The Truth Behind Sugar
Sweet sweet sugar……
Sugar and its various guises is the common ingredient in most of the food items that line of our supermarket aisle. How sugar went from obscurity to king-status makes for fairly interesting reading.
For a long time the mechanism for obesity and diabetes was little understood. Obesity was attributed to gluttony and a lack of will power, but then, prior to World War 2, the Austrians and German begin to reveal there was more to the picture. Rather than simply eating too much, they suggested that obesity could be a hormonal condition and has more to do with genetics, metabolism and the endocrine system than was previously given credit. Just as more support for this theory was gaining traction the war started which abruptly halted further research.
It wasn’t until the late 1950’s & 1960’s that the conversation was picked up again and science began to talk about the hormone insulin (significant in diabetes) and the fact that insulin could be the driver for obesity, and that sugar was a dominant driver of insulin.
In response to this, artificial sugars began to rise in popularity as a solution to using real sugar…..it’s at this point that capitalism at its greatest stepped-in. The sugar industry funded studies to show that artificial sugars were inherently bad for our health and so paved the way for global dominance. The sugar industry was quick to extinguish any threat to its economy.
Fly in the ointment
The conversation flared up again the next decade. In the 1970’s British nutritionist John Yudkin suggested that it WAS sugar that was the bad guy and the cause for obesity and diabetes. This again rattled the sugar industry who responded by funding a campaign that would suggest that saturated fat was the cause for obesity and diabetes and ultimately divert attention from the real culprit – Sugar!
At this point in time it was pretty easy to convince the public, FDA and government, since in 1958 Ancel Keyes (American nutritionist) had single-handedly convinced the US that saturated fat increased cholesterol which he proposed was the link to coronary heart disease. Keyes had presented his theory (lipid hypothesis) essentially demonising saturated fats. His study (The Seven Countries Study) had simply cherry picked 7 out the 22 countries which aligned and supported his hypothesis. This was an epidemiological study which would lack credibility with today’s testing but was enough to get saturated fats over the line and begin the shift in attitude which is still being felt today – 60 years later!!
Sugar gets the green light
The vilification of saturated fat had left the door wide open for sugar and it would boldly begin its global dominance unhindered and untreatened. Since the 1960’s the prevalence of sugar has spread like wild fire and we’ve lapped it up with gusto, you only have to meander through your local supermarket or food court to get an understanding of how sugar is the dominant ingredient. Pretty much every processed food item will feature sugar to a great or lesser extent and let’s not forget that refined carbs (bread, cereals, pasta) have the same hormonal response as sugar – but more on this shortly.
I’m not just talking about the obvious sources of sugar. Sugar has penetrated 99.9% of processed, commercial food items….to understand it’s proliferation it’s necessary to read food labels
So why have we allowed the fire to spread some much. If we knew the health implications around sugar decades ago why didn’t we put the brakes on? To me the answer is multi-layered but two important reasons to consider are:
It’s not me it’s my hormones
As Homo sapiens we are genetically geared to crave and consume sugar. Let’s go back a few thousand years, as hunter/gathers sugar, in the form of honey, fruits, berries would have been seasonal and not perennial, as we see nowadays. When it was available we would simply gorge on it. We have to consider that our body’s M.O is to survive – this is its basal function! It’s the law of optimal foraging strategy – get as many calories in, in the most efficient way in order to preserve energy, but ultimately maximize intake of food – as the ‘cupboard’ could be bare tomorrow.
Our body’s Modus Operandi is survival
Therefore to prepare for leaner times our body would trigger a hormonal response which would ensure we came back to the hunter/gatherer cookie jar – anyone who has polished off an entire jar of nutella in one sitting knows what I’m talking about – it’s not you it’s your hormones.
