Millions of people believe that myth…and I used to be one of them.
Sugar is definitely empty calories.
But the part that is the lie is that sugar is “harmless.”
Not only is excess sugar the #1 reason for a sluggish metabolism and stubborn weight gain, the false idea that it is just harmless empty calories is making billions of people sick….including our children.
Woefully, the real truth is that sugar has a dark side, a very serious dark side. Chronically elevated blood sugar leads to stubborn weight gain, and raises the risk of almost every major disease. Excess sugar is quite possibly is the worst possible thing for our health overall. Let’s take a closer look….
Especially weight gain in the midsection. When we say we want to “lose weight” what we really mean is that we want to lose fat. But when we are eating too much sugar – our metabolism is in what I call “sugar-burning mode” which means it is running on sugars – and storing the extra as fat (adipose tissue). So when the metabolism is in sugar burning mode – it is not burning fat, it is storing it. This is referred to as “insulin resistance” and leads to stubborn weight gain – and a host of other issues.
Sweet foods and drinks stimulate our sweet tooth – so the more sweets we eat (even artificial sweetened foods and drinks), the more we want. So eating lots of sugar and simple carbs just makes us hungrier. Studies show that when meals are consumed with sugary drinks, more calories are consumed. Poor blood sugar regulation can lead to big swings – causing dangerous highs and lows – the drops in blood sugar can make you feel angry when you are hungry – sometimes called “hangry.”
Studies show that sugar lowers the white blood cell count and therefore our immune system. So eating sugar and simple carbs all the time means our immune system is running low all the time.
Like any other addictive drug, the sugar rollercoaster has a powerful effect on our mood and brain chemistry. When our blood sugar is high, it gives us energy and makes us feel happy. But when it drops, it can make us feel tired, sad and low. So we reach for more of what gave us that boost – that puts us on a rollercoaster ride that causes our mood to be very unstable. Over time, these sugar highs and lows can lead to more serious mood disorders. Sugar also causes an imbalance in healthy gut bacteria, which is tied to anxiety and other issues. Depressed Immune System: A 1973 study out of Loma Linda University found that consuming a glucose solution lowered the effectiveness of white blood cells to fight infection.
Sugar and simple carbs does not supply lasting energy – it spikes our blood sugar, which is then followed by a crash. When we crash, we are going to be looking for another energy boost hungry. So what do we reach for to get energy again – more sugar or simple carbs because it gives us a quick boost! I call that cycle “The Sugar Rollercoaster, and just like an actual roller coaster – the longer we are on that ride, the more likely we are to get sick.
The hallmark of most chronic diseases – is chronic and systemic inflammation. A diet high in sugars raises our inflammation, and this can raise our risk of many diseases.
Sugars feeds yeast and fungus. So diets high in sugar can sometimes lead to chronic overgrowth of yeast, bacteria or fungus (often this will happen after a course of antibiotics that wipes out the good bacteria.) Other issues in the gut – including bacterial overgrowth, dysbiosis, leaky gut can also be linked to excess sugar intake.
One of the most obvious things we are taught from a very young age about sugar – is that too much of it is not good for our teeth. The dentist warns our kids about it around Halloween time. But Halloween is not the only time of year that we eat too much sugar. The average person gets at least 3 times the added sugars every single day!
When we spike our blood sugar over and over, our body eventually becomes less effective at lowering it. This can develop into Insulin Resistance, which is a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes (and possibly Type 3, see Alzheimer’s disease below). Insulin resistance makes our body less able to process sugars – which can lead to fatigue, hunger, and weight gain. But the tricky thing is that insulin resistance often has no obvious symptoms. Which is why many people have no idea that they have it. Insulin resistance can lead to pre-diabetes, and if not addressed – eventually diabetes. Poorly managed diabetes can lead to serious health issues like nerve pain & damage, kidney failure, loss of limbs, and blindness. Do you remember that Type 2 Diabetes used to be called Adult-onset until a few year ago? They had to rename it – because kids were getting it. Sugar is harming the health of the majority of our youth – and setting them up for a lifetime of health issues.
