Not so sweet after all

As you may know, there are only 3 types of macro nutrients (that’s categories of calorie-providing food constituents. Micro nutrients are the vitamins, minerals, etc.). The categories are (1) Protein (e.g. meat); (2) Fat (e.g. corn oil – by the way, I’m not a fan of that particular oil. Read why ) and (3) Carbohydrate . Grains (e.g. brown rice), fruit (e.g. apples) and vegetables (e.g. asparagus) are examples of foods that are mainly carbohydrate or carbs. After all the vitamins, minerals, plant antioxidants and fiber have been refined out of a carbohydrate, what is left is sugar (or its close cousin, starch).

Sugar doesn’t need to be digested like the more complex carbs in vegetables and whole grains and so it’s absorbed into the system almost immediately. Read this authoritative Harvard article on sugar. There is sugar in fruits (e.g. the reason an orange is sweet) and too much of even that natural fruit sugar can upset your system. However, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus first on refined sugar—e.g. cane sugar, beet sugar, granulated sugar, table sugar and corn syrup. Brown sugar? That’s just white sugar with a touch of molasses added back. Raw sugar? They saved time by not taking the molasses out to begin with—better but just by a thin hair.

Serious sugar effects
Everyone knows that sugar has calories and causes tooth decay. It would be nice if it didn’t get worse than that—but it does…much worse.

  • Sugar is inflammatory. Any condition that ends in “itis” is an inflammation that you don’t want to worsen. Inflammation is also the prime suspect in all kinds of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Because sugar has been in effect “digested” by the manufacturer during refining, it is able to get into your blood stream almost instantly. The body reacts to high blood sugar levels by pumping out a hormone called insulin. Insulin sweeps the sugar into cells. That’s why, after eating a sweet snack, people will often have a brief rush of energy but will be fuzzy-headed and drowsy an hour later—we call that “hypoglycemia.” It may be amusing if you nod off at a staff meeting, but what if it’s at your steering wheel? Over time the whole blood sugar management system can stop working properly and we call that Type 2 Diabetes.
  • Another reason you don’t want excess insulin circulating is because it signals the body to make body fat and it is associated with heart disease.
  • Because sugar weakens the immune system, sugarholics are more at risk for the flu (seasonal and epidemic) and even cancer. 1 Cancer cells love sugar so much that hospitals use a traceable sugar during PET scans to make cancer show up on x-rays. ( Patrick Quillan makes a powerful case for cancer patients cutting out sugar.)
  • Sugar can even create lasting damage to our genetic code. 2
  • Sugar increases cholesterol. 3 Maybe you thought only egg yolks did that. Not so much. Your liver creates most of your cholesterol. When you eat cholesterol (e.g. in egg yolks), the liver adjusts and doesn’t make as much. When you eat sugar, the liver gets confused.

This section is a bit off the topic but provides a lifesaving insight. What I describe is an all too typical chain of events that can occur when someone uses a drug to suppress a symptom or risk factor instead of figuring out and fixing whatever imbalance the symptom is calling our attention to.

A middle aged woman, we’ll call her Joan, has slightly elevated cholesterol because she is eating badly. The doctor isn’t knowledgeable about nutrition and also has been browbeaten into routinely prescribing statin-type medication (such as Lipitor) to lower cholesterol. He honestly thinks he is doing Joan a favor. Although he has heard that some patients develop debilitating muscle pain from statins, he hopes that won’t affect Joan. Most likely the drug rep didn’t bother to mention statins can also cause heartburn. So, when Joan complains of heartburn, he does what he’s been trained to do—prescribe an acid-blocking drug. The acid-blocking drugs in turn increase the risk of pneumonia and osteoporosis (just two of the many side effects). Let’s say that luckily Joan didn’t die of pneumonia but her bones do weaken. Then she would be given one of the osteoporosis drugs. Those drugs cause dense but brittle and fracture-prone bones. In extreme cases they can dissolve the jaw bone! And on it goes. Meanwhile Joan is still eating a lot of sugar which directly adds to heartburn and bone thinning. Wouldn’t it save Joan a lot of time, money and misery to just improve her diet?

  • Sugar feeds intestinal yeasts such as Candida. That fungus causes obvious digestive problems like gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea but also might be the cause of almost any symptom from chronic sinus trouble to widespread joint pain or skin rashes. (Take the yeast questionnaire in the “Digestion” section of the Free Articles .
  • Because sugar brings no vitamins and minerals of its own to the party, your body must use up some of what you had stored just to deal with it. That means sugar worsens nutritional deficiencies which are already a widespread problem.
  • Sugar directly or indirectly seems to aggravate just about every health complaint—a virtual alphabet soup of trouble: asthma, cholesterol elevation, depression, gallstones, heartburn, hormone imbalances, joint pain, memory loss, osteoporosis, and weakened eyesight. Oh, I forgot one of the most motivating— wrinkles.

