Robert Lustig, a Professor of Pediatrics in California in San Francisco has been one of the biggest factors responsible for bringing the detrimental effects of sugar to light. He states “ Sugar is poison, it’s a chronic, dose-dependent, heparoliver toxin.” Shocked? Well, what’s more, shocking is that almost 80% of your food, from your bread to the tomato sauce to your peanut butter and your protein bar everything can have sugar. Not convinced? Do you belong to the health-conscious lot and constantly check labels to see that sugar isn’t present and know your daily sugar intake? Well here too the food industry has its own antics. It has a list of 54 other names like agave nectar, golden syrup, beet sugar which it uses to hide the usage of added sugars.
Whatever names are used ultimately it’s sugar and it’s detrimental to your health. Before we discuss this in detail, let’s know what sugar is.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is a general term used to describe a class of molecules called carbohydrates. Chemically, it is known as sucrose. Table sugar consists of 1 molecule of glucose and 1 molecule of fructose.
Along with another molecule galactose, this trio forms any type of carbohydrates. These three sugars are known as a monosaccharide or simple sugar ( ribulose and deoxyribose are monosaccharides too but they are a component of RNA and DNA) and they bond in various ratios with each other to form complex carbohydrates and any carbohydrate that we consume ultimately breaks down to these three simple sugars.
How is Glucose is metabolized in your body?
Before glucose can hit the liver, it stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin which stimulates IRS-I which is an Insulin receptor which in turn stimulates a chain of reactions called SREBP-1(Sterol regulatory element-binding protein 1) and this activates an enzyme called glucokinase which converts the glucose into Glucose-6-Phosphate and this gets stored into the liver as glycogen.
The part that doesn’t get converted into glycogen gets converted to pyruvate which enters the mitochondria and converts to Acetyl CoA which burns in the TCA cycle (Tricarboxylic Acid Cycle or Citric Acid Cycle or Krebs cycle) to produce ATP (energy).
All of it isn’t burned and a part of it is left as citrate. Here SREBP-1 again activates three enzymes ACL(ATP citrate lyase), ACC (Acetyl-CoA carboxylase), and FAS (Fatty acid synthase) which carries out De Novo Lipogenesis (New Fat Formation) converting the citrate into fat.
Now the liver doesn’t want to store the excess fat so it converts it into VLDL ( Very Low-Density Lipoproteins) fat and stores them into fat tissues. This VLDL is a type of bad cholesterol and is responsible for making a person fat and also causing heart disease by enabling cholesterol build-up along the wall of arteries. However, this is not that bad. Why? Essentially 20% of the glucose makes it to the liver, half of which is converted to glycogen while a part of it into pyruvate and a very small portion is converted into VLDL. So maybe only 1/50 of the food we consume gets converted to VLDL.
How is Fructose metabolized in your body?
Almost 100% of the fructose we consume is metabolized in our liver.
As this fructose enters into your body, it is first converted to Fructose 1-Phosphate which then undergoes hydrolysis to form DHAP (dihydroxyacetone phosphate) and glyceraldehyde which is then converted to glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate. Increasing concentrations of both of these drive the gluconeogenic pathway towards Glucose-6-Phosphate, Glucose-1-Phosphate, and glycogen formation. Once the glycogen has been replenished in the liver the rest of it is directly converted into pyruvate which then reaches the mitochondria where it goes through the TCA cycle to produce tons of citrate. Here SREBP-1 is activated which activates three enzymes ACL, ACC, and FAS which finally converts citrate into VLDL fat and stores in fat tissues. Additionally, fructose forms Xylulose-5-Phosphate which further stimulates the De Novo Lipogenesis enzyme leading to further fat metabolism.
So now the liver has a lot of fat which it doesn’t want to store so it exports a part of the fat into free fatty acids which can get into the muscle causing muscle insulin resistance. Some of the fat won’t be able to get out of the liver and will accumulate as lipid droplets and cause non-alcoholic fatty liver.
Further while conversion of Fructose to Fructose-1-Phosphate there is a spike in uric acid in our bloodstream thus leading to hypertension.
Fructose actually provides the maximum of carbohydrate responsible for De Novo Lipogenesis.
How does Your Daily Sugar Intake Negatively Affect Your System?
Sugar causes weight gain-
Sugar makes you feel hungry by causing resistance to leptin, the hormone that signals satiety to your brain thus regulating hunger and telling your body to stop eating. This can lead to weight gain. According to an analysis of the relation between sugar-sweetened beverages(SSBs) and body weight gain, conducted by the National Institute of Health, United States people who drink sugary beverages were found to weigh more than people who didn’t. It also increases visceral fat deposition (VLDL is a type of visceral fat) leading to diabetes and heart disease.