When we consume sugar it’s first picked-up by receptors on our tongue, this in turn sends a signal to the brain stem and from there it branches off to the fore-brain and a specialized part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. This area of the brain recognizes different taste sensation – bitter, sweet, salty, sour etc. Now, this is the important thing to wrap our heads around – from here a message is sent to activate our brains reward system which is a series of electrical and chemical pathways. This process is incredibly complex but it helps to answer one inner thought…..”Should I have another bite of the doughnut?” The answer is invariably a resounding YES, because you feel all warm and fuzzy, and let’s be honest who doesn’t like to feel all warm and fuzzy!
Speaking of warm and fuzzy, this reward system isn’t only activated by sugar, but other finer things in life like socializing and sex….so again, it’s not you…it’s your hormones!
But it’s the reason we come back for more and more……
The currency for this reward system is a neuro-transmitter called dopamine and it’s dopamine that gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Back to sugar….its that feeling that leads you back for a second and third mouthful BUT over activating that reward system can lead to increased tolerance to sugar as well as cravings, and much like drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and cocaine, that also trigger dopamine, we come back for more….and it’s not long before we have an addiction
Something else that makes the sugar addiction very real, is the fact that sugar is regarded 7 or 8 times more addictive than cocaine!
In a study at Princeton University 43 rats were offered cocaine or sugar water over a 15 days period. 40 out the 43 rats preferred the sugar water and in a similar experiment rats exhibited eating behaviors such as binging, craving and withdrawals when on a high sugar diet.
Admittedly, studies of this nature aren’t as well verified on humans – it’s most likely the combination of sugar AND fat AND sodium that is the addictive recipe in the western diet.
Sugar is a major contributor to inflammation.
I’m an advocate for low sugar/carb approach in a bid to reduce inflammation and the stress on the endocrine system. To adhere to a low sugar/carb diet its important to understand the implications of eating a high sugar/carb diet.
When I talk about sugar I’m not just talking about candies and chocolate bars, I’m also including refined carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, pastries, cakes, pies, croissants…you get the picture.
As a response to the carbohydrate (glucose) content in these foods our pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin then transports glucose to the cell. In normal circumstance the cell is receptive to the ‘delivery’ of glucose and facilitates the transfer of glucose across the cell membrane. The glucose is then used by the cell for energy production.
However, normal circumstances don’t remain forever……
Insulin is the ‘Uber’ that transports glucose from the bloodstream to the cell. There are sites on the cell membrane that recognise insulin and welcome it with open arms inside the cell. Think of it like seeing an old friend at your front door for the first time in ages….you’d swing that door open and usher them in.
When this happens again and again the sites become less enthusiastic about insulin, as you would about seeing your old friend if they turned up at your front door several times a day. Overtime your cells become desensitized to insulin and instead of glucose being transported into the cells for energy, the glucose has no choice but to remain in circulation.
Consequently, a signal is sent to the pancreas to release more insulin as a direct result of elevated blood glucose. This doesn’t fix the problem, instead only serves to have raised insulin. Ultimately this scenario is highly confusing for your body – your cells aren’t receiving the energy and the subsequent signals that tell your body you’re satiated (satisfied) – this leads to higher consumption of foods and we know how this ends.
Without dietary intervention or macro manipulation your cells can become, not only de-sensitized to insulin, but damn-right resistant to it – otherwise known as Type 2 diabetes.
Just like your overzealous friend knocking on your door several times a door, there gets a point in time when you stop answering the door and they bugger off to walks the streets aimlessly. When this happens to insulin and it has nowhere to go – it sends a signal to denote that food most be in abundance.
Pretty simple really –
Raised blood glucose = Raised Insulin levels suggests food must be in abundance!
A reminder that we are simply hunter/gatherers with mobile phones!
As the cells aren’t receiving the energy (due to insulin resistance) this can equate to eating nothing as the signals aren’t being made to let the body know you’re full and to stop eating. At this point you’re eating empty calories effectively.
So you can quickly see that this rapidly becomes another pretty unhealthy scenario – but again it’s not you it’s your hormones!