While visiting friends, I bonded immediately with their two-year old son, Robbie. We played while the adults talked. After about an hour he got hungry and asked his mother for some of his favorite food, peanut butter.
Robbie ate 4 teaspoons straight from the jar and within minutes he turned into a whirling dervish, a cyclone of hyperactivity. He was banging his head against a pillow on my lap one minute and the next tearing down the hall to throw toys around his room. The parents seemed all too familiar with this behavior and began making excuses. He gets like this when we have company, when he's overtired, when he's excited.
As a doctor, I immediately knew what the problem was - sugar. Robbie's parents had already figured out that indulging his sweet tooth lead to hyperactive episodes. But they didn't make the connection between the peanut butter and the behavior. I took the jar and showed them the label, which listed two different sugars (high fructose corn syrup and sugar). The parents were stunned and said they would be more diligent about cutting out the hidden sugars in their son's diet. When my husband saw Robbie's father a week later, he said Robbie was much calmer, was sleeping better, and was like a different person both at home and at daycare.
Most people do realize that sugar can cause hyperactivity, but what they don't realize is that sugar lurks where you least expect to find it and affects the human body in myriad ways. The sugar industry vehemently denies that sugar is hazardous to human health. Are the parallel increases in sugar consumption, obesity, and diabetes just a coincidence? Here are the straight answers.
I know sugar can lead to weight gain, but is it really all that bad for me?
Yes, it really is. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate found naturally in many foods, including fruits and grains. If the only sugar we consumed were in natural, whole foods, we'd all be just fine. But the average American diet is full of refined, nutrient-depleted foods and contains an average of 20 teaspoons of added, refined sugar every day. That's twice the amount recommended by the USDA (10 teaspoons and four times the maximum I personally recommend.)
So what's wrong with refined sugar? Many things. First, sugar compromises immune function. Two cans of soda (which contain 24 teaspoons of sugar) reduce the efficiency of white blood cells by 92 percent - an effect that lasts up to five hours, according to Kenneth Bock, M.D., an expert in nutritional and environmental health. Since white blood cells are an integral part of your immune system, if you happen to meet a nasty virus or bacteria within five hours of drinking a few colas, your immune system may be unable to fight off the invader.
Refined sugar also overworks the pancreas and adrenal glands as they struggle to keep the blood sugar levels in balance. When you eat sugar, it is quickly absorbed into your blood stream in the form of glucose. This puts your pancreas into overdrive, making insulin (which carries glucose to your cells to be used for energy) to normalize blood sugar levels. But this rapid release of insulin causes a sudden drop in blood sugar. In reaction to the falling blood sugar, excess adrenal cortisone is stimulated to raise blood sugar back to normal. A constantly high intake of simple dietary sugar keeps this roller coaster going and eventually overworks or "burns out" normal pancreas and adrenal function leading to early menopause, adult-onset diabetes, hypoglycemia, and chronic fatigue.
The purpose of eating is to provide your body with nutrients. But since sugar is devoid of nutrients, the body must actually draw from its nutrient reserves to metabolize it. When these storehouses are depleted, the body becomes unable to properly metabolize fatty acids and cholesterol, leading to higher cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Drawing on the body's nutrient reserves can also lead to chronic mineral deficits, especially in magnesium (a mineral required for more than 300 different enzyme activities) and chromium (a trace element that regulates hormones such as insulin), putting you at risk for dozens of diseases, from depression to attention deficit disorder to asthma.
A recent study, for example, found that kids who eat significant amounts of junk food are much more likely to develop asthma than kids who don't eat junk food. While the researchers didn't tie asthma to sugar itself, they did point out that a diet full of candy and other highly processed junk foods is deficient in a number of nutrients essential to health. And as I explained earlier, such foods further deplete the body of nutrients once consumed.
In fact, children are the biggest consumers of nutritionally void junk food at a time when their brains and bodies are growing rapidly and in need of a nutrient-dense diet for proper development, both physically and mentally. Criminologist Stephen Schoenthaler has been conducting nutritional studies on delinquents and public school children for almost thirty years. In a paper from 1986 he describes how one million kids improved their test scores when they eliminated sugar and white flour from their diets.
Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., a nutritional researcher and writer, performed similar work in juvenile detention centers and showed that violent behavior decreased dramatically when sugar was eliminated.
But I don't eat junk food. Why should I be concerned about my sugar consumption?
Unless you're eating a diet entirely made of whole, unprocessed foods (think fruits, vegetables, grains), you're probably eating more sugar than you think, and than you should. Sugar, in its myriad forms, is added to virtually every packaged food product you'll find at the supermarket - not just the sweet stuff. If you drink one soda, even the "natural" variety, used up your day's sugar allowance.)
Don't be fooled by the ingredients list. Sugar has hundreds of pseudonyms (see "Stealth Sugars," for a sampling), and manufacturers have gotten very good at hiding them from consumers. Because ingredients are listed from most to least amount, often three different types of sugars will be in the middle of the list. If all sugars were required to be listed together, sugar would be the first ingredient.
To find out how much sugar you're actually taking in, try keeping a food diary for one week. Check the labels of the foods you eat and make note of their sugar content. The reality of the numbers may not hit home because most of us don't think in grams - 4.2 g of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of sugar. At the end of the week, take the total number of sugar grams and divide it by 4.2 to get your weekly sugar intake in teaspoons. Then divide that number by 7 to get your daily sugar consumption.
Unfortunately, the way the FDA's labeling rules are set up, manufacturers don't have to separate added sugars from naturally occurring ones on labels. But your total sugar intake will give you a very good idea of how much added sugar you're eating. Naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, don't really contain that much sugar. A cup of strawberries, for example, contains 1/6th the sugar of a can of cola.
Is there such a thing as a safe amount of sugar?
Ideally, you should eliminate all refined sugar from your diet. I'm aware do realize that such a feat may not be realistic for everyone, particularly since a large number of the foods you find at the grocery store have been made with refined sugars (plus the fact that nutrition labels don't have to list the amount of added sugars a product contains).
Many people subscribe to the bizarre logic that if they overindulge in sweets and don't wake up the next day with diabetes or some horrible disease then it must be okay. Dr. Abraham Hoffer, a psychiatrist in British Columbia who has been studying the effects of sugar on health for more than 40 years, says that it takes roughly 15- 20 years of steady consumption of refined sugar and junk food before an individual develops a chronic illness like diabetes. And it doesn't take a lot of sugar to put you at risk. Hoffer's statistics show that once intake exceeds 20 teaspoons daily, the risk of chronic disease increases exponentially.
If you can't completely cut sugar from your diet, due to eating out and not being in control of ingredients, try not to ingest more than two or three teaspoons a day. That way you will stay well below 70 pounds annually (20 teaspoons daily) which is the cut off point for sugar-induced chronic disease. At the level we're eating sugar now (20 teaspoons per person daily), it is only a matter of time before we're facing an epidemic of sugar-induced diseases. In fact, the epidemics may have already begun - according to the Centers for Disease control in Atlanta, the incidence of adult-onset diabetes, has increased by 70 percent among people in their 30s in the past 10 years.
What does processing do to sugar?
Processing sugarcane, or any whole food, strips it of most if not all of its nutritional value. Researchers found that the refining process of sugar removes 93 percent of its chromium, 89 percent of its manganese, 98 percent of its cobalt, 83 percent of its copper, 98 percent of its zinc, and 98 percent of its magnesium. Ironically, the end product, the refined sugar, is what we consume, while the nutritious residues are discarded and generally fed to cattle.
In the 1920s, Sir Frederick Banting, the Canadian medical researcher scientist, who first discovered insulin, visited Panama to study diabetes among workers in the sugar cane fields. He could find almost no incidence of diabetes among the workers who ate the whole sugarcane plant daily. But among their Spanish employers - who incorporated the refined end product, white sugar, into their diets - the disease was rampant.
Is fructose healthier than sugar?
Many people mistakenly believe that fructose is a healthier sugar - especially since it is used in many so-called "natural" foods. While there is a small amount of fructose naturally present in fruit, the fructose that is added to many commercially prepared foods is nearly as refined as plain white sugar.
