I am not a doctor or physician of any kind, nor am I a biologist, nutritionist, or fitness consultant. I did not take any post-secondary educational courses in the following subjects: nutrition, biology, chemistry, public relations, or psychology. I am not trained in the aforementioned fields nor do I hold degrees (bachelors, masters, or otherwise) in those fields; therefore, you (the reader) do not have to believe absolutely any information whatsoever – personal opinion, quotes, links, studies cited or otherwise – presented in this blog post.
There are some people who can eat and/or drink something at a level that would be considered unhealthy for the majority of the population, and it appears that their health does not substantially change over the long-term. There may be people out there who can eat McDonalds food morning, noon, and night and not develop the health problems that Morgan Spurlock did in his “Super size me” documentary; some people can smoke cigarettes/cigars and live well into their 90s without reaching the late stages of the chronic illnesses associated with smoking; and some people can eat food products with high levels of processed/added sugar day after day and not develop the kinds of health problems that will be discussed further on in this blog post. Those anomalies should not be used as an excuse to justify the continuation of unhealthy eating habits; they are called ‘anomalies’ for a good reason, and if everyone had the same attributes as an anomaly, the word would no longer have the definition it currently does.
How the human body breaks down and uses sugar
When you eat food, your body uses a digestive enzyme called amylase to break down the food both in the mouth and the small intestine; the sugars from that food (glucose, fructose and galactose) are then absorbed into the bloodstream for use as energy by the body. To get an idea of how fast the body converts the food sugars into blood glucose, a measurement system called the Glycemic Index (G.I.) is used. The pancreas will release a hormone called insulin to combat (and bring back down to normal) the elevated blood sugar level in the bloodstream brought on by the sugar-containing food that you just ate; lower G.I. foods mean little insulin is released, and the opposite is true for high G.I. foods. Depending on what you read, a food with a G.I. number above 55 (some say 70) could be considered a high G.I. food. With regards to the consumption of high G.I. foods, the body does not resort to using bodyfat as a fuel source when there is a large amount of insulin in the bloodstream – this can persist for several hours. The cells of the body take glucose from the bloodstream and store it as glycogen in both the liver and the muscle tissue of the body to be used as energy at a later time. If you continue to eat high G.I. foods, the body will continue to not use bodyfat as an energy source. (Bodyfat is basically the body’s storage of energy for future use.)
It gets worse, especially for those who are looking for increases in muscle mass: because of the high G.I. foods eaten and the large amount of insulin released into the bloodstream to bring down blood sugar levels, sometimes too much insulin is released, which causes low blood sugar levels. Normally what the body would do when faced with low blood sugar is use energy from bodyfat; however, because of the high level of insulin, the body resorts to using muscle protein, which means breaking down muscle tissue to be used as a fuel source.
So, in essence, bodyfat is maintained and muscle mass is lessened when a large amount of insulin is released into the bloodstream to combat high levels of blood sugar caused by the consumption (and over-consumption) of high glycemic foods. For weight trainers and bodybuilders, this can become a vicious cycle of eating and training with little-to-no results to show for the training (as was my experience).
Sugar and the brain
One of the effects that a high-sugar diet has on the brain is the amount of brain receptors released to control the ‘feel-good’ chemical dopamine that is released in a certain part of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens (the part of the brain normally associated with addictive behaviours) – the more sugar eaten, the fewer dopamine receptors are produced and the amount of dopamine left unregulated increases. To get the same level of reward (a ‘drug-like high’ for some people) from eating sugary foods, more of those foods have to be eaten; this becomes a vicious cycle of eating more and more in order to feel satisfied. The obvious similarity here is a drug addict having to do more and more of a drug to get the same effect that they experienced when they first did the drug.
There have been a few studies done on the brain that show the same areas are lit up when having consumed sugar as when having consumed a drug (heroin, nicotine, caffeine, etc.). For those with highly addictive personalities, this will mean many difficult battles to control oneself when faced with the choice of consuming food products containing large amounts of processed/added sugar. As is the case with illegal drugs, “Just say no.”
Sugar also stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin suppresses your appetite, elevates your mood, reduces pain and induces sleep. A large amount of sugar will result in the release of a large amount of serotonin. When the serotonin level drops (because of sugar it’s more of a crash than a gradual drop), a feeling of gloom sets in and the need for more sugar is quickly triggered. This is akin to being on an emotional rollercoaster: content one minute, anxious for more sugar the next.
