Treat or Trick: Dissolving the Sugar Charade
by Shaina Salin
When a relationship comes to an end, it is natural to go through a process of loss and grieving. One could argue that the period after a breakup feels comparable to withdrawal from an addiction—all you can think about is what you now can’t have, and you feel physically and emotionally out of balance. However, this phase of grief or withdrawal is a necessary part of the “detoxification” process that allows you to heal and move on. Despite how much you love them, if you can successfully remove yourself from those that damage you, you can emerge from the grief-period as a stronger, healthier person.
The most difficult relationship-withdrawal that I’ve endured hit me when I ended my on-again off-again love affair with Sugar. It was the epitome of a toxic relationship—a one-way street of unrequited love, enveloped in irresistible illusions of pleasure and euphoria. If Sugar hadn’t come by for a while, I would be left craving the way I felt when we were together, as though I had an empty hole in my stomach. Even though I knew I would ultimately feel drained and depressed after our rendezvous, Sugar always had a way of sweet-talking me into yet another one. It was a vicious cycle that, until recently, I didn’t feel strong enough to terminate. Though the break-up was admittedly intense (exacerbated by the fact that I couldn’t curl up with a box of See’s assorted chocolates to ease my pain), cutting Sugar out of my life has turned out to be the best decision I’ve made in terms of my long-term health and vitality. If you have your own Sugar issues, this article may serve to bring you some clarity.
Over the past four decades, research has demonstrated the detrimental effects that Sugar—specifically sucrose and fructose—has on the human body. The rising rates of obesity and disease in the United States directly correlate to increased rates of sugar consumption, which have been climbing a steep, upward trajectory since the 1970’s. In a momentous lecture titled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” Dr. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist who teaches at the University of California San Francisco, traces the rising rates of obesity and disease back to the mid 1970’s. It was then that scientists discovered LDL (or what the medical world calls “bad cholesterol”), and that raised levels of LDL correspond to increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Lusting claims that where society went wrong was in accepting a fallacious scientific conclusion that dietary fat causes disease, without also considering the effects of Sugar consumption. It is precisely when the government mandated a decrease in dietary fat consumption that America began suckling the teat of the mighty food pyramid, and the rates of disease began to skyrocket.
Employing sound scientific and statistical evidence, Dr. Lustig builds an irrefutable case against the past 40 years of Western nutritional ideology. In his lecture, he demonstrates the step-by-step biochemical processes that occur when we consume glucose (our bodies’ primary source of energy), ethanol (alcohol, a carbohydrate and known toxin), and fructose (cousin of sucrose, found most abundantly in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and a particularly evil form Sugar). Glucose is our cells’ universal energy source, and when our bodies expend energy, it is glucose that restocks our liver’s supply of glycogen. Glycogen, our body’s stored form of energy, is essential for fueling cellular function throughout the body, as well as activating the hormones that let our brains know when we have eaten enough. Glycogen is non-toxic and is ultimately what our bodies favor in terms of fuel. Ethanol, or that six-pack of brewski in the fridge, is known to have a negative impact on the liver with excessive exposure. The list of alcoholism side effects is long and dreary, and Dr. Lustig contends that the only reason alcohol is regulated by legislation is because it directly impacts brain function. Fructose, the form of sugar that Dr. Lustig has focused on, turns out to be the silent (or rather, overlooked) killer. For one, fructose is an insidious inflammatory agent, as Dr. Lustig explains that it is “seven times more likely than glucose to form advanced glycation end products (AGE’s)”—a factor in developing diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease. Fructose also does not support the hormonal function necessary to regulate our hunger and fullness signals, meaning that our brains never get the memo to stop eating. Unlike glucose, fructose cannot be metabolized in the body, so the liver deals with the burden of digesting it all, producing fatty triglycerides as a byproduct. Increased triglyceride production can lead to hypertension, insulin resistance, and eventually, metabolic syndrome. If consumed in excess over a long period of time, fructose “produces 8 out of 12 symptoms of chronic alcoholism,” Dr. Lustig gravely states.
It turns out that the parallels between Sugar and other addictive substances go beyond the harmful side effects to one’s health. Studies have shown that Sugar activates the reward center in the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, just like cocaine and heroin do. In an article for Eating Well, writer Rachael Moeller Gorman explores the evolutionary implications of the human sweet tooth, discussing how our ancestors would determine which foods were non-poisonous by their lack of bitterness. In the early days when food was scarce, detecting sweetness was key to survival. However, today we have access to an over-abundance of fructose, most of which comes from processed foods. The readily-digestible, processed fructose-bombs that make up most of the Western diet were not part of how we evolved to get our fructose fix—our caveman ancestors would have only had access to fructose through an occasional fruit. However, there is another difference here—when fructose is encased in fiber, (such as in fruit), it does not have the same negative impacts on the liver that it does when digested without a fibrous shell. As Dr. Lustig stated in his lecture, “when God made the poison, he packaged it with the antidote,” and he went on to mention the other health benefits of fiber, such as insulin suppression, digestive ease, and nourishing our gut flora allies.
If a life without Sugar is hard for you to imagine, you are not alone—but as they say, there are plenty more fish in the sea. This does not mean that your ideal school of fish includes artificial sweeteners like aspartame (found in pretty much anything “diet” or “sugar free”), as aspartame is an excitotoxin that kills off neural cells and has been linked to cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s, and a long list of other diseases. The best alternative is stevia, a natural plant derivative with no glycemic impact. Stevia can be found in liquid or crystal form, and it is best if you buy pure, organic stevia—not chemically-laden blends like the Coca Cola company’s Truvia.
In any case, just like you have the power to choose who you date, you have the power to choose what you put in your body. Even if you make one swap a day—say an apple for a snack instead of your usual, Sugar-loaded, fat-free yogurt, you still cut out a significant amount of added Sugar in your daily fare. Awareness is key when it comes to your health, but ultimately it comes down the choices that you make that determine whether, and for how long, you thrive rather than merely survive.