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Sugar–the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Erin O’Brien

We’ve all heard it before—sugar is bad for you. More recently, the enemy has been high-fructose corn syrup—a chemically modified version of sucrose (table sugar). However, even the most basic chemistry or biology class teaches that bodies run on sugar, more specifically glucose—sugar in its most basic form. So how can some types of sugar be good and some bad? The quick answer to this question is moderation. Almost any type of food we put in our bodies is acceptable and safe, as long as it is eaten in moderation. Glucose, sucrose and fructose are all types of sugar naturally existing in the food we eat. The difference comes from the way our bodies process each type of sugar. Sucrose and fructose are broken down from their more complex structures to make glucose once inside the body, which is then used for cell energy and growth. All three of these types of sugars are naturally-occurring, meaning they are naturally found in foods like fruits, root vegetables and honey. High-fructose corn syrup is chemically modified from its natural form, corn syrup, by increasing the amount of fructose. The modern problem with sugar, is that as a general population we eat too much of it. Our bodies have a finite amount of sugar that can be processed at one time, and if there is an excess in the body the sugar is converted to fat and stored. Too much sugar in the bloodstream can also raise insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It tells the body to utilize glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream for energy and also use fat stores if there is not enough glucose in the blood. Too much glucose in the blood, however, will elevate insulin levels and “trick” the body into storing glucose as fat instead of utilizing it for energy. We all know that excess fat equals excess weight, and excess weight leads to a host of health concerns. The other problem with too much glucose in the blood is that is also raises the level of triglycerides and cholesterol, especially low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). LDL is a type of protein that transports cholesterol around the body wherever it is needed. Unfortunately, if there is too much LDL cholesterol in your body, it ends up getting deposited along the walls of your arteries, causing plaques which can lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD). High-fructose corn syrup can compound this problem. A diet high in high-fructose corn syrup, or any sugar, will cause the liver to convert fructose to fat, also leading to increased levels of LDL. The modern human diet, especially in the United States, is very high in added (or not naturally-occurring) sugars and processed carbohydrates. Combined with a low intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as sub-optimal lifestyle habits, physical inactivity and use of tobacco, this is a recipe for disaster. This type of lifestyle leads to an increased risk of obesity, CVD, type 2 diabetes and cancer. It produces a tremendous amount of premature deaths, lost quality of life and global economic disruption due to skyrocketing health care costs. Diet soda, perceived by some as a “healthy” alternative, is also to blame. While some think that they are making a healthy choice, there is added sugar in diet soda too. Often times, these sugars more closely resemble chemicals than actual sugar and contribute to an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, kidney disease and metabolic syndrome. One study shows that middle-aged men and women who consumed more than one diet soda per day had a 30% higher risk of developing these diseases. Those with the lowest incidence of these conditions drank one or fewer diet sodas per month. Some recent research has focused on cancer’s relation to sugar in the diet. While no study has been conclusive to date, several suggest that a high dietary sugar intake actually causes some cancer to grow and spread—especially breast and colon cancer. This is because cancerous tumors have insulin receptors that feed on glucose. If there is too much sugar in the body, insulin production goes up and that insulin tells the cancer cells to grow. While much of this research is new, there are many cancer and CVD patients that have attested to the success of a low-sugar diet. We cannot avoid sugar altogether, as it is our body’s main source of fuel and found in most of the foods we eat, but it is important to limit the amount we take into our bodies. This can be easily done by eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables (especially raw) and lean proteins and avoiding processed foods and added sugars and chemicals. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, as that is where the healthiest foods are, and visit local farmers’ markets for even fresher produce grown with fewer, or no, chemicals. A healthy diet is a balancing act, but can be done by making smart choices. The long term benefits will far outweigh any perceived negatives and produce a higher quality of life for anyone willing to make the effort.

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