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Sugar: Is It Toxic?

On April 1st, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a report on sugar. Is sugar toxic? Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked. And the four researchers he interviewed believed so. What do they mean about sugar? All of them: table sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, cane and beet sugar, corn syrup, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave, molasses, syrups, sugary drinks and everything that fits in this category.

The first researcher is Dr. Robert Lustig, a California pediatric endocrinologist who’s been leading the fight against sugar. In a You Tube video, he explains that sugars are metabolized differently in the body, making the argument against the mantra you’ve heard before, that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.

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In a nutshell, sugars (all of them) are made of glucose and fructose. All body cells can use glucose for fuel, but fructose can only be used in the liver. Too much fructose hitting the liver at once (from sugars and sugary drinks including fruit juices), triggers the liver to become ‘fatty.’ This leads to increased triglycerides (a bad type of fat), LDL cholesterol (the bad one), insulin resistance (leads to diabetes), and obesity (because the extra sugar is converted to triglycerides that are easily stored in fatty tissue).

Kimber Stanhope gave college students sugary drinks so that 25% of their daily calories came from sugars. In 2 weeks, the students had higher levels of LDL cholesterol.

Can it get worse? When you eat too much sugar, insulin levels spike up to get glucose inside your cells. And according to Lewis Cantley, the head of the Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center, tumors like that insulin. Breast and colon cancer cells use the insulin to get the glucose in them. And the cells grow.

The fourth researcher was looking at sugar and addiction. According to Eric Stice, when you eat sugar, dopamine, a feel-good chemical, is released in your brain making you feel just that, good. He even claims that the more sugar you eat, the more of it you need to trigger that euphoria because your body builds tolerance.

Labeling sugars as addictive is serious business. But hey, many people complain of sugar cravings. Is it addictive? Who knows. Each person is different. But I can tell you for sure, when I’m irritated, tired, angry, or sad, chocolate lifts me up. Is it the fat or the sugar? I don’t know. Do I eat a whole chocolate bar? No. Am I fully aware of the fact that I’m eating to satisfy an emotional need? Yes. Do I do it that often? No. More than half the time, I try to lay down, breathe, or get my mood up any other way.

Take Home Message

So what do I think of all of that? I tried to summarize my thoughts in 3 points:

  1. While toxic is a big word, there’s some truth in it. Toxic or not, foods that are high in added sugars are bad (yes, I believe there are bad food, but if you eat them, you’re not a bad person). We ALL should eliminate as many sugary foods from our diets as possible. Moderation doesn’t make sense. What is moderate? According to who? Is a candy bar moderate? Is a cup of sugary breakfast cereal moderate?
  2. Sugar is everywhere and in many places you won’t think of. And that’s where the real danger is.
  3. Those who are against sugar-is-toxic wave say that it’s not about sugar, it about calories. I’m going to say that both matter. Sugars and calories. It doesn’t have to be either this or that. Eating too many calories will lead to diseases, and eating too many sugars will too. And no, a calorie is NOT a calorie. The source makes a difference.

I hate to end without an action you can do but I can’t possibly say everything I want to say in one post. On the blog Thursday, I will share what I think of fruits, expose foods with too much sugars, and offer simple swaps to lower sugar intake.

UPDATE: here’s the post on 10 ways to lower your sugar intake.

What do you think of all that sweet stuff?


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2 thoughts on “Sugar: Is It Toxic?”

  1. Detoxification should really be that of processed sugars and fats, not dates for sugars or avocado for fats. At least there are dissenting voices to the formula ‘a calorie is a calorie’ which had started worrying some of us. But in practice you see the difference, for instance eliminating yoghurt, eggs, meat and margarine (chiefly), use dates as an auxilliary when it isn’t convenient to prepare a vegetable meal, etc. But since there is still much table sugar used a bit of prostate cancer seems to linger on, whereas taking the cancelled foods increases the rate to hardness and potential explosion of the disease.

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