Carolyn Dean, MD, ND
Hungry, Jenny ate four teaspoons of peanut butter straight from the jar. Within minutes she became hyperactive. Sound familiar? In these four teaspoons of grocery store-bought peanut butter, Jenny just ate one whole teaspoon of sugar..
Hungry, Jenny ate four teaspoons of peanut butter straight from the jar. Within minutes she became hyperactive. Sound familiar? In these four teaspoons of grocery store-bought peanut butter, Jenny just ate one whole teaspoon of sugar.
A sugar-induced epidemic may have already begun: More than two million Canadians now have diabetes, a leading cause of death by disease in this country. By 2010, that number is estimated to rise to three million (Canadian Diabetes Association). Risk factors for type II diabetes obesity and impaired glucose tolerance suggest a link to excess sugar consumption.
What is Sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate, which is one of the three macronutrients we need to live (the other two are protein and fat). Not limited to just white table sugar, there are actually six types: fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose.
If the only sugar we consumed were in nutrient-dense whole foods, such as fruit and vegetables, we'd all be fine. However, eating too many refined or concentrated sugars such as brown sugar, corn syrup, processed honey and white table sugar, all of which lack any nutrients, can cause health problems.
Why Else is Sugar Bad for Me?
Eating too much sugar can compromise your immune system. According to Kenneth Bock, MD, an expert in nutritional and environmental health in New York, two cans of soda pop (which together typically contain 18 to 22 teaspoons of sugar) reduce the efficiency of white blood cells (an integral part of your immune system) by 92 percent an effect that lasts up to five hours.
Your body quickly absorbs refined sugar into your bloodstream, which causes your pancreas to rapidly release the hormone insulin to normalize blood sugar levels. In turn, this can cause blood sugar to suddenly drop. To compensate, your adrenal glands release high levels of another hormone, cortisol, which puts your body in high-stress mode. This constant stress from high sugar intake leads to early menopause, adult-onset diabetes (type II), hypoglycemia and chronic fatigue.
And consider this: your body draws from its nutrient reserves to metabolize sugar. Depleted nutrient reserves leave your body unable to metabolize fatty acids and cholesterol, which could put you at risk for a range of diseases from cardiovascular disease to adult-onset diabetes.
Worse, children are the biggest consumers of sugary foods, and they are eating them at a time when their brains and bodies are growing rapidly and they need a nutrient-dense diet for proper physical and mental development.
Should I Still be Concerned About my Sugar Consumption?
Most naturally sweet whole foods don't really contain much sugar. A cup of strawberries, for example, contains about one-sixth the sugar of a can of cola.
But unless you eat a diet made entirely of whole, unprocessed foods, you're probably eating too much sugar. Sugar in its many forms is added to virtually every packaged food product and not just the sweet stuff. If you eat one serving of fruit-flavoured yogurt, even some natural varieties, you've probably used up your day's sugar allowance.
Don't be fooled by the ingredients list. By law, a food manufacturer has to list the ingredients in a product by weight. The first ingredient listed is the predominant ingredient. For example, three different sugars in the middle of the list appears as if the product contains not much sugar. But grouped together, sugar would be the first ingredient.
Is there a Safe Amount of Sugar?
The average Canadian consumed about 40 kilograms (90 pounds) of refined sugar in 2000, according to Statistics Canada (CANSIM II, "Per Capita Consumption of Major Food Groups," January 2002). Ideally, you should eliminate all refined, concentrated sugar from your diet. If you can't completely cut out sugar, try not to eat more than five teaspoons a day or get more than five per cent of your daily calorie intake (assuming a 2,000 calorie diet) from all types of sugar, whichever number is lower.
To find out how much added sugar you're consuming, keep a food diary for one week. From the labels of the foods you eat, note the sugar content in grams. At week's end, take the total number of sugar grams and divide it by 4.2 to get your weekly sugar intake in teaspoons (4.2 grams of sugar is approximately one teaspoon). Then divide that number by seven to get your daily sugar consumption.
How do natural sweeteners like honey stack up?
Some natural sweeteners organic blackstrap molasses, unprocessed honey, fruit juice and dried natural sugar cane juice (such as Rapadura and Sucanat), for example contain low levels of nutrients such as B vitamins and iron, calcium and potassium. But these natural sweeteners are still highly concentrated sugars and have a similar effect on your body.
A great choice is the herb stevia (Stevia rebaudiana). Not only is stevia safe and calorie-free, but one study also shows that it may lower blood sugar levels in diabetics by helping to regulate pancreatic function. Stevia also has antimicrobial properties and might help the body fight off colds and flu.
What About Aspartame and Saccharin?
Don't switch from natural sugar to sugar-free substitutes. Many wholistic doctors agree that artificial sweeteners are more unhealthy than sugar. Enough evidence exists from small studies and doctors' experiences to cause concern about aspartame. Possible links exist between aspartame and birth defects, headaches, brain tumours and aggravation of mood disorders.
Saccharin was found to produce urinary bladder tumours in male rats. Until recently, all products that contained saccharin had to carry a warning, "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health."
After a lifetime of consuming refined sugar, many North Americans are addicted and will do anything to get a fix even compromise their health. It's time to reduce our sugar consumption and take control of our health.
Choose from these natural, unrefined sweeteners for the occasional sweet dish:
The average Canadian drank 113 litres of soft drinks in 2000 close to one can of sugar-filled pop a day.
Source: Statistics Canada, CANSIM II, "Per Capita Consumption of Major Food Groups," January 2002
Name That Sugar
In addition to fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose and sucrose, sugar goes by many other names. For a comprehensive list of sugar pseudonyms, see Health Hazards of White Sugar by Lynne Melcombe (alive Natural Health Guide, 2000), available through your local health food store or alive Books at 1-800-663-6513.