Sugar-what you need to know
Glucose, commonly called sugar, is an important energy source that is needed by all the cells and organs of our bodies.
It is the simplest of the carbohydrates, making it a monosaccharide. This means it has one sugar. Other monosaccharides include fructose, galactose, and ribose.
Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. These sugars are the first energy source the body goes to: they break down into energy much faster than their protein and fat counterparts. Consuming whole foods that contain natural sugar is good as the sugars in them provide a steady supply of energy to your cells. They also supply the body with fibre, essential minerals, and antioxidants. Dairy foods also contain essential proteins and calcium. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
However, problems occur when you consume too much added sugar - that is, refined sugar that food manufacturers add to countless food products, not just to impart sweetness, but to increase flavour, extend shelf life and adjust attributes like the texture, body, colour, and browning capability of food.
Which foods have added sugars?
Ultra-processed foods—foods with added flavours, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives—contribute to nearly 90 percent of our sugar intake, according to a BMJ Journal study. The main sources of added sugars in ultra-processed foods are:
- Soft drinks
- Fruit drinks
- Milk-based drinks (chocolate milk)
- Cakes, biscuits and pies
- Sweet snacks
- Breakfast cereals
- Ice cream and ice lollies
- Sugar we put in our tea and coffee
The calories refined sugar contains are empty – they have little or no nutritional value. Not only that, refined sugar drains and leeches the body of precious vitamins and minerals through the demand its digestion, detoxification and elimination make on all the systems of the body. Minerals such as sodium (from salt) potassium and magnesium (from vegetables), and calcium (from bones) are mobilised and used in chemical transmutation; neutral acids are produced which attempt to return the acid-alkaline balance factor of the blood to a more normal state.
Unless you consume only whole, unprocessed foods, you are bound to have added sugars in your daily diet. Added sugar should not make up more than 5% of the total energy we get from food and drink each day. This is around 30g a day of added sugar for anyone aged 11 and older. But a National Diet and Nutrition Survey reveals Britons are having far too much, especially children aged 11 to 18 years – 14% of their daily calories are from added sugar.
Sugar causes glucose levels to spike and plummet
When we eat, the process of digestion converts food into glucose, a simple sugar. However, in order to use the glucose, your body needs insulin - a hormone produced by the pancreas. Glucose is carried in the blood to the pancreas where the increased blood glucose level stimulates the production of insulin. The insulin is carried in the blood to the liver, where excess glucose is converted to glycogen, a complex sugar, which is then stored in the liver and muscles. Glycogen provides the body with a readily available source of energy. However, the liver’s capacity is limited, so when it reaches its capacity the excess glycogen is returned to the blood in the form of fatty acids. These are taken to every part of the body and stored in the most inactive areas; the belly, the buttocks, the breasts and the thighs.
A decrease in blood glucose, on the other hand, stimulates secretion of the cortical hormones in the adrenal gland and the hormones of the pituitary gland, which raise the blood glucose level by converting some of the stored glycogen in the liver to glucose. If the insulin supplied by the pancreas is excessive too much glucose will be converted to glycogen: the blood glucose level will fall and remain low. This condition is called hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar. This over stimulation of the pancreas is caused by excessive intake of simple sugars.
Symptoms of a low blood sugar level include:
- Feeling tired
- Feeling hungry
- Tingling lips
- Feeling shaky or trembling
- Fast or pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
- Becoming easily irritated, tearful, anxious or moody
- Turning pale
The extra insulin in your bloodstream can affect the arteries all over your body. It causes their walls to become inflamed, grow thicker than normal and more stiff, this stresses your heart and damages it over time. This can lead to heart disease, like heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes.
On the other hand, if the insulin supply is inadequate, the liver cannot effectively convert excess glucose to glycogen. When the pancreas becomes exhausted by producing insulin to neutralise the simple sugars, excess sugar begins building up in the blood causing the blood glucose levels to rise and remain high. This is Hyperglycaemia - a defining characteristic of diabetes.
Symptoms of Hyperglycaemia may include:
- Increased thirst and/or hunger
- Frequent urination
- Sugar in your urine
- Blurred vision
- Unintentional weight loss
- Recurrent infections, such as thrush, bladder infections and skin infections
- Breath that smells fruity
In a healthy body, the blood glucose level is maintained by the interplay of insulin and cortical hormones. In a poorly functioning body the swings in the blood glucose level are much greater.
Unstable blood sugar can leave you experiencing mood swings, fatigue, and headaches. It also contributes to cravings, which begins the cycle of false hunger. By contrast, those who avoid sugar report having fewer cravings while feeling more emotionally balanced and energized.
Consuming too much added sugar can have many negative health effects including:
Brain fog –The most important and demanding organ that needs glucose is the brain. The human brain is full of neurons that constantly consume glucose as they perform jobs such as thinking, learning and remembering. When your brain doesn’t get enough glucose, its neurons don’t have the fuel they need to communicate with the rest of your body and perform their jobs well. Though not a medical term, this is commonly known as ‘brain fog’ - when you feel confused or disorganized or find it hard to focus or put your thoughts into words.
Inflammation - A diet high in sugar might be a key factor contributing to chronic inflammation. Sugar stimulates the production of free fatty acids in the liver. When the body digests these free fatty acids, chemicals called cytokines are produced which can trigger inflammatory processes.
Immune Function - Studies have shown that sugar can interfere with the way your body fights disease . Bacteria and yeast feed on sugar so excess glucose in the body causes these organisms to build up, leading to various health conditions.
Nerve damage - Researchers think that over time, uncontrolled high blood sugar damages nerves and interferes with their ability to send signals, leading to diabetic neuropathy (painful, cold or insensitive fingers, toes, hands, and feet). High blood sugar also weakens the walls of the small blood vessels (capillaries) that supply the nerves with oxygen and nutrients.
Skin - After sugar hits your bloodstream, it attaches to proteins. The mix of these proteins with sugar causes the skin to lose elasticity, contributing to wrinkles and sagging. Excess sugar also causes inflammation in the skin which can aggravate skin conditions such as rosacea, acne and eczema.
Tooth decay - When it sits on your teeth, sugar causes decay more efficiently than any other food, fuelling plaque and bacteria.
Gum disease - Increasing evidence shows that chronic infections, like those that result from dental problems, play a role in the development of heart disease. Most researchers believe that the connection stems from the body's inflammatory response to infection.
Stress - When we are under stress, our bodies kick into fight-or-flight mode, releasing large amounts of hormones. The body has the same chemical response when blood sugar is low. After you eat a sweet snack, stress hormones begin to compensate for the crash by raising your blood sugar, leading to anxiety, irritability, and shakiness.
Chromium deficiency - Chromium, a trace mineral, helps regulate blood sugar in the body. If you don't get enough chromium in your diet, you may be more likely to develop high blood sugar and high cholesterol. Whilst it can be found in meats, seafood, and plant foods, we don’t get enough chromium from refined starches.
Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels
Maintaining consistent blood sugar levels is a critical part of overall health and wellness. People with bodies that don’t produce insulin, such as those with Type 1 diabetes, have to do more to maintain consistent glucose levels. Their daily routines might include insulin injections so that their bodies have the resources they need to carry glucose to their cells and brains.
In a body that can produce insulin, a balanced diet is the key to maintaining blood sugar levels. Skipping meals or denying yourself the sugars and carbohydrates you need to keep your body functioning could lead to an inability to focus or mood swings. On the other hand, consistently consuming meals and snacks that are high in sugars or processed carbohydrates could lead to chronic health conditions.
Understanding the foods your body needs to produce the right levels of glucose can go a long way toward maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle.