Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sugar - a Toxin?

YES! And it's also a very addicting DRUG!

Take a look at the definitions. A toxin is a chemical produced by living organisms that causes harmful effects on the body at high enough concentration. Sugar easily meets that definition. It is plant derived and there are numerous studies that show a variety of harmful health effects from excess dietary sugar. Below are the definitions from Wikipedia.

A poisonous substance produced by living cells or organisms.

In the context of biology, poisons are substances that can cause damage, illness, or death to organisms, usually by chemical reaction or other activity on the molecular scale, when a sufficient quantity is absorbed by an organism.

A drug, broadly speaking, is any substance that alters normal bodily function. Recreational drugs are chemical substances that affect the central nervous system, such as narcotics or hallucinogens. They may be used for perceived beneficial effects on perception, consciousness, personality, and behavior. Some recreational drugs can cause addiction and habituation.

OK, is sugar a drug? If you've ever had a feel-good high immediately after eating sweet "comfort" foods, it's a psycho-active drug. If you've ever had a "craving" for something sweet, it's an addicting psycho-active drug.

So, my point is that we need to start thinking of refined sugar as a toxin and drug. That makes sugar by far the most common and abundant toxin and drug in the modern food world!

The body needs small amounts of sugar to function properly. But the body can make all the sugar it needs. There is no minimum daily intake requirement for sugar or even for carbohydrates. There are many nutrients that in small amounts are necessary for good health, but in excess are detrimental. Zinc,copper, iron, iodine, and vitamins A and D are examples. Likewise, sugar in small amounts is necessary for health, but in excess causes problems.

When natural sugars are ingested unrefined, as in fruits or dairy, the amounts are generally low enough not to cause problems. However, when the sugar is refined and concentrated as a food additive, it is easy to get too much. Because of it's addicting and feel-good qualities, sugar is often added in large quantities to processed/manufactured foods to make them sell better. So, if you eat a lot of processed/manufactured or restaurant foods, it is very easy to get too much sugar. People eating a lot of these foods commonly get as much as 20 to 30 percent or more of their calories from sugars. What's worse is that most of that sugar is now in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is even more harmful than table sugar. Most healthy primitive diets had only small amounts of sugar, mainly from raw dairy or from fruit when in season.

Too much dietary sugar certainly won't kill you right away, but it does have short-term harmful effects, like suppression of the immune system, even with relatively small doses. That leaves you more vulnerable to infectious diseases and cancer. One study showed that ingestion of 100 grams of sugar caused about a 40% reduction in white blood cell activity against pathogens and found that it took about five hours for immune function to return to normal.

Over many years, too much sugar can lead to metabolic syndrome diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These are the diseases of aging and that's exactly what too much sugar does - speeds up the aging process.

So, how much sugar should we allow in our diet? Probably no more than about 5% to 10% of total daily calories and the less, the better. That means if your normal dietary intake is 2,000 calories per day, you should not get more than 200 calories from sugar. Since sugar has 4 calories per gram, that means no more than about 50 grams (2 ounces) of sugar per day on a 2,000 calorie diet. And that's total sugar from all sources. Here's the amount of sugar you get from single servings of some common "comfort" foods, listed in grams, to the left of the food name (from NutritionData).

Grams of sugar:
96 cake (1/8 slice 9 inch white with coconut icing)
57 candy (4 oz Snickers)
56 milk shake (11 oz vanilla)
39 soft drink (12 oz cola)
39 yogurt (8 oz low fat strawberry Breyers)
37 coffee (12 oz caramel mocha Starbucks)
34 apple juice (12 oz Starbucks)
32 pie (1/8 slice 8 inch pecan)
30 ice cream (1 cup chocolate)
29 orange juice (12 oz McDonald's)
28 muffin (101 g blueberry Starbucks)
24 donut (5 inch)
21 brownie (56 g large chocolate)
18 granola (2/3 cup low fat fruit Nature Valley)
15 cereal (1 cup frosted flakes Kellogg)
07 hamburger (105 g McDonald's)

