The Truth About Sugar
Sugar has always been a topic of concern for diabetics, but more recently the truth about how sugar affects our health is becoming a concern for everyone. Today we’ll look at sugar’s role in the body and what you can do to limit the negative effects, including how it impacts blood sugar and weight.
What We Know about Sugar
How sweet it is. But not to everyone. I’m sure you know someone, if not yourself, who says they are more of a savory person; not big on sweets. Well, I envy those people. Unless they’re eating a lot of “everything” bagels or other not so sweet baked goods like bread, grains and pasta, their chances of developing type 2 diabetes are much lower than those who have a sweet tooth.
I gave up added sugars at least a year ago, and I’ve more recently given up grains and other high carbohydrate foods in an attempt to get my hormones more balanced, as well as continue to heal my gut. I would not go so far as to say I’m living a keto lifestyle, but I very much follow a lot of the principles behind keto. Sugar and excessive protein help feed cancer, and more and more doctors are recommending ketogenic diets for cancer patients. We’ll take up ketogenic diets in the coming weeks, but I wanted to introduce the concept (if you hadn’t heard of it) and start building the bridge here between today’s subject and keto, so you have an easy reference point later on.
Sugar, or more specifically glucose, is one source of fuel for our bodies. We get it mostly from carbohydrates, but excess proteins can also be converted into glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis. (Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. That’s why your protein powder nutrition label includes a long list of amino acid amounts.) Now these amino acids are critical to functions such as DNA replication, and creating neurotransmitters and antioxidants, so we don’t really want them being hijacked for energy. The other source of fuel is fat. That is what keto is all about; retraining the body to use fat for fuel, including stored fat.
What is Blood Sugar/Glucose and Why Should You Care?
I’m going to try to keep this really simple because it’s so important, I want you to hang in there with me. As I said earlier, the effects of sugar are of importance to everyone these days; not just diabetics. We’ve had fear instilled in us around fat over the last few decades which has substantially increased our consumption of sugar and carbohydrates. The proliferation of processed foods and all their hidden sugars has greatly contributed to chronic illnesses like diabetes and many others. So let’s look at why.
When we eat, enzymes released in the intestinal tract are responsible for breaking foods down into usable molecules like amino acids, fatty acids and glucose. Hormones are also triggered/released to take these molecules to where they need to go. When it comes to glucose, the hormone involved is insulin, which is produced by the pancreas. Insulin travels throughout the body telling our cells to either take in the glucose for immediate use, or to store it for later use; which one depends on how much glucose is circulating in the blood. The job of insulin is to maintain a stable blood glucose level.
In a healthy person, when blood glucose drops between meals, another hormone in the pancreas, glucagon, triggers the conversion of the stored glucose (glycogen) back into glucose. The glucose is released to keep us going. Why do I say a “healthy” person? So many people are developing what’s called insulin resistance which has thrown this sensitive regulatory function out of whack. Most people who are insulin resistant don’t even know, and this is bad because it is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, called prediabetes. We’ll look at just how prevalent prediabetes is in a moment.
Insulin resistance occurs when there is too much insulin circulating in the bloodstream, and cells (muscle and organs for example) just stop responding to it as a signal. The cells become desensitized and ignore the insulin knocking at the door to let the glucose in. All they hear is blah, blah, blah anymore. This leaves all that sticky glucose out in the cold (or the bloodstream), gumming up the blood vessels. It is believed that in order to get it out of the blood (and store it) new fatty tissue is formed for depositing (storing) the glucose, promoting weight gain. The link between insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and weight is well documented and basically a viscous cycle. Breaking the cycle and restoring insulin resistance is key to avoiding diabetes.
Are You at Risk for Prediabetes?
According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 3 adult Americans (age 18 and older) are prediabetic. If you ask me, that’s epidemic proportions. Let’s look at the risk factors provided by the CDC:
- Overweight or obesity
- Age 45 or older
- A parent, brother or sister with diabetes
- African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander American Ethnicity (I would not take yourself out of the equation just because you do not fall into one of these categories. These categories merely increase risk further.)
- Physical inactivity
- Health conditions such as high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels
- A history of gestational diabetes
- A history of heart disease or stroke
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
The biggest risk factors seem to be weight, especially visceral fat carried in the abdomen and around the organs, along with inactivity. I urge everyone to click on the link provided to the report (after you finish reading this article) and give it a read. Given the fact that so many of us spend so much time working at a desk, the road to diabetes is much more common for all of us.
