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Sugar, Our Health, and Special Interest
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 1, 2019
Evidence has mounted, strongly suggesting sugar is hazardous to our health.
Ahhh, honey! Sugar, Sugar. The Archies topped the Billboard 100 for four weeks with this sweet love song in 1969. The sweet rush of sugar mesmerizes the senses and leaves us aching for more; no wonder this white dose of wonder is a powerful metaphor for love. Trade, wars and slavery mark the significant and powerful history of this benign looking substance. Sugar, once a commodity restricted to nobility, now marketed to the economically depressed. Battles continue to rage, not between countries or trade, but between special interest and health professionals over the dangers of a diet heavily laden with sugar. This war exposes the dark side of capitalism. We, as consumers, must wisely navigate the propaganda to protect our health, gathering practical knowledge from the muck to effectively manage our lives.
Over the course of human history, the vitality of civilizations has routinely suffered from diseases. The bubonic plague washed through Europe and Asia cutting populations in half during the fourteenth century. Since then, many other epidemics have devasted the health of civilization, leaving many dead; malaria, cholera, influenza, small pox, typhus fever, polio, AIDS and tuberculosis to name a few. Science and advanced medical achievements have greatly limited the spread of these plagues, limiting their impact on human life. We recently turned a corner. A change in balance. Partly because of medical innovations and partly because of individual sloth. Infectious diseases are no longer the largest health concern. Obesity is the epidemic of our generation.
In September 2011, the United Nations, declared that chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes pose a greater health burden worldwide than infectious diseases, contributing to 35 million annual deaths (Schmidt, L., Brindis, C., & Lustig, R. 2012). Just as there is much that can be done to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases, we can also combat chronic non-communicable diseases. The United Nations targeted tobacco, alcohol and diet as primary risk factors for non-communicable disease (2012).
Our diets have become progressively worse. The facts speak for themselves. Obesity has tripled since 1975. 1.9 Billion adults are overweight with over 650 million being obese. In 2016, 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese and 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese. (The World Health Organization- Fact Sheet 311). According to a 2012 article in Nature, there are 30% more people obese than those undernourished (Schmidt, L., Brindis, C., & Lustig, R. 2012).
"Just as there is much that can be done to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases, we can also combat chronic non-communicable diseases."
Sugar and Obesity
An oversimplified explanation to the epidemic is calorie intake and limited energy expenditures. We eat more and do less. The sugar industry is quick to remind that poor diets, not sugar, cause weight gain and the subsequent health related illnesses. They are certainly correct; however, they are glossing over the fact that sugar is a major culprit in these poor calorie-laden diets. A large systematic study of relevant literature found that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest contributor to added sugar in our diets (Keller & Bucher Della Torre, 2015). Our fascination with sodas, sports drinks, energy shots, and juices inject straight sugar into our bodies, tipping the scales of moderation, adding significant calories without providing healthy and essential nutrients.
Evidence shows a parallel between sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption and the over-weight and obesity trends. These heavily sweetened refreshers, even those that tout inclusion of natural replenishing and vitalizing nutrients, typically offer little nutritional value, pretending health but jacking our bodies up with more sugar. Just empty calories under a different name and fancy label giving a temporary shot of fast burning glucose.
The UN Food and Agricultural Association warns that some of the same nutritional deficiencies found in the underfed are also present in the overfed (Stapp, 2004). When sugar is consumed in large quantities, it suppresses hunger, displacing essential nutrients from our diets, contributing to adverse health conditions. Mothers have intuitively known for a long time that little Johnnie should first eat dinner before indulging on the cookie. Patricia Alpert, a professor with concentrated studies in obesity, writes that “sugar is a negative nutrient, or food with empty calories, meaning it is devoid of nutrients and the body depletes its stored nutrients to metabolize it.” (Alpert, 2012). I quickly learned, as a stay-at-home grandpa, that an afternoon soda given to the grandson creates a restless evening and an untouched supper.
