It Doesn't Take Much Sugar for It to Wreak Havoc on Your Body
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Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop, just coined a new catchphrase that ought to go viral: “Sugar is NOT just an empty calorie.”
Her statement contradicts the notion we’ve had for years that the worst thing about sugar is its lack of nutrients. Either you’re eating sugar in addition to all of the calories you need to stay healthy, or you’re eating it instead of them. In the former case, you’re getting too many calories; in the latter, you’re getting too few nutrients. This idea is so dominant it was recently cited in an anti-sugar op-ed in the Guardian.
Even if that was the case, we’re eating too much sugar. Or, more specifically, too much added sugar. Sugars that are naturally present in whole foods like fruit are okay; it’s the sugar added to whole foods that we must worry about. Previously, the World Health Organization said we should limit consumption of added sugars to 10 percent of calories. Even then, more than seven in 10 Americans ate too much sugar. On average, about 15 percent of our calories came from added sugars.
But now WHO is considering cutting its recommendation in half. That means limiting sugar consumption to five teaspoons, the amount found in half a can of soda. The American Heart Association has long recommended that women limit added sugars to six teaspoons and men stick with nine or less. (For those looking for a loophole, this means all added sugars, including so-called healthier sweeteners like maple syrup, agave, honey, or even fruit juice.)
Niman was examining the health impacts of sugar at the same time as WHO. In researching and writing her latest book, she dug into studies that found evidence sugar does more than just lack nutrients. “The sugar is going to actually damage your body. It’s not just that you’re not going to get the nutrients,” she said.
The link between sugar and disease is not a new one. Decades ago, nutrition professor John Yudkin wrote a book called Pure, White, and Deadly in which he posited that sugar was the culprit behind heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The food industry fought back. This was the era of lowfat, not low sugar. (In his book, Yudkin even quotes a sugar industry advertisement claiming that sugar makes you thin. Go figure that out.)
The general term "sugar" can mean any number of things. Table sugar, or sucrose, is composed of a glucose molecule bonded to a fructose molecule. Glucose is what plants make during photosynthesis and it’s half as sweet as table sugar. Fructose, naturally found in honey and many fruits, is 70 percent sweeter than table sugar.
On your tongue, you taste a difference in sweetness between glucose and fructose. Once in your body, the difference continues. Glucose is metabolized by every cell in your body. After you eat, your blood glucose levels rise, and your body releases insulin. The insulin helps your muscles, fat and liver absorb the glucose, decreasing your blood sugar. Levels of another hormone, leptin, also rise. Leptin regulates your appetite; once you’ve eaten and your body has plenty of fuel to keep going, leptin tells you to stop. Another hormone, ghrelin, decreases. Ghrelin stimulates your appetite, and after you’ve eaten, it’s already done its job.
Fructose, on the other hand, is only metabolized by your liver. The title of a 2004 study says it all: “Dietary fructose reduces circulating insulin and leptin, attenuates postprandial suppression of ghrelin, and increases triglycerides in women.” In other words, after you eat fructose, your body never gets the message, “You’ve eaten enough, now stop.” As for those increased triglycerides, well… another word for triglyceride is “fat.”