The Sugar Epidemic

If you had asked me how much sugar I consumed before I went Primal, I would have said, “Not much.” People think of white, powdery stuff as sugar and aren’t as aware of all its other insidious forms. But I was probably closer to the average American’s intake without knowing it: 140-200 pounds a year. And that doesn’t even account for foods like pasta, crackers, and oatmeal that turn into sugar after ingesting them. I think it’s safe to say we’re experiencing an unprecedented era of sugar consumption.

The more I follow Primal eating, the crazier the SAD seems to me. I see sugar everywhere. The fact that people think fruit juice is healthy drives me crazy. Breakfast cereal just seems like a criminally insane choice. I’m beginning to feel self-conscious about the fact that even though I’ve reduced the honey in my daily chai, I can’t seem to convince my tongue (or brain?) that less than a 1/2 tablespoon is okay. I’m working on it…

Especially since I’ve been reading Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan, MD (I’ll post a book review as soon as I finish it). She explains what happens in our bodies when we eat sugar, and it’s frightening. Suddenly my daily glass of spiced, soul-warming chai seems about as cozy as rat poison. I’m about to macerate this into simplicity, but here’s the gist of it: Just as sugar is sticky outside your body when it gets wet, so it is inside your body as it reacts with proteins. These bonds can become permanent due to oxidation reactions and they in turn contribute to the hardening and stiffening of cells and tissues. So what happens? Arteries, for example, lose their semi-permeable properties and when nutrients have nowhere to go, they begin to build up. These deposits then attract white blood cells, forming life-threatening clots that can result in a heart attack or stroke. Similar reactions occur all over the body. Joints ache? Getting sick all the time? You might want to look at your sugar intake. It’s even being considered as a factor in cancer cell growth because of the way white blood cells are prevented from doing their work.

Dr. Shanahan includes a handy-dandy textbox listing all the various alibis that sugar hides behind. I had no idea that food manufacturers used so many varieties of sugar: evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, corn sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose, fructose, sucrose, malt, malt syrup, barley malt syrup, barley malt extract, maltose, maltodextrin, dextrose, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, beet juice, muscovato, succanat, turbinado sugar, invert sugar. She lists the ingredients of an ostensibly healthy breakfast cereal that has at least seven of these sugars in it. Whoa.

I had heard that sugar is addictive, but previously brushed it off with the nonchalance of a true addict. But the evidence is astounding. Once we figured out how and why sugar does so much damage, we set out to create sweeteners that were “better.” Instead of simply saying, “Wow, I guess those sugars are really bad for us,” and adjusting our palates, we sought to continue the fix. This is akin to a heroin addict using methadone. And now we’re discovering that some of these sweeteners have unexpected effects of their own. There’s some evidence to suggest that diet sodas are linked to Type 2 diabetes, though whether there’s a causal relationship remains to be seen.

How can that be? Well, something that jumped out at me from Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat was the fact that insulin is released when we begin to just think about eating or drinking. So it seems to me that even if there isn’t a physical, causal relationship, there is still a response to the expectation of something that tastes sweet.

Sufficiently scared yet? Luckily for most of us Paleos/Primals, this isn’t a huge concern anymore, and this information might make that potential cheat dessert look a lot less enticing. But just in case you are looking for an acceptable replacement, Mark’s Daily Apple has a few run-downs on sweeteners that are worth a look:

Hmm…looks like if I switch out my honey for raw honey, I’ll have a little less insulin response. Sounds like a good place for an addict to start. But honestly? The best sweetener is none at all.

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One Response to “The Sugar Epidemic”

  1. I would think that honey vs raw honey makes no difference once it is dissolved in the tea. sorry. On a more upbeat note: I do believe that sugar as a treat is not a problem – yes, bad things happen but they happen all the time and your body can recover from that. It is how much of it you eat that is important – so you can still drink your tea (and IMHO you might as well use caster sugar) but then have to cut it somewhere else

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