We all know that excess sugar is bad for us, but does this actually stop you from eating it? The answer is likely no and you are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic diseases that can linked back to poor nutrition and the overconsumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates. It is an epidemic that needs to be addressed through education about how the food we eat affects our bodies now, and in the long run. Chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, are largely preventable through nutrition and lifestyle improvements which is great news for those us willing to make some small but highly effective changes! Let’s take a deep dive into exactly WHY sugar is bad for you and what you can do to stay healthy for the rest of your life!
When you consume sugar your pancreas releases insulin to lower your blood sugar by storing it in your cells for short term energy or in your liver and muscles for long term energy in the form of glycogen. If you over-consume sugar throughout the day, and insulin is always high, your cells begin to ignore its signal leading to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition characterized by a cellular resistance to insulin that leads to chronically elevated blood sugar levels. Simply put, insulin resistance occurs when insulin production is continuously triggered by increased blood sugar. This leads to an increased production of insulin in an attempt to lower blood sugar levels. Therefore, chronic ingestion of sugar and other high glycemic foods like refined carbohydrates leads to insulin resistance (Bowden and Sinatra 2015). This type of unmanaged blood sugar can of course lead to diabetes. That being said, what many people do not know is one of the first steps towards diabetes is insulin resistance and it is estimated that up to 80% of the population have this condition.
Diabetes isn’t the only chronic disease that is partially caused simply by the over consumption of sugar and insulin resistance. It can also lead to the number one killer in America, heart disease. One of the first signs of heart disease is atherosclerosis – an inflammatory condition, which starts in the arterial endothelium that results in the hardening and narrowing of the arteries by a buildup of plaque. This plaque is an amalgam of triglycerides, oxidized LDL cholesterol, immune cells, cellular debris and calcium. This condition can lead to coronary heart disease, heart arrhythmias, peripheral artery disease, hypertension, stroke, transient ischemic attack, and heart failure (Bauman and Friedlander 2017; Bowden and Sinatra 2015). According to Bowden and Sinatra (2015) “the number one dietary contributor to heart disease is sugar, which is a far greater danger to your heart than fat”.
Insulin resistance can lead to atherosclerosis in several different ways:
• Chronically high levels of sugar and insulin in the blood is inflammatory and damaging to the arteries (Bauman and Friedlander 2017).
• High blood insulin raises blood pressure by narrowing the arterial wall and by signaling the kidneys to retain sodium. Increased sodium leads to increased water retention and therefore higher blood volume and pressure.
• High blood insulin also leads to increased cholesterol by activating the enzyme that controls the production of cholesterol (Bowden and Sinatra 2015).
• When blood sugar is high, glucose molecules can ‘stick’ to proteins creating toxic molecules called advanced glycation end products, which are inflammatory and damaging (Bowden and Sinatra 2015).
• Increased visceral body fat: Produces pro-inflammatory cytokines leading to oxidative stress and chronic inflammation (Bauman and Friedlander 2017).
• High sugar and refined carbs raise triglycerides a major risk factor for heart disease (Bowden and Sinatra 2015).
So what can you do to prevent these problems caused by sugar?
• First off DITCH THE SUGAR! and refined carbohydrates.
• Eat whole unprocessed foods. Mostly plants!
• Lower the glycemic load of your diet.
• Increase fiber and balance out meals with healthy fats to decrease the insulin response of that meal.
• Take care of your good gut bugs by cutting out inflammatory foods and increasing probiotic containing foods.
• Aid digestion using apple cider vinegar, digestive bitters, digestive enzymes if necessary and chew your food 20+ times.
• Exercise! Regular exercise helps to increase insulin sensitivity.
Bauman, E. & Friedlander, J. (2017). Therapeutic Nutrition Textbook Part 2. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.
Bowden, J. & Sinatra, S. (2015). The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why lowering your cholesterol won’t prevent heart disease and the statin-free plan that will. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press.
Lacey Kalber, Certified Nutrition Consultant