Not So Sweet

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Got a weak spot for sugary foods?

It could be affecting your health and not in a good way

Not So Sweet

If your childhood food consumption was anything like mine, it involved a fair amount of treats: Something apple-y and sweet most afternoons with tea, cookie-baking with my Grandmother, and in the small New England village where I grew up weekly visits from the Pie Man, who drove his truck up to every front door in our neighborhood with a selection of freshly baked breads, pies, and other sweets. Thanks to the Pie Man, warm strawberry-rhubarb pie till ranks high in my top ten list of favorite comfort foods.

Other than warnings from dentists to brush often to prevent tooth decay, it wasn’t until fairly recently in our cultural history that the subject of sugar consumption become a mainstream health issue. The lists now regularly offered by health experts revealing sugar’s negative health effects include its potential to cause or contribute to the following conditions: free radical formation in the bloodstream, depression, hormonal imbalances, hypertension, insulin sensitivity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergies, osteoporosis, increased adrenaline levels in children, increased fat in the liver, atherosclerosis, increased systolic blood pressure, suppressed immunity, anxiety, mineral imbalances, copper and chromium deficiency, and kidney damage. Not exactly appetizing.

A Growing List

Despite the already scary inventory, it seems we just can’t get enough of the sweet stuff. Now, to add to all the other issues, there’s growing evidence that sugar can accelerate the aging process by having an effect on the health of our skin’s collagen and elastin, affecting our skin and appearance, and aging the body’s organs and internal systems at an increased rate.

“Collagen and elastin are in every part of our body they are essential molecular pieces of the fiber-fabric that holds the various organs and muscles together and in the right place,” says Michael Finkelstein, M.D., certified holistic physician, board-certified internist, and founder of SunRaven www.sunraven.org, a holistic living center in Westchester County, New York. “When we consume sugar in excess, the metabolic derangement is experienced everywhere, and leads to a pro-inflammatory state that not only accelerates aging, but has other, more immediate deleterious effects.”

But, why exactly does sugar invoke such dire consequences? And, do the detrimental health effects only occur if sugar is consumed in large quantities, or is any consumption at all bad? According to Finkelstein, sugar in reasonable quantities isn’t bad for us the problem lies in the fact that most people consume far in excess of anything that could be considered reasonable.

“Excess sugar has several effects that are ‘bad,'” explains Finkelstein. “The first is that chronic stimulation of the insulin mediated pathways (which push the sugar circulating in the blood into the body’s cells) leads to insulin resistance. Over time, when the cells of our body become more resistant to the effects of insulin, the level of glucose (sugar) in our blood remains elevated. This has important effects on our immune system, and on the nervous system in particular. The excess glucose eventually gets incorporated into fat and we gain weight, but the fact is that this is only a moderate concern in the greater scheme of things. More seriously, the pro-inflammatory effects of excess glucose, and the desensitization that results, contribute to other important conditions, most prominently heart disease.”

And, says Finkelstein, that’s just the beginning. When sugar is added to a food as opposed to being a natural part of it such as the sugar in a piece of fruit or the carbohydrate in a vegetable it’s almost always viewed as unnecessary by the body, resulting in varied and significant impacts on our health.

Sugar Sensitivity

Stephen Wangen, N.D., is the author of The Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Innate Health Publishing, 2006), Healthier Without Wheat A New Understanding of Wheat Allergies, Celiac Disease, and Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance (Innate Health Publishing, 2009), and is the co-founder of the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle. Wangen’s specialties include food allergies and intolerances. Some of these negative health reactions to sugar, he says, are actually the result of an allergy to cane sugar.

“Allergies to cane sugar are not that uncommon, and show up in blood tests,” says Wangen. “As a society, we have such an odd concept of food, what is natural and not, and what is and isn’t healthy. Vegetarians tend to eat a ton of carbs, soy, and wheat, and that’s not a solution either. We love these things, though. We’ve evolved seeking calories for survival, and we have an understandably difficult time overcoming that. Ultimately, one of the things we should consider is whether or not we evolved ingesting certain foods, such as sugar, and whether or not our bodies are designed to process and digest it. As a species, we evolved eating a lot of plants and wild game but, we don’t really have a philosophy built around those things.”

An allergy or food sensitivity to sugar, as with other food allergies, prompts the immune system to respond. The immune system reaction will vary from person to person, Wangen explains, adding that in his own practice, roughly two to five percent of his patients test allergic to cane sugar.

“With so many people diagnosed as diabetic and pre-diabetic these days, sugar consumption absolutely is a problem,” he continues. “There’s no real reason to be eating it, and I don’t know of anything good that comes from consuming it. It has no nutritional value, and supplies only empty calories. In instances where an allergy to cane sugar is involved, I recommend anything else beet sugar or honey, but, you should remember that we didn’t evolve eating honey, either early human communities certainly weren’t cultivating bees.”