According to this article on Dr. Chris Kresser’s website – “metabolic syndrome could more simply be called “excess carbohydrate disease”. In fact, some researchers have gone as far as defining metabolic syndrome as “those physiologic markers that respond to reduction in dietary carbohydrate.” The American Heart Association published a statement in Circulation, that excess sugar consumption increases our risk of heart attack and stroke. Having impaired blood glucose tolerance was found to increase the risk of stroke by 50%. Even a fasting glucose over 85 mg/dl (considered a “lab normal” level) was associated with an increased risk of cardiac mortality. The worst offender for heart health? Sodas. Studies have found that men who drink 1 soda a day increase heart disease risk factors by 20%. And before you pick up a diet soda – realize that drinking diet sodas are linked to a 44% increased risk of heart disease.
Ninety years ago Nobel Laureate Dr. Otto Warburg discovered that sugar fuels cancer cells. Since then various studies have demonstrated a potent link between sugar and cancer, including that malignant cells die when starved of glucose. Sugar molecules are present in high numbers near cancer cells, in fact – that is one way to test for cancer – you take a radioactive glucose solution, and using a a PET scan – they can see that areas that are cancerous take up more of the solution than non-cancerous areas. But a 2013 University of Copenhagen study found that sugar was not just present in cancer cells – but that it aided the growth of malignant cells. Researchers out of the University of Wurzburg in Germany, concluded that “significantly reducing the intake of dietary carbs could suppress or at least delay the emergence of cancer, and the proliferation of existing tumor cells could be slowed down.” According to the study, “many cancer patients exhibit an altered glucose metabolism characterized by insulin resistance and may profit from an increased protein and fat intake.” There is currently promising research underway at the Salk Institute in La Jolla led by Dr. Reuben Shaw, PhD. to study the link between diabetes, sugar metabolism, and cancer.
A recent study found that drinking sodas caused elevated levels of protein in our urine, which can be an indicator of kidney problems. According to a researcher with the study: “There is no safe amount of soda. If you look at the recommended amounts of sugar we can safely consume every day, one can of soda exceeds the maximum level.” This is one example that shoots a big hole in the age-old adage “everything in moderation.”
Research is revealing that diets high in sugar (particularly fructose), strains the liver, and is contributing to the development of non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) . The American Liver Foundation estimates that one quarter of Americans have NAFLD, but since there is often no symptoms, these estimates could be too low. Fructose, one form of sugar – is processed differently than glucose. It does not require insulin to get into the cells. It bypasses the pancreas (which releases the insulin) and instead goes directly to the liver to be processed. So because fructose does not spike our bloodsugar like other sugars do, it was originally thought to be a healthier option – because it is lower glycemic. And when taken in small amounts by healthy people – there could be some truth to this. However – because our liver only has a limited capacity to handle fructose and sugar – and we are eating loads of fructose (often as high fructose corn syrup), we are overwhelming our livers – causing them to get fatty. Dr. Hyman refers to fatty livers being like “fois gras.” Perhaps the most disturbing part of this is that an estimated one in 10 kids has NAFLD, and 40% of obese kids having it.
Scientific studies reveal that elevated blood sugar and oxidative stress are contributing factors in the development of osteoporosis (Clarke 2010, Confavreux 2009, Lieben 2009; Zhou 2011). Advanced glycation end products (AGE’s), the by-products of high blood sugar were shown to impair bone mineralization. AGE’s also activate a receptor called RAGE, which diverts calcium from the bone, into vascular smooth muscle cells, which can lead to hardening of the arteries/ heart disease. (Study by: Tanikawa 2009; Franke 2007; Hein 2006; Zhou 2011).
