Sugar is EVERYWHERE. Way back before you could hit the drive-thru at Starbucks and get 800 calories in a cup, the most readily available sources of sugar where in fruit and that was only available during summer and fall. The seasonal availability of fruit helped people prepare for the winter months by storing up on energy. The other thing about the sugar you find in nature is that it has fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Unfortunately, in the world we live in now we have access to copious amounts of sugar every day of every month of the year. If we were working in jobs that required us to move our bodies, this would be less of a problem, but most of us are sugar bombing our bodies in order to sit at our desks for 8+ hours a day and drive our cars. This would be the root of why so many Americans are overweight and diabetic.
How Did This Happen?
Well...refined sugar makes things taste good and it has been shown to trigger a response in the brain similar to the response that occurs with certain drugs. A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that refined, sweet foods triggered activity from the brain's pleasure center which affects our motivation, pleasure, and addiction. This same study also found that sugar has an impact on how we perceive hunger. Eating sugar leaves us wanting more when compared with other more nutritious foods.
Sugar also affects us by increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for predicting or reinforcing rewards. It also tends to make us to eat more than we need because it overrides our body’s ability to tell our brain that we’re full.
Sugar is in Everything
Since sugar makes us want more sugar that means that food companies love to put it in everything. You can even find it in places you wouldn't expect (salad dressing, cereal, chips, french fries, bread, and more). Food companies want you to crave these food products and eat more than you should because it makes them more money! I don't know about you but I don't want my brain exploited for marketing purposes! There are also different types of refined sugar added to foods so that you won't find it as the first ingredient on the list when you look at the list (you do look at ingredient lists, don't you?).
Let's look at Vanilla Almond Clusters Cereal from Trader Joe's:
Whole rolled oats, milled cane sugar, corn flour, rice flour, vegetable oil (canola and/or safflower and/or sunflower oil), almonds, cornstarch, whole wheat flour, brown rice, honey, salt, barley malt syrup, natural flavor, annatto (for color), purple carrot juice (for color), turmeric (for color).
That’s about three teaspoons of sugar in three different forms to help you get your morning started off right? Um, no.
Here are some of the effects sugar has on your body:
When your body processes carbohydrates (remember that sugar is a carb - side note: every time I talk about carbs all I can think of is Mean Girls "is butter a carb?") it requires vitamins and minerals to metabolize. When you eat refined sugar you’re depleting valuable micronutrients in your without adding anything other than calories. Processed sugar really has no nutritional value.
One sweet potato, a carbohydrate that's readily available in nature and constitutes real food, not only contains energy, but also B vitamins, phosphorous, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, zinc,and chromium, the exact same nutrients that your body requires to process the sugar. Generally when foods are eaten in their natural form they provide the micronutrients that are required to metabolize their macronutrients. Pretty convenient!
Your Immune System
Refined sugars in your blood decrease the ability of your white blood cells to respond to the pathogens that can make you sick. Studies have shown that these immune cells had a significantly decreased ability to kill things like viruses or bacteria following sugar consumption when compared with their ability during fasting.
Decreased nutrients and suppression of the immune system doesn’t just mean you feel lousy or get a cold, it also means that you are much more likely to develop a chronic disease or long-term condition. Diets high in refined sugar have been shown to increase risks of heart disease, dementia, and cancer.
Energy and Sleep
If you’re consistently eating something that steals energy from your cells, your body won’t have energy to use which leads to fatigue and decreased energy levels. When you are eating a diet high in refined carbs and sugar you can develop problems regulating your blood sugar, which can cause a blood sugar crash and the accompanying by brain fog, dizziness, and fatigue.
While we sleep our bodies need to burn fat in order to provide us with a steady amount of energy during our 8-10 hours of sleep and no food (if you're not getting 8-10 hours...read this post about why that matters). When you are eating a diet high in refined carbs it is difficult for your body to switch from sugar burning to fat burning. This leads to interrupted sleep or insomnia. As if that wasn't bad enough, lack of sleep increases your risk for insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity, and leads to an increase in hunger and cravings. Sounds like a vicious and never ending cycle to me!
Diets high in refined sugar and carbohydrates cause inflammation. Unfortunately, this kind of inflammation can't be felt but still causes damage to your cells, brain, nerve tissue, and blood vessels. This kind of inflammation can be extremely detrimental to your athletic performance and your recovery. Chronic inflammation is now considered to be the main contributor to most of the chronic conditions that Americans suffer from.
If you've ever stopped eating refined carbohydrates for a week or so and suddenly felt better (after you got over the "flu" you can get while your body tries to switch from being a sugar burner to a fat burner) the reason you felt better was due to a decrease in systemic inflammation!