For comparison - grams of sugar:
19 apple (3 inch with skin)
15 peach (2 3/4 inch)
12 orange (2 7/8 inch navel)
12 grapes (15 red or green seedless)
07 strawberries (1 cup whole)

Breaking the Sugar Addiction
To break your sugar addiction, eliminate foods with added refined sugar and reduce intake of other refined carbohydrates. Increase intake of foods with good quality animal or dairy fat, preferably from pastured animals, and add probiotic foods. Also, try coconut oil. And be sure to eat a variety of foods to get good nutrition. If you have Excel or Open Office, try out my dietary nutrition calculator. Dropping sugar may seem difficult the first few weeks, but after a few months of abstinence from refined sugar and with intake of more good fat, probiotics, and nutrients, you should lose any cravings for sweets. If you still have difficulty, another tool to try is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a type of accupressure that employs tapping instead of the needles used in accupuncture. Once you have broken your addiction, you can still allow occasional sugary foods, but not very often or you run the risk of becoming addicted once again. You may also find that sugary foods that used to be "treats" no longer taste as good - they're too sweet!

If a food does not taste good without adding sugar to it, then either learn to like it without the sugar, or find other foods that you like that don't have added sugar. You may find as you lose your sugar addiction that many foods that formerly did not taste sweet enough now taste good. Sour and tart foods may become more appealing. You may even develop a new appreciation for all of the wonderful flavors in nature!

Update 2008 December 20

Fructose appears to be the worst dietary sugar for causing long-term health problems from excess consumption. Fructose is 50% of table sugar (sucrose) and typically 55% of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Read this interesting editorial from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: How safe is fructose for persons with or without diabetes?

Update 2014 January 5

A more recent discussion of health problems caused by too much dietary fructose:
Clinical Scientist Sets the Record Straight on Hazards of Sugar


Anonymous said...

You are so right! Sugar is also Cancers favourite food, and I don't mean the star-sign. I found adding L-Glutamine 3 times a day killed my carb cravings. Without it, it was hell!!!

Bryan - oz4caster said...

Dimitri, I'm glad you broke your sugar addiction. It can be a real challenge for some people. The lucky ones never get addicted in the first place :)

I would be hesitant to use a refined supplement like L-glutamine, as it may cause side-effects long-term. I prefer to use whole foods as much as possible. For me, the keys were adding good animal/dairy fats, adding probiotic foods like raw kefir and raw kombucha, and getting good nutrition by favoring nutrient dense foods.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I can attest to the fact that foods in their natural state come to taste sweet enough once you kick the sugar addiction. I have, more than once, gone to a restaurant and been 100% positve they have added sugar to vegetable dishes. But an experience at home the other night made me rethink this. I roasted some red peppers and served them as a side dish with lamb. They seemed candy-sweet to me, and I know that I did not add any sugar to them!

Do you make your own kombucha? I've been buying it in those very expensive bottles. Do you have any information on the safety of home-produced kombucha?

@Dimitri - I am in favor of a "gradual" approach to health, with one exception. The first step is drastic - eliminate all sources of concentrated carbs, whether sugar, refined grains, whole grains, starchy vegetables, high sugar fruits like mangoes, etc. If you need crutches like supplements or artificial sweeteners in the first few days or weeks, go for it. But I think the goal should be to wean yourself off as much of that stuff as possible, too, and as Bryan says, add more good stuff in. Just do it gradually. I tried to drink a diet Coke the other day, and I threw it out because I didn't like the taste any more. But when I first went low-carb, diet Coke saved me from temptation many many times.

Bryan - oz4caster said...

Migraineur, I agree that breaking the sugar addiction is probably the most important single thing to do for anyone who is overweight or has signs of insulin resistance.

Red peppers do have some sugar, but they're an excellent source of vitamin C!

I've been too lazy and impatient to make my own kombucha. I buy GT's Kombucha and Gingerade is my favorite. My only concern about kombucha is that tea is high in fluoride, although high quality organic teas made from the newer leaves have less. So, I only drink a couple of bottles a week.

