Sugar? A toxin?

Obviously, we know that sweets aren’t really meant to be the central staple of our diets. (If we did, things like birthday cake wouldn’t be such a guilty pleasure.) However, it is impressive just how little we actually know about the elusive substance sugar. On a TV program called 60 Minutes, Sanjay Gupta presented a segment (April 1st, 2012) on the dangers of sugar which highlighted its effects on our bodies and our bodies’ inevitable attraction to it.

According to Doctor Robert Lustig, sugar, especially in the amounts of which we are consuming it, is a major cause of many common diseases like heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. Doctor Lewis Cantley, Professor at Harvard’s Medical School, has also begun to make connections between sugar consumption and cancer. Basically, eating/drinking sugar causes a spike in our insulin levels (a hormone) which has now been found to trigger the growth of certain cancer cells. Glucose (sugar) is usually consumed by our muscles or other tissues, but cancer cells can be signaled by insulin to start consuming the glucose instead. What happens next? These cells grow.

But the problem with our relationship to sugar is that we not only find it hard to identify, or just eat it without identifying it, but we also can easily become addicted to it. We love it.

Actually, we have biologically evolved to love it for the energy it gives us and because it used to be found only in fruits which provide a bunch of other nutrients. If you think about it, though, you wouldn’t eat three apples at a time on top of a full lunch. But that’s about the amount of sugar you drink when having a 20oz coke. Take note: not all calories are equal. In this case, you’d be getting a lot more nutrients from three apples than from a 20oz coke of pure sweet. Sweet for your tongue, maybe, but not for your body.

Also, in a lot of today’s processed foods, sugar substitutes like high fructose corn syrup have replaced a lot of the sugar that used to be in them which isn’t so favorable to the health-conscious eye. Replacing a lot of the society’s bad-mouthed fat, sugar now shows up secretively in a whole host of “food” products (or, as journalist Michael Pollan likes to say, “edible food-like substances”) which make common cereals and lunch snacks not unlike candies and cookies.

Addiction plays a major role in the U.S.’ love affair with sugar. Just like any drug, alcohol and smoking included, sugar has us around its little finger. We jump at the sight of it, and our brains jump at its arrival. In fact, as Sanjay Gupta’s brain itself demonstrated in an MRI Scanner, dopamine (a chemical in the brain which signals reward) is released when we eat sugar, making us feel pleasure at its taste and making us want more.

And of course, as humans, we like instant gratification. So we eat more and more and more… Until now, where the average American consumes about a third of a pound per day (about 130 pounds per year) of calories which derive from sugar! Sound healthy? No! What’s worse is when we eat so much sugar that we soon build a tolerance to it which makes us eat ever more to reach the same level of pleasure. Same with drugs and alcohol.

One motto that I adopted from journalist Michael Pollan is the SSSSS rule – small amounts of sugar and snacks on Saturdays and Sundays. In other words, sweets in moderation. Once I embraced this, I won both ways. First of all and most importantly, I take better care of myself and treat my body well! Second of all, sugar tastes a lot more sweet and a lot more special when eaten on special occasions.

Think of it this way, when someone has put love and effort into a homemade, natural sweet, there’s nothing that will beat! As the French say, the best bite is the first. Let’s go quality, not quantity.