Cut Refined Sugar
The following is based heavily on the transcript of this podcast by Dr. Rhonda Patrick on why you should cut your refined sugar consumption as much as possible. I took some artistic license and added comments and formatting for readability and entertainment value.
Sugar is not always the demonized version we see in news headlines. It also occurs naturally in fruit and dairy products. The current versions of these products are variants that have been selectively bred over the last couple thousand years. They have much more sugar than their ancient ancestors. That fact aside, sugar in a piece of fruit is much better for you than a spoonful of refined white sugar.
Refined sugar is made from sugar cane or sugar beets and undergoes refined processing. This process involves removing all other aspects of the plants, leaving only pure sugar.
Some Astounding Facts About Sugar Consumption
Nearly three quarters of adults in the US get nearly a tenth of their daily calories from added refined sugar.
And 10% of US adults get a quarter of their calories from refined sugar!
Sugar is linked to prediabetes, type II diabetes, and many diseases of aging. Prediabetes is a condition where a person’s blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but aren’t high enough to be called Type II diabetes….yet.
Scientists estimate that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in 2010 may have contributed to:
133,000 deaths from diabetes,
43,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease, and
6,450 deaths from cancer worldwide.
(This does not include all sugar intake, just sugar-sweetened beverages alone!)
One can of soda, or other sugar sweetened beverage a day raises your risk of diabetes by 46%. If you replace one of those drinks a day with an unsweetened beverage, like water, you can reduce that risk of diabetes by 25%. (The math is not purely subtractive in this equation. It is nonetheless astounding.)
Sugar leaves the body rather quickly. With a week of no sugar intake, insulin, cholesterol, and blood sugar improve a measurable amount.
Diets High In Refined Sugar Linked To Cancer.
Nearly 600,00 people died in 2016 from cancer in the United States. 200,000 of those death are contributed to lifestyle and/ or environmental factors, meaning with better lifestyle choices these people would have lived to see 2017, potentially. Lifestyle and environmental factors include things like having a diet high in processed foods and refined sugar, smoking, or having a low level of physical activity.
Refined sugar increases both DNA damage and inflammation throughout the body. These two processes are two of the primary paths to cancerous cells in the body.
There are multiple studies linking refined sugar consumption to all types of cancer, including prostate, breast, and intestinal cancer. These studies are accepted by the whole science community, not fringe elements publishing suspect papers. The exact mechanism to these cancers is complicated and briefly described in this footnote*.
Sugar And Getting Old As Hell
Telomeres are very important in determining the biological age of an individual. Telomeres are the caps on the end of our chromosomes (think: tips of shoelaces). As the body gets older, telomeres get shorter. On unhealthy people telomeres get shorter faster and potentially cause chromosomes to lose genes or allow the chromosomes to stick to other chromosomes during cell division.
When telomeres get too short the cell stops dividing or it dies. Your days are numbered when this happens….
Scientists think that telomere length might not only be a biomarker for cellular aging but it might also cause cellular aging. This is a big deal considering we lose about 21 nucleotides a year off the end of our telomeres. In some cells that divide more rapidly, we lose as many as 60 nucleotides a year.
What’s worse is that there are genetic mutations that cause telomeres to shorten unusually fast.
Werner syndrome, one such mutation, affects 1 in 200,000 people in the USA and somewhere between 1 in 20,000 and 1 in 40,000 people in Japan.
Science is finding a silver lining though; an enzyme, conveniently named telomerase, has been shown to help regrow telomeres in rats. More studies are required on this enzyme’s effects in humans.
How does the above link to sugar? How about this…
Adults who drink 12 oz of sugar-sweetened beverages each day have much shorter telomeres in their white blood cells, a reduction roughly equivalent to 4.5 years of biological aging compared to people the same age who don’t drink soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages. If not important to you now, in your 80s, 4.5 years will feel like a blessing.
Inflammation From Sugar and Aging
As previously mentioned, inflammation is not good. Refined sugar causes inflammation. Inflammation is linked to cancer, but it also increases the signs of aging.
Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process. When you have an illness or an injury it can help to protect you so your body can heal itself. However, it is always meant to be short-lived.
Sometimes the stress causing the inflammation is not short-lived. Environmental triggers, such as constant increased refined sugar intake or chronic stress in life can cause inflammation to go haywire. It is this chronic or long-term inflammation that ages us.
It is now believed that successful suppression of inflammation through lifestyle may be the most important driver of successful longevity, actually increasing in importance with advancing age.
Just 20 ounces of soda daily has been shown to increase a biomarker of inflammation by 60-100%!
What’s more, that same 20 ounce sugary beverage has been shown to increase the number of small dense LDL cholesterol particles in the blood. Small dense LDL particles tend to be the most dangerous cholesterol particles, because they can’t be recycled back to the liver. They stay in the bloodstream where they can undergo more inflammatory transformations.
Brief Aside: A longevity gene
FOXO3 is a master regulator of hundreds of genes that are involved in stress resistance, stem cell production, and autophagy (a type of self-destruct mechanism that maintains healthy cells). People with a particular variation of this gene have a nearly three times more likely chance of becoming a centenarian. It is currently thought that refined sugar may inhibit this gene in humans. Though more human research is needed, the it has already been proven true in fruit flies.
