconsumption of sugar can lead to the same chronic conditions as excessive alcohol consumption, including fatty-liver disease.
Your Belly: Many, many studies have linked excessive sugar consumption, especially in the form of fructose-laden beverages, to obesity in children and adults and eventually to diabetes and heart disease. Further research has led scientists to believe that it’s not just the sugar-insulin-fat relationship that’s to blame, but also the effect that sugar has on "hunger" hormones like leptin and ghrelin. Add to that the obvious fact that sugar is nothing but empty calories, devoid of filling and nutritious nutrients, and you’ve got a proven recipe for major weight gain.
Your Cancer Risk: Sadly, researchers have started to uncover a strong link between insulin resistance (caused by excess sugar in the diet) and cancer. One study, conducted at the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid in 2013, began to uncover the exact mechanism at work when it found that eating sugar boosts a particular protein which may make our cells more susceptible to cancer. Other researchers have noted that breast cancer and colon cancer patients have lower survival rates when their intake of sugar and starch is higher, and that people who eat excessive amounts of sugar are at a much higher risk for getting cancer in the first place.
Harmful sugars come in a variety of forms, even many that seem natural and safe like agave and raw sugar. And to make things a bit more difficult, sugar often hides on nutrition labels under unfamiliar names like maltodextrin and sorbitol. For a complete list of ingredients you should watch out for, refer to the sidebar ("The Bad").
Why "Sugar Free" is Not the Answer
Unfortunately, as average people have started to understand just how toxic and fattening sugar really is, the food manufacturing industry has responded with a glut of sugar-free alternatives.
Everything from cookies to ice cream to crackers to microwave meals have had their sugar content replaced with artificial sweeteners like aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet-N-Low) and sucralose (Splenda).
Up until very recently, the various studies about the dangers of artificial sweeteners were not convincing enough for the mainstream health community. Despite research that indicated these chemical compounds could actually make you hungrier, could cause seizures and brain problems, and could – in large enough amounts – contribute to a range of health problems from rashes to enlarged organs to panic attacks... there was still no consensus among mainstream doctors and nutritionists that artificial sweeteners should be avoided.
But the chances are good that that’s going to change in the very near future, and many doctors are already getting wise to the research.
Though there are studies dating back to 2008 that show a link between diet sodas (which are filled with artificial sweeteners, usually aspartame) and both metabolic syndrome and diabetes, more recent studies are adding a whole lot of credibility to the argument.
One such study, from a 2013 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found a strong correlation between artificial sweeteners, obesity, and diabetes... but a study published just last month went even further. That one, from the Weizmann Institute of Science, found that artificial sweeteners actually change the makeup of our gut bacteria and trigger harmful reactions that lead to metabolic syndrome (which can eventually lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease). Yikes!
Check out the sidebar for a full list of artificial sweeteners to avoid.
Luckily for all of us, there are some sweeteners you can safely add to coffee, baked goods, tea, and any number of decadent recipes to satisfy your sweet tooth. But lest you think you can eat unlimited desserts as long as they use these approved sweeteners, please do note that even the safest options should be used sparingly. One of the main benefits of filling your diet with healthy, nutritious foods is that you can naturally break your physiological addictions to processed foods and sugar, and if you eat too many sweet foods (even the safe ones) it’s going to be a lot harder to break those habits and a lot harder to lose weight.
Keeping in mind that moderation is still key (especially if you have or are at risk for diabetes), there is no reason you can’t sweeten up your morning coffee and enjoy a sweet treat once in a while. Your absolute best choices for sweetness are natural stevia and raw, organic honey (preferably local).
Stevia is a green plant and its leaves have a strong natural sweetness, but it has a glycemic index of less than one so it won’t raise your blood glucose and lead to weight gain and health problems. A pure stevia liquid is strong enough that a drop or two will go a long way (one teaspoon of pure liquid stevia is equal to one entire cup of regular sugar). Avoid bleached brands of stevia like Truvia, and look for liquid forms that have no additional ingredients. If you have a green thumb, you can even grown your own stevia plants in the garden or windowsill pots and use the fresh leaves straight off the plant.
Honey, in addition to being delicious, is one of nature’s most amazing sweeteners. The health benefits of honey have been documented all over the world for thousands of years, and it is frequently used for medicinal applications. It has antibiotic and antiseptic properties, due in part to its acidic pH, and in its raw form is loaded with healthy antioxidants and natural enzymes. Raw, unfiltered honey has a safe GI number of around 30, and also retains bits of healthy-promoting pollen. Local honey may help fight hay fever – not to mention that it supports your local beekeepers.
After honey and stevia, there are a number of other options that are safe to use sparingly for the occasional recipe where honey or stevia just won't work. These include:
- Dates and date sugar
- Fruit juice
- Coconut sugar/palm sugar
- Maple syrup
If you have the occasional serving of full-sugar ice cream, pie or another sweet favorite – on special occasions or as a rare treat – then it isn’t going to kill you. But the sad fact is that regular sugar consumption really could lead to an early death, which is why BD members are strongly encouraged to replace conventional sweeteners with equally delicious, weight-loss-safe options.
With tasty sweeteners like raw, organic honey and stevia, you can still indulge yourself, protect your health and enjoy the sweet success of weight loss.