Sugar is Decidedly Not Healthy…But Is It Toxic??

June 1, 2011

Recently sugar’s been in the spotlight thanks to a Gary Taubes article in the NY Times (Taubes article is in response to a UCSF video by Robert Lustig, MD) . But, toxic is a strong word – does sugar merit such a harsh rap? Absolutely. First, what do we mean when we say “sugar”? The particular sugar that’s getting the heat here is fructose. Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruit and vegetables. In this form, its fine – the dose is small and it comes pre- packaged with fiber – so all is well when it comes to metabolizing fruit in the form of let’s say an apple. Trouble arises though when we remove the fiber and up the dose. Troublemakers such as this include the dreaded high fructose corn syrup and white sugar or table sugar (chemically known as sucrose: one glucose molecule attached to one fructose molecule) but a few other so called “healthy sweeteners” are not much better. The list includes agave (typically contains more fructose than high fructose corn syrup); molasses, raw sugar, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, crystalline fructose, honey, invert sugar, and malt sugar. Why are these other sweeteners lumped in with nasty corn syrup? They are still sugar, they are still partly (mostly in some cases) fructose – and too much of any of them is not a good thing for our livers, our blood sugar or our waistlines. Why is fructose such a problem – and why might some say it’s toxic? A toxin is something our body has a limited capacity to deal with, once that system has been taxed the toxin builds up and we get sick – or worse, die. A small amount of a lethal toxin, like hemlock, might be all it takes. Whereas it would take several bottles of hard alcohol in a short time period to totally do us in. Sugar, on the other hand (particularly fructose – more on that in a moment) becomes toxic to us slowly, over time, but for the same reason: we overtax our ability to metabolize it. A single soda is hardly lethal, but the consequences of repeated, larger doses of fructose create a metabolic nightmare in our livers. When we repeatedly overwhelm our body’s capacity to deal with fructose by eating packaged foods, high sugar treats like cookies or drinking sodas and fruit juices, etc we get sick: high cholesterol, high triglycerides, expanding waistlines and a whole mess of inflammation. These symptoms together are known as Metabolic Syndrome (often thought of as pre-diabetes or when it affects our ovaries ladies, it’s called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS) – and the evidence is becoming undeniable that sugar is a bigger culprit than fat. The great news is that this is avoidable – and to a certain extent reversible if you’ve already succumb to our Western, sugar-laden lifestyle. Follow these tips to steer clear of too much fructose: Don’t be fooled by health food stores – just because its “natural” doesn’t mean it’s not loaded with “natural sugar” that will still thwart weight loss and health efforts. So be smart about your sweeteners and read your labels. Packaged foods – whether labeled organic, healthy, natural or not – are lower in fiber, lower in protein and higher in sugar than real, whole food. If you do choose a packaged food, read your labels and refer to the list above – if any of those sugars are in the top 5 ingredients, put it back on the shelf. The bulk of your diet should be unpackaged, whole foods including vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and clean, lean proteins. Remember the fructose in fruit and veggies is not the problem – it’s the concentrated, high dose, low fiber fructose sources or sugar sources that are the issue. (For meal ideas, quick snacks and tasty non-packaged food options follow my Facebook page for daily tips). Minimize or avoid juices and sodas as beverages. Water, sparkling water, and tea are better choices. OK, you accept that soda is not healhty, but fruit juice is loaded with antioxidants right? Get those nutrients, antioxidants, etc in the whole fruit instead (nature packaged it with that much needed fiber – smart huh?). At the very least dilute fruit juices with sparkling water for a lower sugar spritzer.

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