Refined sugar and hormone production
A new study concerning refined sugar and hormone production has proven to be a staggering one for men. When men between 19 and 74 consumed 75 grams of refined sugar (roughly the amount in a sugar-sweetened soda and a donut), they experienced a 25% drop in testosterone for up to two hours immediately after consumption. For some men, that is a noticeable and perceptible drop in testosterone, which is crazy when talking about hormones.
Refined Sugar On The Brain
The brains of obese children are much more responsive to refined sugar than non-obese children. 60 different studies have shown that obese children have a heightened pleasure response when consuming refined sugar compared to non-obese children. This has negative implications, since it has been shown that increased refined sugar intake is linked to memory problems, specifically compromises of spatial memory in rats. Obese children are more inclined to eat more sugar, and are therefore more likely to have reduced brain function.
Excessive long term sugar intake can change the structure of a type of nerve cell, called medium spiny neurons, in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is a part of the brain associated with reward circuitry. These structural changes from sugar are very similar to the changes caused by powerful stimulant drugs, such as amphetamine, cocaine, and nicotine.
The parts of the brain associated with memory and emotion actually begin to shrink when a person has higher than normal blood sugar.
People with blood sugar levels on the high end of the normal range, 100-125 mg/dl, (considered prediabetic) experience 6-10% more brain atrophy in the hippocampus and amygdala than people with normal blood sugar levels.
High Fructose Corn Syrup and Traumatic Brain Injury
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) prevents neurons in the brain from being able to communicate, and also prevents brain rewiring after a traumatic brain injury.
What’s crazy is that fructose from fruit does not have the same effects as refined fructose or HFCS. This is likely due to the beneficial effects of polyphenols and fiber in the fruit.
What Is The Difference Between Sugar Types Exactly Anyway?
Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is a 50/50 mix of fructose and glucose, two simple sugars. HFCS, like sucrose, is also a mixture of fructose and glucose, but with a higher percentage of fructose and a lower percentage of glucose. Mostly a 55/45 ratio.
Okay… So what does the body do with glucose and fructose?
Glucose and sugary foods containing glucose can be metabolized or broken down by every cell in the body. When glucose is eaten the body responds in the pancreas by producing insulin. Insulin** is essential for the body’s cells to be able to take up and utilize glucose. This response also promotes the formation of leptin (a hormone that’s responsible for the feeling of satiety).
Sounds good…what about fructose?
In contrast, fructose is metabolized primarily by cells in the liver and does not require insulin. This means there is no insulin response, and therefore no leptin to create the feeling of satiety. You will continue to eat because there is no feeling of fullness. Your liver struggles to keep up and produce enough triglycerides in order to store that excess energy, which elevates the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Okay, so we should avoid fructose at all costs then?
Not totally. Fruits contain both glucose and fructose, and fruits are good for you, in moderation. Fructose in fruit is bound up in the food matrix, a complex mixture of fiber and other compounds such as polyphenols***. This changes the way sugars are metabolized and doesn’t raise blood sugar dramatically. Additionally, fiber itself increases satiety.
Dopamine… The Silver Lining… Kinda
The only good thing about consuming refined sugar is the short lived buzz you feel after consuming it, due to a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine controls the brain’s pleasure and other reward centers. This is in ways that are similar to the effects from drugs like nicotine, cocaine, morphine. Sugar is less dramatic of a response, but similar, and over time you begin to crave more of the drug or another substance with a similar response. You eventually build up a tolerance to the effects and you crave even more and more of it. This is why so many people have trouble quitting sugar cold turkey.
Oh cool, so refined sugar is basically a drug, and when I eat it I’m getting the same pleasure as those guys in Trainspotting.
It’s pretty simple: cut refined sugar as much as you can if you want to live a happy and high-quality life. If you don’t care about living long and well, honestly, I’m surprised you made it to the conclusion. Start slow, cut one beverage a day, and go from there. Refined sugar has no nutritional qualities that are necessary to the human body. It has been shown that foods not sweetened with refined sugar will start to taste better to you as you decrease your intake of refined sugar. Refined sugar numbs your palate to other foods. It’s like a scorned lover: if it can’t have you, no foods can. Start breaking refined sugar’s hold on you today.
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*Excess refined sugar appears to cause intestinal cells in the gut to accumulate beta catenin, a type of oncogene, which enhances cellular proliferation. A potentially bad thing. Our cells are hardwired to prevent damaged cells from surviving. This is done through apoptosis (AKA programmed cell death). Oncogenes allow damaged cells to bypass the checkpoints that promote cellular death. This allows those damaged cells to become immortal cancer cells. Accumulation of beta catenin in this case as a component of the insulin response produced by excess sugar may just be one more way in which excess refined sugar consumption can tie back to increased cancer risk.
**Insulin is to digestion and fat storage what testosterone and growth hormone are to muscle growth. If you aren’t following, it is highly highly important.
***Polyphenols are a class of chemical which confer many health benefits
****In people who quit smoking, it takes roughly 3 months for the 15-20% drop in dopamine to come back to normal after quitting. The same drugs effective in helping people quit hard drugs are effective in treating addiction to sugar. Sounds like a great reward for children when they get a good grade in social studies.