Sugar is available in many forms. These include granulated white table sugar, brown sugar, demerara sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar and muscovado sugar. Then there are the sugars available in liquid form, such as corn syrup, agave syrup, rice syrup, molasses, maple syrup and honey. We take a closer look at all these sugars here.
There also exists a range of artificial (man-made) sugars. These are basically food additives that provide a sweet taste (much more intense than real sugar) while containing significantly less calories. Some are produced naturally and some synthetically – see here for more information on artificial sweeteners.
No matter what of type of sugar we eat though, or in what form, our bodies break it down into glucose which is then used as fuel. As long as we don’t eat too much sugar, and so create more fuel than our bodies need, there isn’t a problem. However, when we do, we potentially open ourselves up to a number of diseases and ailments.
This is surprising as there can’t be many people these days who don’t know that a high consumption of sugar is bad for their health. And yet most of these same people, particularly in the western nations, are still eating far too much of it. Indeed, on average, we are each consuming about 20 teaspoons a day. The recommended amount, however, is just 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men.
The reason for this is that most people either simply aren’t aware how much sugar is in the foods they are eating, or that they contain sugar at all. They may know that foods like candy, cakes, doughnuts, etc, are high in sugar but don’t know that even savory foods, such as bread, tomato sauce, canned soup, etc, contain sugar. As a result, it’s all too easy to eat more of the stuff than is healthy and not even be aware that you’re doing so.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the processed food manufacturers go to great lengths to hide the fact that their products contain sugar. Instead of just saying sugar on the nutrition information labels, they will use one of the many alternative names for sugar. For example, corn syrup, agave nectar, cane juice and sucrose. However, they’re all one and the same thing and too much of it can affect peoples health in numerous ways.
Lets take a look at the most common problems caused by a surfeit of sugar:
Obesity rates are rising all over the world and sugar, particularly from sugar-sweetened drinks, is one of the main causes. Sugary drinks like sodas, juices and energy drinks contain a high proportion of fructose – just one of many types of sugar. Probably the most pernicious effect of fructose is that it increases our desire to eat – much more than other sugars do. Furthermore, excessive consumption of fructose can create a resistance to leptin. This is an important regulatory hormone that controls the hunger signals sent out by the body, i.e. it tells us when to stop eating.
Research has shown quite clearly that people who frequently drink highly sugared beverages weigh more than people who don’t. They are also far more likely to have an unhealthy amount of visceral fat – a type of deep belly fat that is associated with serious conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
A diet high in refined carbohydrates which invariably includes a high amount of sugary foods and drinks, has been shown to create a higher than normal risk of developing acne. This is because highly sugared foods cause a rapid increase in blood sugar and insulin levels. These in turn, result in increased levels of androgen secretion, and also inflammation. Both play a major role in the development of this unpleasant condition.
Studies have shown that in rural parts of the world, where processed foods are rarely eaten, acne is almost non-existent.
Across the world, cases of diabetes has more than doubled over the past 30 years. However, it is important to be aware that there are actually two types of diabetes – type 1 and type 2.
In type 1 diabetes, insulin producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system. The amount of sugar in a person’s diet, or indeed anything in their lifestyle, has nothing to do with it. The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown to us – some unlucky people get it, the lucky ones don’t.
Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is much more likely to occur in people who are overweight. This, of course, is where sugar comes into the equation. Being the main cause of people putting on weight, it is thus the main cause of type 2 diabetes. It has to be said though, that this type of diabetes is a complex disease and an excessive amount of sugar is not always the reason a person develops it.
Sugar does not directly cause cancer. However, there is an indirect link between the two and, yet again, it comes down to weight. Excessive consumption of sugar usually causes people to gain weight and scientific evidence shows that being overweight increases the risk of getting no less than 13 different types of cancer. So obesity, and thus sugar to a very large degree, is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer.
Furthermore, people with diets high in sugar subject their bodies to increased levels of inflammation. High-sugar diets can also be the cause of insulin resistance. In both cases, just one of the attendant risks is the development of cancer.
A number of studies have demonstrated the negative effects sugar can have on mood, temperament and general quality of life. Quite apart from making us fat, it is a major factor in a number of mental health issues.
Depression is a good example of this. An excessive consumption of sugar is known to increase the risk of depression in people unfortunate enough to be afflicted with schizophrenia. It also plays a significant role in chronic inflammation which has a negative impact on the immune system, the brain and other systems in the body. Inflammation can also cause pain in the joints and considerably increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Another is that sugar can be addictive. Drugs, and to a lesser extent sugar, flood the brain with a feel-good chemical known as dopamine. In a study done at Yale University, the sight of a milkshake activated the same type of response in people who have a high intake of sugar as cocaine does with drug addicts. Another study has shown that rats fed sugar-rich foods demonstrate all the symptoms of addiction.
Then there is anxiety. The standard western diet, packed as it is with sugar and unhealthy fats, while not necessarily causing this, does appear to exacerbate it. People who are susceptible to panic attacks, for example, tend to be always on the alert for signals of potential danger. Just some of the effects an excess of sugar is known to cause include brain fog (difficulty in thinking), blurred vision and fatigue. In people of a nervous disposition, these can all be the cause of a panic attack.
Yet another pernicious effect of sugar on mental health is that it can compromise cognitive abilities such as learning and memory. A diet high in sugar causes insulin resistance which in turn damages communication between brain cells that handle learning and memory. A study done on rats showed that after several weeks of a high-sugar diet, they were unable to find their way out of a maze, whereas rats that ate a nutritious diet were able to do so.
Aging of the Skin
High-sugar diets are known to damage elastin and collagen molecules in the skin. This is a major cause of wrinkles and sagging of the skin. Studies have demonstrated that Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE’s) – a class of compounds created by certain combinations of proteins and sugars – accelerate the effects of aging. Excessive levels of blood sugar are a known cause of AGE’s.
Fatty Liver Disease
We mentioned fructose at the beginning of this article. This is a type of sugar that is known to increase the risk of fatty liver disease. Unlike glucose and other types of sugar which are taken up by various types of cell throughout the body, fructose is almost exclusively broken down by the liver. It is then converted into energy or stored as glycogen.
However, the liver can only store so much glycogen. When it has reached its limit, any further amounts are turned into fat and stored in the liver. This leads to a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Studies have shown that people who eat excessive amounts of sugar have an approximately 50 percent greater chance of developing NAFLD than people who do not.
Our mouths are not just full of teeth – they are also full of bacteria, many types of which are actually beneficial. Some, however, depend on the sugars we eat for their existence. The latter type create acids that destroy tooth enamel – the protective outer layer of the tooth.
When this happens, a cavity, or hole, is formed in the tooth. If left untreated, these cavities can progress past the enamel and into the deeper layers of the tooth, causing pain and eventually the loss of the tooth.