The Call and Times, Column 32 – An Idea Most Will Sour On, But No Sugar…Not Even in Moderation

25 10 2015

(October 25, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

An Idea Most Will Sour On, But No Sugar…Not Even in Moderation

One of the great, shared human experiences is the love for all things sweet. Whether it’s finding some room for dessert after a big meal, or polishing off half of that leftover cake when you only really meant to have a bite, we’ve all been there. Sugar can take over our lives and diets almost as if it were addictive (spoiler: it is). There’s a good reason for this: sugar simply doesn’t exist in nature…at least, not in any significant amounts.

I want to introduce a concept which has drastically changed my own life, and which I believe will be heralded as the greatest and, arguably, one of the few, advancements in nutrition in the last century: the science of “evolutionary nutrition”, and the idea of an appropriate diet for our species.

I will talk a lot more about this idea in the future, and connect it to the naturalistic awareness that I hope I’ve fostered in this column. Here is a very brief introduction. We, like every living creature on Earth, evolved over a long period of time (in our case, from 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Age) to our present biological form. Over that time, our bodies became well-adapted to a particular type of diet, influenced largely by what edible, nourishing things were available in nature. Like cows, which suffer from health problems when eating corn and soy instead of the grass they are made to digest, human beings are the healthiest when we eat our natural diet.

With that in mind, back to what I said above: sugar (any concentrated source of carbohydrates, including grain flours) is very, very rare in nature. In the environment where we evolved, there was no way to act on a voracious sweet tooth, if such a thing even existed – no “cane sugar”, no “high-fructose corn syrup”, no grain flours, and even fruit, before we domesticated it, was small, sour, and very limited by season, more like berries than watermelons. Most of the carbohydrates that our ancestors ate came from these low-sugar fruits, nuts, and above all others, leafy greens. We were lucky to stumble upon a beehive once in a blue moon – and honey is so incredibly nutrient-dense, it’s a far cry from the refined sugars we eat today.

Yet, in what seems like a cruel joke, evolution has hard-wired us to seek out concentrated sources of sugar. Our bodies efficiently and easily store these sugars as body fat, which was a huge advantage when 10 pounds of stored energy meant the difference between death and survival in a particularly long winter. But the supply was limited, and our ancestors ate nowhere near as much sugar as we, in the modern Western world, eat on a daily basis. The best science we have proposes this huge change as the root of our widespread health problems. Let’s take a look at why that is.

On the molecular level, all carbohydrates (called “saccharides”) are simple sugar molecules, connected end-to-end like a chain. Every single carbohydrate we eat (with the exception of fiber and certain starches) is quickly broken down in our mouths and digestive tracts – the chain is unlinked. When they reach our intestines, they are already transformed into simple sugars – glucose and fructose being the most prevalent.

Glucose is passed directly into our bloodstreams, where it is called our “blood sugar”. When you eat carbohydrates that contain glucose (most of them), your blood sugar rises. In response, your pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, and secretes it into the blood in order to lower blood sugar. This allows your muscle cells to use the glucose as energy, and signals to your fat cells to convert the glucose into fat and, along with fat that was already in your bloodstream (triglycerides), store it into your fat cells – causing weight gain.

This cycle – eating sugar > spiking blood sugar > spiking insulin > crashing blood sugar – which, for many of us, happens three times a day, every day of our lives, is incredibly damaging to our bodies. It causes weight gain, as discussed above. It also creates that 2-hour hunger cycle (i.e. a breakfast of waffles at 8, and hungry again at 10) that we have come to consider normal, but which is actually very unhealthy.

Over time, this heightened insulin production causes problems. The beta cells in the pancreas, responsible for producing insulin, get worn down each time they have to do so. And each time insulin spikes, it makes our bodies less willing to accept the glucose, and in turn, it requires more insulin to do the same job – this is called insulin resistance. These two effects are intimately related. And because we are not made to eat anywhere near as much sugar as we all do, over time and for some people, they compound to make the body unable to produce sufficient insulin – an ailment called Type 2 Diabetes.

Also, some of the blood sugar gets converted to a gritty type of substance aptly-named AGEs, and deposited permanently into our body tissues. Over time, these compounds cause graying and sagging of the skin, graying of the hair, and other ailments that we simply blame on age.

Fructose is instead processed directly by our livers. Some is used for energy, but much is converted into fats (triglycerides) to be passed into the bloodstream – the same fat that glucose tells our bodies to store. Fructose has the irksome effect of making us more insulin resistant, and forms those damaging AGE chemicals 10 times faster than glucose does.

Sugar is also likely responsible for unhealthy levels of cholesterol in our blood. It decreases the “good cholesterol” (HDL) and raises the “bad cholesterol” (LDL) and unhealthy triglycerides, as mentioned above. In addition, it converts the LDL particles from the larger type, which is benign, to the smaller type, which is more easily chemically-damaged, and therefore is believed to cause blockages in our arteries. All of these effects are directly associated with the development of heart disease. If this science interests you, you can learn more by reading the work of science writer Gary Taubes, specifically in his books: “Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories”.

Lest you think it is worth avoiding all carbohydrates, I have good news for you. Fiber slows and minimizes the negative effects that glucose and fructose have on our bodies. So foods which couple smaller amounts of other carbohydrates with large amounts of fiber (you guessed it: all vegetables, but specifically leafy greens, low-sugar fruit, and nuts and seeds) still have a huge net benefit for our bodies.

Let’s look at three actions you can take to minimize the negative effect of sugar on your body. The first is to avoid obvious sources of sugar. These are dessert, candy, and table sugar, to name a few. Know the foods that are entirely refined carbohydrates, and don’t eat them.

The second is to avoid the sneaky, hidden sources. Any ingredient that ends in “-ose” is a sugar, and should probably be avoided (except cellulose, which is fiber). Sugars also hide under other names – starches, fruit juices and concentrates, corn syrup, and grain flours. The internet is awash with more complete lists of ingredients to avoid.

Finally, make the sugars you do eat count. Some of the healthiest foods we eat – like vegetables – get a majority of their Calories from sugars. In any food, when sugar is coupled with some combination of fiber, healthy fats, micronutrients, and antioxidants, these things often outweigh the negative effects that the sugars have on our bodies. Honey is a great example of this.

Put differently, here is my second rule to eating more healthfully: Get your carbohydrates from the best sources possible – vegetables, low-sugar fruits, nuts, seeds, and nutrient-dense sweeteners.

 

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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