The Sugar Blues

Hello, my sweets!

So you want to talk sugar – and I don’t blame you a bit. It’s been a hot topic for some time now, and as our focus slowly shifts away from fat as the primary culprit for obesity (more on that soon), a great deal of light has been shed on the idea that sugar may be a bigger player – as well as a major contributor to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome – than we thought. Wondering what it is about sugar that can be so harmful? While I truly believe there is a time and a place for everything (hello, birthday cake!), here’s a more in-depth look at how and why sugar affects the body - and why I advise that it's eaten sparingly. 

When I work with clients, part of the goal is to get them to eating a balance of nutrient dense foods: produce, complex carbs, protein, and healthy fat. This is because when a person begins to eat mostly nutritious food, they almost inevitably find that it becomes incredibly satiating, and it’s easy to feel satisfied and full until the next meal or midday snack– hunger and fullness cues become very clear.    

Sugar has quite the opposite effect. 

When a large amount of sugar is consumed, the body over-produces insulin to help it properly absorb into the body. This spike in insulin causes blood sugar to drop below normal levels- which is why you’ll often experience a “crash” after eating it. The body responds to this by craving more sugar, which is why you’ve probably found yourself going back for a 3rd cookie half an hour after eating the first two (it’s not just willpower, you guys).  If that weren’t enough, it also triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline…and this is why you’ve probably experienced feeling shaky or nauseous after a big ol’ slice of pie a la mode. To put it simply, eating sugar creates a vicious cycle: a quick high, an intense low, and almost always, cravings for more.  There are no hunger cues, there is no satiety, and it becomes very easy to overeat. 

Here’s another problem with sugar: it can be stored as fat. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll run you through the Cliffs Notes version of what happens to sugar in the body as it’s consumed:  you eat a cookie, the sugar from the cookie hits the bloodstream, and as discussed, the pancreas releases insulin to convert sugar into glucose. Some of that glucose can be stored in muscle and liver cells to be used as quick energy, but those cells can only hold a limited supply. The rest of that sugar can be stored as fat in the liver or in fat cells – which can make losing weight pretty tricky.

Lastly, sugar can cause chronic inflammation. Ah, another buzzword du jour, and with good reason. Inflammation is a topic deserving of its own post, but here’s what you need to know for now: eating sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed food increases an inflammatory response in the body. I promise to elaborate more on the "how and why" of inflammation soon, but the key takeaway is the fact that more and more studies are linking chronic inflammation to cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease – all in all, a very compelling reason to eat it sparingly.  

But wait, you say. You don’t have a sweet tooth. Well lucky you! (Ignore my sarcasm, I’m just jealous) But did you know that sugar can be found in 75% of packaged foods? And that it’s got many aliases when it comes to what it calls itself on a list of ingredients – 57 different names, to be exact. And, did you know that the body reacts to simple carbs almost the same way? It does! 

Check back next week for Sugar Blues, part 2, to learn how to identify hidden sources of sugar, about the different kinds of sugar, the “fruit question” (I get it all the time) and how to handle those cravings that can be so hard to kick. See you soon!