We have a funny relationship with sugar. On the one hand, we think of sugar as fun: there are sugar fairies, sharing sweets with friends, sweet treats, and a reward for a job well done. But we have other thoughts about sugar: that nagging sensation in the back of our brain that wonders if the sugar we are eating may be harmful.
Let me put your mind at un-ease and let you know that the first image of sugar is an illusion and that sugar is harmful to your health. Sugar is an anti-nutrient that harms our health in a number or ways.
Diabetes, Obesity and Heart Disease
The combined world-wide deaths associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease is around 38 million each year. These three diseases account for a large amount of suffering in the world and are all interrelated: if you are obese, you are likely to have heart disease and diabetes; if you have diabetes, you are likely to be overweight and have a greater risk for heart disease.
These three diseases have something else in common: they all can be made worse by the amount of sugar that you eat.
The standard medical opinion of sugar is that it contains calories, so it may add to our growing obesity epidemic, but only because of the calories it contains. This is true, but sugar is special in its ability to increase our weight. When our blood sugar spikes when we eat sugar (and especially when we drink sugar), our bodies store any extra sugar-energy that it cannot use right away as fat.1 This is unique to sugar and doesn’t occur, say, when you eat a steak or a bowl of berries.
While the research supporting a link between sugar and heart disease is not that strong, it is growing. There is evidence linking high blood sugar and poor sugar control (insulin insensitivity) with a greater risk for heart disease.2,3 There is also evidence that sugar is directly harmful to blood vessels and may be the initiating event in atherosclerosis.4
This is perhaps the most harmful of the diseases that are associated with sugar consumption; people who are diabetic have a much larger risk for the following diseases:
- Nephropathy: kidney damage that can eventually lead to kidney failure.
- Retinopathy: eye disease that often leads to blindness.
- Coronary Artery Disease: clogged arteries, can lead to heart attack.
- Neuropathy: loss of sensation in nerves that can eventually lead to muscle weakness. People with neuropathy sometimes feel tingling or numbness.
- Cardiomyopathy: damage to the heart that can lead to heart failure.
- Peripheral vascular disease: clogged arteries in the legs and sometimes arms
While these diseases may seem not related – one occurs in the eye, the other in the heart, and still another attacks the legs – they all have one thing in common: blood vessel damage. The underlying cause of all these diseases is that sugar damages the blood vessels.5 It is easy to see this damage in diabetics, who have a high amount of blood sugar most of the time. But sugar also damages blood vessels in people with normal blood sugar levels.6
It Gets Worse
As if diabetes, obesity and heart disease weren’t enough, sugar has also been shown to create more havoc in the body:
- Immune suppression: intake of sugar has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.7,8
- Inflammation: sugar consumption has been shown to increase inflammation throughout the body.9 Many modern diseases can trace their roots to inflammation, including: asthma, arthritis, heart disease and many others.
- Yeast and Bad Bacteria: The consumption of sugar is responsible for the overgrowth of yeast and bad bacteria in our guts.
- Cancer: Sugar consumption along with refined grains is associated with the increase breast cancer, and cancers of the colon and stomach.10,11
The Harm that Sugar Does
Sugar is an anti-nutrient that robs the body of essential vitamins and nutrients. It feeds the bad bacteria and yeast in our digestive tracks and is very addictive. While there is not a medical association on the planet that has come out against sugar consumption, the evidence of the harm that sugar does is growing daily.
Removing sugar from your diet is a good step toward better health and a longer life. Dr Olson has written a follow up article to help you learn how to overcome your sugar addiction
Dr. Scott Olson is a Naturopathic doctor, expert in alternative medicine, author and medical researcher. Spurred on by his patients’ struggles with sugar addiction, he was determined to discover just how addictive and harmful sugar can be and ways to overcome that addiction. The result of that study is his book Sugarettes, which describes the addictive qualities of sugar and the harm that sugar does to our bodies.
Dr. Scott also maintains a fantastic blog which highlights the latest in health and healthy living.
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2 Barclay AW, Petocz P, McMillan-Price J, et al: Glycemic index, glycemic load, and chronic disease risk–a meta-analysis of observational studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Mar;87(3):627-37.
3 Dickinson S, Brand-Miller J: Glycemic index, postprandial glycemia and cardiovascular disease. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2005 Feb;16(1):69-75.
4 Colaco CA.Sugar and coronary heart disease, a molecular explanation. J R Soc Med. 1993 Apr;86(4):243.
5 Goldin A, Beckman JA, Schmidt AM, et al: Advanced glycation end products: sparking the development of diabetic vascular injury. Circulation. 2006 Aug 8;114(6):597-605.
6 Misciagna G, De Michele G, Cisternino AM, et al: Dietary carbohydrates and glycated proteins in the blood in non diabetic subjects. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Feb;24(1):22-9.
7 Sanchez, A., et al. “Role of Sugars in Human Neutrophilic Phagocytosis,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Nov 1973;261:1180-1184.
8 Bernstein, J., et al. “Depression of Lymphocyte Transformation Following Oral Glucose Ingestion.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.1997;30:613.
9 Schulze MB, Hoffmann K, Manson JE, et al: Dietary pattern, inflammation, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Sep;82(3):675-84; quiz 714-5.
10 Potischman N, Coates RJ, Swanson CA ea al. Increased risk of early-stage breast cancer related to consumption of sweet foods among women less than age 45 in the United States. Cancer Causes Control. 2002 Dec;13(10):937-46.
11 Chatenoud L, La Vecchia C, Franceschi S et al. Refined-cereal intake and risk of selected cancers in italy. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Dec;70(6):1107-10.
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