A diet high in processed/added sugar reduces the production of a chemical in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF); without said chemical the brain cannot form new memories and the person consuming the high processed/added sugar diet will have trouble learning and remembering.
Other effects of sugar
Assuming the sources provided at the end of this blog post are to be believed, there are a number of deleterious health effects that processed/added sugar can have on the human body:
- Sugar comes from sugar cane, and there is a lot of sugar cane in the Dominican Republic, where (to this very day) there exist very poor people who work in the cane fields from dawn to dusk every single day. These poor people could be called slaves because of how little money they receive in relation to the amount of labor they perform in the cane fields, the lack of access to quality medical care, and their bottom-of-the-barrel living conditions. The heads of the companies who own the fields deny such things and continue to smile for the cameras while asking favours from their friends in government, such as tax breaks and subsidies.
- Fructose exists in fruit that contains naturally-occurring sugar, but fibre also exists alongside the sugar. Fibre slows down the overall digestion process, helping prevent increases in blood sugar and fat. Processed/added sugar has no fibre or plant nutrients that fruit sugar does, is metabolized by the body much quicker, broken down into glucose and fructose, and enters the bloodstream quickly, causing insulin to be released to counteract the rise of glucose in the bloodstream.
- Processed/added sugar has no nutritional value and requires many vitamins, minerals and enzymes to be stripped away from healthy cells in the body during its digestion. This can tax the immune system. Processed/added sugar can suppress immune system cells responsible for attacking bacteria, reducing the ability of white blood cells to overpower and destroy said bacteria; this can persist for up to five hours.
- Fructose does not appropriately stimulate insulin, which in turn does not suppress ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”) and does not stimulate leptin (the “satiety hormone”), which together result in you wanting to eat more and eventually developing insulin resistance if such practices of eating food products containing fructose are sustained over a long period of time.
- For men, excessive consumption of processed/added sugar can contribute to weight gain and obesity, which can result in low testosterone levels; therefore, to increase testosterone levels, (1) severely limit (or cut out altogether) processed/added sugar from the diet, and (2) lose weight. Be aware, however, that genetics are ultimately the largest role-player in the amount of testosterone in a man’s body.
- A single teaspoon of sugar weighs 4.929 grams. According to Dr. Robert Lustig (in an interview with Bill Maher on the HBO talk show ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ broadcast on May 16, 2014), the average American consumes 22 teaspoons (108.438 grams) of sugar per day; according to Statistics Canada, in the year 2004 the average Canadian consumed 26 teaspoons (110 grams) of sugar per day. (Please be aware that the totals reflect the amounts of both processed/added sugar and naturally occurring sugar.)
- There are many different types and kinds of processed/added sugar, and unless you have studied and memorized the names, you will have a difficult time in reducing your sugar intake. Some of the more obscure names are: barley malt, diatase, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, sorbitol, sorghum syrup, and treacle.
- Sugar affects insulin levels, and insulin levels affect cortisol levels. When cortisol levels increase, it can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep; therefore, do not consume food products that contain processed/added sugar close to bedtime.
- Sugar corrodes teeth enamel, and lack of enamel increases the likelihood of cavities. When sugar is present in the mouth, the bacteria that are naturally found in the mouth multiply faster, causing plaque to grow in size and thickness. Some of the bacteria turn the sugar into a kind of glue that they use to stick themselves to the surface of the tooth, which makes it harder for the bacteria to get washed away with your saliva.
- Sugar can damage cartilage tissue. Cartilage is what gives bones their solid structure. Calcium is an alkaline mineral that is highly abundant in the bones. When too much processed/added sugar is consumed, calcium is needed to neutralize sugar’s acidic effects. The release of calcium to combat sugar negatively impacts mineral balance, weakening the bones and making them porous, which can eventually lead to osteoporosis.
Advertising and processed/added sugar
One of the psychological components in the war for the hearts and minds of new customers can be found on the front of cereal boxes: cereals for children are placed lower on supermarket shelves, and the characters on the boxes look downward in order to make eye contact with children (as opposed to cereals marketed to adults where characters/people can be seen looking straight ahead).