A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that a diet high in sugars, especially fructose, could interrupt our sex hormones, leading to fertility issues, PCOS, and endometriosis. One reason sugar can interrupt hormone imbalance is in part the strain that is put on the liver to metabolize the fructose. The liver is very important for detoxing hormones. Another way that excess sugar affects hormones is through aromatization – which is the conversion of testosterone to estrogen. Diets high in sugar and simple carbs can increase aromatization – leading to estrogen dominance conditions in men and women.
We all know that too much sun damage can make our skin look older, and smoking is a definite no no if we don’t want to look wrinkled and have lackluster skin. But one lesson I really wish I had gotten when I was in my teens or 20s to help keep your skin looking baby soft? Skip the sugar. Sugar creates something called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs), which damages the collagen and elastin in our skin, and causes our skin to sag and look more wrinkled. When there is sugar in our bloodsteam, they attach to proteins to form molecules that are called Advanced glycation end products (appropriately the acronym is AGEs). The more sugar you eat, the more of these AGEs develop. AGEs are known to damage the collagen and elastin proteins in the skin, which is what gives the skin it’s elasticity, and volume, and helps to prevent wrinkles. Sugar affects our skin in 3 ways: When AGEs come into contact with collagen it changes the normally elastic and fluffy collagen and makes it brittle and dry, and that is what leads to sagging and wrinkling of the skin. There are 3 types of collagen – I, II, and III. The strongest and most resilient type is III. Sugar changes type III collagen into type I, which is more instable. Sugar interferes with the delivery of antioxidants in the body, so it can leave the skin more vulnerable to damage from the sun. “As AGEs accumulate, they damage adjacent proteins in a domino-like fashion,” explains Fredric Brandt, MD, a dermatologist in private practice in Miami and New York City and author of 10 Minutes 10 Years. The good news? Although some of the wrinkles are here to stay, a little bit of the damage caused by sugar can be reversed when you give sugar the ole’ heave-ho! I have experienced this myself personally. When I gave up sugar a few years ago, I remember noticing some pretty remarkable improvements in the quality of my skin. Not enough that anyone thought I went out and got plastic surgery or anything. But enough that I noticed improvement.
Insulin resistance can lead to lower levels of insulin in the brain, which over time could lead to memory problems, dementia, and Alzhimer’s or Type 3 Diabetes. According to Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the New York Times best-seller, Grain Brain – “sugar, carbs, and wheat are the brain’s silent killers.” A recent study out of UCLA, indicates that added sugars affect memory and brain function – with researchers coming to the rather bold conclusion that “sugar makes you dumber.” Fortunately, the study also revealed a magic bullet that can make your brain work smarter, even reversing some of the negative effects of sugar…omega 3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, fish oils, nuts, and some seeds like hemp and chia). High sugar diets seem to be linked to poor learning, memory, and recall. But there is mounting evidence that it is also linked to more serious brain conditions – like Alzheimers. According to a study published in August 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine, “even subtle elevations of fasting blood sugar translates to dramatically increased risk for dementia.” Many researchers are calling Alzheimer’s disease “Type 3 Diabetes,” because they are finding plaques in the brain that look very much like the diabetic plaques.
Poor blood sugar regulation can cause your blood sugar to dip in the middle of the night, causing you to wake up. Some people will also feel shaky – and will need to go get something to eat to stabilize their blood sugar in the middle of the night. Some people with more advanced blood sugar dysegulation might find that they need to get up and go to the bathroom several times at night. This could be a signal that the kidneys are working overtime due to elevated blood sugar levels.
According to thyroid expert Dr. Izabella Wentz, poor blood sugar regulation can cause thyroid antibodies to spike, and can also weaken the adrenals (which work in conjunction with the thyroid). She says that researchers from Polland have found that up to 50% of Hashimotos sufferers have impaired carbohydrate metabolism. According to Dr. Chris Kresser, “studies have shown that the repeated insulin surges common in insulin resistance increase the destruction of the thyroid gland in people with autoimmune thyroid disease. As the thyroid gland is destroyed, thyroid hormone production falls.“
A study published in JAMA in 2014 linked sugar consumption to an increased risk of death of all causes – in both normal weight and overweight individuals. Those whose diet was comprised of 17-21% added sugars had a 38% higher risk of dying from a coronary event. The risk was doubled for those who got more than 21% of their diet from sugars.