I also agree that it's not good to try to make too many dietary changes at once. Always do the easy things first :)

Getting away from factory processed/packaged foods is probably the next best thing to do and go organic if you can afford it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. I've been drinking the GT's Kombucha, too, and I also like the gingerade flavor. It fills my craving for something fizzy.

I'm pretty sensitive to carbs, though, so I only drink a half a bottle a day (or not quite every day) to cut the carbs somewhat.

I was at Whole Foods today, and both the person behind me and the person ahead of me in line were buying mostly processed foods in brightly colored boxes. I, on the other hand, was buying a bottle of cream, a jug of milk (I don't drink unfermented milk, except for cream, but my husband does), some Chinese broccoli, one pear, a slab of ribeye, a Meyer lemon, and a bottle of kombucha. Some of the food was processed (cream is fractionated milk, and of course kombucha is fermented), but nothing was processed in a way that my grandmother couldn't have done in her own kitchen. Oh, OK, the milk and cream were pasteurized.

I wanted to cry out to both of them, "Do you think that just because you buy it at Whole Foods it's a whole food?" But, my online persona aside, I actually do have some manners.

Bryan - oz4caster said...

Migraineur, LOL! Yes, I've noticed the same thing too. Just because it's at a "health" food store doesn't mean it's healthy :)

There's lots of food in there loaded with sugar, omega-6 oils, and soy - which I don't consider healthy! I cringe whenever I pass the soy milk :)

When you think about it though, much of the food we eat is not really whole. We don't eat the whole cow, we eat only parts. We don't eat the whole grain plant, we eat the seed. We don't eat the whole tree, we eat the nut.

On the other hand factory farmed and factory processed/packaged foods take on a whole different meaning. Fake food is probably a better name :)

BTW, if you like discussing health with like minded people, check out the two "Health Discussion Groups" I have listed on the side bar. Native Nutrition is a wide-open topic group and you can read the messages without joining. DiscussingNT is focused mainly on preparing healthy food and on health - other topics are not permitted. IIRC, you have to join to see the messages there.

Anonymous said...

This is really true. Sugar is everywhere (actually it's not even sugar anymore -- it's HFCS).

I have been on a low-carb high-fat diet for the past month and have lost 9 pounds already (including during the holidays when I didn't totally stick to it).

I went to the mall yesterday for the first time since I've been on the diet. I tried to find something I could eat and it was impossible.

Everything had bread or sugar (or HFCS). I thought maybe I'd get some thing at the Japanese place but all they had was teriyaki chicken -- totally loaded with sugar!

I ate the raw cheese I brought with me and waited till I got home to eat a meal.

The other thing I noticed was that there were temptations everywhere. Chocolate chip cookies, pretzels, etc. Everything full of sugar. Impossible to avoid! Of course, I did. Thankfully I have kicked my sugar and carb cravings.

It's no wonder, though, that people are addicted!

Anonymous said...

BTW I am the same as you -- I think it's the healthy fats (raw butter, coconut oil, raw cream) that have made my sugar cravings disappear. That and the fermented foods. I drink kombucha and kefir daily.

Bryan - oz4caster said...

Cheeseslave, yes, most factory packaged/processed foods are loaded with sugar! Not to mention all the other bad-for-you stuff. It's well worth the effort to buy good quality whole foods and prepare them yourself. What could be more important than your health?

Choosing good quality food is a good investment for a healthy happy future :)

Ben said...

Addictive my darling, addictive drug.

Anonymous said...

Sugar is a toxin. Thank you for writing this article. I have been refined sugar free for three weeks now. My acne problem is gone. I was a sugar-holic and decided to experiment to see if sugar was the cause of my skin problems. Surprise, was.

Bryan - oz4caster said...

Yes, I've read that too much sugar may play a role in acne. Nice to hear some confirmation. Now if I can just convince my teenage daughter :)