You’ve probably heard a fair bit about sugar lately, and how bad it is for our health. There are even dedicated programs online to help you quit sugar for good – but do you really need to quit it? Let’s take a look at the role of sugar in our diet and whether or not we actually need it.
Sugar turns into glucose when it’s digested. High-sugar foods such as lollies, soft drink and even fruit cause a huge spike in blood glucose levels are we eat them, and our body then produces a hormone called insulin to help reduce the amount of glucose in our bloodstream and turn the sugar into energy that we can use to get through our day. Usually when our blood sugar levels spike, say for example after a high-sugar food, we might feel really energetic, really happy and sometimes even a little bit anxious or jittery. Once insulin comes along to get rid of all the glucose from our bloodstream, our blood sugar levels will drop and suddenly we’re left feeling flat, tired and moody. You might have heard this explained as 3.30itis, when you’re feeling flat and tired and reaching for something sweet – but it is often simply due to imbalanced blood sugar levels.
High sugar intake can cause insulin resistance and may eventually lead to diabetes. The pancreas is responsible for producing and secreting insulin, and if it is overworked due to a high sugar intake (which increases your need for insulin) then your pancreas may start to over-produce or under-produce insulin. This leads to moderate to severe blood sugar imbalances and can manifest in symptoms such as feeling shaky, anxious, light-headed and/or cranky between meals. Your body may also become less sensitive to the hormone insulin if it is overproduced, meaning your pancreas has to produce even more insulin to be able to process and transport glucose – and so this negative cycle can down spiral, causing further insulin resistance and placing more strain on the pancreas to produce insulin. Type II diabetes occurs when the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin to manage blood sugar levels – sometimes the pancreas becomes unable to produce any insulin at all!
Insulin resistance and excessive sugar intake leads to weight gain, and can make weight loss very difficult. When sugar is eaten in excess, our bodies are unable to use all of that glucose for energy and the excess glucose is sent to the liver, where it is converted to a different form of glucose and stored in your body as fat tissue. Weight gain can then be very difficult if insulin resistance is present, as your body’s resistance to the hormone insulin means that your body converts more and more glucose into fat cells rather than processing it as energy.
However, glucose is necessary for brain function. That’s right, your brain NEEDS glucose to function. Without glucose – say for example if you went on a low-carb diet and weren’t getting enough sugar – your brain will actually send you extremely strong cravings for sugar to ensure that it is getting the glucose it needs. Glucose is the energy that your brain uses to complete all of its extremely complex processes that keep us living, breathing and moving. Without glucose, we would literally become brain-dead. So don’t quit sugar altogether.
There are some forms of sugar you should definitely quit. Refined white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are two of the worst inclusions in any diet. Both of these products place an incredible amount of strain on your pancreas and your entire body, and both contribute absolutely no nutrition or benefit to your health. These forms of sugar contribute to weight gain, fatigue, poor liver health, diminished eye health, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as being linked to higher rates of stress, anxiety, depression and even some types of cancer. Opt for raw, unrefined sugar, brown sugar, honey and other natural sweeteners rather than the highly refined sugars and syrups. Check nutritional labels to determine what sugar is in your food, but basically all processed foods will use the cheapest, nastiest forms of sugar available – so opt for homemade treats over store-bought ones!
To summarise, sugar itself is not the devil. It’s when sugar is processed and refined to remove all its minerals and nutrients that it becomes a bigger problem, and consuming any form of sugar in excess is not ideal for your overall health. However, we are all individuals and some people can handle more sugar in their diet than others, so listen to your body and if you are noticing any of the symptoms of imbalanced blood sugar that I mentioned above, you might want to limit your sugar intake (regardless of the type or form of sugar). Remember, your brain NEEDS glucose to function, so don’t quit all sugar & carbs! And plus, fruit is so darn delicious and good for you, it’d be a shame to miss out on your favourite fruit every now and then.
So find what works for you as an individual, be sure to give your brain enough glucose to survive, and stay away from those nasty refined sugars and corn syrups.