Is Sugar Bad for You?
Most people love a sugar treat, a dessert, chocolate, cake or biscuit, but let’s look at the effects of sugar in a totally different light. The following powerful facts might just surprise you, as we take a look at the metabolism of sugar and its effects on your body, by understanding the hormonal relationship.
Firstly it’s extremely important to understand sugar is only part of the story, yet all media attention focuses on the sugar content of food and drink. There is a failure to understand that around 89% of the western diet is carbohydrate based. Carbohydrates are multiple chains of sugar molecules. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and this is where the majority of sugar in the diet comes from.
Before we start it’s critical to know that glucose is right at the top of the chain of command, as it’s essential to have glucose circulating within the blood stream, within healthy parameters. This provides energy to the cells and muscles, in order for them to perform their biological roles.
However there is a hormone that is running the show behind the scenes, putting things in metabolic order and telling the other hormones and nutrients what to do, including glucose. Meet your ‘undercover boss’ insulin. A master hormone, essential to life – but also a monster hormone, too much causes you enormous problems. Insulin also has a biological partner glucagon, they both work together within narrow physiological parameters.
Here’s what happens when your eat carbohydrates and sugar:
Your body’s digestive system breaks carbohydrates down into glucose (that’s your pizza, pie, pasta, rice, sandwich, wrap or jacket potato you just had for lunch, or that quick chocolate snack, crisps or biscuit) which then travels in the bloodstream to cells throughout your body. Glucose in the blood is called blood glucose, also known as blood sugar. As the blood glucose level rises after your meal, your pancreas releases insulin to help your cells take in and use the glucose.
Now let’s take a look at five surprising facts of how insulin runs your metabolic machinery:
INSULIN CONTROLS YOUR FAT STORAGE
Insulin controls your fat storage. This will be a shock to some of you, but insulin’s behaviour is all about storing energy. It turns excess glucose and protein to fat, ready for fat storage and sends it to your fat cells. If there’s not enough room, you build new fat cells.
It tells your body how to stuff that steak, chips and salad into your cells. Basically, insulin directs the flow of the nutrients and food you eat into the right places, whether that’s protein, fats or carbohydrates. It’s also closely involved in your appetite control.
Eating too many carbohydrates and sugar means you’re heading for high insulin hell. This excess energy increases blood sugar, which increases insulin, which triggers the storage cycle and increases fat accumulation. Fat by contrast has virtually no effect on insulin levels, while protein has a moderate effect, as protein can be converted to glucose. Insulin is required to move glucose into the cells, the more carbohydrates and sugar you eat, the greater the demand on insulin.
INSULIN ALSO ACTS AS A GROWTH HORMONE
If you’re going to grab yourself a ‘spare tire’ around the middle, or even if you’re pumping weights at the gym, to store fat or build muscle, new cells are needed; insulin acts as a growth hormone for this process. Cholesterol plays a vital role in building and storing, providing the structural framework for all this to happen.
INSULIN RUNS THE CHOLESTEROL MAKING PROCESS
Insulin also regulates your liver’s synthesis of cholesterol, it activates the enzymes that run the cholesterol making process. Fat is the raw material used to make cholesterol, but insulin runs the machinery. High levels of insulin spurs our cells to produce cholesterol.
Excess insulin almost guarantees excess cholesterol. Reduce insulin and cells can’t convert fat to cholesterol, no matter how much fat is available.
Cholesterol mainly increases when fat is eaten with carbohydrate/sugar excess at the same time. They are a dangerous combination when they partner up in our everyday manufactured foods.
INSULIN IS A SIGNIFICANT RISK FACTOR FOR CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
If you want to keep your arteries and heart in good check, you’ll want to keep insulin on the low side. Excess insulin encourages cells to multiply, causing growth of the smooth muscle cells in the linings of your arteries.
For a happy ‘cardiovascular’ environment, you don’t want excess clutter in your arteries, causing less space, less flexibility, less room for movement and raising your blood pressure. But that’s what in fact you’re unconsciously doing, when you consume a high carbohydrate or high sugar diet.
Much larger muscle cells thicken your artery walls, creating less space, they become less elastic, reducing the volume. Less elastic and smaller coronary arteries, make you prone to develop plaque and arterial spasm. The heart has to elevate blood pressure, to force blood through narrow thick arteries, to the rest of the body.
But insulin also has another trick up its sleeve, it’s telling your kidneys to hold on to your salt and water, increasing the volume of your blood and therefore your blood pressure.
INSULIN RESISTANCE – WHEN YOU CAN’T USE YOUR INSULIN PROPERLY
Running on a high carbohydrate and sugar diet for a prolonged period of time will eventually cause insulin resistance in a large section of the population, especially true for those that have a genetic predisposition towards problems with sugar management. This is a condition in which your body produces insulin, but it does not use it properly. This is what eventually leads to type 2 diabetes in most people.
SIMPLE FOOD SWAPS TO LOWER INSULIN
If you want to help safeguard yourself against cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, this means swapping some of your high carbohydrate foods for the metabolic superiority of fats as energy. This also comes with a mental enhancement (say no to ‘brain fog’) and better health and longevity with good blood sugar control.
For individuals without a metabolic condition, this means focusing on a range of vegetables and healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, nut butters, seeds and oils such as coconut and olive oil, alongside natural saturated fats such as butter, meat and dairy products. Reduce your reliance on high carb foods such as bread, pasta, rice, cereals, flour products and potatoes, so that you are not having high carbohydrate foods at every single meal and give insulin a break. It can be as simple as choosing low carbohydrate for one meal a day.
By Beth Etherington (BSc N. Med, mFNTP, CNHC)
Nutritional Therapist, Health Coach & Blood Sugar Management Specialist
Creator of The Sugar Hunter Program