Sugar increases the risk of heart disease-
According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, United States Atherosclerotic coronary heart disease (CHD), “ When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates and specifically with added sugars like sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, the end result is unfavorable for the heart. Such replacement leads to changes in LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL(High-density lipoprotein) and triglycerides that may increase the risk of CHD.”
This same study found out that a diet high in added sugars increased death due to cardiovascular disease by 3 times.
Sugar increases Cellular Aging
A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, United States concluded that high sugar accelerates the shortening of telomeres (structures at the end of chromosomes which hold a part of our genetic information) which causes cellular aging and cell malfunctioning.
Another study from the same institute stated that daily sugar intake of almost 600 ml of SSBs equated to 4.6 additional years of aging.
Sugar leads to NAFLD
NAFLD stands for Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. A diet high in fructose has been shown to increase the risk of this disease. A part of fructose gets converted into glycogen while a large part of it is converted into fat which gets accumulated in the liver causing Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) as a result of this excess buildup of fat.
A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health in a cohort of 5,900 individuals showed that consumption of SSBs led to a 56% increase in NAFLD.
Sugar increases your chances of depression
According to a study by National Institutes of Health in a group of 8,000 people for a span of 22 years showed that men consuming 67 grams or more sugar per day were 23% more likely to develop depression than people who ate less than 40 grams per day and this detrimental effect on mental health is mainly due to blood sugar swings, inflammation, and neurotransmitter regulation.
Why is Sugar so addictive?
As soon as you have daily sugar intake, the taste buds in your tongue are activated which in turn sends signals to the brain stem and from there it spreads to a part of the forebrain the cerebral cortex and this activates the brain’s reward system which is actually a series of chemical and electrical pathway encompassing several different regions of the brain. It’s a complicated network but it simply tells you whether you should repeat the activity by analyzing the feeling which came up with that activity and this feeling( good or bad)occurs due to the under secretion or over secretion of a neurotransmitter in charge of the brain’s reward system, Dopamine.
Compared to other tastes, sweet activates your reward center more than other tastes. That is how we have undergone evolution and have been programmed to seek sweet food in particular because sweet foods are naturally less poisonous. But here’s a catch, sugar has an opium-like effect. This fact can be demonstrated in the practice of administering a sweetened sugar solution, Sweet-ease to a newborn during circumcision ( the skin covering the penis is surgically removed) which activates the opioid system indulging enough analgesia for the baby to complete the procedure without a lot of fuss.
Why is the effect of refined sugar so intense?
For good yielding sugarcane, half of 1 stalk is juice and 20% of that is actual sugar. So the result of refinement is we end up getting a product which is almost 10 times sweeter than what we actually added in our daily sugar intake.
For e.g.- if your daily sugar intake is 82g that will equate to 26 teaspoons of sugar every day. To consume that much daily sugar intake you need to chew through 2 pounds of sugarcane. i.e. 2 pounds of fiber-rich plant material that your body will normally expect to come along with that much amount of sweetness. The fiber present slows down the rate at which sugar is released into your system. So without the fiber, sugar is rapidly absorbed by the intestine.
How has been the addictive nature of sugar been proved for humans?
The addictiveness of sugar has been proved in animals but it’ a bit different for humans.
According to APA (American Psychological Association) Substance Dependent Criteria, a substance has to fulfill any 3 of the 7 points mentioned out of which 5 are psychological and 2 are physiological.
Both these physiological factors are key to experimentally establish the addictiveness of sugar.
Tolerance– Tolerance is easy to determine using neural-imaging to see what is happening inside the brain when we become tolerant to a particular substance. When you become tolerant to something the dopamine system in your body gets down-regulated i.e. now you would need more dopamine to give the same effect i.e. you will crave more of the substance to give you the same amount of pleasure.
Withdrawal– People who have tried to give up on sugar and tried to reduce their daily sugar intake have reported lightheadedness, anxiety, mood swings, muscle aches, general fatigue, and physical tremors and shakes.
In his 2014 Documentary, That Sugar Film Director Damon Gameau goes on an experimental high sugar diet for a period of 60 days. Despite consuming the same amount of calories (2300 calories) and only altering his sugar intake, in 30 days alone he gained a total of 8.5 kg and 19 pounds and within the 18th day, he had developed fatty liver disease. When he finally goes off his diet, he talks about his withdrawal symptoms ” Frankly, I didn’t feel any different than giving up a cigarette. I had headaches, I was moody and my sleep patterns were terrible. As soon as I would be awake, I was craving sugar.”
Is Your Daily Sugar Intake too much?
As physician Paracelsus said, “The Dose makes the poison.”
SO if you aren’t somebody who is eating candies or drinking sodas every day, it shouldn’t be a matter of great concern. But the problem has been aptly described by Robert Lustig, ” Disease doesn’t happen with one meal but it happens with a thousand but that’s what we have because the sugar is there in every meal.”
