What’s so bad about something that tastes so good? Is sugar really harmful to your health? If so, does this include all kinds, including fruit sugar (fructose), molasses, honey, raw sugar, maltose, maple syrup, and other sweeteners?
It depends on whom you ask. Most medical doctors will tell you that sugar is fine as long as you don’t overdo it. Other health practitioners might say it depends on the type of sugar you eat as well as the amount.
I’ve taken a long, hard look at sweeteners, and I say, “Keep all sugars down, especially refined sugar.” But please don’t assume that if sugar is “natural,” as in honey or fruit-juice sweetened cookies, it’s safe. I know this is what you’d like to believe, but trust me, too much of any sugar can and does affect your health.
It’s almost impossible to avoid all sugars, but you can control the amount you eat. All foods eventually turn into glucose, but some take longer than others. Refined sugar, fructose, and honey are absorbed quickly, while a dinner of stir-fried veggies with brown rice and chicken takes longer. After food is turned into glucose, this form of sugar gets into your blood stream and makes its way throughout your body. First, it goes to your brain, which needs glucose to function. Then it fuels your muscles and nervous system. But in order to get into brain, muscle, and nerve cells, you need insulin, the pancreatic hormone that allows glucose to get into cell walls.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. To get glucose into your cells, you need enough insulin and your cells have to be able to respond to the insulin. This is called insulin sensitivity. When your cells don’t react to insulin, you have insulin resistance, where you may crave sugars and starches in an effort to get nourishment into muscle, brain, and nerve cells. If you eat a lot of refined sugar, honey, and other sweeteners, you may have created insulin resistance.
The insulin response
Your pancreas secretes insulin to keep too much sugar from flooding into your bloodstream, resulting in high blood sugar, or diabetes. Some people have increased insulin sensitivity and produce this hormone at the slightest provocation. This causes blood sugar problems such as hypoglycemia, diabetes, depression, fatigue, anxiety, and other conditions. Does this sound like you? If so, you need to eat more foods that turn into sugar slowly. These foods are low on the glycemic index, a method that measures how quickly a particular food turns into glucose compared to refined sugar.
How sugar may affect you
You wouldn’t know it from a lot of the books and magazine articles on the market, but not everyone reacts to sugars in the same way. It has a lot to do with insulin sensitivity, which varies from person to person.
Still, there are studies to back up the connection between eating too much sugar and many serious health conditions. In some of the following problems, fructose was identified as being as problematic as refined sugar. All sweet foods have the potential to cause health problems.
Cancer: Chronic high consumption of refined sugar is associated with biliary tract cancer (especially if you have gallstones), colon cancer, breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and stomach cancer. Complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) were shown to reduce breast-cancer risk.
Candida: The yeast Candida albicansneeds glucose to multiply. If you have an overgrowth of vaginal yeast or systemic candida, you should temporarily avoid all sources of sugars including dairy (lactose). Eliminate refined sugar completely. After you feel better for several months, try adding complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and beans, in small quantities.
Crohn’s disease: Refined sugar alters the friendly-to-harmful bacteria ratio in your colon, which increases symptoms of Crohn’s or can contribute to this disease. Eliminate refined sugar and eat limited amounts of sweets containing high fiber, such as fresh fruit.
Depression: My own 24 years of clinical experience, backed up by a number of double-blind studies, indicate that some depressed people become more depressed when they eat refined sugar, and are less depressed when they eliminate it. This indicates insulin sensitivity. Eliminate refined sugar and reduce all other sweets, especially alcohol.
Diabetes: High amounts of refined sugar increase diabetic retinopathy and a chromium deficiency. Sugar increases urinary chromium excretion, and chromium is often low in diabetics. Eating sugar, even if you can control your insulin levels with supplemental insulin, may contribute to further problems. If you eat more than one or two pieces of fruit a day, this fructose may increase your insulin resistance (a bad idea) and cause a copper deficiency, which further affects glucose tolerance. Limit all sweets.
Fatigue: If you get tired after eating a high carbohydrate, low protein meal, you may be triggering an abnormal insulin response. Even in normal people, eating a candy bar tends to give energy for the first hour followed by fatigue.
Gallstones: Studies indicate that a diet high in refined sugar increases your risk for gallstones. It also increases your risk for obesity and diabetes, both of which increase your risk for gallstones! It’s a vicious cycle. Reduce refined sugar.