Natural Preference for Sweetness
We consume too much sugar because there is a universal preference for sweetness. If you are marketing a product, sales increase by lacing it with sugar. Infants come into life equipped with the preference for sweet (Birch, 2005, p. 76). Perhaps, the quick energy burst of sugar had survival value. Early hunter and gatherer societies, and even later civilizations, had built in inhibitors, limiting sugar consumption. Sugar production (sugar cane and sugar beets) was largely regional. Europeans didn’t discover sugar until the 11th century crusades. The trade became contentious, inciting war and slavery. Sugar consumption remained a luxury for the rich for several centuries following this significant discovery. (Sucrose.com)
Benefits of Sugar
Glucose is the bodies key energy source. We need glucose to fuel the body. Energy is necessary for us to function. We use energy to run, jump, and think. When energy sources are depleted our bodies shift to conservation to maintain sufficient energy to continue metabolic functions. During depletion even self-discipline wanes. Roy Baumeister, a scientist and the self-discipline guru, discovered evidence suggesting that “people who have low glucose levels, and those who are unable to metabolize glucose efficiently, show deficits indicative of low self-control” (2017).
When we engage in complex cognitive activities, our blood glucose levels drop (Kahneman, 2013; Baumeister & Tierney 2012). Cognitive activity demands glucose—and lots of it. Research has unveiled many connections between low blood sugar and emotional and behavioral problems. Hypoglycemics, people with very low blood sugar, struggle to control negative emotions and are more likely to be convicted of a variety of criminal offenses. Other studies found that men with impaired ability to convert food into usable energy, also displayed limited ability to soothe negative emotions (Baumeister & Tierney 2012).
While the sugar industry is quick to promote the importance of glucose for energy, they prefer to ignore the impacts that a bowl of Super Sugar Crisp washed down with twelve ounces of Orange Crush has on the smooth functioning of our energy delivery system. Our digestive health relies on proper dosage that we regulate through the contents and by the amount of food we consume.
"Our digestive health relies on proper dosage that we regulate through the contents and by the amount of food we consume."
The Concern of Danger beyond Concentrated Calories
Ordinary table sugar is composed of a glucose and fructose molecule. Glucose is easily extracted during digestion and quickly absorbed into the blood stream to deliver energy to organs and muscle tissues. The fructose molecules, however, are not so easily converted into usable energy. Fructose must first be metabolized by the liver. Our current diets, smothered in frostings and sweeteners, exceeds the ability of the liver to metabolize. The excess fructose is stored as fat. Over time, continued heavy consumption leads to fat accumulation on the liver. The build up chokes blood flow, leading to inflammation and scar tissue on the organ. This condition is known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The liver suffers many of the same characteristics as present from over-consumption of alcoholic beverages (Schmidt, Brindis, & Lustig, 2012; Guthrie, 2017)
Excessive sugar consumption is tied to visceral belly fat (fat build-up under the muscle around the organs), high-blood pressure, high triglycerides, high-blood sugar (a precursor to type 2 diabetes), coronary Heart Disease and high cholesterol. All these killers can be neatly placed under the umbrella of “metabolic syndrome” (Alpert, 2012; Mintz, 2014). Metabolic syndrome is the disruption of our finely calibrated biochemistry for utilizing foods as energy.
When blood sugar rises, the pancreas excretes insulin to signal to muscle, liver and fat cells of the heightened glucose levels. The cells responded by absorbing glucose. Our system is designed to keep blood sugar at an optimum level. Our high sugary diets, consisting of large qualities of added sugars higher levels of blood sugar produces an imbalance that evolution hasn’t had time to absorb. We have thrown grit into a finely tuned machine of energy processing.
Processed sugar quickly elevates blood sugar, unlike the slow release of energy from complex carbohydrates. The high level of glucose set lose in the blood stream ignites excessive release of insulin to create a balance. However, the glucose already broken down is quickly absorbed, leaving high levels of insulin in the blood. The cells are alerted that glucose is still present when it isn’t. (“Experience Life,” 2018, May). This leads to an energy crash, encouraging another jolt of quick glucose supply.