Nope, it’s definitely not all sweet when it comes to sugar.
Because of the increased risk of heart disease from excess sugars, the American Heart Association has come up with recommended limits for added sugar for women & men:
Keep in mind – one 12 oz. soda has on average 10 teaspoons of sugar.
The type of sugar we eat also matters. Fruit sugar is naturally occurring sugar and comes paired with fiber, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins – we can’t say that for a soda or a Slurpee. So sugar from whole fruit is better than processed added sugars (which are empty calories). But we can even overdo natural sugars like maple syrup, honey, dried fruit, and such. And when there is insulin resistance, it is good to limit all sugars for a short time to reset the insulin response – especially fruit juices.
Just remember that nutrition and lifestyle changes can be very powerful tools to help you change your health and reduce your risk of future diseases.
One of the best things you can do for your health is to take back control from sugar!
If you are getting too much sugar – you are not alone. Most people are getting at least 3 times too much sugar in their daily diets – that doesn’t even take into account all the flour and simple carbs.
The biggest issues that most of us have – is that sugar is highly addictive (as addictive as a drug), and we are eating it often without even realizing it – because it is hiding in most packaged and processed foods.
Chapter One in my book The Perfect Metabolism Plan provides numerous tips for “Breaking up with Sugar” – including some surprising foods that spike the blood sugar, as well as nutritional tips and supplements that help to balance blood sugar, some good alternatives, and more.
If you are wanting a more in-depth program – consider my Break up with Sugar Online course. You will get actionable tips to break old habits and form new ones, a support network, recipes (yes, they are delicious – I am a foodie – I don’t do bland), and the best of all….your tastebuds can even change!! Mine did!!
I used to LOVE my sugar and simple carbs – I was a bonafide sugar junkie for years. But since breaking up with sugar about 6 years ago – the idea of eating a super sweet caramel sundae no longer appeals to me at all!! Ick! I’d rather have a square of 70% or higher dark chocolate instead now (yes, you can have some sweetness in your life – even if you break up with sugar!!).
Remember Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign from the 80’s dedicated to educating kids about the dangers of doing drugs? One memorable commercial had the egg frying in the pan and the slogan – this is your brain on drugs. The slogan for the commercial with the fried egg today could be “this is your brain on sugar.”
Not Just Empty Calories
We all know that super sweet foods and drinks are not good for us. But mounting evidence is revealing that they are not just harmless empty calories. Several studies have already linked consumption of sugar and high fructose corn syrup to obesity and increased risk of a host of diseases – including diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers. But one of the newest
studies out of UCLA, indicates that added sugars might just “make you dumber.” Fortunately, the study also revealed a magic bullet that can make your brain work smarter, even reversing some of the effects of fructose – omega 3s.
In the study, UCLA researchers put rats in a maze and gave them a few days to navigate and remember how to get around. Then they removed the rats from the maze for a 6 week period. During this time, one group of rats were fed an omega-3-rich diet, the other two groups consumed omega 3 deficient diets; one of which also drank a fructose solution in place of water. After the six weeks period on these diets, the researchers put the rats back in the maze to see how well they recalled it and performed.
The average American consumes roughly 142 pounds of added sugar a year (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture). The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to 8 teaspoons a day total. Not an easy task considering 1 can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons alone. The average American consumes more than 3 times the recommended amount of added sugar each day. Over half of all 8 years olds drink a soda each day, and one third of teenage boys are drinking 3 cans of sodas per day.
Researchers point to insulin – which affects not only blood sugar, but it also the way in which brain cells function. When we consume too many sweetened beverages and foods, our bodies become less able to process them, leading to a condition called insulin resistance – which can also lead to stubborn weight gain and even diabetes and other diseases overtime.