That is precisely what is happening here. A lot of the people, even people belonging to the health-conscious section of the society might be consuming sugar without even realizing it. Ever since the advent of low-fat food, almost 80% of our foods contain sugar. This is because when you take the fat out of food it tastes too bad. Now if you are a food company targeting to maximize profits and also appeal to the consumer then the food needs to be healthy and tasty. These food companies discovered that any food can be made tasty by adding a little bit of sugar. They finally discovered a point where the food had the most appeal to consumers. This point is known as the bliss point. At this point, maximum sugar is added without making it too sweet and you will be amazed to know that it’s done for every kind of food starting from your daily bread to that pizza sauce and even your salad dressing. So now are you have a food marketed as “low-fat, healthy food” consisting of added sugar all along.
As sugar and high fructose corn syrup(chemically equal to sugar) gained a bad reputation in the market, the food companies decided on 54 other names that they can use to market their food as healthy all the while adding sugar to it. This is how even health-conscious people end up consuming twice the recommended daily sugar intake without even knowing it.
Here’s a list of alternative names of sugar used by the food industry.
Are you addicted to sugar?
If you are like most people most probably your craving is being addressed in every single, meal without you even realizing it. Then how do you know? There are some telltale signs that your body exhibits as a result of high daily sugar intake. Let’s have a look.
- Unexplained bloating.
- Low Energy Levels.
- Constant Craving.
- Weight gain.
- Sudden breakouts.
- Mood swings.
- Feeling hungry always.
- Joint Pain.
- Foggy Brain.
- High blood pressure.
How to break sugar addiction?
There are 5 things that are out of your control when you are addicted to sugar.
Let’s have a look at how each one of them contributes to your daily sugar intake and what can you do about it.
With respect to our brain, we consume sugar for the following two reasons:-
- It’s a biologically addictive substance that acts on your brain’s reward system and makes you feel good when you eat it. When you frequently eat it, your brain becomes tolerant to it and you crave more of it to get the same level of pleasure. Even if you try to do away with it, you will experience withdrawal symptoms.
- It keeps you hungry. Too much sugar increases the insulin secretion from your body as a result of which your hypothalamus can’t pick up on its leptin signal which is a hormone released by fat cells to signal satiety to your brain. As the brain is unable to pick it up, it makes you feel hungry.
Your brain also interprets this hunger as a lack of food and so conserves energy by lowering down activity. Anything that increases our energy expenditure makes us feel good and anything that doesn’t increase it makes us feel crappy. So sugar keeps you feeling hungry and crappy all at the same time.
One thing that can keep you going in your resolve to cut down sugar from your diet is the anticipation of better times as the longer you go without sugar, the better you would feel. You need to get this message into your brain that reducing sugar in any way doesn’t mean reducing happiness. The main premise of the book How to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr is that you need to convince your brain that you are not depriving it of anything by quitting smoking. Cigarettes don’t improve people’s lives anyway and the craving is because of the dependency created by the cigarettes. While sugar tastes good, the feeling of deprivation occurs due to the same reason.
Extended use of sugar changes your brain and makes you crave for it. A lot of people equate sugar with pleasure but what they don’t understand is that sugar creates contrast in happiness by lowering your basal happiness. E.g.- Due to overconsumption of sugar you constantly feel lazy and crappy but as soon as you consume a bit of sugar you start feeling great. So your happiness continues to oscillate between two things- having sugar and not having sugar.
Another point also comes forward here that people always think that once they quit sugar their days would be filled with agony as their body wouldn’t be able to take it but the truth is your body will eventually adjust to the lack of sugar in your diet and with the time you worry less and less about not having sugar in your diet. Additionally, your basal happiness levels don’t lower so you feel happy and content all the time.
Using the knowledge of bliss points to their benefit, the food companies add sugar in almost all of your normal everyday foods. You are incessantly bombarded with advertisements about these crappy foods almost everywhere. Sure, you can always choose to ignore it. But for how long? Even if you consciously choose to ignore it, it’s very confusing for your brain as your brain starts to secrete dopamine in anticipation of consuming that food. Ever noticed a car speeding towards you resulting in an increase in your heartbeat even though it stops at a good distance away from you? Or a mother lactating upon hearing her baby’s cries even if she is in another room? This is because our brain starts to prepare us for things that it expects to happen.
When you see colorful foods, your brain triggers insulin release to prepare you for digesting the food. The sweeter the food is, the more insulin is released as a result of which you feel hungrier (leptin signal is disturbed). So, seeing certain foods can make you hungry even if your stomach contents are unaltered.
The good news is you can change this programming.
If your programming is
Go to market See packaged food Open Food Eat Food.
