Sweet Poison: Dangers of Refined Sugar

Why Sugar is ruining our health?

According to a study published in 2013, nearly one in five US deaths is now associated with obesity. Obesity is indeed a marker for chronic and potentially deadly disease, but the underlying problem that links obesity to so many other serious health issues—including heart disease—is metabolic dysfunction.

Mounting evidence clearly shows that added sugars, and processed fructose in particular, is a primary driver of metabolic dysfunction.

Refined fructose is actually broken down very much like alcohol, damaging your liver and causing mitochondrial and metabolic dysfunction in the same way as ethanol and other toxins.

It also causes more severe metabolic dysfunction because it’s more readily metabolized into fat than any other sugar. The fact that refined fructose is far more harmful to your health than other sugars was recently highlighted in a meta-review published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You

10 Things You Don’t Know About Sugar

  1. Sugar can damage your heart
    While it’s been widely noted that excess sugar can increase the overall risk for heart disease, a 2013 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association displayed strong evidence that sugar can actually affect the pumping mechanism of your heart and could increase the risk for heart failure. The findings specifically pinpointed a molecule from sugar (as well as from starch) called glucose metabolite glucose 6-phosphate (G6P) that was responsible for the changes in the muscle protein of the heart. These changes could eventually lead to heart failure. Approximately half of the people that are diagnosed with heart failure die within five years.
  2. Sugar specifically promotes belly fat
    Adolescent obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years and childhood obesity rates have doubled. Many of us are aware of the data that demonstrates just how literally big our future is looking, but beyond the studies and all the initiatives to curb childhood obesity, one needs only to visit an amusement park, school or mall to truly see what is happening. One factor that seems to inflict obese children is fat accumulation in the trunk area of the body. Why? One cause may be the increase in fructose-laden beverages. A 2010 study in children found that excess fructose intake (but not glucose intake) actually caused visceral fat cells to mature — setting the stage for a big belly and even bigger future risk for heart disease and diabetes.
  3. Sugar is the true silent killer
    Move over salt and hypertension, you’ve got competition. Sugar, as it turns out, is just as much of a silent killer. A 2008 study found that excess fructose consumption was linked to an increase in a condition called leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough food. The problem is, we often ignore the signal our brain sends to us. For some people though, leptin simply does not want to work, leaving the person with no signal whatsoever that the body has enough food to function. This in turn can lead to over consumption of food and consequently, obesity. Why the silent killer? Because it all happens without symptoms or warning bells. If you’ve gained weight in the past year and can’t quite figure out why, perhaps you should look at how much fructose you’re feeding your body.
  4. Sugar may be linked to cancer production and may effect cancer survival
    In the world of nutrition, it’s hard to talk about sugar without talking about insulin. That’s because insulin is sugar’s little chaperone to the cells, and when too much of it is consumed, or our insulin does not work (probably because we’re eating too much sugar) and the body revolts. One connection that has been well documented in the literature is the link between insulin resistance and cancer . A 2013 study found that sugars in the intestine triggered the formation of a hormone called GIP (controlled by a protein called β-catenin that is completely dependant on sugar levels), that in turn, increases insulin released by the pancreas. Researchers found that β-catenin may in fact affect the cells susceptibility to cancer formation. Further studies have found negative associations between high sugar and starch intake and survival rates in both breast cancer patients and colon cancer patients.
  5. Your sugar “addiction” may be genetic
    If you’ve ever said, “I’m completely addicted to sugar,” you may actually be correct. A recent study of 579 individuals showed that those who had genetic changes in a hormone called ghrelin consumed more sugar (and alcohol) than those that had no gene variation. Ghrelin is a hormone that tells the brain you’re hungry. Researchers think that the genetic components that effect your ghrelin release may have a lot to do with whether or not you seek to enhance a neurological reward system through your sweet tooth. Findings with this study were similar to study conducted in 2012 as well.
  6. Sugar and alcohol have similar toxic liver effects on the body
    A 2012 paper in the journal Nature, brought forth the idea that limitations and warnings should be placed on sugar similar to warnings we see on alcohol. The authors showed evidence that fructose and glucose in excess can have a toxic effect on the liver as the metabolism of ethanol — the alcohol contained in alcoholic beverages had similarities to the metabolic pathways that fructose took. Further, sugar increased the risk for several of the same chronic conditions that alcohol was responsible for. Finally, if you think that your slim stature keeps you immune from fructose causing liver damage, think again. A 2013 study found that liver damage could occur even without excess calories or weight gain.
  7. Sugar may sap your brain power
    When I think back on my childhood, I remember consuming more sugar than I probably should have. I should have enjoyed my youth back then, because unfortunately, all the sugar may have accelerated the aging process. A 2009 study found a positive relationship between glucose consumption and the aging of our cells. Aging of the cells consequently can be the cause of something as simple as wrinkles to something as dire as chronic disease. But there is other alarming evidence that sugar may affect the aging of your brain as well. A 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health. A 2009 study in rats showed similar findings.
  8. Sugar hides in many everyday “non-sugar” foods
    While many of my patients strive to avoid the “normal” sugary culprits (candy, cookies, cake, etc.), they often are duped when they discover some of their favorite foods also contain lots of sugar. Examples include tomato sauce, fat free dressing, tonic water, marinates, crackers and even bread.
  9. An overload of sugar (specifically in beverages) may shorten your life
    A 2013 study estimated that 180,000 deaths worldwide may be attributed to sweetened beverage consumption. The United States alone accounted for 25,000 deaths in 2010. The authors summarize that deaths occurred due to the association with sugar-sweetened beverages and chronic disease risk such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
  10. Sugar is making us fat
    I figured I’d leave the most obvious fact for last. While you may be aware that too many calories from any source will be stored as fat if not burned, what you may not connect is that the lack of other nutrients in sugar actually makes it much easier to eat gobs of it with no physical effects to warn us of the danger that lurks. Foods rich in fiber, fat and protein all have been associated with increased fullness. Sugar will give you the calories, but not the feeling that you’ve had enough. That’s why you can have an entire king-size bag of licorice (with it’s sky high glycemic index at the movies and come out afterwards ready to go for dinner.

