Sugar: It Can Make You Sick
This is the second of two articles
on sugar and its effects on health.
In my last column I gave a bit of the history of sugar and discussed different forms sugar comes in. I also mentioned that high intakes of sugar can lead to a number of serious medical conditions. Let's take a look at a few of these conditions more closely.
Sugar and Tooth Decay
Although it is well known that sugar promotes tooth decay, it is less known that sugar also leads to periodontal disease by promoting the formation of plaque, a sticky conglomerate of bacteria and other factors which accumulates on the teeth within hours of brushing. Accumulations of plaque lead to gum inflammation, known as gingivitis. Studies indicate that sugar contributes to this inflammatory process. The situation is compounded because sugar also undermines the effectiveness of the white blood cells in destroying bacteria. The bacteria in tooth plaque also uses the sugar to produce an acid that causes the tooth decay.
Sugar and Acne
Sugar and other refined carbohydrates has been shown to increase sebum production in males with acne, leading to a worsening of the condition.
Sugar and Reduced Immunity
Sugar consumption seriously inhibits immune function. Almost 25 years ago, an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that ingesting as little as three ounces of sugar at one sitting significantly inhibits the ability of white blood cells, which are the heart of the immune system, in destroying bacteria and viruses. This applies at all sugars, including fruit juices. This immune suppression starts about 30 minutes after the ingestion of sugar and can last for up to five hours.
Other studies have also documented the immune system lowering effects of sugar, leaving us vulnerable to opportunistic infections which our immune systems would normally keep under control.
Sugar and Behavior Problems
Most pediatricians, parents, teachers and school nurses know that sugar ingestion can turn their sweet children into unguided missiles. Several research studies conducted over the years support these observations. One proposed mechanism for sugar's relationship to learning problems is that eating products that are rich in sugar and refined carbohydrates increase adrenaline levels. Adrenaline increases anxiety and irritability and reduces ability to concentrate. In people who are prone to panic attacks, sugar consumption has been shown to increase anxiety levels.
Sugar has a long and controversial relationship with Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactivity. In one large study conducted by the New York Institute of Child Development, the researchers found that 74 per cent of the "hyperactive" children they studied had an inability to properly digest and assimilate sugar and other refined carbohydrates. When they put these children on a diet low in sugar and other refined carbohydrates, their hyperactivity disappeared within three weeks.
Sugar abuse also has an insidious sociological connection. Stephen J. Schoenthaler, Ph.D., a specialist in sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice, criminology, nutrition and behavior, feels that behavior can be traced to a biochemical level in which lack of nutrients causes abnormal transmission of signals in the brain. These wayward signals alter blood glucose levels and neurotransmitter production. He concludes that sugar laden diets restrict the intake of whole foods that are dense in micronutrients. This lack of nutrient dense foods can lead to chronic malnutrition. Dr. Schoenthaler has found vitamin and mineral levels on blood tests to be predictive of potential violentbehavior.
The Tidewater Detention Homes in Virginia discovered that by greatly limiting the intake of sugar in adolescents' diets, the rate of antisocial behavior dropped 44 percent. They also noted that the assault rate dropped 82 percent. There were 77 percent fewer thefts and 52 percent fewer incidents of insubordination.
Sugar and Childhood Obesity
The dramatic increase in childhood obesity in the past 50 years is synchronistically linked to the increase in the use of refined sugar in prepared foods, especially breakfast cereals, some of which have a sugar content of 30 percent or more. Refined sugar adds empty calories, not nutrients, and rob the body of vital minerals and B-vitamins.
Artificial sweeteners are not the answer. In addition to their questionable chemical constituents (more on this in a future column), sugar consumption per person has dramatically increased since artificial sweeteners have come on the market. Since 1980 the average sugar consumption each year in the United States has increased 17 pounds per person. Nutrasweet didn't replace sugar. It increased the craving for sugar and the percentage of people overweight has also increased.
Sugar and Nutrient Deficiency
A few studies have been done testing the blood chemistry of people before and after ingesting sugar, and the findings may cause a bit of thought. They find that eating as little as two teaspoons of sugar causes the mineral contents of blood to increase or decrease, and that the synergistic balance of these minerals changes. For example, calcium will increase and phosphorus will decrease, which can lead to calcium toxicity. Toxic calcium may lead to kidney stones, gall stones, arthritis, hardening of the arteries and cataracts. Various trace elements, including manganese, are lowered in the blood after taking as little as two teaspoons of sugar.
Ingesting the average American quota of sugar also causes zinc, a valuable immune-system energizer, to be leeched from our bodies. Zinc depletion also causes us to gradually lose our sense of taste, leading us to add more flavoring to our meals in the form of sugar, causing taste sensation to further diminish and establishing a vicious cycle.
But perhaps the most damaging effect of sugar is that it supplies us with "empty calories." Sugar satisfies our hunger and provides no nutritional benefits, causing us to become malnourished. In one study, children who consumed the highest amounts of sugars consumed less protein and vitamin E as compared to those who consumed the lowest amount. Differences in the nutrient intake in the high and low group tended to be only seen in girls. When sugar intake was expressed in gram weights and not proportional to energy, energy intake and consumption of most nutrients was higher in those eating the high levels of sugar because of the higher intake of food in general. This work suggests that, if a diet is borderline in adequacy, then a high sugar diet might reduce the intakes of other nutrients to below recommended daily levels.