Most of the fructose you'll encounter is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which has nearly eclipsed sugar as the most consumed sweetener in the United States. It is added to thousands of products, from cola to cookies and even to canned vegetables. HFCS is a highly refined sweetener that is virtually identical, chemically speaking, to refined white sugar; during digestion sugar breaks down into equal parts of glucose and fructose; HFCS contains 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
Why do I crave sugar?
You may crave sugary foods for many reasons. As I explained earlier, refined sugar stresses the pancreas and depletes the body's supplies of chromium. A common symptom of chromium deficiency is sugar cravings. And satisfying these cravings further lowers chromium and increases cravings. And eating sweets is just plain pleasurable. Chocolate, for example, has been found to stimulate the production of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical.
But the human body is drawn to carbohydrates for reasons other than instant gratification. Carbohydrates are necessary for metabolic processes in our body. Whole, unrefined carbohydrates like grains break down into sugar when chewed. After proper chewing, grains will taste sweet. Grains contain B vitamins and magnesium, these nutrients are important co-factors in hundreds of metabolic processes in the body. And the sweetness of the foods that contain B-vitamins and magnesium may create a conditioned response to these foods. In other words, sweetness makes your body think you are getting beneficial vitamins and minerals. But when we get empty carbs like sugar with no other nutrientsâ€”the body craves more and more to try to meet its nutrient demands.
So, if your body needs these vitamins and minerals and is attracted to carbohydrates to get them, and if instead of a whole grain you eat a refined empty product, then you will probably keep craving carbohydrates until you get the vitamins and minerals you need. That's why many doctors recommend B-complex vitamins and magnesium supplements help to control carbohydrate addiction. Of course, eating organic whole grains would be the optimum solution.
The main reason for our sugar cravings it that we've had a lifetime of refined sugar. It's in baby food, snacks and treats at every turn; Madison Avenue is able to sell 10 cents worth of junk food for $2.00 because it appeals to our sweet tooth. We're hooked and we're not complaining as long as the supply holds out. And as Dr. Hoffer says it's a stronger addiction than heroin.
Another cause of sugar cravings is a yeast overgrowth, also known as candidaisis. Candida is a yeast that is naturally present in the human body. But some things, such as antibiotics and too much sugar in the diet, can cause the yeast to multiply, leading a number of health problems, from vaginal yeast infections to severe fatigue. And these yeast, when present in abnormally high numbers, can cause strong cravings for sweet, starchy foods, causing the problem to perpetuate. (If you suspect a yeast overgrowth, your doctor can perform a saliva or stool test for yeast antibodies.) (Dr. Dean is the medical advisor to yeastconnection.com. Visitors to the site can take the Yeast Questionnaire to help determine if they have a yeast problem. If so, a 6-Point Yeast Fighting Program will help eliminate the sugar and yeast from your life.)
Are natural sweeteners like honey better than white sugar?
Regardless of what kind of sweeteners you eat, they should account for no more than 5 percent of your daily calories. Some natural sweeteners, such as blackstrap molasses, unprocessed honey, fruit juice, brown rice syrup, and evaporated cane juice do contain low levels of nutrients, such as the B vitamins, and minerals such as iron, calcium and potassium. But don't be fooled, these "natural" sweeteners are only marginally better than plain white table sugar and dietary intake of them should be limited.
What about calorie-free sugar substitutes such as Nutrasweet? Sweet N' Low?
Don't be fooled into switching from sugar to sugar-free substitutes; they're even more unhealthy, especially aspartame (Nutrasweet). If you want to add a touch of sweetness without any calories, try stevia*. Stevia is an extremely safe herb that is not only an excellent sweetener, but it actually lowers blood sugar levels in diabetics by helping to regulate pancreatic function. And unlike sugar, which weakens the immune system, stevia has antimicrobial properties and actually helps the body fight off colds and flus.
Aspartame (Nutrasweet),on the other hand, is a neurotoxin and should be avoided like the plague. Aspartame has been shown to cause birth defects, brain tumors and seizures and to contribute to diabetes and emotional disorders.