Schools starved for money can take the all-too-pleased-to-help offers from food manufacturers (soft drink companies, for example) to receive much-needed funding in exchange for putting well-stocked vending machines and bright, colourful posters in the hallways of elementary and high schools, appealing to the emotions of the young and preying upon their lack of critical thinking skills.
Influencing children to consume a particular food product at a young age is part of a long-term plan by food manufacturers to create ‘lifelong customers’, which is why marketing to children (and young people in general) is an expensive yet profitable venture.
Food manufacturers want their products to be advertised in TV commercials where there is a great deal of laughter, smiles, and fun presented. Catchphrases and bright colours are used to emphasize the ‘fun factor.’ Food manufacturers want their products to be associated with these things because they think it will create a connection in the subconscious mind of the viewer between the idea of ‘fun’ and the product being advertised, with the goal that the product is ‘fun’ to consume, and that ‘fun’ should always be present in one’s life, and the way to sustain ‘fun’ is through the consumption of the product on a regular basis; this is how lifelong consumers are created. It is very important to research the origins of advertising and the effects of advertising on the human mind in order to understand the powerful role that the subconscious plays in shaping one’s decisions and attitudes, and how far advertising research goes into manipulating the subconscious in order to bring the viewer to a preplanned conclusion on a particular topic.
If processed/added sugar really is proven to be addictive, and processed/added sugar can be found in the vast majority of food products that the average person (not just Canadian or North American) buys and consumes, then people are feeding their addiction every single day with every single meal, perhaps without being consciously aware of it. Fighting off that addiction – reducing one’s intake of processed/added sugar – could be seen as being near-impossible, especially here in North America; this would make true claims by others who have said that processed/added sugar is everywhere and can be found in everything. It should then be no wonder that so many people have so many health problems in this day and age of sweet, processed food.
The role of sugar in modern-day business
If it is true that processed/added sugar consumption can activate addiction centers in the brain in the same way that some illegal drug use does, then what does that say about (1) processed/added sugar, and (2) those who purposely and consciously add processed/added sugar to food products? If you were employed by a company whose goal was to make money through the selling of a food product, would it not be easier (and thus more profitable) to sell said product if you knew for a fact that more people would buy it because they had developed an addiction to a chemical/ingredient within that food product? Is it possible that there are certain kinds of food products being engineered solely to feed a profit margin at the expense of the consumer’s long-term health?
Would it be surprising if you were to learn that a federal agency did a study on processed/added sugar and its role in heart disease and diabetes in 1986 but deemed the research ‘ambiguous’? Would it also be surprising to you that one of the authors of that study was, at one time, a paid consultant for the Corn Refiners Association (a lobby group that represents the interests of high fructose corn syrup producers and corn farmers)? Walter Henry Glinsmann co-authored the study – called “Evaluation of Health Aspects of Sugars Contained in Carbohydrate Sweeteners: Report of Sugars Task Force, 1986” – for the United States Food and Drug Administration. That is but one example of how industry-funded studies keep arriving at the conclusion that “more research needs to be done” and/or “the results of the study are inconclusive.” I think that by prolonging the studies and continually pumping out misinformation, food manufacturers (who know they are harming the public’s health through the addition of a particular ingredient or ingredients) are continually buying time so that they can eventually come up with a convoluted-enough excuse to deny responsibility or collect enough money from sales of their food products to pay restitution stemming from large lawsuits that may result from enough independent studies coming to the same conclusions regarding processed/added sugar and its effects on human health.
It seems that, nowadays, any scientific data can be manipulated to show a desired result. For example, in the April 2012 issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter, it is alleged that a study done in 2008 to find any evidence that children can gain weight after the addition of soft drinks to their diet showed no such evidence because the study was “industry-funded.” On page 2 of the Letter, Vasanti Malik talks about how the data was set up in such a way to reach the result that there was “no link between soft drinks and weight in children.” The study referred to is called “Sugar-sweetened beverages and body mass index in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis” and can be found in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June 2008, 87, 1662-1671.
When the United States Food and Drug Administration proposed changes to the nutritional information label format – one of those changes being a line called “Added Sugars” – it received letters from many food companies asking that specific food products be exempted from having to disclose how much processed/added sugar is added to said products. Why would a company do that? One must wonder what the true intentions behind such letters are.
