Thanks to the clever marketing tactics of the sugar industry we have all come to think of refined sugar as part and parcel of ‘all things nice’. We grow up believing sugar is related to pleasure, happiness and reward. We and our generations before us have been gravely mistaken about sugar for it is an addictive processed chemical that wreaks havoc on our health.
Within the sugar cane or sugar beet plant, lie all the enzymes, minerals and vitamins needed for our bodies to digest the plant sugar. Molasses which is extracted from these sugar plants retains some but not all of the sugar plant nutrients but the sugar extracted from molasses, retains none. White sugar undergoes so much processing, that it becomes devoid of any nutrients with 64 food elements (including potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese, phosphate, sulfate, amino acids, vital enzymes, unsaturated fats, all fiber, A, D, and B, vitamins) being destroyed. This final product is essentially a chemical, so alien in nature to our human body’s digestive system that our body’s minerals, vitamins and protein stores are utilized to digest and eliminate this unnatural substance from our system.
This can cause mineral and vitamin depletion which can have dire consequences including depletion of calcium (leading to osteoporosis and brittle bones) and impeding metabolism of cholesterol and fatty acids (leading to higher blood serum triglycerides and cholesterol, promoting obesity and heart disease).
Refined sugar is a carbohydrate, and unfortunately gives carbohydrates a bad reputation. Healthy carbohydrates include legumes: beans, peas, chick peas, whole grains, whole wheat, brown rice, whole grain cereal, oatmeal, sweet potatoes. Sixty to 70 percent of our diet should consist of carbohydrates as it is the main source of energy our body needs. Carbohydrates are built of sugar molecules and include sugars, starches and fiber, all of which are broken down to the simple sugar, glucose, which circulates in the blood, supplying cells with energy whenever they need it.
Many people mistakenly consume refined sugar for an energy boost which makes their blood sugar level soar and plummet rapidly. This is because refined sugar passes directly to the intestines, and bloodstream, where it is rapidly absorbed. This rapid rise in blood sugar levels stimulates the pancreas to release insulin (the hormone needed to escort the sugars into the body’s cells), which leads to a rapid decline in blood sugar levels, giving us the dreaded “sugar blues , which translate as fatigue, lack of concentration, and an urge to consume even more sugar to relive the previous ‘sugar rush’.
A better and more durable energy boost comes from ingesting the healthy carbohydrates (in fruits and starches) listed above, which take longer to digest and do not cause the same blood sugar fluctuations as refined sugar. Fiber in a food further slows the digestion of other carbohydrates, especially soluble fibers (citrus fruits, oats, and legumes) and the extra fiber in whole grains also slows the digestion and absorption of sugar.
The glycemic index (GI), is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate is digested, enters the bloodstream, and raises the blood-sugar level; foods with a low glycemic index (such as oats, legumes) enter the bloodstream slowly and trigger the insulin response less quickly, contributing to a steadier blood-sugar level while foods with a high glycemic index (such as refined sugars in white bread, cakes, pasta) enter the bloodstream quickly and push the insulin response into action, leading to rapid blood-sugar swings.
Insulin has several effects on our body, including inhibiting the release of growth hormone, which inhibits our immune system. Studies have shown that drinking 75 to 100 grams of a sugar solution (about 20 teaspoons of sugar, or the amount that is contained in two 12-ounce fizzy drinks) can suppress the body s immune responses. High levels of sugar in the bloodstream also decrease our white cells ability to engulf and kill bacteria (glucose competes with vitamin C to enter our cells).
Sugar also has a direct effect on cancer cells because high insulin surges induce the conversion of androgens to estrogens (implicated in some cancers); insulin promotes cancer cell growth; cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment and ingesting sugar creates an acidic PH in our body.
A recent study carried out in the UK found that people who ate five slices of white bread a day were twice as likely to develop the most common form of kidney cancer, compared to those who ate one and a half slices. The scientists blamed this on the surge in blood sugar and insulin levels from the ingested white bread.
Other deleterious effects of habitually consuming sugar are far too numerous to be comprehensively covered here. Suffice it to say that refined sugar can stimulate a multitude of diseases, disabilities and disorders (such as diabetes, arthritis, asthma, neurotransmitter dysfunction, mental illness, hypertension, tooth decay, premature aging) and is particularly potent in children who are more sensitive to sugar. Numerous studies have documented its effects in children’s behavior, learning and attention span, with hyperactive kids’ symptoms being exacerbated by sugar.
We all know how addictive sugar is, but avoiding it is not as difficult as it may seem. The less refined sugar you consume, the more your taste buds become accustomed to its absence and learn to savor sweetness from more natural sources, such as from fruits and vegetables (especially baked sweet potatoes, my hot favorite in Egypt).
Dr May El Meleigy holds a Ph.D in Immunology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as an MSc. (Toxicology/pathology) and a B.Sc in pharmacology) from London University. El Meleigy is a freelance medical/health writer and is currently producing Health Education programs for Egyptian TV.