Aspartame has three components: phenylalanine (50 percent), aspartic acid (40 percent) and methanol, also termed wood alcohol (10 percent). Those in support of this popular artificial sweetener, state that the two primary amino acids, which comprise 90 percent of aspartame by weight, are a harmless and natural part of our diet. While phenylalanine and aspartic acid are naturally occurring amino acids, our bodies and brains are not equipped to handle such high concentrations as found in a diet soda where they disrupt nerve cell communication and can cause cell death. The neurotoxic effects of these isolated amino acids can be linked to headaches, mental confusion, balance problems and seizures.
Methanol, too, is naturally present in fruits and vegetables but these foods also contain ethanol, which neutralizes the methanol. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines safe consumption of methanol as no more than 7.8 mg per day of this dangerous substance. Yet a one-liter beverage, sweetened with aspartame, contains about 56 milligrams of wood alcohol, or seven times the EPA limit.
And the absolute irony of the use of aspartame in diet products is that it can actually cause weight gain. Phenylalanine and aspartic acid, found in aspartame, stimulate the release of insulin. Rapid, strong spikes in insulin remove all glucose from the blood stream and store it as fat. This can result in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and sugar cravings. Additionally, phenylalanine has been demonstrated to inhibit carbohydrate-induced synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which signals that the body is full. This can cause you to eat more than your normally would and, ultimately, gain weight. In one study a control group switching to an aspartame-free diet resulted in an average weight loss of 19 pounds.
Saccharin is a petroleum-derived sweetener discovered in 1879 and was used extensively during the sugar shortages during World Wars I and II. The sweetener got a bad reputation in l977 when the FDA proposed restrictions on its use saying studies involving male rats given large amounts of saccharin developed urinary bladder tumors. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) then officially classified saccharin as an "anticipated human carcinogen." But researchers have since been unable to reproduce the results from 1977, and saccharin was recently removed from the NTP's list. Saccharin might be the lesser of two evils, but it's still a synthetic substance.)
Many low-carbohydrate foods, like the Atkins Bars, contain sugar alcohols. What are they?
It sometimes requires a little detective work to find the hidden sugars in foods. You probably know the "ose"s (maltose, sucrose, glucose, fructose), but there are dozes more that you'd never suspect. The following is a list of 100 common names for sugar that you may encounter in ingredients of your favorite foods.
Barley malt syrup
Brown rice syrup
Concentrated fruit juice
Evaporated cane juice
Evaporated cane juice
Fruit juice concentrate
High-fructose corn syrup
Ribose rice syrup
Rice syrup solids
WHERE SUGAR RESIDES
USDA recommends limiting added sugars - from packaged foods and the sugar bowl - to 24 grams a day (6 teaspoons) if you eat 1,600 calories; 40 grams (10 teaspoons) for a 2,000-calorie diet; 56 grams (14 teaspoons) for a 2,400-calorie diet; and 72 grams (18 teaspoons) for a 2,800-calorie-diet.
Food with its' Average Added sugars Apple Sauce contains 11 g
Peanut Butter contains 18g
Yogurt contains 23g
Fruit Juice contains 40g
Where We Get Our Sugar:
Then and Now
In 1973, the per capita consumption of sugar and other highly refined sweeteners (such as high-fructose corn syrup) was 126 pounds a year. Today, it's 158 pounds - an increase of 26 percent. During the same time period, the percent of overweight Americans increased by nearly 20 percent.
A single can of soda contains 12 teaspoons of added sugars. That's 120 percent of the USDA's recommended daily intake of sugar. Researchers have found that just two cans of soda can suppress immune function for up to five hours.
* As a physician, I have found that reducing sugar intake is one of the most important ways to control hypoglycemia, diabetes, and intestinal yeast. Reduce your sugar intake by supplementing your tea, water, and other beverages with Stevia. Please go to www.CarolynDean.com and click on Dean Wellness for my personal Stevia recommendation.
Originally published in Natural Health Magazine, 2000.