John Douillard, DC
Having a sweet tooth is normal, right? Almost every kid has one, and as we mature we learn to control it. Don’t we? While some people do a good job managing their sugar intake, many others have fallen prey to a culture and food industry that thrives off of the sweet taste. Even health-conscious consumers, who spend a lot of time and resources making sure their diet is clean, often struggle with sugar addiction in unexpected ways. Though they aren’t the usual culprits, “health food” treats - including dried fruit – can also perpetuate an addiction to the sweet taste. Please join me as I take you on a journey explaining how our culture’s sugar addiction has been renamed, relabeled, and hidden behind even the “healthiest” of foods – and its devastating impact on our health.
Six Tastes – But We Eat Mostly One!
The sweet taste is not a bad thing. In fact, according to Ayurveda there are six tastes that are all to be taken at each meal. A “balanced meal” is determined by the inclusion of all six tastes: sweet, sour and salty—which our culture loves—and bitter, pungent and astringent, which we in the west seem to avoid. According to Ayurveda, eating excess amounts of sweet, sour and salty foods causes the accumulation of kapha, which is directly linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, free radical damage and some cancers, to name a few. Kapha is a principle in nature made up of the elements earth and water. It is heavy, congestive and sticky. Foods like sweets, chips and pickles have these heavy properties that can create congestion and stagnation in the body, often leading to congestive disorders like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Conversely, the bitter taste found in leafy greens, the pungent taste found in ginger and spices, and the astringent taste found in cucumbers and pomegranates all antidote these kapha conditions.
The “I Gotta Have It” Hormone
Why are sweet cravings so much more common than cravings for the bitter taste of leafy greens? The answer lies in your brain: the taste of sweet activates dopamine receptors in the brain, which are responsible for most addictions. Dopamine is the "I gotta have it" hormone. When you see that chocolate cake or other favorite sweet, dopamine levels rise and strengthen your desire for that sweet. It really doesn’t matter if it is a refined sugar or an all natural molasses, agave, honey or date sugar product—as far as the brain in concerned, it is all the same. While it is true that the natural sugars have more fiber and B vitamins to help the body cope with the sweet explosion, the brain makes quick use of it regardless of the source, and the pancreatic insulin will be challenged either way to quickly move that sugar surge out of the blood.
Fructose – A Safer Alternative?
Many “natural sweeteners” on the market today contain fructose as the sweet factor. Agave, for example, has a lower glycemic index than table sugar but is still a highly processed product that contains 90% fructose, compared to high fructose corn syrup, which is only 35-55% fructose. Fructose may not spike insulin like table sugar but it is still linked to diabetes, obesity, insulin resistance and high cholesterol. Fructose is metabolized in the liver and quickly converted into belly fat and cholesterol, and not used by the body for energy (in nature, bears gorge on fruits in the late summer in an effort to begin storing the fat they will need through the winter). Fructose is also a challenge for the liver to break down and, in excess, creates toxic metabolic waste products. The problem is not fructose itself, but in the concentration. The fructose content of fruits is very small compared to the amount we ingest in the form of concentrated sweeteners. Today, the number one source of calories in the US is high fructose corn syrup.
Honey: 47% fructose
Agave: 70-90% fructose
High Fructose Corn Syrup: 35-55% fructose
Insulin Resistance: The Not-So-Sweet Truth
All sweeteners, no matter the source, will spike insulin levels and raise the blood sugar much higher than we were designed to handle, as well as strain the liver, which is intimately involved in sucrose and fructose metabolism. Excess sugar also overwhelms the muscle cells’ ability to use the sugar, and they eventually stop responding to the signals of insulin. This leads to a condition called insulin resistance. As a result, the levels of sugar in the blood stay dangerously high for an extended period of time.
Sugar and Wrinkles
The excess sugar is converted into fat and often stored around the belly, elevating the levels of cholesterol. Excess glucose also sticks to proteins in the blood in a degenerative process called glycation. Glycation is the process of sugar molecules attaching themselves to proteins in the body. It causes damage to two very important proteins: collagen and elastin, which are responsible for the health and elasticity of the skin. Yes this leads to wrinkles, but more importantly, the health of the skin that lines the arteries, heart, gut and lungs is compromised.
Here is a list of the most common sweeteners, found on the labels of many foods, that I suggest to reduce or eliminate:
Agave Barley Malt Brown sugar, Brown Rice Syrup, Coconut Sugar, Corn sweetener, Corn syrup, Date sugar, Dextrose, Fructose, Fruit-juice Concentrate, Glucose, High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), Honey, Invert Sugar Lactose Maltose Malt syrup Maple Syrup Molasses Raw sugar (Turbinado, Muscavado, and Demerara) Sucrose Syrup
Artificial Sugar Risks
In an attempt to appease the insatiable desire for sweet, the food industry has created artificial sweets that are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, but calorie free. There are many issues with these artificial sweeteners: 1. They send a sweet taste to the brain and never deliver any real energy. This drives an even stronger message of hunger and desire for sweet.
