Sugar Shock—Sweets and Your Health

Here are two not-so-sweet facts to contemplate:

  1. We all know we should “eat less sugar.” Yet sugar and its ubiquitous co-sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, are in so many of the foods crowding our supermarket shelves.
  2. Most people could not tell you how much sugar they eat each day, or what this sugar intake might be doing to their health.

For some time now, nutritional scientists have known that excessive sugar consumption undermines our health. Just how sugar does this depends on the type of sugar we eat, how much we eat, genetic predispositions to certain conditions, and other factors.

A recent TIME article, “How Sweet Can Become Toxic,” highlighted some new research on sugar conducted at the University of Utah and published in Nature Communications. In the study, mice ate a diet approximately equal to our average diet (figuring on about 3 sodas a day) of 25% sugar. 25% sugar is a high amount, but many people might be surprised that their diet falls into this category. After 58 weeks, the sugar-inundated mice had a twice as high mortality rate as the mice who had not been fed this extra sugar. The 25% sugar diet wreaked havoc on their life span.

What’s more, the extra sugar significantly affected the male mice, dropping their reproductive rates. Scientists reported that the male mice had a harder time competing in their environment. We know that increased sugar/high fructose corn syrup consumption contributes to obesity, fatty liver conditions, insulin resistance, diabetes risk, and heart health problems, but this report also points to hormonal problems caused by sugar.

The long and short of the new research on sugar is that we are still uncovering what this major part of the Standard American Diet (SAD) does to our overall health and longevity. We have come to understand that cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption will damage our health and shorten our lives, but could sugar be similarly toxic?

Knowledge is Sweet
A big step in managing your and your family’s health is to know how much sugar you’re eating every day. That’s easy, right? Just check the “sugars” line on the back of your food package…right? Unfortunately, no. Other carbohydrates in our foods are processed as sugars in the body, making the “sugars” line only part of the equation.

Here is the new, fool-proof equation you can use to quickly uncover just how much sugar your foods contain:

Total Carbs minus Total Fiber… divided by 5 = Number of teaspoons of sugar

Aim to keep your sugar intake about 10-15 teaspoons a day (do the math and many of us are consuming closer to 30 teaspoons!) by increasing the amount of lean protein, nuts, vegetables, fiber-rich grains/seeds such as flax and chia you eat. And the easiest way to cut down on sugars? Cut way down on processed foods, or the number of foods you buy that come in a box, can, or package.

Source: “How Sweet Can Become Toxic,” TIME Health & Family, Aug 2013.

Omega-3 DHA Counteracts the Harmful Effects of Sugar

It is no secret that sugar is unhealthy. From high blood sugar to diabetes and heart disease, a diet high in sugar has far-reaching effects. But did you know that sugar is also bad for your brain? A recent study published in the Journal of Physiology found an interesting connection between a diet low in omega-3s and high in the sugar fructose, and poor memory and brain function. The researchers stated, “Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”

In the animal study, one group was fed a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids, and another group was fed a diet high in omega-3s from flaxseed and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The omega-3 deficient animals were found to have poor memory function when compared to those fed a diet rich in omega-3s. The negative effects of a low omega-3 diet were exacerbated when high amounts of fructose were added to the diet. In the group receiving sufficient omega-3s, however, a high fructose diet did not have the same negative effects on memory and neuron function, suggesting that omega-3s have a protective effect against the brain dysfunction caused by a high fructose diet.

It is well known that a high sugar diet increases blood sugar and insulin resistance in the bloodstream. This is the hallmark of the metabolic syndrome, an increasingly common condition that precedes type 2 diabetes. This study suggests that not only can a high sugar diet have effects in the bloodstream, but that it can also have similar effects in the brain. The study found disrupted insulin receptor signaling in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory function. Insulin and fructose are both known to cross the blood-brain barrier, where they can interrupt neuron function.

The findings of this study are not surprising. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is also known as type 3 diabetes. The fact is, the amount of sugar—and even carbohydrates, for that matter—in the Standard American Diet (SAD) is alarmingly high. ReNew Life founder Brenda Watson will be debuting a new PBS show in the fall on this very topic. The show, called The Heart of Perfect Health will air nationwide in November. Stay tuned to our blog for more information on show times.