As shockingly long as that list of damaging effects is, it is still incomplete. I wish everyone would read Lick the Sugar Habit by Dr. Nancy Appleton. She explains the issues in detail and documents what she says with research. She also produced a scary video Sweet Suicide that might motivate even the hardcore sugar addict. (You can also listen to 2 of my radio interviews with her. Click here or just type “ appleton ” into the search utility to the left beside this article.)

If sugar isn’t safe why is it sold?
When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates a new food ingredient , the agency is supposed to review the research to make sure the substance won’t hurt us. As you will see, sugar definitely causes trouble but it was grandfathered into approval long before we knew so much. Before the FDA approves a drug , it reviews short term studies to evaluate the balance between risks and benefits. Sugar has effects as powerful as some drugs and considerable long term risk but NO health benefit. So, sugar wouldn’t be approved for sale as a drug. Of course, at this late date billions and billions of dollars in profit are being earned from selling sugary foods and drinks. There are even government subsidies for raising the agricultural sources of sugar. So, any hint of regulating sugar would be quieted in a Washington minute. (That’s a term I coined. A “New York minute” implies busy folks in a hurry. I made up “ Washington minute” to reflect how fast things can happen in DC when there is a lot of money to fund lobbyists.) Your input can definitely influence the laws and regulations, but the fastest way to bring about change is to stop spending money on unhealthful products. Vote with your dollars.

The average American eats 150 lbs of sugar a year.
Until as a nation we got so fat, they used to suggest that the average person weighed 150 pounds. That was back when sugar was an occasional treat for our parents or grandparents. Now we inhale thirty (30!) 5 lb bags a year or about a measuring cup a day. Since that average factors in people who eat no sugar (e.g. strict diabetics, infants, health nuts, etc.), that means some folks must be downing 2 cups a day or more. Sadly, you don’t have to go anywhere near the sugar bowl to rack up a big total. Sugar is hidden in virtually every canned, boxed or packaged food. Fruit yogurt sounds healthy but a tiny little container may contain almost 7 teaspoons of sugar! Think I’m kidding? Check the math. The yogurt in the photo below is typical. Its label lists 27 grams of sugar. Divide the number of grams by 4 to get the number of teaspoons. The following photos ingeniously show a teaspoon of sugar as a sugar cube so you can better visualize the problem. Compare that strawberry yogurt to a dish of plain strawberries about the same size. Before you reach for a reduced sugar yogurt, you’d better read about artificial sweeteners below.

Obviously we want to give kids healthful snacks and hopefully choose fruit over candy, but even then, it should be with awareness. Compare the amount of sugar in the strawberries above to the cluster of grapes below. The strawberries also have more fiber, more vitamin C and minerals. To be fair, the grapes do have more carotenes that turn into vitamin A. They also have less sugar than the lunch box size box of raisins. Yes, the raisins started out as grapes, but with the water gone they are now tiny and so we eat a lot more of them. The raisins have about the same sugar count as a regular size Snickers bar and none of the protein. Understand I’m not saying to never eat grapes or suggesting that the candy bar and raisins are interchangeable. The Snickers has more than twice as many calories and lacks the nutrients in fruit. Visit for photos of other foods.

Sugar is everywhere in the grocery store and restaurants. Catsup is 1/3 sugar and even French fries are sprayed with sugar to make them brown nicely. We’ve developed a collective sweet tooth that rewards manufacturers financially for putting sugar in places you’d never even think to look like in pot pies and even in vegetables.

Sweet drinks are the worst.