UCLA researchers were sure to clarify that there is a difference between naturally-occurring sugars, and those that are manufactured and added to foods and drinks. This is an important distinction, because the brain relies on sugar or glucose as it’s primary fuel. Research shows that too much added sugar, can actually deprive your brain of glucose, compromising the brain’s power to concentrate, remember, and learn.“We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” explained Gomez-Pinilla. “We’re more concerned about the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup, which is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.” Whole fruit also contains fiber, which helps to prevent insulin spikes and many American diets are lacking. But once a person has insulin resistance or diabetes, their body can even have trouble processing the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and other foods.
Luckily, taking omega-3s appears to counteract the negative effect of the fructose, even potentially reversing insulin resistance. The omega 3 rich diet had other protective effects beyond our brains. The rats who consumed less omega-3s had higher triglyceride, glucose and insulin levels: which is associated with a condition called Metabolic Syndrome. But the good news – the study found that omega 3s could reverse the insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes).
The best sources of omegas 3 fatty acids are fatty cold-water fish like salmon, fish oil supplements, chia, flax and hemp seeds, tree nuts, and seaweed/algae supplements.
So what is the bottom line if you want your brain to work smarter? Get your omega-3s, and limit your intake of sugary foods and drinks. And researchers say it is never too early to start. “Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” said Gomez-Pinilla. “It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.”
Here is a list of eleven other foods that can boost brain functioning too.
Team sports are good for kids, right…?
Sports like soccer, baseball, basketball and lacrosse provide kids with regular exercise, which is good for maintaining a healthy weight, bone development, coordination, and even improved performance in school (read these NY Times articles: How Exercise Fuels the Brain and Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?) Team sports also teach kids important lessons about sportsmanship, being “coachable,” and the importance of being a good team player.
So some parents might be scratching their heads wondering why their child actually gains weight during the soccer or softball season? The dreaded “snack” schedule could be to blame. A recent study revealed that kids who participate in team sports consume more junk food than those that do not, read Huffington Post article Do Kids Who Play Team Sports Eat More Junkfood? Check out the sugar and calorie counts of some typical “snacks” that can follow those sports, and it will become crystal clear. You don’t have to be a mathlete to figure this one out – an 85 pound kid can burn anywhere from 180 calories an hour playing a sport like softball or baseball to just over 400 calories an hour playing full court basketball. But all of that can quickly come unraveling when well-intentioned parents roll out the post-game snacks, which typically can range anywhere from 250-500 calories. Not to mention the amount of artificial colors, trans fats, MSG, and sugar kids are getting after the game. Some experts have linked food dyes to ADD and other behavior problems, read more.
Typical Snack #1:
Totals: 390 calories, 11 g. fat, 46 g. of sugar (over 10 teaspoons), 5 different kinds of artificial colors, and MSG.
Made-Over Snack #1:
Totals: 165 calories, 4 g. of fat, 9 g. of sugar. This made-over snack saves 225 calories, has close to 1/3 the fat, less than one fifth the sugar, and none of the artificial colors or MSG.
Typical Snack #2:
Totals: 260 calories, 3 g. of fat, 41 g. of sugar., high fructose corn syrup, red 40, blue 1
Made Over Snack #2:
Totals: 235 calories, 2.5 g. of fat, 23.9 g. of sugar (some naturally-occurring). Saves 25 calories, and over 17 g. of sugar, and none of the artificial colors or high fructose corn syrup. Provides some fiber and antioxidants too.
Typical Snack # 3: The birthday/post-game snack. Inevitably it will be someone’s birthday during the season – why not celebrate with donuts or cupcakes after the soccer game? This is why…
Totals: 390 calories, 16 g. fat, 53 g. of sugar (over 13 teaspoons!). Contains trans fats, artificial colors and caffeine.