Information regarding processed/added sugar’s effects on human health can be held back from a wider audience if the right strings are pulled. For example, Jean Mayer wrote a piece that was published in the June 20, 1976 issue of The New York Times called, “The bitter truth about sugar: It’s bad for the health, bad for the teeth, and we all eat more of it than we think.” The Sugar Association was able to prevent a condensed version of the story from being published in Reader’s Digest (and therefore be prevented from reaching a wider audience) by talking to the editor-in-chief of the Digest.
In a different instance, the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (chaired by United States Senator George McGovern) released a report in February 1977 entitled “Dietary Goals for the United States” and called for, among other things, a 40% reduction in processed/added sugar intake, as well as recommending limits on processed/added sugar consumption; the report was met with much controversy from both industry and the scientific community (particularly by the cattle, dairy and egg industries for suggesting that Americans eat less fat and less cholesterol). A revised set of guidelines was issued in late 1977 which adjusted some of the advice regarding salt and cholesterol and watered down the wording regarding meat consumption; no steps with regards to limiting or reducing processed/added sugar consumption were taken.
At the present time of writing, there are changes being proposed; two recent examples are as follows:
- In March 2014, the World Health Organization recommended that people limit their daily sugar intake to below ten percent of their daily caloric intake.
- In July 2014, Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose proposed some changes to nutrition information labels on packaged foods – one of those changes includes a separate line for processed/added sugars, as well as grouping all sugars in the list of ingredients.
You versus yourself
If it is indeed true that processed/added sugar triggers the addiction centers of the brain and influence a person to crave more processed/added sugar-related food products, then the biggest challenge in reducing one’s intake of processed/added sugar is fighting your cravings and controlling your appetite; in other words, it’s YOU versus YOU.
You yourself make the choice to eat food products that contain medium-to-high amounts of processed/added sugar. No amount of TV commercials can force you to go out and buy food products that contain high amounts of processed/added sugar. No one and nothing is PHYSICALLY FORCING YOU to consume these food products.
I liken the craving of sugar-supplemented food to the addiction of smoking cigarettes, and since I have done both, I feel it fair to make what I think is a logical comparison between the two. It is a conscious choice to engage in the consumption of either product, and the choice to not consume either requires both determination and stamina of a high level if one has consumed either product for any significant amount of time because of the physiological (and sometimes psychological) addictions that can develop with sustained consumption/use.
The unfortunate but predictable alternatives to all those tasty, delicious, wonderfully smelling (insert another zesty advertising buzzword here) food products are foods with little-to-no taste, appear to have dry and/or grubby texture, and are cosmetically unappealing; this is the biggest downside to improving your health through diet, but it should simply be viewed as yet another hurdle to overcome. It is definitely not easy (especially for those of us living in the 1st world) to ignore the TV commercials for candy bars, the cakes in the fridges of the grocery stores, and the heavenly smells of cookies and other pastries emanating from bakery shops, but if you are serious about changing your diet for the better, you will have to ignore them. When you do stick to your diet plan and exercise vigorously, you absolutely will see results; I did, and those results are many times more satisfying than eating even the tastiest of junk foods.
No matter what level of intensity I reached when I trained with weights in the gym, how long I trained for, what exercises, number of sets, reps, rep schemes used, etc., I did not make anything significant in the way of muscular gains; this went on for years. I managed my intake of sodium, carbohydrates, fat, protein, and went on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate and high-protein diet – none of those adjustments contributed to long-lasting positive changes with regards to my physique.
On May 10, 2014 I decided to reduce my intake of processed/added sugar (meaning sugar that was added to food products) as a last resort, having tried everything else. I decided to drop my daily processed/added sugar consumption from the mid-70s (my guess) down to about 20 grams. Two weeks later, I had lost five pounds (having made no other changes whatsoever in the way of diet and exercise), looked leaner, felt better, made noticeable gains in the way of short-term memory, saw muscular gains faster, and slept better. This led me to the conclusion that the consumption of high-sugar foods contributed to stagnating health (what I believed to be a level of health teetering on the decline into the beginning of chronic health problems) and a near-inescapable rut of an eat-eat-exercise-eat-eat-eat scheme with little-to-no noticeable muscular gains.
I found that the less food products I ate that contained processed/added sugar, the less I craved them. I also discovered that, with the additional change to my diet of low processed/added sugar, a low-carb, high-fat diet became beneficial in the production of results…or, at the least, assisting with the results from training with weights in the gym.
