Recently I wrote out a list of the twenty-five things I do to stay healthy. Number nineteen was “I eat real sugar.” There has been a bit of controversy over this issue this week and so this article is a little bit of clarification on sugar and its substitutes.
I will start with regular old table SUGAR.
What happens in our bodies when we eat sugar? Well first off let me say that we eat sugar all day, every time we consume a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates come in the form of breads, pastas, grains, rice, vegetables, and fruits. Most of these sugars are great! Someday I will discuss in more detail the ills of white flour. For now, let’s just concentrate on refined sugar.
Refined sugar has no nutrients at all so when we digest it, the body needs to “borrow” nutrients from other foods we have eaten in order to break the sugar down into glucose. This borrowing is not the greatest, considering we need those nutrients to break down the other foods we have eaten. I might actually call it more like stealing considering they don’t ever give them back. Think of all the goodness nutrients you are eating, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, etc.; sugar is stealing those for its own selfish digestion. What about your bones? They still need those nutrients.
Sugar has a high glycemic index, which means it digests VERY quickly into the bloodstream. That’s the reason your afternoon coca cola gives you such pep. After that soda, your blood-glucose levels are very high and so your pancreas sends out insulin in order to calm down those glucose levels. This calming down has a tremendous drain on the body. Diabetes II can happen when your body has been calming you down for so long that it can’t actually secrete insulin anymore. Insulin is necessary in order for the glucose to be used for everyday functions such as picking up your handbag or remembering your phone number.
That is the shortest possible explanation of sugar, ever. Hopefully, though, you can now see that if we eat too much of the good thing we can cause massive damage to our bodies, not to mention gain weight. If we are using all our nutrients to break down our candy bar, how will we digest the rest of our food?
Now on to the fake stuff. The three most popular are Aspartame (nutra sweet), Saccharin (sweet and low), and Sucralose (splenda).
If you research these three substitutes, you will come up with a multitude of opinions and research. They are all the focus of much controversy. Some studies say it’s great and others say you will die a terrible disease from it. Sugar substitutes have been linked to cancer, MS, lupus, headaches, depression, bloating, rashes, loss of vision, diarrhea, anxiety, and a loss of good bacteria. Depending on whom you want to believe, it is either the cure-all answer to avoiding sugar or the devil incarnate. There is also controversy over who funded these studies as well. There are studies showing no long term negative effects from all three of these substitutes; however, if they were funded by the company selling them, how can we believe it? The most controversial substitute (Saccharin) has only been around since the late 60s and initially the FDA did not approve it because it was considered toxic. We as a society have not been eating sugar substitutes long enough to know the long-term effects. There have also been studies done that show that eating artificial sugar mimics sugar and insulin production without the pay-off thereby making the body crave even more sugar. This could lead to weight gain and sugar binges. This is why they make me uncomfortable, they are just too unknown. I recommend staying away from Aspartame, Saccharin, and Sucralose.
Now onto the two sugar substitutes I think are best: Xylitol and Stevia. Stevia comes from a South American plant and has been used in South America for over twenty years with no negative implications. It is currently not FDA approved as an additive but you can purchase it in packets at the supermarket. (I don’t know how much FDA approval is worth, considering they approved saccharin.)
Xylitol occurs naturally in some fruits and plants. The kind sold on the market in the U.S. is extracted from birch bark. Xylitol has been approved and you can find it in very few foods and in chewing gum at the health food store. One of the benefits is that it is healthy for the teeth. Now that is certainly a 360 from sugar.
These two substitutes do not require insulin to be broken down and therefore do not change our blood-sugar levels. This means you will not get the sugar spike nor the inevitable come down. As of right now the only side effect either of these may have (according to all the scientific research) is possible diarrhea, if consumed in excessive amounts.
As far as the ability of a sugar substitute to aid in weight loss or stop weight gain here are my opinions.
If you are trying to lose weight and you switch from drinking Coke to drinking Diet Coke, I believe that is helpful and I think it is probably a good idea. However, the goal is to not drink soda every day. Make your soda a treat not a necessity.
Low-cal yogurts: Eating yogurt is great and you can find yogurts with real sugar that have the same amount of calories (or only twenty or so more) as the fake sugar ones. I think those are a better idea.
Candy: My opinion is that if you eat one piece of real candy as opposed to one piece of fake candy you will be more satisfied and less likely to eat the whole bag. However, this is so personal. If you are going to eat twenty pieces regardless and you are overweight, than possibly the lesser of two evils is to eat the twenty pieces of non-sugar candy. My advice in this situation would be to only buy bulk candy and just purchase one or two pieces.
Coffee: Personal preference. I love stevia or xylitol in my coffee but I can’t always find those at the local Starbucks, so I switch off, sometimes stevia, sometimes sugar. I happen to like the raw. brown kind, however; it still does the same thing to your blood-glucose levels as white sugar.
Health: If you are trying to be healthy, you are probably not eating very many sugar or sugar substitute items, anyway. Honey, raw brown sugar, agave nectar and the rest all do the same thing to the blood-glucose levels in your body. They are empty calories. Just because something started out natural doesn’t mean the process by which it ended up in a jar on your counter kept it natural. That being said, I personally think agave nectar (from the cactus plant) or honey (from the bees in your neighborhood) is a good alternative to sugar (still in moderation), however both of them have more calories than sugar and they have a higher incidence of tooth decay. There is no win. If you are going to buy substitutes for your coffee or tea I recommend stevia or xylitol.
So basically it’s all bad for you. Real sugar is no savior and the fake stuff is, well, fake. Ideally we would all get our sweets from apples and pears and berries. That is the ultimate goal. If we stopped eating sugar and substitute altogether we would eventually start to taste the rich full sweetness of a piece of fruit. However, I am realistic, a believer in moderation and I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so I understand the desire for a piece of chocolate cake. Just make your cake eating a once in a while activity.
So, that is my advice. I think that to eat real sugar is the best, but only sparingly.
If that is unreasonable for you and you have issues with overeating, sugar binges or obsessive concerns about not eating any sugar, I recommend talking to your doctor, nutritionist or therapist.
Be good to your body, it’s where you live.