Try changing it to this
Go To Market —> See Fresh Food —> Buy Fresh Food—> Bring the Food Home —> Cook The Food —> Eat Food
Your brain will slowly stop associating colorful packaged foods with eating and consequently, it will be much easier to break the chain.
In the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, he talks about basal ganglia which is a primitive part of the brain that packs a long series of actions into one single chunk. According to him, habits emerge because our brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. We can’t remember small details of our everyday task because mostly in our daily activities our basal ganglia takes over and we run on autopilot even in case of our food choices. This is something that a lot of prominent food chains like McDonald’s use in their strategy to keep people stuck with their food. All of them look similar and have similar architectural patterns and even their employees tell the same things to their customers. All of this is actually a cue for your brain to continue with its eating pattern.
As you repeat an action, a fatty tissue called myelin sheath covers the neurons and speeds up nerve impulses allowing certain actions to be associated with certain neurons so that they are performed without much mental effort. This explains why practice can make a man perfect but this also explains why people remain stuck in a particular routine.
Solution: You can use the above knowledge to your benefit too as you can practically get better at anything with practice. Just like you can get better with choosing packaged foods over fresh foods, you can get better at ditching packaged and junk foods and consume fresh, home-cooked foods instead.
Additionally, understanding the reason behind your craving makes it easier to address and control. In his 2016 TED Talk titled A simple way to break a bad habit Psychiatrist Judson Brewer delves into the relationship between mindfulness and any type of addiction. He explains how a group of smokers kicked off their smoking habits by just being mindful of their craving (noticing symptoms that occur when you have an urge to smoke like fidgeting, anxiety). This is very simple yet a profound tactic that might help you to beat that sugar craving lurking around in the corner.
So next time you feel an urge to buy processed foods, take a moment, and analyze why you have that craving. Did you see an advertisement? Are you stressed out and seeking these foods for comfort? Or are you suffering from a headache due to your withdrawal period? Analyzing the reason behind your craving a certain food makes it easier to get hold of it and let it pass.
Sugar leads to a breakdown of the intestinal barrier resulting in a leaky gut and increasing the chances of inflammation. John Yudkin in his 1972 book Pure White and Deadly stated: “Sugar may alter the numbers and proportions of huge numbers of different microbes that inhabit the intestine.”
The types of food eaten will affect the proportion and numbers of intestinal microbes.” One way your sugar consumption affects your gut microbiome is by facilitating the increase of fungi called Candida. An overgrowth of these fungi can lead to fatigue, weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation. Just like any other foods, the preferred food for Candida is sugar so its increase automatically results in increased daily sugar intake as this is their primary source of energy.
Having bad gut microbiome can actually influence your cravings by influencing your cravings through neural pathways between stomach and brain The gut is also sometimes called The Second Brain due to its extensive set of neurons this brain can affect your mood swings and overall health considerably.
One thing that you can do to restore a healthy gut and quit sugar is to consume fermented foods(restores healthy gut microbiota) and take probiotics( live bacteria and yeasts that are good for our digestive system) and prebiotics( a type of fiber that can’t be digested by human but they serve as foods for the probiotics). Both of these together help to restore the gut flora.
This is one factor that might be the easiest one to address or the hardest one depending on your family and friends. Pediatric Endocrinologist Robert Lustig states that “A sugar-addicted parent, similar to one who is a drug-addicted parent will act as an enabler, codependent or apologist for her child.” Going by this your friends and family who frequently consume sugar will also mostly prefer that you consume the same type of food. They would either tease you or would coarse you to consume more sugar.
There is actually little advice to impart for this problem as if you stick to your resolve your family and friends will eventually understand. Additionally, read more on how sugar affects your system. This will not only help you to answer people when you are put up with benefits of sugar ( like “Sugar can’t be bad even fruits contain sugar.” ) and questions but will also strengthen your resolve towards quitting. The more knowledge you have about what your daily sugar intake does inside your body, the more reasons you will have to quit it, and the easier it will be for you to follow through on your resolve.
The Bottom Line
Well after hearing so many negative aspects of sugar you might be wondering whether you should do away with sugar completely. What about fruits then?
Well, the whole premise of the article is about added sugar and not the naturally occurring sugar as this sugar comes with a package of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients that lowers down the intestinal absorption of sugar. At the end of the day, we need sugar (glucose) due to the requirement of energy which we can easily obtain from vegetables, dairy, seeds, and meats.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends having 50 grams or less than 12.5 teaspoons of added sugar daily for an adult eating 2,000 calories a day.
To put it in Dr. Lustig’s words,
“ The food industry has made it into a diet staple because they know when they do you buy more. This is their hook. If some unscrupulous cereal manufacturer went out and laced your breakfast cereal with morphine to get you to buy more, what would you think of that? They do it with sugar instead. We need to wean ourselves off. We need to de-sweeten our lives. We need to make sugar a treat, not a staple diet.”