The cells have limited capacity. Once they reach capacity then insulin and glucose return to the blood stream, creating a habitual imbalance. Cells lose sensitivity to the faulty signals from the presence of insulin. Our bodies become insulin resistant—type II diabetes. (Alpert, 2012).
Our biological systems evolved to react to external events, when accustomed limits are surpassed the body struggles. This appears to be the case with too much stress, leading to a constant of cortisol coursing through the veins, confusing the normal protective stress response. When we push our organisms beyond capabilities our mental and physical health struggle.
With too much stress, our bodies shut down, the presence of irregular amounts of cortisol weaken the body, making it more susceptible to disease and illness. Our bodies defend the best it can, given the unusual circumstances. When overstressed, our bodies begin to shut down, withdrawing from life to recover. Ultimately, these natural reactions short-circuit long-term healthy development while preventing immediate demise. A mindful approach would be to address the stress before a shutdown, eliminating unnecessary and costly endeavors, given the body sufficient space to continue without being overwhelmed.
With glucose overload, our bodies also respond. The heightened blood insulin levels signal a need for more glucose to balance. We crave another immediate boost from highly processed sugar and reach for the poison that set the metabolic disfunction in motion. This oddity of craving something that is damaging leads some scientist to compare sugar cravings to chemical addictions. Many impulsive sugar consumption habits share similarities to chemical addictions, especially the urge to consume more of the substance responsible for the underlying ills. Studies do confirm that sugar consumption can calm distressed feelings, even though the relief quickly dissipates, and the undesirable feelings return, along with additional guilt for polishing off am entire quart of rocky road ice cream.
Our bodies respond to given circumstances with the best approach to resolve the immediate discomfort. Our responsibility is to evoke an executive function to override hurtful impulses and address the larger issue. For stress, we re-order our lives, adjust our thinking, and incorporate restful and recovering practices. For Glucose metabolic disfunctions, we change our diet, limiting refined sugar and consuming more complex carbohydrates.
Capitalism, The Sugar Industry, and Our Health
Is the attack on added sugar just the latest fad? If sugar is so damaging, why have we been focused on fats and overall calorie consumption for the last fifty years? The truth is studies connecting sugar to larger health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, have been around for over fifty years. Sugar industry giants have exerted significant power to suppress dissemination of evidence. They shrouded unfavorable findings with confusion and doubt through manipulating and paying for contradictory research. This industry has heavy hitters with lots of money to protect their interests.
In their November 2016 issue, JAMA published an article documenting correspondence between the Sugar Association and three nutrition professors at Harvard that occurred in the 1960’s. The Industry paid the professors an equivalent to $48,000 in 2016 dollars to refute the growing literature connecting sugar to Coronary Heart Disease. The sugar industry sponsored research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, redirected CHD attention away from sugar and pointed to fat and cholesterol as the enemies (Nestle, 2016).
Industry sponsored research is normal. The gambling industry funds studies to show how beneficial casinos are to surrounding areas, tobacco funded studies for decades to cast doubt on cigarettes contribution to lung cancer, and the National Rifle Association confuses links between easy access to firearms and violence.
Industry sponsored nutritional research, like that of research sponsored by the tobacco, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries, almost inevitably produces results that confirm the benefits of the lack of harm of the sponsor’s products, even when independently sponsored research comes to opposite conclusions. (Nestle, 2016)
The sugar industry ignored the harm and touted weakly suggested benefits. Research fifty years ago was not the end of this battle. In 2004, when the World Health Organization (WHO) published findings exposing the ills of added sugar and made recommendations to limit sugar intake and for nations to consider regulations on food advertising aimed at young viewers, the industry jumped to action.
The sugar industry lobbyist reacted strongly even prior to the release of this report, exerting every avenue of influence to prevent publication. They contacted WHO’s director, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundland and attacked the reports findings and recommendations, stating the reports findings were scientifically flawed. (These findings were the result of thirty independent experts from twenty countries who analyzed the best available evidence and came to a unanimous decision) (Hagmann, 2003).