2. Most are made of excitotoxins that over-stimulate, exhaust and deplete the nervous system.
3. Some are made of small amounts of known carcinogens.
4. Artificial sweeteners have been found to actually increase weight gain, as they disturb metabolic hormones like leptin and insulin.
The Big Three
Saccharin – also known as “SweetnLow”: at very high doses causes bladder cancer in rats. Though this has never been reproduced in humans, it still carries a health warning on the label. It is made from sulfonamides, which are known allergens and may cause severe allergic reaction.
Aspartame –also known as “Nutrasweet”, or “Equal”: of the 166 studies done on aspartame, almost half of them have funding ties that trace back to the manufacturer. Of the studies that were done independently, 100% of them found health issues related to aspartame. Aspartame contains about 10 percent methanol by weight, also known as wood alcohol, which is broken down into formaldehyde, and then formic acid, in your body. The body simply doesn't have the mechanism to completely break this down. In the book, Aspartame Disease, Dr Roberts reported that 80% of the food additive complaints to the FDA were from aspartame.
Sucralose – also known as “Splenda”: - maybe the most toxic of all, sucralose is made from a list of chemicals that will make your head spin: trityl chloride, acetic anhydride, hydrogen chloride, thionyl chloride, and methanol, in the presence of dimethylformamide, 4-methylmorpholine, toluene, methyl isobutyl ketone, acetic acid, benzyltriethlyammonium chloride, and sodium methoxide. The chlorine, a carcinogen, raises most of the health concerns.
Sugar Alcohol Sweeteners
Sugar Alcohols have recently become a popular sugar substitute. They are naturally occurring in some fruits and are generally about half as sweet as sugar, unlike the artificial sweeteners mentioned above. They are neither sugar nor alcohol, they just resemble their molecular structure. However, they are not completely absorbed in the digestive system and can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. They do contain some calories and carbohydrates, and as such are not truly sugar-free.
Examples of Sugar Alcohols:
Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)
“Diabetic Safe” Sweeteners Sweeteners that are advertised as being “diabetic and hypoglycemic safe,” such as Stevia, Lo Han, and Xylitol (a sugar alcohol) are better in some ways because they have little or no effect on blood sugar. However, if we realize that it is the addiction to the sweet taste that is the issue that is so chronically out of balance in our culture – then we can see that in at least one way, all sweeteners are accomplishing the same end - they give us our “sweet injection.” In doing so, they dull our ability to sense and be satisfied by the sweet taste of vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. Delaying the Inevitable It is my belief that substituting sugar with any of the above sweeteners will only postpone the inevitable. With 1/3 of the adult population already pre-diabetic, and estimates claiming the entire population in the next decade, it might be time to break the sweet-taste habit now. Does that mean you can never have a sweet? No. If you know for a fact that your fasting blood sugars are good, you may indulge once in awhile, but don’t make the sweet taste of sugar a regular part of your diet. Take Precautions Previously in this series on blood sugar and the epidemic of pre-diabetes, I cited research indicating the severe cardiovascular damage that takes place when the fasting blood sugar rises above 85ml/dL. I encourage everyone to own a glucose meter and test your fasting blood sugars regularly, and make sure to adjust your sugar intake if that fasting number starts to rise. If the fasting blood sugar creeps into the nineties, I suggest you avoid all sugars and reset your brain chemistry and taste buds to not desire sugar.
The (Perhaps Unexpected) Perks of Giving Up Sugar
Believe it or not, once you break the sugar habit, you will begin to taste the sweet flavors found in vegetables, nuts and whole grains and you won’t feel deprived. Not having sugar in your life is not depressing. In fact, many of the mood swings and emotional ups and downs are due to the rise and fall of blood sugar. Breaking this habit actually frees you from the rollercoaster ride of sugar highs and lows, and delivers a more stable, calm, and naturally joyful experience of life. Once your meals are balanced with all 6 tastes and the cravings for the sweet taste have been eliminated, then not only stevia but other natural sweeteners like molasses, honey, and others can be used in moderation.
Small Steps to Sweet Freedom
1. Increase greens in your diet. We should aim for eating one to even 2 pounds of vegetables a day. Remember that the gorilla, who has a very similar digestive system to humans, eats half its weight in veggies each day.
2. Add pungent spices, as well as bitter and astringent fruits and veggies to your diet. These will help balance blood sugar and offset your addiction to the sweet taste.
3. Avoid processed foods.
4. Read labels –if you don't recognize the ingredient as something natural, skip it.
5. Look at your plate – is there a protein, a whole starch (whole grains, potato, corm, sprouted bread), a source of good fat, and is the plate mostly green? Do your best to include all 6 tastes at every meal: sour (lemon is a good one) salty pungent (spicy) bitter (leafy greens) astringent (beans, pomegranate seeds, cucumber) sweet (sweet vegetables such as carrots and beets, squashes, grains such as millet and rice, to name a few!)