Hypertension: Both salt and sugar can contribute to high blood pressure. High amounts of sucrose (refined sugar), glucose, and fructose can raise blood pressure in people with hypertension. About one-third of all people with hypertension are sensitive to refined sugar.
Immunity: You’re as healthy as your immune system. The stronger it is, the healthier you are and will continue to be. Your immune system fights harmful bacteria and viruses. One study indicated that a diet containing 10 percent refined sugar reduces antibody production by half. Complex carbohydrates don’t have this effect.
Infection: Your resistance to infection is reduced when you eat 100 grams of sugar from glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey, or orange juice and remains low for five hours. If you feel like you’re coming down with a sinus infection, urinary tract infection, or any other bacterial infection, don’t eat sugar. When you’re exposed to people who may be sick, reduce your sugar intake greatly.
Kidney Stones: Eating high amounts of refined sugar can cause kidney stones in some susceptible people. The combination of a genetic predisposition for kidney stones along with a high intake of refined sugar contributes to kidney stones.
Ulcers: Refined sugar promotes peptic ulcers, and the more sugar you eat, the higher your risk becomes for duodenal ulcers. Two-thirds of a group of ulcer patients who ate a low refined-carbohydrate diet for three months felt better than they did on their high sugar diet. However, a diet high in whole grains, beans, and potatoes did not affect their ulcers.
So now that you know more of the facts, what are you going to do about your sugar intake? Hopefully, you’ll begin by not fooling yourself into believing you can eat all the sweets you want in the form of fruit or honey. For some people, almost all sweeteners can be harmful in high quantities.
If you crave sweets, make sure you’re not skipping meals and that you’re getting enough protein. I find that a little protein at each meal keeps blood-sugar levels stable in many people.
To understand how many carbohydrates my patients eat, I have them keep a food diary and circle all carbs in red including fruit, grains, potatoes, beans, desserts, etc. Then I have them circle all proteins in another color. If red predominates, we look at the form and amount they’re eating. If your simple sugar intake is too high, lower it and eat more complex carbohydrates. Don’t drink much fruit juice and limit your fruit intake to two pieces a day.
A holiday tip
Holidays are not the time to make major dietary changes, so go ahead and eat that sugar cookie your neighbor made. But limit yourself to one or two. Watch your sugar intake, your cravings, and how you feel after you eat sweets. This will help you take steps to reduce your cravings after the holidays are over. The first step in making dietary changes is awareness.
Saccharin (Sweet’n Low): This sweetener was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) list of carcinogenic substances in the 1970s. Foods on this list of cancer-causing agents must have a warning on their label stating this. Recently it was removed from this list, but this doesn’t mean saccharin is safe, just that the EPA removed it from the known carcinogens list. Saccharin isn’t known to cause an insulin response, but it has caused cancer in laboratory animals.
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet): A combination of aspartic acid and phenylalanine, it has been linked to such symptoms as dizziness, loss of balance, headaches, and fatigue. Some people crave more sweets after eating aspartame-sweetened foods and it’s believed to cause an insulin response.
Acesulfame-potassium (Sunnett, Sweet One): This product is made from acetoacetic acid (other- wise known as vinegar) and has a molecular structure similar to saccharin. Has caused cancer in laboratory animals and has not been tested on diabetics.
Stevia: A plant-based sweetener that’s safe, but may have a slightly bitter aftertaste and licorice flavoring if you use too much of it. You can buy stevia powder or liquid in most health food stores. Use a tiny, tiny amount and enjoy the natural sweetness safely.
Sucralose (Splenda): No long-term human studies have been conducted on the safety of this sweetener made from an altered sugar molecule. Three of its molecules are removed in a laboratory and replaced with chlorine molecules. It’s much sweeter than sugar and may be used in cooking.
Sugar alcohol (Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol, Maltitol): Made from carbohydrates, they have about half the carbs as refined sugar. May cause diarrhea and cramps in large quantities. These products do raise blood-sugar levels.
From Lick the Sugar Habit Sugar Counter, Nancy Appleton, PhD.
Appleton, Nancy, PhD. Lick the Sugar Habit Sugar Counter, Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2001.
Werbach, Melvyn R., MD. Textbook of Nutritional Medicine, Third Line Press, Inc., Tarzana, CA, 1999.
Williamson, Miryam Erlich. Blood Sugar Blues, Walker & Company, 2001.