  • Sodas are insidious because you can get so much sugar very fast without realizing it.
  • Sodas are blamed not just for dental decay but for erosion of the tooth enamel.
  • In a recent study, 2/3 of sodas contained the carcinogenic chemical benzene. 6
  • Sodas make your body very acidic and that in turn depletes your mineral reserves.
  • Too many American teenagers start their day with 8 teaspoons of sugar in a couple of frosted toaster pastries. Then the average teen drinks 2 sodas a day which contributes another ½ cup or so of sugar to their overly sweet diet. (Interestingly teenagers who reduced salt in the diet began to drink fewer sodas. 5 I guess they weren’t as thirsty.)
  • Fruit juices are a sweet drink with a good reputation they probably don’t deserve. Some juice drinks add corn syrup, but even a glass of 100% juice is the equivalent of eating several pieces of fruit at one time. That’s something you probably wouldn’t do because the fiber and water in the whole fruit would fill you up. An 8 ounce glass of orange juice contains 6 teaspoons of sugar. Just eat an orange instead. It is more satisfying, more nutritious and easier on your blood sugar.
  • If the list of health effects above didn’t get your attention, think of the calories. Someone that trades their afternoon 20 ounce Mountain Dew (and its 290 calories) for a nice glass of filtered water by the end of the year logically might lose 30 pounds! Again it’s just math. Three thousand (3,500) calories added or deducted theoretically equals a pound of fat coming or going. A Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino has a little less sugar than the Dew, but with the fat contains totals 380 calories. So, drink one of those a day and don’t be surprised if your scale shows an extra 40 pounds by the end of a year. The bad choice “winner” in this group, at a whopping 111 grams of sugar and 770 calories, has to be the McDonald’s medium chocolate shake. One of these babies a day could equal 80 pounds of new fat in a year. And remember extra body fat (usually around the middle) is just one penalty you pay for these indulgences.

Do fruit smoothies have less sugar than sodas? No. The worst I’ve seen is the 40 oz. Smoothie King Grape Expectations II. Per the Smoothie King website it delivers a shocking 125 grams or about 2/3 cup of sugar! (See illustration below). True, the fruit has nutrients lacking in soda, but your body reacts about the same way to the sugar portion of fruit juice as to granulated sugar.)

My Health Boost Protein Smoothie is a much different matter because a serving of the base mix contains less than a teaspoon of sugar. Adding an ounce of nutrient-rich Fruit of the Spirit adds less than a teaspoon of fruit sugar but equals the nutrition of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables. If you add a couple of frozen strawberries you increase the fiber but only add a pinch of sugar. The protein will keep your energy level. It is a deliciously good choice.

Corn Syrup
Corn syrup is the sweetener usually found in beverages but it also appears in many prepared foods such as BBQ sauces and yogurt. Corn syrup is relatively new, so the long term effects are unknown but I’ve certainly seen no evidence that it is better than granulated sugar.

  • Studies show that 9 out of 20 samples of corn syrup contain measurable levels of mercury and that nearly a third of grocery store products listing corn syrup as a major ingredient had detectible levels of mercury. 4 (Mercury is the most toxic non-radioactive element on earth and is especially damaging to the nervous system.)
  • Corn syrup intake is now at 60 pounds a year and represents 10% of our total calorie intake as well as 20% of our daily carbohydrates. Meanwhile our intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains went down. Bad trade—nutrient-rich plant foods swapped for empty-calorie corn syrup. That can’t be good.

Switching to diet sodas and artificial sweeteners is NOT the answer.

  • There is no proof they help with weight loss—contrary to common assumptions, the evidence shows they may even encourage obesity. 7 They sabotage normal communications between the body and the brain and they seem to encourage the formation of fat cells.
  • Use of common artificial sweeteners for 10 years has been associated with urinary tract tumors.8
  • Don’t let the marketing fool you. There isn’t anything natural about Splenda ® . I don’t think Splenda (sucralose) is a good alternative for yogurt because it reportedly damages our friendly bacteria and causes other digestive problems. 8 But, as noted above, without Splenda, the flavored yogurts are too high in sugar. You can eat unflavored yogurt, but I just save the calories and use probiotics instead of yogurt to improve my intestinal bacteria.
  • As you will see if you read my report on sweeteners , the charges against Nutrasweet ® (aspartame) seem even worse. It is also one of the artificial sweeteners implicated in various case studies as a possible migraine trigger.
  • Stevia herb is a good natural choice but it would seem that overuse of it may keep a sweet tooth active.

Reading Labels
By FDA regulation, ingredients are listed on packages so that those in the greatest quantity come first. However, you might not realize just how much sugar is in a product because the maker can use several different kinds of sugar, e.g. sucrose, corn syrup, glucose, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate, etc. Because they are each in small amounts, they will be scattered through the ingredient list. The real story is in Nutrition Facts panel like the example below supplied by Kellogg. They have circled the “fiber” in red, but right under that circle, just barely showing, is the line for “sugars”. Whatever this product is I wouldn’t recommend it because there are 10g (grams) of sugar—more than 3 times as much as the fiber. If you eat cereal, I recommend looking for products where the amount of fiber is equal to or more than the sugar. Sugar is best kept at 6 grams or below. (And check to make sure they haven’t lowered the sugar by using the artificial sweetener Splenda like Fiber One ® does.)

Notice that the government provides no “% Daily Value” (recommended intake) for sugar. That’s because, as I said, sugar is an unnecessary part of the diet. It is recreation, not food.

