Sweet, Sweet Sugar

Forget fat. Fat is good for you. Fat is necessary for you to survive, and to thrive.

Forget saturated fat. Saturated fat is good for you. Saturated fat is necessary for you to survive, and to thrive.

Forget cholesterol. Cholesterol is good for you. Cholesterol is necessary for you to survive, and to thrive.

Forget them. They won’t give you a heart attack. They won’t make you fat.

Whaaaaat?? I know. Nutritional blasphemy, enough to send me to the second or third level of hell at least. But don’t worry about my little pink toes getting singed while the USDA pokes me with its pitchfork. I’ll explain in a later post why fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol are good for you, and you can believe me or not, consume them or not. Just forget them for now.

The real bad guy is sugar.

Sugar is a broad name which refers to a class of sweet-flavored carbohydrates classified into two groups: monosaccharides, or simple sugars, and disaccharides. Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides consist of two monosaccharides and include sucrose, or table sugar, maltose, and lactose.

God damn that was boring. I’ll try to keep that stuff to a minimum, so for our purposes we’ll mostly discuss glucose and fructose.

Before I start dragging sugar through the mud, let me first start by saying that glucose is the fuel of life. It provides energy to all of our cells, and while most cells can also burn fat for energy, our brain cells can only use glucose.

That said, we don’t need very much of it.

When glucose enters the bloodstream it stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin, which in turn tells the brain that we’re metabolizing energy and gives us a sated feeling. That feeling of fullness is crucial as it prevents us from overeating. This “insulin response” to glucose is used in calculating a particular food’s glycemic index.

The glycemic index is widely misunderstood and grossly misrepresented by food manufacturers, and I’ll be devoting a separate post to it. For now, just know that if a food label trumpets a low glycemic index value it’s probably hiding something sinister—like agave sweetener, which is 90% fructose (i.e. 90% poison).

Which foods contain glucose? Any food that we popularly call “carbs” or “starches.” Cereal grains (wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, rye, quinoa, etc.), bread, pasta, potatoes, etc. Fruits and vegetables also have glucose, as do refined sugars and alcohol. Of all these choices, fruits and vegetables are the only sources of glucose that you actually need, and should be the foundation of all your meals. Cereal grains, even “whole grains,” can be useful for physical performance in small quantities, but are not necessary for good health.

Whaaaaat?? Whole grains aren’t good for me? I know. Don’t worry about it for now, that’s a whole other post. Whole grains aren’t really bad for you, they just tend to give us more calories (glucose) than we need. What is bad for you, and will slowly kill you, is fructose.

Fructose is worse than just empty calories. Consider ethanol, or alcohol, and all the bad stuff you’ve been told it does to your liver. Fructose wrecks similar havoc on your liver, and doesn’t even give you the courtesy of a warm, sweet buzz or a lowering of your inhibitions. That’s because ethanol is just fermented sugar, and retains much of the same chemical composition. Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, and while it’s there it creates VLDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and excessive consumption can lead to heart disease and fatty liver. And because fructose is a sadistic son of a bitch, and likes to kick us when we’re down, it doesn’t suppress our appetites so we just keep on stuffing our fat faces not realizing we were full thirty minutes ago.

Oh my god! What about fruit?! I’ve got to stop eating fruit?! If it’s got the fructose it’s gonna give me the heart attack and the fatty liver but before that the fatty ass! Relax, baby. Fruit is still good for you. Yes, it has a small amount of naturally occurring fructose (as well as glucose), but it also has vitamins, minerals, and perhaps most importantly, fiber. And fiber is the key to counteracting fructose.

Fiber slows down your digestion, giving your body time to metabolize whatever sugars you’ve consumed. Just like my Irish grandmother told me when I was four years old—never drink on an empty stomach—the same rule applies for sugar. And while I can’t remember actually seeing my grandmother eat anything, just sipping at tumblers of Jameson, the theory is still sound. A spoon full of table sugar (sucrose) is fifty percent glucose and fifty percent fructose. The majority of the glucose is absorbed by the small intestine and transported to your cells to be converted into energy. This process causes your body to produce insulin, to stop burning stored body fat, and tells your brain that you’re full. The remainder is metabolized by the liver and converted into fat cells. The more glucose you consume the more fat cells your body produces—and the more fat your body stores around your waistline.

