Sugar is confusing. Some say sugar is bad while others say it’s okay. In this article Dr. Carla Hightower, M.D. debunks 3 myths about sugar, so you can make the right choices and care for your health.
Myth #1: Sugar Causes Diabetes
Sugar does not directly cause diabetes. Instead, a fatty diet, especially animal fat, creates a problem called insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes). Insulin resistance is an impaired response of the body to insulin, resulting in high blood sugar levels. When we eat too much fat, it accumulates in our muscles and causes insulin resistance.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s okay for us to start eating a lot of refined sugar. Refined sugar is rapidly absorbed in the digestive tract and raises the blood glucose too quickly. Diabetics experience high blood glucose after eating refined sugar. Since their bodies cannot lower blood glucose, their kidneys try to force it out. This is why diabetics urinate frequently and feel thirsty.
Sugar is known to wreak havoc in the mouth where it feeds bacteria that cause dental plaque and tooth decay. The rest of the body is also at risk because sugar creates a state of inflammation that damages tissues, including our blood vessels. Inflamed blood vessels form cholesterol plaques that increase the risk for heart attack. In 2014, a major study showed that sugar increases the risk of dying from heart disease [Ref 1].
For all of these reasons, the World Health Organization says to limit our sugar to 6 teaspoons a day. Considering that a single can of sweetened soda contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, most Americans are not meeting these recommendations.
Myth #2: Natural Sugar is Better than Cane Sugar
Many people mistakenly believe “natural sugar” and juices are better, but they are not. Honey, raw sugar, brown sugar, evaporated cane juice, fructose, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, agave, and maple syrup are all just different names for sugar.
These added sugars lack any nutritional value. Also, they create a “sugar crash” in the afternoon that makes you sluggish and unproductive. Eventually, the empty calories add up and make you gain weight.
Let me clarify, not all sugar is bad. Unprocessed (not refined), complex carbohydrates in whole fruits, whole vegetables, and whole grains are the healthy forms of sugar. These foods contain fiber, nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants that fight disease. These important anti-inflammatory foods essentially allow you to heal yourself. Unlike refined sugars, these whole foods can actually reverse diabetes and heart disease. [Ref 2] and [Ref 3].
By the way, dried fruit is a healthy, whole food option, but it’s super calorie dense so be careful not to eat too much or you’ll likely gain weight.
Myth # 3: Artificial Sweeteners are Safe
Artificial sweeteners defeat their own purpose because they produce an addictive craving for sweets. [Ref 4]. Nobody benefits from that. They also damage our health directly by abnormally altering the bacteria in the intestines.
Research shows that artificial sweeteners destroy beneficial “good” bacteria in the gut and increase the risk of developing diabetes. A study in 2014 shows saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame increase the risk for obesity and glucose intolerance in mice by disrupting the gut bacteria. This study also shows artificial sweeteners cause dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in healthy humans. [Ref 5]. Dysbiosis means the good bacteria and bad bacteria in your colon are out of balance. Don’t be fooled by stevia because it causes similar issues and throws your good bacteria out of whack.
The best plan is to minimize added sugar and avoid artificial sweeteners. Instead, eat more whole fruits and vegetables to improve your health naturally.
Ref 1. Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg E, et al. Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Disease Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Internal Med. 2014;174(4):516-524.
Ref 2. Dunaief DM, Fuhrman J, Dunaief JL, et al. Glycemic and Cardiovascular Parameters improved in Type 2 Diabetes with the High Nutrient (HND) Diet. Open Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;2(3):364-71.
Ref 3. Anderson JW, Ward K. High-carbohydrate, High-Fiber Diets for Insulin-treated Men with Diabetes Mellitus. Am J Clin Nutr. 1979; 32(11):2312-21.
Ref 4. Lenoir M, Serre F, et. al. Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLos One. 2007;2(8): e698.
Ref 5. Suez, J, Korem T, Zeevi D. et. al. Artificial Sweeteners Induce Glucose Intolerance by Altering the Gut Microbiota. Nature International Journal of Science. October 2014;(514): 181-186.
Carla Hightower, MD, MBA is a physician, health coach, workplace wellness consultant, and speaker. She helps people heal themselves with food. Through wellness workshops and courses, she helps companies create healthy, energetic teams.
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This information is always so helpful and so powerful, especially when one is making attempts to change their eating habits.
Thank you for this wonderful feedback. I am happy that you are getting value out of the information and finding it helpful. Feel free to let me know if there are topics for which you would like more information.