The Scoop on Sugar

December 8, 2015

It’s World Cancer Day, part of a 3-year project to reduce the burden of cancer on the world. It’s a great idea and there are lots of ways you can work…your own life…to reduce your risks…and sugar is at the top of the list.

Sorry kids, but this one is big…and real…

According to experts, our beloved sparkly white powder is hardly the stuff of “everything nice.” In fact, it’s a key contributor to our collective decline in health and wellness.

Research has discovered a link between sugar and unhealthy levels of blood fats known as triglycerides. “There’s an association between added sugar intake and what we call dyslipidemia — higher triglycerides and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, says Rachel K. Johnson, RD, MPH, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association (AHA).

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), reported that people who ate the most added sugar had the highest blood triglyceride levels and the lowest HDL (good) cholesterol levels. The conclusion is that eating lots of sugar can more than triple the odds of having low HDL cholesterol levels, a strong risk factor for heart disease.

Of course, people who ate the least amount of sugar had the lowest triglyceride levels and highest HDL levels, a protective factor against heart disease.

While eating sugar doesn’t actually cause diabetes (saturated fat does that), extensive epidemiological research has shown an association between intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and diabetes.

It may not be the cause of Type 2 diabetes but it certainly is a contributing factor and an aggravation of symptoms.

Cancer and sugar

Of course glucose (the form of sugar used most in the body) feeds every cell in the body, and is so important to the function of your brain that the body has several back up strategies to keep blood sugar levels normal.

Much research shows that it is sugar’s relationship to higher insulin levels and related growth factors that may influence cancer cell growth the most, and increase risk of other chronic diseases. Many types of cancer cells have plenty of insulin receptors, making them respond more than normal cells to insulin’s ability to promote growth.

Eating a lot of simple carbohydrate at once can raise insulin levels quickly. High insulin levels can lead to a rapid fall in blood sugar creating a “yo-yo” effect….low blood sugar signals low fuel, triggering the appetite to bring blood sugar levels up again. This can become a “vicious cycle,” with the body’s blood sugar and insulin levels going up and down rapidly.

According to, “diabetes and cancer occur together more often than would be expected by chance alone. Health experts haven’t yet figured out all of the ins and outs of the relationship between these two diseases, though many researchers are studying this. According to the consensus report on diabetes and cancer, “it remains unclear whether the association between diabetes and cancer is direct (e.g., due to hyperglycemia [high blood sugar levels]), whether diabetes is a marker for underlying biologic factors that alter cancer risk (e.g., insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia [high insulin levels]), or whether the association between cancer and diabetes is indirect and due to common risk factors such as obesity.”

What about our kids?

Pediatricians have long been concerned about too much sugar is in our children’s diets. But it’s not the sugar as much as what the sugar causes.

Experts say sugar is a problem because of the big rise in childhood obesity which has occurred over the same time period that there’s been a major increase in the amount of simple sugar that children consume in the form of soda, candy, cookies and other sweet processed foods.

Is all sugar the same?
WebMD states, “Celebrities and high-profile chefs have touted the benefits of replacing refined white sugar with purportedly more natural, healthier sugars, such as honey, maple syrup, or molasses.” Interestingly, while all of these sugars are healthier than white sugar, they are still simple sugars with a similar result in terms of our wellness.

There are healthier options for sweetening, however. Brown rice syrup is, in large part, a complex carbohydrate and less of an insulin trigger than simple sugars. Coconut sugar is an unrefined sweetener with a low-glycemic index and thereby also not a big insulin trigger. They still have calories but you can’t have everything, right?

Stevia, erythritol and xylitol are all natural, no calorie sweeteners that take a bit of adjustment but can also bring delightful sweetness to your world.

Don’t even think about artificial sweeteners
From dancing fairies sprinkling the world with sparkling white crystals to sumptuous strawberries being dipped, artificial sweeteners market the idea that we can have our cake and eat it…as long as we sweeten with an artificial sugar substitute.

Long-term studies show that regular consumption of artificially sweetened beverages reduces the intake of calories and promotes weight loss or maintenance, but other research shows no effect, and some studies even show weight gain.

One of many concerns about artificial sweeteners is that they affect the body’s ability to gauge how many calories are being consumed. The human brain responds to sweetness with signals to eat more. By providing a sweet taste without any calories, however, artificial sweeteners cause us to crave more sweet foods and drinks, which can add up to excess calories.

How much sugar do we really eat?
Sugar shows up naturally in lots of foods, but those aren’t the types of sugars in the hot seat. It’s the sugar in the doughnuts, cookies, cupcakes, coffee drinks and sodas that we’re talking about.

Americans consume way too much added sugar. From 2001 to 2004,reports show that Americans consumed lots of sugar: an average of 22 teaspoons a day, the equivalent of 355 calories. Current consumption of this addictive white powder is said to exceed 150 per person per year.

I could tell you that moderation is key; that we can enjoy some sweets that are not made from healthful ingredients. I could tell you that a little is okay. White refined sugar is probably the most addictive food in the world, in my view. We love the taste; we love the decadence and the way it makes us feel. But it’s time we were just a wee bit grown up about it and keep things in perspective with our wellness as our priority…not that extra cookie from the tray in the break room!

Does it mean you have to create most of your own sweet treats? Yes, it does. Will you sail through the holiday season without one bite of sugar? Not likely, but now that you know what you know, you’ll likely think twice and put your health first.