The industry also utilized their political power by contacting U.S. health officials. They asked for congressional appropriators to challenge future funding of WHO, adding “tax payer dollars should not be used to support misguided non-science-based reports” (2003).
Not surprisingly the sugar industry found a listening ear from Bush Administration officials, who joined in the fight against the WHO recommendations. William Steiger, the top official of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for International Issues in 2004, objected to the WHO recommendations. He wrote, “there is an unsubstantiated focus on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, and a conclusion that specific foods are linked to non-communicable diseases.” (Stapp, 2004). An interesting change from the argument the sugar industry utilized four decades earlier when they utilized cherry-picked data and foregone conclusions for research that focused on a specific ‘bad’ food that was not sugar.
Progress has been made. During the 2019 Superbowl, Coke-Cola proudly announced they care, offering smaller serving sizes and many low sugar beverage options. Kudos to the changes; but I remain skeptical. Labels and health benefits are still manipulated to achieve their financial goals. Your health and my health are not part of the board room discussions.
We must take responsibility for our health. Capitalism comes with flaws. Powerful special interest is one of the large drawbacks to a profit-driven system. We cannot sit ideally by and believe that these industries or industry funded politicians will serve our best interest. Biases are created and strengthened when money is attached. We must educate ourselves, seeking the best sources that appear relatively free from interest lying outside of our health.
For more information on improving blood sugar:
We can combat the over-consumption of sugar by focusing on our own diets. It may be a colossal leap from current consumption habits to the WHO recommendations of six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons for men. A can of soda surpasses these stringent limits. Sugar is added to almost all processed foods. Our intake is enormous. We simply need an action plan to cut back, taking time to identify where hidden sugars are hiding. By replacing a can of soda with a glass of water and a piece of fruit for that donut, we make significant strides to regain control.
Sugar is not the enemy; over-consumption of sugar is. We need energy from glucose but can find that energy in many superior foods with more complex structures, loaded with additional vitamins and minerals that help our bodies function smoothly. And when our bodies function better, so do our minds, moods and relationships.
Alpert, P. (2012). Sugar. Home Health Care Management & Practice, 24(4), 208-210.
Baumeister, R.; Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; Reprint edition
Baumeister, R. F. & Bauer, I. M. (2017). Self-Regulatory Strength. K. D. Vohs, & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation: Third Edition: Research, Theory, and Applications. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
“Experience Life” (2018, May). How to Balance Your Blood Sugar. Experience Life. May 2018. Retrieved On Line.
Guthrie, C. (January/February 2017) How Sugar Makes You Sick. Experience Life. Retrieved On-Line.
Hagmann, M (2003) Nutritionists Unimpressed by Sugar Lobby’s Outcry. (news). Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 81(6), 469. Retrieved from Questia
Kahneman, M. ( 2013). Thinking Fast; Thinking Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition
Keller, A., & Bucher Della Torre, S. (2015). Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Obesity among Children and Adolescents: A Review of Systematic Literature Reviews. Childhood Obesity, 11(4). Retrieved from Questia.
Mintz, B. B. (2014, September). Sugar: Sweet and Tempting… But Hazardous to Your Health: it is Good to Know What Types of Sugars Are Out There. Hidden or Obvious, So You Will Know What You Are Consuming. The Exceptional Parent, 44(9), 22. Retrieved from Questia.
Nestle, M. (November 12, 2016) Food Industry Funding of Nutrition Research. JAMA Internal Medicine. Volume 176(11). November 12, 2016.
Schmidt, L., Brindis, C., & Lustig, R. (2012). Public health The toxic truth about sugar. Nature, 482(7383), 27-29.
Stapp, K. (2004, January-February). The Sugar Fix. Multinational Monitor, 25(1-2), 7. Retrieved from Questia.
Sucrose.com website. http://www.sucrose.com/lhist.html
World Health Organization Fact Sheet 311—obesity and overweight.