When we look back at every birthday party and celebration, baseball game or movie theater experience, there is usually one thing that we all use to heighten our
experience, Sugar. From soda to cake, sugary foods are the epitome of indulgence and enjoyment. These experiences become markers in our memory, calling us back time and again to feel that happiness once more. In fact, we have done this so much in our society, that you can not have a celebration without indulging in something sweet. Birthdays, weddings, graduations, baby showers, even funerals, are all events that would be criticized had they omitted the cake or cookies.
Many who read this will immediately stop and navigate to a different page. We cling to what we like so much, that when someone tells us that we are making a bad decision, we get angry and rebellious, refusing to see truth in favor of persisting down a life path that is enjoyable, albeit unhealthy. It is immediate gratification prioritized over responsibility. So if you have begun to look at your dietary habits, or have already and need to navigate the waters of healthy versus un-healthy sweeteners, this post is for you.
The three different forms of simple sugar
Glucose is our primary sweetener, naturally found in milk, fruit, and other carbohydrate foods. Our whole body uses it for energy. It is the safest form of sweetener because it has the lowest tendency to bond with a protein or lipid and cause damage. This horrific process is called “glycation” and is 10 times more prominent in Fructose and Sucrose molecules. After Glucose travels through the stomach into the small intestine, it is absorbed through the intestinal wall to be carried to the liver via the blood. When the liver gets it, Glucose triggers the release of insulin to carry it through the body to be used. Our brains simply couldn’t function without it. However, when there is an excess of glucose, our liver will begin to turn it into glycogen (bundles of glucose) and absorb it to save for future use (in between meals or overnight). When our liver is packed with glycogen, the bundles of sugar are then turned into fatty acids to be stored as fat. If you are getting your glucose from natural foods, it is very hard to cause this to happen, as the body will use about 80 percent of the glucose for energy. Where glucose can be found readily in most of our foods, it isn’t the only sugar molecule present. Most foods contain more than one type of sugar molecule. (It is also necessary for me to note that Galactose is a milk sugar molecule that I am not going to delve into because the body converts it into Glucose.)
Sucrose is equal parts glucose and fructose and is most commonly used as table sugar, though it is also produced in plants through photosynthesis. Where most people believe table sugar comes primarily from sugar cane, it mostly comes from sugar beets
and is highly refined and processed. The Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) are two important factors when thinking about sugars. For example, table sugar is among the highest on the chart for GI as well as the GL. This is because table sugar is 99.9% sucrose with no other nutritional value. Watermelon, on the other hand, is high on the GI and lower on the GL. So while, the Glycemic Index shows watermelon to be unhealthy, with a high spike in blood sugar, the Glycemic Load more accurately depicts its affect on blood sugar by factoring in how little carbohydrate it has. Lower carbohydrate means lower blood sugar spike. Also, if the source of carbohydrate has fiber content, that will slow the speed with which your body absorbs sugars.
So what happens to the Sucrose when ingested? Sucrose is broken down into the monosaccharides Fructose and Glucose in the intestines, then being absorbed through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. The bloodstream takes it directly to the liver and begins using the Glucose for Energy while the Fructose goes through a series of changes. Let’s look a little further into how your body reacts to it.
Fructose is much harder for our body to process. It can only cross the gut wall with the help of an enzyme and a partner, glucose. Where sucrose, with it’s one to one ratio is readily cleared from the digestive tract, a ratio with higher fructose than glucose offers pathogens and bacteria a feast. Only a small percentage of the fructose transported to the liver is used for energy, the rest being stored as fat. Our cells simply don’t have the necessary tools to properly use Fructose for energy. What is worrisome is the complex series of transformations Fructose undergoes in the liver. One transformation causes Lipogenesis, in which the liver actually creates fat as triglycerides. With a high amount of Fructose, the liver can’t process the triglycerides in a timely manner, storing the excess in the liver’s own cells. When the liver is continually bombarded by all of this fat, it can lead to fatty liver disease where the excess fat has caused scarring and inflammation.
The triglycerides the liver has processed into the bloodstream gets stored throughout the body, raising your LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowering your HDL (good cholesterol). It doesn’t just pack on to your love handles and ba-donk-a-donk, but on your organs and in your arteries. Even if you look thin, you can still have fatty insides, leading to diabetes and heart disease. Fructose also increases the amount of uric acid in the blood. Uric acid creates crystals in the body, lodging in the arteries and joints causing gout, hypertension, and kidney failure.
Most importantly, Fructose inhibits Leptin, the hormone that tells your brain that it’s full. Your brain relies on leptin to tell it whether or not to increase metabolism to get rid of excess fat, or slow it down so you don’t starve. Every fat cell contains leptin, so the more fat cells there are, the more your brain accelerates the metabolism to compensate. When there is an excess of Fructose, the body is storing fat at an accelerated rate and telling your brain that you are starving and need to eat more. High fructose corn syrup, processed juices, and table sugar are all causing insulin resistance, mood swings, cellular and DNA damage, etc. or what is commonly known as Metabolic Syndrome.
Now lets get to sugars’ effect on the micro-biome. Your gut is home to billions of bacteria, yeasts, parasites, and viruses. It is imperative to your immune function to keep it in balance. If you would like to learn more about the micro-biome, click here. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria and yeasts, causing them to proliferate and damage the gut lining. When our gut is out of balance, this is called Gut Dysbiosis. It impairs our ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients, impairs cognitive function, and leads to learning disabilities and auto-immune conditions. Doctors are now linking depression
and mood disorders directly to the patient’s gut health. Scientific experiments have also shown artificial sweeteners to have an equal, if not worse effect on the gut and body, causing diabetes and weight gain through an alteration of gut flora.
When your gut lining is healthy, small amounts of sugar are handled easily. Probiotics (the good bacteria) are actually stronger than bad bacteria and control their numbers with ease, as long as everything is in balance.
So what sweeteners can you eat?
Stevia has virtually no effect on your sugar levels, is a big 0 on the Glycemic Index, helps your cholesterol and insulin levels, and is made from the stevia plant. Just be sure there aren’t any toxic fillers or additives in the mix.
Raw honey contains enzymes that have already broken the Sucrose down into the easily absorbable Glucose and Fructose, and contains vitamins and minerals that help your body process it more smoothly and slowly, avoiding the rapid glycemic spike that the nutrient devoid table sugar causes. It still contains fructose and should be avoided by diabetics and those who have Metabolic Syndrome.
Sugar Alcohols, Erythritol and Xylitol also avoid a glycemic spike altogether. However, it is very important to read the label and make sure it is not produced from GMO crops (negative health effects) and does not have other sweeteners. Sugar alcohols are notorious for causing digestive upset when introduced in large amounts. Start slow and use in moderation.
Dates are a fiber and nutrient rich source of sweetener. Since it is a food, there are a lot more components to digest, causing a lower glycemic spike as well as glycemic load.
Coconut Sugar retains some of it’s nutrient and fiber content, slowing the glycemic spike compared to sucrose, yet should still be avoided for diabetics and people who have Metabolic Syndrome.
Monkfruit is a zero calorie sweetener with a pleasant flavor. With no glycemic spike, it is also a healthy alternative to sugar. Again, make sure there are no added ingredients.
With all of these alternatives, the goal is to reduce the sweets we consume so as to curb our addiction to sugar. Giving into craving sweets will only promote this vicious cycle where our body sends out signals that tell us we need to eat. Artificial sweeteners should also be avoided because of damaging effects on our micro-biome and brain. I hope this article has answered some burning questions and helped steer many of you to a healthier road ahead.