Fructose is absorbed by the small intestine and transported directly to the liver, because your cells can’t use fructose as energy. Your liver starts working overtime to metabolize the fructose, most of which is converted into fat cells. Liver metabolism of fructose also creates triglycerides, which raise your VLDL (bad) cholesterol. Because your cells can’t burn fructose for fuel, your body does not produce an insulin response, and your appetite is not suppressed.

Ahhhh! No more… my brain hurts… right where I do my thinking… produce, doesn’t produce, burns, doesn’t burn, if I eat them together then what the hell is happening?

Eating things together is exactly the point. Fructose is safe is small quantities and with other nutrients, as in fruit. We crave sweet foods because sweet foods in nature, like fruit, are nutritionally rich. The problem lies in fructose that has been processed, condensed, and added to food in order to make it taste better. Our bodies aren’t equipped to handle such high concentrations of fructose, or any sugar for that matter, and it does bad things to us. Like make us fat. I mean, really, liver schmiver—as long as I look good, right?

So, some rules for recognizing and avoiding sneaky added sugars, or “free sugars,” so that we can better control our sugar intake and maybe actually enjoy some sugar on our own terms without it killing us, or worse, making us fat.

Because sugar is really, really delicious.  I mean, I really get misty when I think about all the time and energy I’ve put into my relationship with sugar, only to find out how that bitch has betrayed me over and over, and how I’m always on the verge of forgiving her and taking her back.  God I love her…

I know I’m trying to discourage everyone from eating this stuff, but damn that looks good…

  1. All Sugar is the Same.

    White, brown, turbinado, evaporated cane juice, honey—even fair trade organic raw honey. Any free sugar you add to your food or tea or coffee or whatever is the same, and thinking turbinado sugar or honey is somehow healthier than refined white sugar is absurd. Honey is refined sugar—refined by bees. I suppose raw honey is better than processed, since it’s only been refined once, but once it hits your bloodstream it behaves the same as table sugar.

  2. Don’t Trust Front Labels.

    Natural, All Natural, 100% Natural, Natural Sugar, Low Sugar, Reduced Sugar, No Sugar Added—anything printed on the front label is there to get you to buy that particular product. None of it has any legal definition. If something says “no sugar added,” it probably means that there’s already a super dose of sugar in it. Sweetened With Fruit Juice is another one to watch out for. Concentrated fruit juice has more sugar in it than soda, without food companies having to add anything more.

  3. Reduced Fat Usually Means Added Sugar.

    Fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar makes you fat. Reduced fat peanut butter tastes disgusting, so food manufacturers add a ton of sugar to make up for it. The result is a product with more calories that is less satisfying.

  4. Pick It Up and Turn It Around.

    1. Look at the Nutritional Information Label. If something has more than five grams of sugar per serving, seriously consider another option. If something has more than ten grams of sugar per serving, put it the hell back on the shelf.

    2. Look at the Ingredients. Look for added sugar in particular. Does bread need sugar? Hell no, but ninety-five percent of bread sold in the grocery store has added sugar. Especially Honey Wheat. If you don’t want to get fat, don’t eat Honey Wheat. They probably didn’t really add honey to it anyway.

  5. High Fructose Corn Syrup is as Bad as You’ve Heard it is.

    And worse. It’s the cause of the obesity epidemic in this country. If you see it in the ingredient list, put it the hell back on the shelf. Food companies add it to everything, so look at everything in your cart even if it seems ridiculous. Processed meats, frozen berries, bread, cereal—look at anything that comes in a box or a plastic bag and you’ll be hard pressed to not find it.

  6. Add Your Own Sweet.

    Greek yogurt is an excellent source of protein. Flavored Greek yogurt is insanely high in sugar, as much as 35 grams per serving. Plain Greek yogurt is hard to choke down. The solution—buy the plain, then add a tablespoon of jam or fruit preserve (a brand that has less that ten grams of sugar per serving). Or throw in a handful of berries and almonds.

