The benefits of sugar is not something we rarely hear. However, we seem to be bombarded with anti sugar articles, memes and advice. We see it on social media. We see it in the lineup at the grocery store. We get told by officials that they will be taxing soft drinks because of the obesity epidemic. Not surprising, I frequently hear from clients about the harmful effects of sugar (sucrose). To be clear, I’m referring to refined sugar and not starchy foods. The sugar added to your coffee/tea or what you find in certain sport and soft drinks. The additional sugar that is added to make food tasty and sweet.
Blaming a certain food for our health problems is not something new. Saturated fat has been targeted. Salt has been targeted. Cholesterol has been targeted. Ask yourself if that has made seismic public health improvements? Has the overall health of society improved?
Sugar is the latest to come under fire. Blaming a certain food for our health struggles can be a slippery slope. The responsibility needle can shift. The shift is from the individual to the food itself. If the food is problematic will feelings of guilt and shame arise when you do have that food? Does this create a healthy relationship with food?
“I can’t stop myself. It’s addictive. “
“If I could just stop eating sugar.”
“I think cutting out sugar is only way I can lose weight!”
But is sugar really the problem? Breaking sugar down, it contains about 50% fructose and 50% glucose. You may be surprised to know that is basically what fruit contains! It doesn’t have the nutrients and fibre fruit has but it does exactly what fruit does to the body. Nothing ominous. Nothing harmful. Will you gain weight if you eat too much? Yep. But you can say that about protein and fat too but sugar is presently in the crosshairs.
When I mention benefits I get a blank stare from clients.
Sugar as a nutrient
A nutrient can be defined as a “substance used in an organism’s metabolism which must be taken in from its environment. They are used to build and repair tissues, regulate body processes and are converted to and used as energy.” This is exactly what sugar does! When sugar (carbs) are removed from a person’s diet the body then breaks down tissue to convert to sugar (glycogen). Breaking down your own tissue to feed oneself is a survival mechanism and not one for optimal health.
Sugar as an Energy Source
What do you reach for when energy is low? The top answer on the family feud board would be sugar or a form of sugar. It’s instinctive. It’s needed. It’s basic survival.
Glucose is the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. The brain is heavily dependent on sugar. Thinking, learning and memory are heavily influenced by how efficient the brain uses blood sugar. When the body is low in this fuel source from low carb diets or under eating it will be put under stress and the stress hormones will raise. Yes, it is true the body can use fat as a fuel source but is it optimal? When the body is depleted of glucose it raises stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and other inflammatory processes.
I find it amusing that many health professionals promote the glycemic index but not fruit juice or table sugar which has a lower index than breads and rice.
Increasing carbs can be a hard sell when the mirror and scale are heading in a direction a person desires.
Vital for metabolism
The liver is responsible for the storage of sugar (glycogen). Abstaining from carbs (sugar) will ‘lower the liver tanks’ to put it one way.
“The liver provides about 70% of the active thyroid hormone by converting T4 (thyroxine into T3. It can only do this when it has adequate glucose.” Ray Peat PHD.
Sugar is easy to digest
One of the more common issues I hear from clients regarding their health are digestive problems. This could be gas, bloating, constipation or stomach pain. In my 24 years of experience I would put above ground veggies at the top for being problematic. Usually raw, but cooked ones can have same effect. This is because of the cellulose in the vegetable which is in all above ground veggies but not below ground.
I’ve yet to hear someone complain about the extra sugar or honey added to their food causing a problem. Not to get too far off topic but hopefully you can see the irony here. The more complex the carbohydrate (like beans, whole grains and veggies) the more the system works to break it down. Table sugar is a simple sugar and easily digested. It also has been refined and the refining process tends to remove the allergenic contaminants and allows easier digestion.
There is a reason we have those taste buds. In regard to our evolutionary ancestors, eating food that was sweet would greatly benefit our chances of survival. The sugar encourages eating and even a small amount added to some fruit, or yoghurt will increase the flavour and the likelihood of eating something nutritious. Sugar has been given a bad name due to the fact it is in things like donuts, pastries, cakes which usually contain cheap oils which is really what should be avoided.
Fuels the Thyroid
As mentioned above, the liver is heavily responsible for thyroid hormone. If the liver doesn’t have enough fuel then the thyroid won’t function properly. If you know anything about the thyroid then you will understand its responsible for almost every function in the body. Just some symptoms of low thyroid include, hair loss, weight gain, poor energy, dry skin, depression, constipation, mental fog, heart disease, mental clarity plus much, much more.
If you understand how sugar is vital to every cell then you’ll see how avoidance is not an ideal option.
What do you reach for after a mentally challenging day? It could be something salty like chips but commonly it’s a form of sugar. It may be chocolate, ice cream, candy, soft drinks or the ever popular alcohol. Alcohol may provide some phychological short term benefit but it will block health goals if a regular habit. The reason we reach for something sweet is that the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol can be lowered with sugar. This is the fundamental principle of my book on sleep. Controlling the hormones that affect heart rate is vital when trying to get to sleep and stay asleep.
Can you get your sugar needs through dairy, fruit and fruit juices? Absolutely!
But everyday is not the same. We are dynamic creatures. Some days are mentally and physically more demanding than others. Some nights we don’t get the sleep we need. Some days the weather is damp and cold. Your calorie app doesn’t know you were stuck in traffic, missed your dental appointment and your kid is being bullied in school. Those days you’ll need more energy to function and we just discussed a great source of energy.