Made-Over Snack #3: You can still celebrate a birthday with a fun snack for the soccer team, just ditch the store-bought cupcakes for some healthier choices that won’t provide a whopping 400+ calories, and 3 days worth of added sugars and trans fats. Here are a number of options that are healthier and still fun:
If you don’t believe me that these are typical post-game snacks, check out Soccer Mom on a Mission’s Video. Notice everything from Krispy Kremes to rice crispy treats…
Get the Whole Team on Board
So what is a health conscious parent to do? Avoid team sports all together? Grab their kid and run before the snacks come out? Or just speak up and request that snacks be healthy, or that each parent simply brings snack for their own child? It’s not always easy to be “that parent” that always is speaking up about this kind of thing. But more often than not, other parents are thinking the same thing, and are grateful that someone spoke up. And sometimes, parents don’t realize how many calories, artificial colors, trans fats, and sugar they are feeding kids. The first step to change is always – AWARENESS.
Unfortunately, no kid wants their parent to be the only one that brings ‘healthy’ snacks after a game, when everyone else is bringing donuts and cupcakes and sodas. But when the whole team agrees to bring healthy snacks, then no one parent has to stand out as the one that only brings ‘healthy’ food. When the whole team agrees to follow this plan, everyone benefits – and it could even be the difference between winning the trophy, or missing it by an inch.
A few seasons ago, I was so grateful to Nora, the team mom for my son’s baseball team. She sent out an email at the beginning of the season requesting that all snacks be healthy and should help to “power up” the kids, not cause a sugar rush and drop. And instead of the snack coming out at the end of the game – just as everyone was heading off to dinner, she suggested that they should come out in the dugout around inning 4 or 5. That way, they could boost their energy to get through the rest of the game. Guess what? Their team made it all the way to the championship – winning the pennant that year. How much the healthier snacks contributed, we can’t be sure. But I can bet that professional baseball players don’t celebrate their games with donuts and sodas, or cupcakes and juice boxes.
Hungry Kids Will Eat…Pretty Much Whatever Is Around!
One of the oldest tricks in the book is to put out the healthy foods when kids are the hungriest – and after a hard game of soccer or basketball, they are going to be hungry. Why not take advantage of it – and put out oranges, bananas, raisins, and other healthy snacks? This is a great approach for a picky eater too (read 20 Tips for Picky Eaters for more). Our soccer coach a couple of seasons ago requested orange slices for a half time boost – and all the kids happily gobbled them up each game. In fact, my daughter didn’t like orange slices until that season – now she loves them because that was what was offered, she was really hungry/thirsty, and all her teammates we gobbling them down. Oranges are a wonderful snack for hard working athletes, they hydrate, provide natural sugars to replace lost glycogen/energy, and provide important lost minerals. When healthy snacks come out during or after the game, kid’s bodies will feel and function better, and they will come to expect those kind of snacks instead of the junk food.
Treat Kids Like Athletes
So instead of the donuts, rice crispy treats, and cupcakes; the flavor-blasted chips and Cheez Its; the brightly colored sports drinks and sodas, and sticky sweet fruit treats and candies…let’s try to think about what we reach for after a workout, or what an athlete chooses. When we start to think about our kids as little athletes, and not just kids; that is when we start to feed them better post game snacks. Some good snack “rules”:
Post-game snacks should rehydrate (without artificial colors), replace lost energy & glycogen stores (without overflowing them), and help the body/muscles to heal and recover. Junk food promotes inflammation, which works against recovery. Too much sugar gets stored as fat. Artificial colors and trans fats just aren’t needed or good for their hard-working bodies. Who knows? Healthy snacks could be the difference between making the All Stars Team, and well, not.
Thank you so much to the parents, coaches, team moms, and bloggers/writers that are speaking up, spreading the word and offering healthy post-game snacks. Please put your ideas for healthy snacks in the comments below.
We can all either be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Which team are you on? I think Taylor Mali put it best in his poem, An Apple a Day is Not Enough.