Updated: Jul 1, 2020
I was treading on thin ice when I reached the part of the workshop on sugar. Cuba is known for its sugar production and Cubans love sugar. Not that I blame them...the sweetness it adds to life is enjoyed around the world and the center of many celebrations. For many years, the U.S. was one of the main consumers of Cuban sugar. In fact, Hershey’s chocolate used to be produced with sugar from Cuba. Milton Hershey operated several sugar factories and built a train line to move product from the countryside to the ports in Cuba to bring to the U.S. Currently, the sugar economy in Cuba is not what it once was, but sugarcane fields still line the countryside and the love for sugar continues to run strong in the blood of Cubans. During my time there, I ran in the sugarcane fields, passed by several trains filled with caña waiting to be processed, observed a sugar factory in action, and enjoyed some delicious guarapo - sugar cane juice - and chewing the raw sugar cane after a long run. Yet here I was, about to talk about the importance of reducing their sugar intake - a conversation akin to asking someone from Wisconsin to give up cheese. It is a wonder they still ask me to come back :)
Our bodies actually need sugar to function. Glucose (sugar) is the ‘gasoline’ that fuels our cells throughout our bodies. The biggest consumer of glucose is our brain. Our brain cells require two times the energy needed by all the other cells in the body; roughly 10% of our total daily energy requirements. Brain functions such as thinking, memory, and learning are closely linked to glucose levels and how efficiently the brain uses this fuel source.
If there isn’t enough glucose in the brain, for example, neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers, are not produced and communication between neurons breaks down. This fact has been the driver for those commercials about being “hangry”, yet the solution offered in these commercials is a major player in the physical and mental health crises the world faces - refined, processed sugars.
Natural Vs Processed Sugar
Sugar is found in many foods and many forms. Whole fruits, vegetables, and other natural sources have natural forms of sugar that generally are good for our bodies. The sugar in these foods is paired with great-for-your body things like fiber and vitamins and your body processes them much more slowly. Processed sugar typically lacks these additional ‘structures’ so it breaks down more quickly and goes straight to your bloodstream, causing many unpleasant effects on the body as a whole.
Added sugars- cane sugar, refined sugar, fructose, artificial sugars, xylitol, stevia, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple sugar, agave - are just some of the forms of processed sugars. In moderate amounts, some of these added sugars- honey, maple syrup, and cane sugar- are ok for your body, but the question is what equals a ‘moderate amount’ and why do people struggle with this moderation?
Where to Begin?
To answer this question, we need to look a litter deeper into the history of sugar consumption, forms of sugar, and what sugar does to our bodies. If we truly want to go deeper, we’d also study the politics of sugar, the slave trade, and profit, but we don’t have time for all of that in this lesson. For now, let's stick with some eye-opening statistics on consumption, the most destructive players, and what research is telling us about the impacts of sugar across our body systems.
New research has shown that chronic consumption of added sugar dulls the brain’s mechanism for telling you to stop eating. It does so by reducing activity in the part of the brain which is responsible for throwing up the red “full” flag that prevents you from gorging. The more sugar you consume, the more this area of the brain slows its functioning. Additionally, when it comes to sugar, your brain has an especially strong dopamine response. Dopamine is a ‘feel-good’ hormone so the more sugar we consume, the less our “red flag” signals, and the more our brain says “I want more” which can lead to cravings, a higher tolerance for sugar and eating more to get that same dopamine effect. The body's response to sugar is largely parallel to the body’s response to those struggling with substance abuse disorders. Sugar addiction is real and some even suggest that sugar addiction is even harder to break than cocaine addiction.
Let’s look into some of the biggest culprits of the sugar crisis.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
High fructose corn syrup is the production of syrup from cornstarch. HFCS manufacturing occurred during a period in U.S. history when sugar was becoming more expensive and corn cheaper, thus creating larger profits for producers. HFCS is reported to be 200 times sweeter than table sugar, shifting our pallets to desire more and more of it. Sadly, for consumers, it contains more calories per teaspoon - 20 vs 15 - than table sugar. Additionally, research has shown links between HFCS and increased liver fat which contributes to obesity and other diseases. HFCS is a relatively new addition to the human diet, yet it has seemed to find its way into many foods found in the United States. Don’t believe me, go through the grocery store (or your own pantry), and see how many unsuspecting products contain it!
When considering sources of sugar, most people think about foods such as soda, candy, and sweet desserts (cakes, pies, and cookies), but they often forget about the more subtle forms of sugar such as flours and pasta. These are other major players in the sugar conundrum. Most products made from flour come from refined sources. A reﬁned grain is a term used to refer to grains that are not whole because they are missing one or more of their three key parts - thus lacking in their full nutritional potential. The average American now eats 10 servings of refined grains each day.
So What’s the Big Deal About Refined Grains?
The Whole Grains Council has some great information on refined versus whole grain flours but in short, I’ll say that refined grains are made from the least nutrient-dense form of wheat (or whatever grain is being used). Hence the product you are eating may fill you up but there is little to no nutrition added. As these refined grains enter your system, they convert to sugars, spike your blood sugar, and then send you crashing. Did you know that two slices of bread made with whole-wheat flour raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar and higher than many candy bars? This is the reason you fill full quickly when eating a piece of bread or bowl of cereal, but almost as quickly you find yourself hungry again...and craving more bread and pasta.
It’s Time for a Change
Now more than ever, we need to be conscious of how much sugar is in our diets. We are in a crisis, not just due to COVID -19, but as a result of the shifts of our global food system over the past 50 years. If you did not have one before, maybe this pandemic is your wake up call. Hopefully, this article has shed a little more light on why we shouldn’t look so sweetly upon sugar. I know this is a tough one to change - whether you’re a sweets person or a bread person (or both) - but if you start making small changes, in time it will be easier.
What Can You Do?
Is there one step you can take today towards a positive change?
Eliminating soda (not replacing it for diet soda - I didn’t get to talk about artificial sugars, but these are even more damaging on your system than other forms of sugar).
Switching to sprouted grains.
Choosing real fruit instead of candy.
Whatever it is for you, find one thing to start with ...and start!
Your body will thank you for it!
While eating sweets should be limited, I hope it does not stop you from being ‘sweet’! Remember to connect with others and spread healthy forms of sweetness in the world. Send me a note and let me know how you are doing. Your emails, calls, and texts are sweeter than honey!