The young woman seated near our table at a local eatery gushed that the sweet confection she was enjoying as her dessert was “to die for”. Her statement was truer than she probably understood, however, not in the sense that she intended. The sugar which sweetened her dessert and which has become pervasive in the American diet is the toxic culprit underlying some of our most common, costly, and deadly diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
First, let’s deal with the confusion over refined sugar vs. high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In the latter part of the 20th century, an increasingly health-conscious public became wary of refined sugar (i.e. table sugar or, technically, sucrose). Hence, HFCS was popularized in the 1980’s as a “healthier” alternative to refined sugar. Now the pendulum of public perception has swung; HFCS is thoroughly, and rightly, indicted in popular media as a health hazard. The food industry has responded by promoting “healthier” HFCS-free products, everything from ketchup to soft drinks, which again contain refined sugar.
Truth be told, HFCS and refined sugar are similar chemically and they elicit similar effects on the body. Refined sugar (sucrose) is a 50/50 mix of the carbohydrates glucose and fructose. HFCS is generally 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Significant and essentially identical health risk is posed by steady consumption of either refined sugar or HFCS. Ketchup made with refined sugar is just as bad as ketchup made with HFCS. Henceforth then, my use of the word “sugar” will encompass both refined sugar and HFCS.
The danger posed by sugar (fructose plus glucose) is most related to the fructose in it. Potato, bread and other starchy foods are primarily glucose. Fruits and vegetables do contain fructose but in safer and much smaller doses than foods to which sugar has been added (such as beverages, desserts, condiments, etc.). Every cell in the body processes glucose. Primarily the liver processes fructose. So, sugar (fructose plus glucose) creates more work for the liver. Sugar hits the liver much more quickly and dangerously if consumed in liquid form as with fruit juice (as opposed to un-juiced fruit), sugary coffee beverages, or soft drinks.
Exposed to high levels of sugar, the liver converts fructose into fat. Fat then progressively accumulates in the liver. Research has demonstrated an alarming correlation between accumulation of fat in the liver and the development of “insulin resistance”. Insulin normally allows sugar to be ushered from the blood into cells after a meal. With insulin resistance, the body cells ignore insulin and then blood sugar steadily elevates. In response, the pancreas pumps out more insulin. Eventually, the exhausted pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, blood sugar continues to elevate and diabetes develops.
Some people with insulin resistance will not develop diabetes. These people maintain enough insulin production to overcome their cells’ resistance to insulin. However, chronically elevated insulin has ill effects such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high LDL and total cholesterol, and low HDL (the “good cholesterol”).
One of the most common symptoms of insulin resistance is an increased waist circumference; if you are overweight, you probably have insulin resistance. However, not everybody with fatty liver and insulin resistance is overweight. Lean people with fatty liver and insulin resistance are at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes than lean people without fatty liver and insulin resistance.
In addition to increased risk for diabetes and heart disease, there is strong evidence that insulin resistance is a causative factor in the development of at least breast and colon cancer and perhaps other types of cancer. Researchers assert that many pre-cancerous cells would never have developed the mutations that converted them into malignant tumors if elevated levels of insulin had not influenced them. Furthermore, once a tumor has developed, it appears that insulin actually promotes growth of the tumor.
I have discussed previously in this space that the brain also falls victim to the effects of insulin resistance and poor sugar metabolism. Alzheimer’s disease is increasingly coming to be understood and referred to as Diabetes Type 3.
The good news is that sugar-induced fatty-liver and insulin resistance can generally be reduced by dietary modification, specifically, the reduction/avoidance of foods with added sugar. In other words, reducing consumption of foods with added sugar will reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, brain degeneration, and cancer.
If you absolutely insist on sweetening food and beverages, natural sweeteners such as stevia are much safer than sugar. Please note that artificial sweeteners (splenda, saccharin, nutrasweet, etc.) are not healthy alternatives; we will discuss health issues related to these hazardous chemicals in a future article.