Is Sugar Really That Bad for Me?

By: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®

One of the more recent studies to highlight the negative health impact of sugar and artificial sweeteners is “The Influence of Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners on Vascular Health during the Onset and Progression of Diabetes,” by Brian Hoffman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Marquette University and Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

In his study, Hoffman points out that high amounts of dietary sugar have been known for some time to contribute to a wide range of systemic health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. He also points out that “it was not until recently that the negative impact of consuming non-caloric artificial sweeteners in the place of sugar had been increasingly recognized as a potential contributor to the dramatic increase in diabetes and obesity, along with the associated complications.”

The fact that artificial sweeteners had been on the market for so many years before being proven to cause serious health problems is, unfortunately, no surprise. Companies are allowed to profit (and withhold information from the public) until their products are proven dangerous. The burden of proof for the safety of their products is rarely placed on the Frankenfood manufactures. Instead, consumers, doctors, and researches carry the burden of proof that a product is unsafe, and then it takes years to decades before the Food and Drug Administration issues a warning or orders the products off the shelves, assuming it ever does.

When I was a kid I, I ate margarine because it was touted as the healthier alternative to butter. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations are still being used to promote margarine as healthier than butter. Companies pay them to endorse products that have killed thousands of people by plaquing their arteries. Maybe you can’t fool Mother Nature, but you sure can fool the public. It’s terrible that industry giants and food gooders get to play with the hearts, minds, and blood vessels of the American public, but that is just what they have bought the right to do.

At the risk of sounding angry, I am! And you should be too!

So, when someone asks me whether sugar really is that bad for them, I am careful in my reply. The short answer is yes, excessive consumption of dietary sugar is bad for you, but that doesn’t mean you should switch to artificial sweeteners, which are far worse. And you should certainly avoid products that contain modified sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup.

Unless you have diabetes, you can consume moderate amounts of more nature-based sugars without a significant negative impact on your health.

Types of Sweeteners

Sweeteners are often classified into the following groups:

  • Sugars: Sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, maltose, galactose, and trehalose. These are natural sugars contained in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, and milk.
  • Natural caloric sweeteners: Honey, maple syrup, coconut palm sugar, and sorghum syrup. These sweeteners contain sugar and other nutrients and are slightly lower than sugar on the glycemic index.
  • Natural zero-calorie sweeteners: Luo han guo, stevia, thaumatin, pentadin, monellin, and brazzein. These sweeteners are not carbohydrates and do not cause tooth decay.

Note: The above sweeteners are each isolated proteins, and while they may not elevate blood sugar, I would use them with caution. In other words, you can occasionally consume isolated proteins via processed foods, but don’t make a habit of it. Food is meant to be consumed whole and not necessarily isolated.

  • Sugar alcohols: Sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, and glycerol. These sugars are not fully metabolized by the body, so they have fewer available calories per gram than natural sugars. They also don’t cause tooth decay.

Note: Sugar alcohols can cause stomach upset. Like the time I ate xylitol-based protein bars (because xylitol does have some good benefits) but wound up in a bad position on top of a mountain when the xylitol kicked in.

  • Modified sugars: High fructose corn syrup, refiner’s syrup, caramel, inverted sugar, and golden syrup. These sugars have been modified or created by using enzymes to convert various starches into sugar. Like sugar, they have a high glycemic index and cause tooth decay.
  • Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, neotame, acesulfame K, and cyclamate. These sweeteners have a have a zero glycemic index and are harmless to teeth, but they alter the body’s lipid metabolism. As mentioned in the study cited at the beginning of this post, “exposure to high glucose and artificial sweetener administration lead to unique mechanisms of vascular impairment and homeostatic alterations that may be important during the onset and progression of diabetes and obesity.”

Sugar as a Fuel Source

Sugar, more specifically glucose, is used as a fuel source in the body, particularly by the brain and muscles. However, you don’t have to eat or drink glucose, because your body is well equipped to obtain the glucose it needs by:

  • Extracting glucose from safe complex carbohydrates, such as whole oats and broccoli
  • Breaking down fats and triglycerides
  • Breaking down protein into amino acids which are then used to form glucose, a process called gluconeogenesis

We all know sugar tastes good and it’s certainly a challenge to avoid it. However, the overconsumption of sugar is a major contributor to the increase in chronic health conditions including, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Couple that with unhealthy fat intake (fats from processed foods), and you have a recipe for arterial and insulin disaster!

Sugar as a Treat

The upside of sugar is that it’s sweet and tasty and can bring back memories of good times, friends, families, road trips, and celebrations! Other than that, it’s not an essential nutrient and does nothing to support good health.

Consuming sugar occasionally may have some indirect health benefits, such as improving the quality of life, enabling you to take part in celebrations so you don’t feel isolated, and preventing you from feeling as though you’re being punished when you’re just trying to eat a healthier diet.

However, once a person has diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or any chronic condition that has its roots in inflammation, consuming only very careful and measured amounts of sugar is an essential part of the treatment plan when the objective is to reduce reliance on medication, avoid hospitalization, and support independence throughout the aging process.

Health Conditions Associated with Excess Sugar Consumption

We all know consuming too much sugar is unhealthy and can contribute to weight gain, but it contributes to a host of other unhealthy conditions and illnesses, including the following:

  • Weakens immune function
  • Causes problems with serotonin, which can cause depression
  • Creates anxiety by increasing adrenaline
  • Provides the pathway to insulin resistance and diabetes
  • Negatively impacts hormones in men and women, which aggravates premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause, accelerates the onset of puberty, and lowers testosterone in men
  • Causes inflammation to arterial walls, allowing cholesterol to fill the damaged artery left by the inflammation, which creates arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries/plaquing)
  • Fuels the growth of cancer cells
  • Makes you tired and cranky
  • Causes restless sleep and disruption of circadian rhythms
  • Increases nighttime urination
  • Weakens immunity
  • Feeds bad bacteria and yeast in the gut
  • Contributes to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Causes constipation
  • Causes tooth decay

The Sugar Source Matters

While some medical and nutritional experts claim that sugar is sugar regardless of the source, I say that not all sugar is bad for you. I break sugars down into the following three categories:

  • Bad: Modified sugars, such as those in breakfast cereals and soda, have no nutritional value, create a strong insulin response, and can tear holes in the gut. Cereal is inflammatory and contains no enzymes to help with digestion.
  • Good: Sugar from fruit (fructose) has benefits when eaten as a whole fruit and not juiced, because it contains antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Fruit contains enzymes that help us digest. The fruit we eat is alive; cereal, soda, sugary juices, candies, and pastries are dead. (However, if you have diabetes or IBS or are trying to lose weight, you can get too much sugar from fruit.)
  • Better: Low glycemic fruits and berries are the best source of fructose to consume on a regular basis, including cherries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, grapefruits, apples, limes, lemons, pears, and watermelon.

Even though fruit is the healthiest source of sugar, you should limit your consumption of it to two to three servings daily and avoid high-glycemic fruits including raisins and other dried fruits, figs, and bananas.

Bottom line: If you have a sweet tooth, it’s okay to indulge yourself with a small amount of dessert, a very limited amount of processed sugar or products that contain sugar, or two to three daily servings of fruit. Just be sure to limit your sugar consumption and avoid modified sugars and artificial sweeteners. As much as possible, stick with foods such as fruits, that contain natural sugars and additional nutrients.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post on sugar is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his Diplomate status in Clinical Nutrition from the American Clinical Board of Nutrition, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these and other illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.

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