Sugar: the problems and what to do about them

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The sour side of the sweet stuff

So you can’t stop eating sweet things? You’ve got what used to be called a sweet tooth; what we now call a sugar addiction. You know that it isn’t good for you but you just can’t stop. I get it. Me too. When I eat sugar, and I know that the same goes for you, everything goes out of kilter and that is why I’m always banging on about it and why I’m going to bang on about it again.

Here goes:

Hundreds of years ago, eating sweet things was a rare treat and a good thing. Our brains encouraged and rewarded us for doing it by releasing dopamine (which makes us feel good) when we ate sweet fruits or honey (which then weren’t easily come by but) which contained vitamins, minerals and were a source of easily available energy. It was win/win. However, refined sugar, as in sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and sweet drinks is a substance entirely devoid of nutritional benefits that your body cannot do anything with apart from use as energy if it is lucky. It has a major negative effect on you.

Your pancreas and the fat making hormone

When you eat sugar it will break down very quickly into glucose and enter your blood stream. Glucose in your blood stream is dangerous and damages tissues. Any carbohydrate that you eat breaks down into glucose as soon as it starts to enter your blood stream. Your pancreas will release insulin to make sure that levels of blood sugar are not allowed to creep up. If you eat refined sugar, however, the glucose in your blood stream will sky rocket and insulin will flood in to deal with excess glucose quickly. Great you might think; no glucose, no damage. But no, because when the insulin removes glucose from your blood stream it will cause you to feel hungry again. Insulin isn’t known as ‘the fat making hormone’ for nothing and it is the key that enables glucose to be stored in body cells as fat. Insulin spikes also cause damage to the walls of your blood vessels

Your liver

The sugar you eat enters your blood stream via the portal vein. This major blood vessel that takes sugar to your liver. Your liver is an amazing organ that processes and clears out bi-products of digestion and metabolism and other toxins from your body. It also stores a certain amount of glucose (in the form of glycogen) that is readily available for us to use. Obviously, it doesn’t have a limitless capacity and the excess glycogen/glucose can’t be left in the blood stream as it is damaging so it is turned into fat to be stored safely. Where? In inactive parts of your body like thighs, bottom, stomach, breasts, back and chin! Some excess fat might stay in the liver and this causes a whole other problem creating a build up that can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Your heart

Lipids (fatty substances) are the cause of a lot of heart disease. Cholesterol and triglycerides are both lipids. 75% of your cholesterol is made in your body and the other 25% comes from fats that we eat. Triglycerides all come from sugar in our diet and they are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke because they cause a build up on your blood  vessel walls as it travels through the bloodstream. High triglyceride levels contribute to atherosclerosis, the formation of plaque in blood vessels. Refined sugar also appears to lower high-density lipoprotein, the so-called “good” cholesterol, according to an Emory University study published in the April 2010 issue of “JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.” Now we have sugar, not only having an indirect negative impact on our hearts from us being fat, but also a direct effect through raising blood fat levels.

Your Brain
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Some of my favourite things

Sugar is addictive. You know that because you don’t simply want a piece of chocolate you  NEED IT. Remember, you are rewarded for eating sugar by a release of dopamine from the brain. Dopamine is one of the happy hormones. As I said earlier, this was useful when sweet food was hard to get hold of and we needed to be rewarded to make an effort. But that isn’t the case now.

This happy hormone overrides our ‘I’m full’ mechanism and at the same time the insulin in your blood stream is blocking the release of leptin that tells us when we are full so when sugar is to hand (and when is it not?) your brain will say yes and you body won’t say no. The higher your levels of insulin the more you will want to eat. You are now in an artificial starvation mode so you will be desperately trying to store fat up for lean times to come.

So let’s recap: refined sugar can damage your liver, it can damage your heart, it confuses your brain so it sends out mixed messages, it damages your pancreatic function and it makes you fat. Nice!

If it was a new drug there would be an outcry about it. It is dangerous and addictive and it is put in almost everything that you don’t cook from scratch.

Sugar and sweet should be a treat, I have developed an unhealthy relationship with sugar but as I wrote this post about the effects of sugar on our bodies, even though I already know it, I was shocked into trying to remove it from my life (except on very special occasions).

What to do if you want to leave sugar behind
  • Do scare yourself into doing something about it. Watch this ’60 minutes’ programme about sugar.
  • Do cook from scratch.
  • Don’t add sugar (or sweeteners which I’ll tell you about another time).
  • Don’t drink any fizzy drinks except water.
  • Do change refined products like white rice, bread, pasta for whole grain versions. Don’t eat low-fat food which is generally made palatable by replacing fat with sugar.
  • Do please share this with anyone you think might need a nudge away from sugar and DO leave a comment about your experience of sugar.
  • If this isn’t enough to get you thinking, watch Dr Lustig’s programme about the sweet stuff.
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6 thoughts on “Sugar: the problems and what to do about them

  1. Janice March 3, 2016 / 4:54 pm

    Wow wake up needed!! I can eat chocolate till my mouth ulcerates and heaven help anyone who tried to take it off me! Thank you!

    • Janet March 3, 2016 / 5:16 pm

      There are plenty of people who say that sugar is a major cause of mouth ulcers; certainly chocolate is a cause.

      I feel like there is a wall in my head. Half my head is saying ‘Don’t eat that. You know you’ll feel dreadful’ and the other side has fingers in its ears singing ‘lah, lah, lah’ and reaching for the sweets.

      Me too, I can’t bear anyone trying to take sweets away from me. And if they advise me not to eat too much I want to scream at them.

  2. Gwen Howard March 18, 2016 / 2:53 pm

    Great article Janet, thanks. I found reading Sweet Poison really helped me quit! (Well 90% quit! :)) x

  3. Christine March 18, 2016 / 3:15 pm

    Living next door to a sweet shop for the first 20 years of my life was my downfall.
    It is very hard to change a life time habbit but, I have found with increasing years, I actually prefer savoury foods now.
    So if I don’t buy sweet things, I don’t eat them.
    It also saves money!

    • Janet March 18, 2016 / 5:32 pm

      For me, when I was a child sweets were a treat. My dad would buy us sweets on Friday evenings (and maybe some other evenings too). I think that since neither of my parents had a particularly sweet tooth and probably not my sister or brother either, no one really knew what was happening to me. But I can thank my stars that I didn’t live next to a sweet shop!

  4. Kate Wilson March 19, 2016 / 12:10 pm

    I was just thinking this week that my sugar cravings are extrememly hard to resist. Sometimes I don’t need to eat chocolate and it feels easy but then something changes in my body and I eat strange sweet things that I don’t even like rather than not have sugar. Or I drive to town to buy something even when before I was quite tired and relaxing at home. And of course then eat far too much in a strange way – take a square and try to walk to the sitting room to eat it calmly with a cup of tea but hey – it’s gone before I have taken a few steps. Like I can’t stop myself popping it into my mouth. It really is quite terrifying.

    The idea of a day – one single day – without sugary things is horrific. But I have quite happily had a month without alcohol. My drug is obviously sugar.

    From the Chinese point of view of course it is a Spleen energy deficiency – so perhaps I need to try treating the Spleen to see if this helps. Spleen is of course worse when we are tired or feeling insecure which makes sense.

    I am so looking forward to Easter and my egg but after that – I will try to cut back and eat sweets mindfully rather than automatically.

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