Sugar and Heart Disease
Recent studies conducted at the USDA's Human Nutrition Center have shown that people who have problems metabolizing carbohydrates can endanger their hearts if they consume the typical American's amount of sugar. Sugar can raise serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which can lead to atherosclerosis.
Sugar plays a part, but is not the sole cause of the development of coronary artery disease or diabetes. European and U.S. studies have shown that high sucrose consumption affects glucose (blood sugar) tolerance and can increase blood sugar, uric acid and insulin. Although the studies did not implicate sugar consumption as a sole cause of coronary artery disease, it did report that sucrose consumption can increase insulin, uric acid, glucose, estrogen and platelet abnormalities which can increase the risk to heart disease.
An article in the March 1980 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that excess sugar ingestion, especially in combination with excess salt consumption, can increase blood pressure. The article's authors believe that the sugar-induced hypertension is caused by a decrease in the kidney's filtration rate, resulting in salt and water retention.
Sugar and Cancer
A number of studies has shown the relationship between sugar consumption and increased death rate from breast cancer. Sugar has also been shown to increase the risk of contracting breast and colorectal cancers. A study performed on healthy people showed that when they were given additional sugar in their diets, the intestinal transit time decreased while the amount of fecal bile acids increased, two conditions that are consistent with an increased risk of colon cancer.
Sugar and PMS
There is a clear-cut relationship between the ingestion of sugar and refined carbohydrates and the severity of premenstrual syndrome. Carbohydrates raise blood levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which improves moods. Women feeling emotionally low may unconsciously increase their intake of refined carbohydrates in order to feel better. However, this carbohydrate binging causes fluid retention (bloating) and hypoglycemic-like cravings. Sugar also reduces the serum levels of magnesium, one of the nutrients used in treating PMS.
Sugar and Digestive Disturbances
Our digestive enzymes are mineral-dependent and a deficiency of certain minerals due to leeching by sugar may compromise our digestive system, causing undigested food to pass into the large intestine. When this happens the food may putrify, causing gas. Food putrifaction irritates the sensitive lining of our digestive tract, allowing some of the large undigested food particles to pass into the bloodstream, where it can wreck systemic havoc. These particles may go to the brain and cause dizziness, anger, depression, headaches and fatigue. If deposited in the joints, these molecules may cause stiffness and arthritis. In the skin, they may cause acne, eczema and psoriasis. Our immune systems will recognize these food molecules as undigested matter, and the white blood cells will seek to destroy them, leading to hypersensitive immune reactions and lowering the body's resistance to opportunistic infections.
In one study, a number of healthy individuals were given close to the daily dose of sugar and monitored. The authors of the study observed significant changes in subjective reports of watery or mushy stools and diarrhea during the high simple sugar diet, which may be related to higher osmotic load produced by the ingestion of small amounts of simple sugars.
There is mounting evidence that a diet high in refined carbohydrates may cause or exacerbate inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis. Swedish researchers have found that people who eat too much sugar may increase their risk of Crohn's disease. Interestingly, these studies show that people with Crohn's eat more sugar than people without the disease. Clinical symptoms improved in 40% of the patients after restriction of offending sugars. These results state sugar malabsorption may play a role in the development of inflammatory bowel disease.
Sugar and Headaches
Consuming a sweet snack just before bed causes the system of an even mildly hypoglycemic person to overreact to this sugar overload and drop the blood sugar level so low that the brain is deprived of the glucose it requires resulting in a morning headache.
Avoiding the ingestion of sugar is almost impossible. The various forms of sugar creep into our diet, even without our awareness. Sugar is added to almost every packaged food sold. The most popular breakfast cereals derive about 50 percent of their calories from sugar. Fruit yogurt has seven teaspoons of sugar. Sixty-four percent of the calories from ketchup are from sugar. 94 percent of the calories in cranberry sauce are from sugar. A one-ounce candy bar has seven teaspoons. Soda pop has nine teaspoons. A glass of Kool-Aid, 6 teaspoons. The list goes on and on.
In reality, a child does not need any sugar at all in their diet. They can get all they need from starch, protein and fat. Although excess sugar consumption can predispose the body to a host of serious medical conditions, the main nutritional concern with sugar is that it can replace other, more nutritious foods in a child's diet, leading to obesity and malnutrition.
What can you do about it?
1. Educate yourself. Start reading labels on prepared foods. Avoid processed foods.
2. Make your own sweets at home. For example, a healthy popsicle may be made at home by blending raw, seasonal fruit in a blender with a little Rice Dream and freezing in Tupperware-style popsicle makers which can be found at stores like K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Target. Involving your children in the making of the popsicles will give them ownership and pride in the final product. Search out your local health food store, internet and library for books and articles on healthy treats.
3. Learn how to provide a healthy diet. If a child is getting sufficient protein and enough nutrients to meet his/her energy demands, the desire for sugar will decrease.
4. Make "deals" with your children at Halloween or other times when an excess amount of sugar may flow into their lives. Offer to buy the candy or trade it for toys or "healthy" snacks.
5. Choose your battles carefully. A child will feel left out if they are not allowed to have a bit of sugar at birthday parties or special events. However, explain to them that special events do not mean everyday occurrences. It also helps to explain to a child that the job of a mom and dad is to love and protect the child so he/she grows to be strong and healthy. Limiting their sugar intake is one of the ways in which parents love and protect their children.