Is sugar bad for you? It’s nothing less than pure evil, right?! You may have heard bad things about sugar, but are they true? Does it depend on the type of sugar, where it comes from, or what it’s in? Or does it all depend on how much you consume? I will answer these and other questions below. Let’s first start with a brief history of sugar since it has a surprising one…
The history of sugar
If we go far back in time, sugar doesn’t have that much of a history. Our bodies have evolved eating very little sugar and almost no refined carbohydrates. Evidence from remains of plants and DNA suggests that sugarcane originally came from Southeast Asia. Chemically-refined sugar first appeared in India about 2,500 years ago. Throughout the middle ages, sugar was both rare and expensive. Fast forward to today where it’s in almost everything. Sugar is the world’s third most valuable crop! Cereals and rice hold the top 2 positions.
Sugar and tobacco
Both sugar and tobacco have similar stories. They were first produced by slaves, and both were originally viewed as being good for your health. Hard to believe but it’s true. Think back to cigarette ads from the 1950’s & 1960’s where doctors promote smoking. In fact, smoking cigarettes was once considered an acceptable weight loss strategy! Unfortunately, the sudden mass consumption of sugar and tobacco that began around the start of the industrial revolution created the health risks that we now know all too well.
Sugar can sure cause a whole host of health issues. For instance, it has been linked to high blood pressure and inflammation. Sugar can also increase triglyceride levels. These are markers for cardiovascular disease, also known as heart disease. Atherosclerosis, that is, a hardening of your arteries, may also result.
Did you know that type 2 diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes? It was referred to this way since it didn’t develop in people until adulthood. Nowadays, more and more people are developing type 2 diabetes much earlier in life.
What is sugar?
Although everyone knows what sugar looks and tastes like, what exactly is it? For starters, the chemical name for sugar is sucrose. It’s a simple carbohydrate that’s naturally produced in all plants (including fruits), vegetables, and nuts. Sugar is produced through photosynthesis. If you think back to school, photosynthesis is the process by which plants turn the sun’s energy into food.
Sugar and the brain
Sugar (in the form of glucose) is the primary source of energy for all the cells in your body. Since the brain has so many nerve cells (neurons), this organ requires the most energy. In fact, it uses half of the sugar in your body. That’s pretty energy-intensive if you ask me! Brain functions like thinking, memory and learning are closely related to glucose levels and how efficiently your brain uses this source of fuel. If your brain doesn’t have enough glucose, its chemical neurotransmitters (known as neurotransmitters) aren’t produced and communication between neurons is compromised.
A common complication of diabetes called hypoglycemia is caused by low glucose levels in the blood. This can result in a loss of energy for brain function which is linked to poor attention span and compromised cognitive functioning. Thus, the brain is dependent on sugar for its main fuel source.
At the same time, too much sugar can be a bad thing for the brain. Too much consumption of a form of sugar called fructose can result in memory issues and cognitive deficiencies. The effects of excessive glucose and other forms of sugar on the brain are most pronounced in diabetics. Long-term diabetes (type 1 or 2) can cause the brain to atrophy and shrink! It can even lead to dementia through restriction of blood flow in the brain which causes cognitive difficulties. If you know anything about Alzheimer’s disease, it’s a very serious condition where a person’s very identity is essentially lost.
Is sugar from fruit bad?
We’ve established that too much sugar is generally bad for you. Almost nobody will dispute that. However, fruits contain a form of sugar called fructose. This type of sugar can have negative effects on metabolic health when you eat too much of it. You may be wondering: is sugar from fruit bad then, even if it’s organic? Fortunately, fruit is safe to eat for most people. This is because it is hard to get that much fructose from fruit. Fruit takes time to chew. The fiber from fruit helps you avoid eating too much too quickly.
On the other hand, if you have sugar problems, then you should limit or avoid alternate sources of fruit such as fruit juices and dried fruit. This is true even if no sugar has been added and/or if it’s organic. The problem with consuming sugar these ways is that you can consume a lot more fruit than you would had you eaten the fruit itself. Juice doesn’t contain any fiber and you don’t have to chew it. This otherwise helps to slow down your consumption of it. Raw fruit contains a lot of water, while dried fruit has low water content and can be very concentrated, that is, sugary. As a result, you can consume a lot more dried fruit compared to raw fruit. In practical terms, an 8 oz glass of freshly squeezed orange juice is made from about 3 medium-sized oranges. Most people get larger servings than that. You likely wouldn’t eat that many oranges in 1 sitting.
But can diabetics eat fruit too?
According to the American Diabetes Association, any fruit is fine for someone with diabetes. The only real consideration is if you have a food allergy or intolerance. If you have any suspicions that you might, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor and get tested for them. A simple blood test can tell you whether you do or not.
Studies have found that a higher intake of fruit is associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes. Believe it or not, fruits are some foods to avoid diabetes despite their sugar content. On a related note, you may have heard about the glycemic index. Put simply, this is a rating system for foods that contain carbohydrates. It can tell you how quickly a given food affects your blood sugar levels when you eat that food on its own. I prefer to use glycemic load when thinking about the impact of food on your blood sugar levels. For this reason, it is advisable to eat fruits that are lower on the glycemic load list. Check a previous post I did to learn all about glycemic index vs. glycemic load.
So is sugar bad for you or what?
This is the million dollar question. The short answer is it depends. What it depends on is the amount and the type. Too much sugar can indeed cause health issues, although eating fruit is much better for you and is usually not a problem. Seems like there are some benefits of sugar consumption after all. In short, it’s always best to choose sugars in fruit over added sugars, leaning on raw fruits rather than juices or dried fruits.
What do you think of sugar now? Is it pure evil? Does it have a place in our lives? Please tell us what you think in the comments…