We all know sugar is ‘bad’, right? But do you really know how sugar is impacting your health?
Once I started my functional training, it was eye-opening to learn the negative implications it has on all body systems. Excess sugar consumption can lead to or exacerbate issues like ADD/ADHD, depression, anxiety, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Candida overgrowth, and so much more.
Have a sweet tooth? Don’t fret. Not all sugars are created equal, some are okay in moderation, and some are downright terrible. In my experience, it makes it much easier to adhere to a protocol or remove a food when you understand the why behind it. In this blog post, I aim to shed light on the different types of sugar, its physiological impacts on the body, and how to remove it with ease, not deprivation.
What is sugar?
Sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. But the effect on the body and your overall health depends on the type of sugar you’re eating, either natural or refined.
What is naturally occurring sugar?
Natural sugars occur naturally in foods like fruit, dairy, and unprocessed carbohydrates. They are loaded with fiber and protein which slow their digestion, preventing a rapid blood sugar spike.
What is refined sugar?
Refined sugars may have come from a natural source, like sugar cane, sugar beets, or corn, but all the vitamins and minerals have been stripped, leaving only the sugar behind. Lacking nutritional value, they are absorbed quickly, causing a rapid blood sugar spike, and also making us susceptible to overindulging. When reading labels avoid foods that contain these added sweeteners:
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Rice syrup
- Barley malt
- Fructose sweetener
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
How does sugar affect the body?
Ok, now that we’re clear on what it is that we’re eating and how to read labels, let’s dive in. Here are seven adverse effects sugar consumption has on the body.
1. Sugar leads to mineral depletion
Refined sugars are considered an ‘anti-nutrient’, containing no fiber, minerals, proteins, fat, or enzymes. What’s worse, the body must borrow vital nutrients, like calcium sodium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and thiamine, to metabolize them. This can lead to problems like osteoporosis, arthritis, leg cramps, low blood sugar, hypertension, and more.
2. Sugar weakens the immune system
Fun fact: 1 tsp (yes, tsp!) suppresses the immune system for 5-hours!
Sugar affects the immune system in several ways: it decreases the activity of phagocytes (our cells on the front lines); it competes for Vitamin C, our main immune agent; it creates inflammation, distracting the immune system, and it feeds tumor growth. Sugar consumption has a blunt link to cancer! In a recent study, women who ate more carbohydrates, especially sugar had a 2x increased risk of breast cancer.
As you can see, it’s no surprise I would see an influx of patients with an upper respiratory infection following the holidays. Or why some patients just never seem to get better. It all goes back to the diet and health of their internal army.
3. Sugar disrupts blood-sugar balance
Under normal circumstances, when you consume sugar or carbohydrates your pancreas secretes insulin. This serves as a key, allowing your cells to utilize glucose for energy, and in turn, produces an increase in blood sugar levels. Conversely, when too much sugar is consumed or it’s broken down too quickly, this produces a large, rapid spike in blood sugar requiring a greater amount of insulin. Sugars are withdrawn quickly from the bloodstream, and what goes up must come down. Initially you feel that ‘high’, then you fall.
So what happens when all your glucose needs are met? Excess sugar is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. And when those stores are full, sugar remains in the bloodstream. The pancreas continues to pump out insulin, but its receptors become resistant because there’s no more room for sugar in the cells. Ultimately, glucose finds its way to your fat cells and is stored there.
High blood sugar levels cause direct damage to the eyes, kidneys, and nervous system, and as we’ll soon explore, is a potent risk factor for heart disease.
4. Sugar disrupts brain chemistry
Eating sugar does cause an initial spike in serotonin, our ‘feel good chemical’, but in reality, it’s stressing the adrenals, resulting in a crash. And with increased sugar consumption, the levels of serotonin are depleted even more. What’s more, tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, requires B-vitamins and magnesium to do so, and if you remember correctly, both of which are depleted with sugar consumption. Decreased levels of serotonin are associated with more carbohydrate or sugar cravings, sleep issues, and increased PMS symptoms. With plentiful serotonin, you are cheerful and able to function.
Instead of reaching for a Snickers bar when you’re tired and sad, opt for foods high in tryptophan, that serotonin precursor, like turkey, mushrooms, shrimp, salmon, spinach, or pumpkin seeds.
5. Sugar causes inflammation
Immune system dysfunction, in addition to nutrient deficiencies, as caused by sugar consumption, puts the body into a constant state of repair. And when tissues need repair, they swell.
This chronic inflammation is systemic and can also show up as diabetes, hypertension, autism, ADD, eczema, and asthma.
6. Sugar leads to yeast overgrowth
At its root, yeast is a sugar fermenting organism. It feeds on sugar. Candida yeast cells are always moderately present in our gastrointestinal tract and can be present elsewhere too. In homeostasis, Candida lives harmoniously with our gut flora and only becomes a problem when there is too much sugar in the diet, weakened immune support, or we have low levels of beneficial bacteria.
It’s also important to note that yeast can fuel sugar cravings. Yeast is great for baking bread because it eats up the sugar, making a big, puffy mass. And that’s exactly how people afflicted with yeast overgrowth can feel – bloated and distended after eating sweet or starchy foods.
7. Sugar compromises the health of the teeth
Cavities are caused by an interaction between the bacteria living on your teeth and your diet. As the number of these bacteria increase, they build up and form a plaque, producing an acid which lowers the pH of the mouth, weakening the enamel as it starts to break apart. So cavities aren’t caused by bacteria eating your teeth but by taking up residence and changing the environment. And what do these microorganisms feed on? Sugar.
How to remove sugar from your diet with ease
As you can see, the effects of sugar ripple throughout the entire body and can cause long-lasting damage. By understanding how sugar is impacting the internal terrain it can help you make better, more conscious choices. And if you’re feeling inspired to kick your sugar habit, follow these three simple steps:
- Acceptance and forgiveness. Pat yourself on the back for wanting to change and also forgive yourself for poor choices of the past. You did not have the knowledge you have now, so moving forward making better decisions will be easier.
- Bring sugar to your awareness and begin to look at labels. Food manufacturers add a ton of hidden sugar in our foods. Some of the top offenders include salad dressings, yogurts, peanut butter, cerael, and cough drops. Read every label and avoid foods with added sugars from the refined list above. Instead opt for natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, date sugar, coconut sugar, agave, or black strap molasses.
- Know you can get help. Go public and find accountability in your partner, friend, sibling, etc. or seek guidance from a nutritionist, like me 🙂 It’s important to remove all negative feelings about sugar in your diet and explore this new world of possibility with curiosity and support.
By now, I hope you have a better understanding of how sugar affects you, how you can make smarter choices, and how you can start to eliminate it should you so choose. Please know that you’re not alone, and if you need help navigating this, do reach out!