The goal and how to reach it
The real answer simply has to be for us to recalibrate our taste for sweetness. The original plan was for us to get our sweet fix from wonderfully nutritious foods such as yams and whole fruit.

It isn’t easy but you can wean yourself from expecting everything to be sweet. Start by reading the sugar line on the nutrition facts panel of every product before you buy it. If your sugar consumption has been high, I recommend gradually reducing the quantity of sugar over several days. That’s because if you suddenly stop all sweets, you might experience nasty withdrawal effects like headaches and even flu-like symptoms.

But cheer up. It gets easier and easier. When you’ve been off of sugar for even a week or two, you will be able to look at your favorite sweet and remember that it tastes good…but it will no longer have power over you. And you’ll be surprised that foods like almonds and Romaine lettuce actually have a bit of sweetness that your taste buds had previously been too overworked to notice.

Increasing your levels of the minerals chromium and vanadium will help you wiggle free of sugar’s grip. Other nutrients and the herb Gymnema sylvestre also support healthful blood sugar levels. HealthWorks Blood Sugar Support is a nicely balanced combination that carries at my suggestion.

Be sure to take a good multivitamin from a health food store. (The grocery store variety is not very potent and most contain unnecessary chemicals and sugar.) The supplemental nutrients will begin to replace those that sugar has depleted and will give you the energy to fight on. If you are on the Real Food Grocery site, look at their easy to swallow soft gel multi. That’s what I take.

It is also very important to get intestinal yeasts under control because they cause us to go in search of the kind of food they like—sugary ones. As you improve your diet, they will die down, but it helps to give them an extra shove by supporting your good bacteria (e.g. Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics 12 + ) because the good guys crowd out the yeast. You can also weaken the yeast directly with various nutrients and herbs. (e.g. HealthWorks Yeast Manager .) My book has details of the problem and solutions.

What’s next?
Once you get the hang of finding and avoiding sugar, why not tackle white flour and white rice? As I mentioned, starch is a close cousin of sugar that rapidly turns into sugar and can spike your blood sugar almost as effectively. Experiment. Put a little white flour in your mouth and wait a minute. It will become sweet as the enzymes in saliva quickly turn it into sugar. (Don’t be fooled by labels that list “enriched wheat flour”. That is just white flour with a more marketable name. Unless the label lists 100% whole wheat, it isn’t whole grain.) Also, suspect corn flour and any other refined grain. In fact, many people feel better when they eat fewer grains (especially wheat). Brown rice and oats seem to produce fewer problems.

Comedian Jackie Gleason was known for saying “How sweet it is!” That’s a cheery thought if it applies to our health, energy and positive outlook— not our diet . Good luck.

Selected studies

1 Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jun;87(6):1793-801. Glycemic index, glycemic load, and cancer risk: a meta-analysis. Gnagnarella P, Gandini S, La Vecchia C, Maisonneuve P. Abstract .

2 J Exp Med. 2008 Sep 29;205(10):2409-17. Transient high glucose causes persistent epigenetic changes and altered gene expression during subsequent normoglycemia. El-Osta A, Brasacchio D, Yao D, Pocai A, Jones PL , Roeder RG, Cooper ME, Brownlee M. Abstract .

3 J Nutr. 2009 Jun;139(6):1257S-1262S. Dietary fructose and glucose differentially affect lipid and glucose homeostasis. Schaefer EJ, Gleason JA, Dansinger ML. Abstract .

4 Hypertension. 2008 Mar;51(3):629-34.Salt intake is related to soft drink consumption in children and adolescents: a link to obesity? He FJ, Marrero NM , MacGregor GA . Abstract .

5 Environ Health. 2009 Jan 26;8:2.Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar. Dufault R, Leblanc B, Schnoll R, Cornett C, Schweitzer L, Wallinga D, Hightower J, Patrick L, Lukiw WJ. Abstract.

6 J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Jun 25;56(12):4504-10. Epub 2008 Jun 4. Monitoring the benzene contents in soft drinks using headspace gas chromatography-mass spectrometry: a survey of the situation on the Belgian market. Van Poucke C, Detavernier C, Van Bocxlaer JF, Vermeylen R, Van Peteghem C. Abstract .

7 J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2008;71(21):1415-29.Splenda alters gut microflora and increases intestinal p-glycoprotein and cytochrome p-450 in male rats. Abou-Donia MB, El-Masry EM, Abdel-Rahman AA, McLendon RE, Schiffman SS. Abstract.

8 Prev Med. 2008 Jul;47(1):136-9.Artificial sweetener consumption and urinary tract tumors in Cordoba , Argentina . Andreatta MM, Muñoz SE, Lantieri MJ, Eynard AR , Navarro A.

Copyright 2009 Martie Whittekin