Why is Sugar So Bad For Your Health?

Sugar has acquired a villainous nutritional reputation over the last 10 or so years. It's long been the subject of a love-hate relationship for most of us, much beloved for its sweet flavors in candy and baked goods while, at the same time, viewed with trepidation as a direct cause of dental caries and excess weight. Parents especially have had reason to suspect sugar's insidious power over their children, seemingly turning them into wild-eyed, hyperactive hellions at holiday time.

But in recent years, sugar has taken on the mantle of an even darker nature, that of a killer. Is this reputation justified, or just an exaggeration by hysterical "food police" ?

Health and wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil isn't a fan of sugar, but he takes a common sense approach when asked this question. "The problem with all types of sugar is not that they are "'bad' for you, but that we eat far too much of them," he says, noting that sugary foods and drinks can raise the glycemic index of meals, putting a burden on the pancreas and raising the risk of insulin resistance, which in turn can increase your risks of obesity, diabetes, unhealthy blood levels of fat and cholesterol and high blood pressure.

If you've noticed that your blood sugar levels are spiking and crashing, you may want to consider taking supplements for diabetes. What about types of sugar aren't some better than others? This is a question for the ages, with all kinds of debate surrounding whether some forms honey, agave nectar, molasses, etc., are "better for you" than processed cane sugar or fructose.When it comes to the bottom line that is, the way our bodies recognize and process sugar, there isn't much difference between white table sugar and other natural sugars: they're all sugar to be converted to glucose for metabolic fuel.

What about fructose?

Naturally-occurring fructose as in fresh fruits and vegetables is not harmful, and in fact may help the body process glucose from other foods. Too much, however as in the amounts added to many processed foods like candy, breads and snack foods can overwhelm the body's ability to process it. Our bodies simply are not designed to handle a breakfast muffin containing 50 grams of sugar! That's why there's such a fuss being made about high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) it's ubiquitous in the Western fast-food diet because it's the cheapest way to make food taste good.Most of the carbohydrates we eat consist of glucose chains which pass through the liver and are metabolized by insulin throughout the body. Fructose is processed in the liver, which is not regulated by insulin. When too much fructose overwhelms the liver, it is synthesized into fats and released into the bloodstream as triglycerides.

High blood triglycerides signal bad news for several reasons:

  • Researchers are unsure why, but triglycerides accelerate hardening of the arteries, creating risk factors for stroke and heart attack.
  • High blood triglyceride levels often accompany symptoms of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
  • Triglycerides in the blood can be a red flag warning of other medical conditions resulting in metabolism gone awry low thyroid function, kidney or liver disease, side effects from medications such as beta blockers, steroids or birth control pills.

The AGE factor

There is yet another factor which alters the health equation when it comes to sugar consumption: Advanced Glycation End Products or AGEs. These are potentially harmful products that form when sugars undergo a chemical reaction with free amino groups of proteins or fats through roasting, frying, broiling, baking and other dry, high-heat methods of cooking. As with cell-damaging oxidants, individuals are exposed to AGEs via both dietary sources and normal metabolic processes.AGEs are created most efficiently under hot, dry heat cooking conditions. In contrast, formation of AGEs is slowed down when one prepares food via moist or low temperature heat. Adding fat to recipes prior to cooking also enhances the formation of AGE's. (Thus, from a culinary perspective AGEs do have their benefits as they enhance a food's aroma, flavor and texture. The old fat-and-sugar, one-two punch!). AGEs are present in many foods (you can actually observe the formation of AGEs by watching the browning of a pie crust as it is baked). Unfortunately, however, an increasing number of studies have shown a correlation between AGEs and serious health conditions such as Type I and II diabetes, vascular and kidney disease. Research is ongoing, so you'll be hearing much more on this subject in months and years to come.


American Diabetes Association: Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for Diabetes
Nutri-bodies Blog: High Heat Cooking, AGEs, and their Effects on Human Health 10/12/10
Dr. Weil: A better kind of sugar? 6/14/10

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