  7. Protein and Fiber are Your Friends.

    Whenever possible, which is almost always, consume whatever sugar you’re going to have AFTER you’ve eaten some protein and fiber. Preferably twenty minutes after. Protein and fiber slow down your digestion, giving your body time to process sugars before they raise your insulin levels too high. Your body will not burn stored fat while your insulin is up.

  1. Don’t Have Sugar on an Empty Stomach.

    A close second to High Fructose Corn Syrup in the obesity blame game is the Frappachino, the Mochachino, and any other Thousand-Calorie-Chino people suck down on their way to work. As a rough guideline you can count on between a third and half of all sugar calories to be converted to fat and sent straight to your ass.

  2. Booze is Sugar.

    Some genius caveman figured out how to take the sugar from fruit, grain, and honey and make it even better. Better as in a better experience, not better for you. True, a moderate amount of alcohol has some health benefits, but a moderate amount is less than you think it is. And the ethanol has the same effect on your insulin levels as its non-fermented cousins. So have your wine or scotch after dinner, not while you’re cooking it (or waiting for it), and keep it under two servings a day. A serving of liquor is 1.5oz, or one shot glass. A serving of beer is ½ a pint. And most wine bottles are 750ml, which is five servings. The way I pour I’m lucky to get three glasses out of a bottle of wine.

    Organic, gluten-free, light–that must mean it’s good for me.

    Mysterious and unnamed ancient cultures used this stuff 5,000 years ago. Wonder where they are now…


  1. Agave Sweetener is Poison.

    High fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose. Agave Sweetener is 90% fructose. Agave Sweetener is promoted as being safe for diabetics, because of its low glycemic index. Agave sweetener has a low glycemic index because your body doesn’t recognize it until it reaches your liver, and we’ve gone over what happens then. From now on just think of agave sweetener as high fructose cactus syrup, and put it the hell back on the shelf.

  1. Avoid juice, juicers, and juicing.

    Juice is a super dose of the worst part of fruit (fructose) with the best part of fruit (fiber) removed. An orange is good for you; thirty oranges condensed into a glass with the fiber strained out has more sugar than a can of soda. Vegetable juice has less sugar, but still no fiber. Just eat your fruits and vegetables. Juicing at home has the same problems, mainly that the particulate matter is strained out of the juice. Smoothies are fine, since the fiber is remains in the blender, but if you’re buying your smoothie from some shop, make sure they don’t use fruit juice or added sugar.

4 comments on “Sweet, Sweet Sugar

  1. Jeff says:

    Hi Patrick

    A lot of great information.

    My question has to do with quantity or the levels of sugar that I incorporate into my daily eating routine – should I aim for so many grams per day or less? I know that in terms of protein, I should try and digest a certain percentage of my body weight per day in order to keep my muscles happy. Specific to the topic of ‘sugar,’ should I aim to only consume a certain amount per day? For example, I add a tsp of white sugar to my coffee. Should I attempt to break free of this habit and go cold turkey? I know that this is not a simple question but I am not sure what level of sugar use is advisable for me (a middle-aged man) given, as you point out, manufacturers have already added buckets of sugar to almost all processed foods, and therefore, in attempting to limit / reduce my sugar intake I need to take note of packaging labels and I guess that would also include how much I add to my coffee (I guess that I could always reduce the number of cups per day thereby reducing my sugar intake but I do like my coffee).

    • Aim for less than ten teaspoons of free sugar a day. That’s about what’s in a can of soda. That includes both sugar added for you and sugar you add yourself. So if you want sugar in your coffee, just subtract sugar from somewhere else. Like the muffin you were planning on eating while you sip your coffee.

  2. Jeff says:

    I did an experiment to figure out what 10tsps of sugar looks like and it makes a comically small pyramid … hard to believe something so small can cause so much dialogue.

    Back to the matter at hand, I don’t use all that much sugar and have been watching my intake for a while now (and checking those labels). My next question has to do with ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial.’ I have not introduced artificial sweeteners into my diet since I believed them to be ‘un-natural.’ Is that a valid argument or is there some credibility into using some of the artificial products such as splenda or aspartame to replace my use of sugars?

    • Artificial sweeteners make me think of the ’80s–Crystal Light, Boy George, Miami Vice. I think we’ve all consumed enough of them. Forget about replacing sugar, and take steps to get over your cravings for it.

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