Processed/added sugar consumption is but one adjustment to make
Increasing fibre intake (especially through the consumption of – but not limited to – dark green leafy vegetables), reducing the amount of foods eaten that are made with flour and avoiding foods that contain ingredients that are “enriched”, “hydrolyzed”, and “hydrogenated” are some of the things I did to improve my health through diet (not to mention severely limiting food products that contain “glucose-fructose”. Speaking of glucose-fructose: it is interesting to mention that the words “high-fructose corn syrup” are replaced by the term “glucose-fructose” in the Ingredients section on Canadian nutrition information food labels).
As a side not, I noticed that drinking ice-cold water reduces the desire for a carbonated beverage (mainly in hot weather); in fact, drinking more water in general is helpful to your body. However, do not think that drinking ice-cold water all the time is good for your body – this is definitely not the case, as cold water should only be used to bring body temperature back down to normal in hot weather or during/after a workout. It has been claimed that cold water in the body can solidify fats from food, making the body work harder in order to digest those foods, and that, conversely, drinking warm/mildly hot water helps the body to better digest food – these statements have been contested and debated on the internet many times (especially with regard to cold water solidifying fats from food because of the temperature inside the human body). However true or untrue the statement concerning warm/mildly hot water, this may help in explaining why I have observed many Chinese people drinking hot tea during their meals (or perhaps it’s an Oriental myth, as some have claimed).
The purpose of presenting this information
I think that as long as people are given true and proper information on something, they will make responsible and informed decisions – and when I say “true and proper information” I do not mean that the information is presented in such a way that is biased, could be called “fear mongering” or “scare tactics.” If you are presented with all the factual information possible regarding illegal drugs, and you still choose to use illegal drugs, then you yourself are completely responsible for that choice, and no amount of blame-shifting or claims of peer-pressure will take the spotlight away from the fact that, in the end, it was your choice to do those illegal drugs. I also think the same thing applies to alcohol, tobacco, fast food, sugar, etc. etc.
No matter how good a food product tastes or how visually enticing a commercial makes it look or what hyped word-of-mouth hearsay you encounter, as long as you know the health consequences of the chemicals and ingredients contained within said food product, you yourself are responsible for the choice of consuming that product. It sounds strange to say, but it might be that, in the future, when people purchase food from the grocery store they will have to sign health insurance waivers stating that they have read not only the Nutrition Information labels but also the Health Warning labels and Possible Side Effects and Consequences labels that accompany the packaging of each food product so that the companies that produce these food products are not liable (read: cannot be sued) for whatever health consequences you develop as a result of the consumption – or over-consumption – of whatever food they are selling, because they are not FORCING you to buy the product, but merely giving you the CHOICE.
Keep in mind that even if a large number of people made the choice to stop consuming food products that contained high amounts of processed/added sugars, that would not stop food manufacturers from tinkering with the ingredients added to food products in order to entice consumers to buy more of whatever food product manufacturers are creating to keep the profit margins healthy. Yes, the sugar industry may lose money, but that will only pave the way for some other industry to step in and pick up where the sugar industry was left in the dust and, hopefully, pull the wool more tightly over the public’s eyes with propaganda, studies that reach “inconclusive” results, disinformation, misinformation, the silencing of dissent and the character assassination of critics, and the manipulation of scientific data.
The question one must ask themselves is this: if we become aware of sugar and its influence on our food-purchasing habits, what other ingredients (or chemical concoctions) will the food industry insert into future food products to ensure that we keep buying? The answer to this question involves looking at ingredients on food products and doing research into the ones that are new, unfamiliar and/or deceptive-sounding. As with politics, there are word games being played, and if you gloss over what is being said, you will be taken for a fool. You have to read everything carefully and, in some cases, find out what is NOT being said. In this day and age, being pessimistic and overly critical should not be seen as a character flaw that should be corrected, because if we look at numerous examples of how people were duped in the past (e.g. ethanol in gasoline and nicotine in cigarettes), that should remind us to do our best to stay on guard for our health and to ensure that all companies (not only food manufacturers) are held accountable for what they do, say and produce – and if we do not perform such a duty, then all companies will use that as an excuse to continue with their recklessness, word games, lies, distortions, deceits and denial of responsibility.
Above everything else, remember this: The choice is yours.
1 U.S. teaspoon is equivalent to 4.929 grams, according to
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