Sugar, Sugar, Everywhere

If you think not adding sugar to your tea, coffee, or cereal is the only step you need to take to eliminate it from your diet, think again. Food manufacturers are adding it for you, and unless you know all the names it goes by, you could be consuming larger quantities than you ever suspected. Adding to the confusion are the mixed reviews on substitutes such as honey, beet sugar, and agave nectar. “Unfortunately,” says Finkelstein, “all sugars when consumed in excess are just as bad. While it is true that if one consumes whole foods only, such as an apple as opposed to apple juice, the relative balance between the sugar load, calories, and fiber is a little healthier. But, too much of foods that are high in sugar ultimately will produce the same deleterious effects. Still, I would recommend people stick to whole foods, learn about which of those are highly “glycemic” and thus minimize that group; and only sparingly consume a product that has any added sugar. For instance, it’s fine to have mother’s pie on a holiday or special occasion, but to consume pie on a daily basis is counterproductive from the point of view of health. If you must add a sweetener to your food, then here, too, I would recommend something in a whole form, such as maple syrup or honey.”

So, is fruit a healthier choice for taming a sweet tooth?

“Natural forms of sugar found in fruit are metabolized in the body the same way as sugar added to foods,” explains Heather K. Jones, a registered dietitian with over seven years experience working for the acclaimed Nutrition Action Healthletter, the nation’s largest circulation health newsletter (published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest). She’s the author of the new eBook, The Grocery Cart Makeover, and the soon-to-be-released book from Hatherleigh Press, What’s Your Diet Type? “And,” she continues, “all types of sugar provide four calories per gram. However, when you eat the fruit, you also get the healthy vitamins, fiber, and nutrients along with the sugar, whereas a soda or a cookie is high in sugar, but low in nutrients. Added sugar is empty calories meaning it provides nothing but calories.” When trying to discern if a packaged food product contains hidden sugars, Jones says that key words to look for on labeling include white sugar, brown sugar, icing sugar, or invert sugar; corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup; maple syrup, honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane juice, evaporated cane juice, all fruit juice concentrates, including apple and pear, and all “ose” ingredients, including dextrose, fructose, lactose, glucose, maltose and sucrose.

Sweet Addiction?

As research into nutrition and sugar intake continues, some health professionals have suggested that sugar may actually cause an addiction, akin to that experienced by drug addicts and alcoholics. Finkelstein, however, isn’t convinced.

“Here is what I would offer,” he says. “The issue that is more relevant has to do with the effects excess sugar has on the metabolic process itself. In that regard, when higher ‘doses’ of sugar are presented to the system, the insulin response gears up. If this is a chronic condition, e.g. it happens regularly because someone consumes excess sugar often, then the system becomes desensitized, much the way an addict would require more drugs or alcohol to satisfy their urge. This is the essence of dependency. Further, when the drug or in this case, sugar is stopped, the metabolic processes that have adapted to the stimulus are now hungry for more, and generate a syndrome that we know as withdrawal; the essence of craving. This, to some degree, occurs with sugar and often presents as glucose dysregulation syndromes; some with names, such as hypoglycemia, and others which are more insidious and create symptoms that are more general, such as fatigue, immunity issues, mental or emotional problems, difficulty sleeping, agitation and depression, weight disorders, etc.”

Hmmm. Though I’ll be the first to admit that I like my strawberries and rhubarb topped with pastry and am even tempted to argue that since my body evolved eating it, perhaps my system actually requires it for optimal functioning an apple, kiwi, or pear is looking increasingly attractive. With its healthy fiber, valuable nutrients, and satisfyingly sweet flavor, I may even become addicted.

Controversy over Agave Nectar

Over the past couple of years, agave nectar has increasingly turned up on supermarket shelves, marketed as a sweet, natural, and safe substitute for cane sugar. Promoted as an all-natural product, it’s derived from the agave plant found in the Southwest US and other areas of North and Central America.

While the FDA hasn’t expressed any concern over the product’s safety, research released recently by the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington, DC-based nutrition education foundation which offers science-based information on diet and health, urges consumers to be cautious, and to not regard agave as a free ride in the sweetener department. Additionally, an article that appeared in March of last year in the Chicago Tribune, titled “Agave provokes a bitter debate as a sweetener,”¬† raises other concerns, including the way our bodies assimilate it, the fact that it is heat processed, and whether or not it is safe for pregnant women (to date, no concrete studies have shown it to be dangerous). Agave is also about 90 percent fructose and that certainly doesn’t make it a product that should be used with abandon.

Following the debate is alternative medicine expert Ramiel Nagel, author, with Timothy Gallagher, D.D.S., of Cure Tooth Decay (Golden Child Publishing, 2008), and, with Sally Fallon, Healing Our Children: Because Your New Baby Matters! Sacred Wisdom for Preconception, Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting (Golden Child Publishing, 2008). Nagel points out that while agave nectar has been used traditionally and safely by some Native American populations, the raw nectar that they consumed is not what you’ll find in the bottle or jar at the food store.

“That was a completely natural, raw product,” he explains, “and the agave nectar commercially available to consumers in supermarkets is anything but. It’s been processed, and starches and enzymes have also been added to the final product. There’s this idea within our culture that you can eat something sweet without there being any consequences, but everything has a payment. Sugar, wherever it comes from, affects our health.”

As with any product regardless of how seductive the claims, or whether the label uses the word “Natural,” it’s ultimately up to each of us to take responsibility for our choices, fully investigating all claims before assuming a product is the best available choice.

By Debra Bokur

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