WHO Urges Slashing Sugar Consumption to Protect Health

To lower your risk of obesity and tooth decay, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends dramatically reducing your sugar consumption, limiting added sugar to 10 percent of daily calories or less.3 This equates to about 12 teaspoons or 50 grams of sugar for most adults.

To prevent chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, the organization suggests limiting your sugar consumption to a maximum of five percent of your daily calories.

The latter five percent limit is right in line with my own standard recommendation for healthy people, which calls for keeping your total fructose consumption below 25 grams per day, or about five teaspoons.

However, if you already have signs of insulin resistance, such as hypertension, obesity, or heart disease, I believe you’d be wise to limit your total fructose consumption even further—down to 15 grams or less until your weight and other health conditions have normalized.

Three recent studies that have linked excessive sugar consumption to chronic disease include the following:

According to the meta-review4 mentioned earlier, the preponderance of research clearly shows that once you reach 18 percent of your daily calories from added sugar, there’s a two-fold increase in metabolic harm that promotes prediabetes and diabetes

Most recently, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)5 concluded that “most US adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet,” and that there’s “a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease mortality.”

The 15-year long study, which included data for 31,000 Americans, found that those who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who got less than 10 percent of their calories from sugar.

On the whole, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of added sugar in the diet regardless of the age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index.

A 2014 study6 came to very similar results. Here, those who consumed the most sugar — about 25 percent of their daily calories — were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limited their sugar intake to seven percent of their total calories.

Fried Foods Also Linked to Increased Risk for Heart Disease

Added sugar isn’t the only disease-promoting factor in your diet though. Harmful fat found in fried foods is another important one.

Preliminary research7 findings presented at a recent American Heart Association meeting linked fried food consumption with an increased risk for heart failure. Data on more than 15,300 male doctors participating in the Physicians’ Health Study was collected and analyzed. The average follow-up period was 10 years.

Those who reported eating fried food up to three times per week had an average of 18 percent increased risk of developing heart failure

Eating fried food four to six times a week was associated with a 25 percent increased risk, and Eating fried foods seven times per week or more was associated with a 68 percent greater risk for heart failure

According to lead researcher Dr. Luc Djousse, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School:

“This study suggests that it might be wise to reduce the frequency and quantity of fried foods consumed weekly in order to prevent heart failure and other chronic conditions.”

Why Fried Foods Promote Heart Disease

These kinds of findings are not all that surprising. Dr. Fred Kummerow, author of Cholesterol Is Not the Culprit, was the first researcher to discover that consumption of trans fat—but not saturated fat—led to clogged arteries. He published the first article on this association in 1957.

Some of his most recent research8 shows that there are two types of fats in our diet responsible for the formation of heart disease:

Trans fat found in partially hydrogenated oil. Structurally, trans fats are synthetic fatty acids. Fourteen of them are produced during the hydrogenation process. (They are not present in either animal or vegetable fats.)

Trans fats prevent the synthesis of prostacyclin,9 which is necessary to keep your blood flowing. When your arteries cannot produce prostacyclin, blood clots form, and you may succumb to sudden death.

Mounting research suggests there is NO safe limit for trans fat. This makes it an even greater concern than sugar, which your body can safely handle in small doses. Trans fat also increases insulin resistance.

Oxidized cholesterol, formed when polyunsaturated vegetable oils (such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils) are heated. A primary source is fried foods. This oxidized cholesterol (not dietary cholesterol in and of itself) causes increased thromboxane formation—a factor that clots your blood.  As noted by Dr. Kummerow in a previous New York Times interview:

“The problem is not LDL, the ‘bad cholesterol’ widely considered to be the major cause of heart disease. What matters is whether the cholesterol and fat residing in those LDL particles have been oxidized… “ Cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease, except if it’s oxidized”…

The high temperatures used in commercial frying cause inherently unstable polyunsaturated oils to oxidize, and that these oxidized fatty acids become a destructive part of LDL particles. Even when not oxidized by frying, soybean and corn oils can oxidize inside the body.”

Heart-Healthy Basics

Two diet modifications that are foundational for successful weight management and disease-prevention are a) limiting your processed food consumption, and b) increasing the amount of healthy fat and fresh whole foods in your diet.

Avoiding processed foods will automatically reduce your added sugar consumption and your exposure to harmful fats, which again include both trans fats and oxidized cholesterol. Grains, including whole grains, are also best avoided if you’re insulin/leptin resistant, have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or are overweight, as grains and other sugar-forming starchy carbohydrates lead to adverse insulin reactions.

Remember, just like fructose, trans fats interfere with your insulin receptors, thereby increasing your risk for diabetes11 and related health problems. Healthy saturated fats do not do this. For optimal health, most people may actually need upwards of 50-85 percent of their daily calories in the form of healthy fats; good sources of which include coconut and coconut oil, avocados, butter, animal fats, and raw nuts.



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