There are other ways blood sugar can be effected that we do have control over. These include:
- What we eat – for example, diets high in sugar or carbohydrates increase risk
- Stress levels – remember fight or flight? Stress triggers the production of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine), both of which signal the liver to release sugar so you can fight off the tiger. The body does not know if the stressor is life-threatening or not; it just reacts to your state of mind by going into sympathetic mode. Chronic stress, and the chronic release of blood sugar and cortisol can cause belly fat.
- Microbiome health – bacteria eat sugar too, and having a microbiome full of sugar-hungry microbes can increase your cravings and appetite, your blood sugar production, and the rate at which you burn the sugar. Feeding your gut too much sugar can turn opportunistic commensalism bacteria into pathogenic bacteria. You can read more about the microbiome, sugar and candida here.
Reducing the Risk of Diabetes
Let’s look at some warning signs and then five areas you can address in lowering your risk of developing diabetes.
Unfortunately, most people with insulin resistance and prediabetes are unaware until they reach a diagnosis of diabetes. Individuals can unknowingly go for years in a prediabetes state. But don’t despair. Look at this as an opportunity to make lifestyle changes before reaching a diabetes diagnosis.
We already know that being overweight is one factor. This is a two-way street, as insulin resistance can also lead to weight gain. But there’s a sign you may not tie to insulin resistance or prediabetes. We talked about how tightly regulated the pancreas/insulin/blood sugar cycle works. The body strives to maintain optimal blood sugar balance regardless of what’s not working properly. It will create work-arounds to bring blood sugar into balance. Do you remember when you were young and you could go hours and hours outside at play without getting hungry or feeling the symptoms of dropping blood sugar? Your body would get more energy through your liver converting stored glycogen into glucose and sending it out into the blood for use by your cells for energy.
There was a time, not too long ago, I recall getting really foggy if I didn’t eat something every few hours. I would bring an arbitration hearing to a screeching halt just so I could eat something. I thought it was normal. And then you see these commercials about “hangry” people who just need to eat a candy bar to feel better. Boy could I relate to that. Well, here’s your sign you might just have lost the ability to stabilize your blood sugar. A candy bar (or sugar-laden mocha latte) is full of simple carbohydrates that go straight to the bloodstream via rapid digestion, and spike your blood sugar. Yep, you’ll feel better for a little while, but then you’ll eventually crash in an hour or two and be right back where you started, consuming and storing more calories. When your blood sugar gets too low again, this triggers a stress response because your body thinks it will not have fuel when it’s needed. Then you go back into the hangry state and the cycle starts all over again.
Fasting blood sugar is one of the best ways to know if you are prediabetic. You can be tested by your doctor or purchase a home glucose monitoring test kit for at-home use. I purchased one earlier this year to track my blood glucose. Being aware of your numbers on a regular basis (as opposed to one annual reading) can shed a lot of light on your own status. I brought my fasting glucose down by 10 points through understanding where the excess sugars and carbs in my diet were hiding (in plain sight once I took notice).
A good way to see what your sugar/carbohydrate intake is and if it’s excessive or healthy is to use a food tracking program for a period of time that would be reflective of your normal eating habits. I use Cronometer now. This allows me to see where my carbohydrates are and over time has made it easy for me to craft and adopt a diet with much healthier levels of net carbohydrates. Net carbohydrates are total carbohydrates less fiber. Fiber is part of the equation because fiber slows down the metabolism of sugar. This is why whole foods (fruits and vegetables) are so much healthier than processed foods and juices.
At this point, you may already be seeing what some strategies would be for lowering your risk and bringing blood sugar into balance. Here are some daily habits you can adopt to assist in balancing your blood sugar and lowering your risk of insulin resistance, prediabetes and diabetes:
- Start crowding out simple sugars, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners for more complex carbohydrates packaged in whole foods like non-starchy vegetables and moderate consumption of high-fiber/low fructose fruits.
- Be more physically active
- Manage stress levels
- Practice good sleep hygiene
- Practice good eating hygiene to optimize digestion
- Refrain from eating three hours before bedtime
For ways to implement these strategies you can grab my free guide on daily habits on the Home Page that fits right into a plan for lowering your risk of diabetes. You can also use the form below to grab the guide. Have a great week!
Yours in Wellness,
Use this form for the Healthy Habits Guide: