July 8

Sugartime

 

Once upon a time, people ate sweets on special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays.  A sugar-sweet treat turned the drab and ordinary into a celebration.  According to Shakespeare (and who would argue?) a little sugar makes the “hard way sweet and delectable”.  Remember the game, Candyland? It was fun to imagine a land made of candy. Contrary to the old 1958 song from the McGuire Sisters though, no one was really eating “sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime.”

But apparently we do now.

Lately everyone seems to be talking about sugar.  It’s as if we have just awakened from a very long siesta–like Rip van Winkle–and have suddenly discovered to our amazement that we eat too much sugar–way too much sugar.  More than 100 pounds of sugar a year per person!  But wait–we don’t eat that much candy.  Not even on Halloween.  Where is all that sugar coming from?  Take a moment for this fun, eye-popping video on the rise in sugar consumption–and where it comes from: (turn the volume up to hear the music)

Sugar in 1822

Well. In addition to drinking our sugar, we seem to consume much of it in the form of processed snacks.  (When fat was removed from food, in the mistaken belief that eating fat made us fat, extra sugar was put in, so all that low-fat food would still taste good.)

But sugar provides energy, and our bodies need that, right?  True, but clearly not as much as we are consuming.

Sugar 101–Cliff Notes Style

Let’s review the “condensed version” of how our body should use sugar, then take a quick look at where things go wrong:

      • Our cells use glucose (sugar, when it is in your blood) for energy.
      • Our digestive system does a bang-up job turning food–like fruit, veggies, bread, pasta and potatoes–into glucose and shoving it into the bloodstream, where the rise in blood sugar triggers the release of insulin.
      • Insulin acts as a key to:
        • unlock the cells so they can use the glucose,
        • help the body get unused glucose into short-term storage and
        • help turn the remaining excess glucose into long-term fat storage.

Some food takes longer to digest, sending glucose into the bloodstream in a nice, steady fashion, with a matching, steady insulin supply, and everybody’s happy.

So far, so good.  Things tend to go downhill when we start eating too much sweet stuff, too often:

      • Some food–like candy or juice–is mostly sugar to begin with, or is a processed or refined substance (like white flour) that the body takes no time at all to transform into glucose, causing rapid spikes in blood sugar–and a sudden surge in insulin, as well.
      • The body tends to respond to this rapid sugar/insulin surge with a corresponding plunge in energy levels when the sugar party is over and everyone goes home.  Illustration of kids dreamland map – candies and sweets land map

A Little Goes a Long Way

Constantly indulging in sweet foods–especially in liquid form–not only plumps up the fat layer, it can stress the insulin production system.

      • Insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, means glucose can’t get into the cell very well, so it remains in the blood stream doing all kinds of damage over time.  (A car on the freeway traveling from point A to point B is right where it should be.  But something is wrong somewhere, if it stays there all day.)

As if all that wasn’t warning enough for us to slow down on sweets, too much sugar may hurt your brain, as well as your body.

The chronically high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes have previously been linked to an elevated risk of dementia.  But a recent study at the Charité University Medical Center in Berlin revealed that higher blood glucose levels were associated with worse memory in normal, non-diabetic adults as well.  There were also indications that high glucose levels were triggers in producing a smaller hippocampus (the brain area essential for memory) and apparently compromising its structure.

Alzheimer’s disease has sometimes been referred to as ‘type 3 diabetes’, in part due to the insulin ‘resistance’ of brain cells in affected individuals.  A brain cell that is unable to process the glucose it needs to survive will atrophy like a person starved for food, and become susceptible to other problems as well.

56 Names

We do need to watch out for all the added forms of sugar invading our modern lives. 56namesofsugar“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare, again), so check out this chart (click to enlarge) produced by the folks conducting the Fed Up campaign, which aims to ditch our daily added sugar consumption.

There are no magic bullets, and no easy answers to complex questions involving obesity, diabetes and other health questions with lifestyle components. But would it really be so hard to turn back the clock to the days when we looked forward to the sweet delights associated with celebrations, instead of persuading ourselves that, thanks to stress-filled lives, we “deserve” these sweet rewards daily? 

Then perhaps we could re-write this story, so that the odds of “and they lived happily ever after” increased.

And wouldn’t that be sweet?

(Learn more about sugar’s effect on the brain)

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