We put white sugar in coffee, get tempted by it in desserts, and hardly even know how often it’s added to savory processed foods.
Sugar certainly makes life sweeter, but is it also the underlying villain in nutrition?
The FDA has finally added a line for “added sugar” on the nutrition facts label, so perhaps the pendulum is swinging in the right direction!
Why is Sugar Bad For You?
There are plenty of reasons white, refined sugar will hurt you when you eat it.
Some describe it as nothing short of a poison, while for others, it’s a compromise food to be eaten in moderation. Surprisingly, it’s not even difficult to find opinions that sugar as not bad for you at all, just a source of carbohydrates, a “basic fuel for the body.”
One of my goals in the Sweet, Sweet Summer series was to explore whether there really are “more natural” sweeteners and “healthier” sweeteners than refined white sugar.
Before I tackle that big issue, I think it’s important to lay the foundation of why we’re even asking those questions. Is white sugar really that bad for you?
Negative Effects of Sugar on the Body
Let me count the ways sugar is harmful to our bodies:
Bad bacteria love to eat sugars
Jess Sherman, Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, puts it this way:
If you have ever made bread or kombucha you’ve seen what happens when you mix yeast with sugar and warmth; lots of bubbling activity!
Sugar feeds yeast and bacteria in our digestive tracts and, it turns out, keeping that ecosystem balanced is exceedingly important to just about every aspect of our health.
Microbes influence our weight, our digestion and absorption of nutrients, our inflammation, our immune system, even our gene expression. Supporting digestive health is something all parents should learn to do if they want resilient health for their kids.
But does this mean all sugar is bad? No. It’s more complicated than that.
Sugar feeds all our microbes – the ones we want to support and the ones we want to keep in check. We don’t want to starve them all, we want to balance the ecosystem. Read the rest about kids and white sugar here…
And when we consider how much sugar is given to babies in our culture, we should be appalled: eating sugar early in life may affect the microbiome in a negative way, shown in a study with rats. (and we all know how important gut health is!)
White sugar also contributes to candida yeast overgrowth, and parasites love to feed on it as well! Find out if you may need to consider either by checking the symptoms of parasites and what a candida rash looks like.
Sugar May Depress the Immune System
Too much sugar can reduce the effectiveness of immune cells for a few hours after consumption (even WebMD agrees). Ever noticed your kids getting sick after a party??
We’ll discuss this more soon, but my friend Dr. Madiha Saeed says over and over that sugar depresses the immune system immediately after consumption. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
White sugar increases blood glucose levels and other blood imbalances
High blood glucose levels can deteriorate blood vessels and lead to heart disease.
Added sugar is correlated with high triglycerides and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol (both major heart health risks) (source). Our family has found that eating more healthy fat and cutting carbs drastically reduced my husband’s triglycerides.
In August 2016, the American Heart Association finally agreed, issuing a warning about sugar increasing cardiovascular risk in children and recommending ZERO added sugars for children under 2.
Sugar may increase your risk of cancers
Dare I say “cause cancer?” Even with credible sources claiming a possible link, that’s still pretty controversial.
My favorite article on the subject of sugar, period, is this one by Gary Taubes in the New York Times. Way down at the bottom, after a very thorough investigation of the subject of sugar and disease, he says:
“The connection between obesity, diabetes, and cancer was first reported in 2004 in large population studies by researchers from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is not controversial.”
Therefore, if you can accept that sugar increases obesity or diabetes, then sugar increases one’s risk of cancer. That’s a really good article, but not for the faint of heart.
After I found out my dad had cancer, I did a lot of research to help him fight cancer with food. I collated all the information I found, the research-based and the slightly off-the-wall, into a few lists of foods to eat often, sometimes, hardly ever and hopefully never.
I printed out a list for my parents, and I’ve created a PDF for you to print, too.
White Sugar is Addictive
Why is this? Lisa Byrne explains it in her workbook Break the Sugar Habit:
“Refined, white sugar acts more like a drug than a food in our system…but it started as a whole plant. The sugar cane and beet plant in nature come complete with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals like any other plant. And they have carbohydrates like any other plant in the form of [sucrose].
When sugar is refined they strip the sugar cane plant or beet plant of all its natural components, except the [sucrose]. Then [sucrose]is concentrated into what we know as table sugar. This means we take [sucrose] out of its natural balance found in plants…and that is an important part of understanding why it impacts our body so differently.
When [sucrose] is part of the whole food it acts like a food in your body, entering our system calmly, breaking down slowly and providing a range of nutrients in addition to energy. When [sucrose] is isolated, sugar acts like a drug in your body. Too much refined sugar creates a cycle of intense highs and lows, keeping our blood sugar, hormones and neurotransmitters out of balance.”
Some may tell you that sugar’s not addictive, but I dare you: cut out all refined sugars for a few days. Just see if you don’t have cravings and possibly even withdrawal symptoms!
Better yet, cut out all sweeteners. I dare ya.
Eating sugar gives us a hit of dopamine, because it feels good, and that dopamine makes us want more. White sugar may not be physiologically addicting, but the process of eating it is.
Sugar cravings are related to stress and self-sustaining. (Meaning when you eat sugar because you’re stressed, you’re going to end up wanting more sugar when the stress returns.) It’s a vicious cycle.
Personally, I believe sugar is as addicting as cigarettes (lots more references over there!) and hope that someday, we look back on photos of children in strollers with popsicles and gasp with horror, as much as we’d gasp today to see photos of 11-year-olds smoking cigarettes.
More White Sugar Health Risks: Mental Health
How many times have you felt sad, lonely, or worried and found yourself turning to the “comfort” of sweet foods? I think it’s pretty obvious that our brains and mental health are linked to sugar in some way. Check this out:
- Sugar may lead to ADHD-like symptoms or learning disorders
- Sugar may cause a mild state of depression when removed from the diet
- Studied in adolescent rats, large amounts of sugar may negatively impact long-term memory and metabolism and cause neuroinflammation
- Sugar is linked to dementia
- Sources: 1, 2, 3
The Bottom Line on White Sugar
The bottom line is this: either sugar is an empty food that gives us nothing healthy (and therefore, why bother – except for taste, and certainly in moderation) OR sugar is a toxic poison causing any number of physical and emotional diseases and ailments.
Either way, it’s worth cutting down in your diet.
Beet Sugar vs. Cane Sugar
A reader asked me to look into the difference between beet sugar and cane sugar. As it turns out, chefs around the country find a HUGE difference in how they act (beet sugar won’t caramelize properly, ruining many a Crème Brule), but their makeup is only about 0.5% different. The cane sugar apparently has slightly more minerals, as beet sugar molasses is not edible for humans (they feed it to cows, of course). This is not going to cause a significant nutritional difference, however.
If you want “local” foods, beet sugar is more widely produced in America. If you want better tasting baked goods, use cane sugar. If you want to be healthy and nourished, skip them both.
Other Sweet Alternatives
Sugar comes in many different forms, some more mineral rich than others. Sorghum syrup and maple syrup both have a high mineral content which isn’t an excuse to eat a lot of them, but if you’re going to have something sweet they may be a slightly better alternative than white sugar.
A lot of natural chewing gums and toothpastes have sugar alcohols instead of sugar, which are completely different – they’re not sugar, and they’re not alcohol.
Check out all the posts in the Sweet Sweet Summer series to learn more about different forms of sugar.