Nutrition 101: Sugar, the Energy Thief
By Blog Contributor Rachel Lodge
Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect of trying to improve my diet over the years - and especially since my onset of ME/CFS - has been reducing my intake of refined sugar. I strongly believe that sugar consumption is actually an addiction for many; some even go so far as to describe sugar as a drug, which makes sense if our dependency on that ‘sugar-hit’ is something that we rely on to get through the day. I’ll hold my hands up here…particularly since becoming unwell, I’ve turned to refined sugar countless times. I am also aware that I turn to chocolate (my main nemesis!) out of habit - and that’s a habit I am striving to overcome.
For me, I think this has been a form of comfort eating or simply to relieve the boredom and frustration of living with a chronic condition such as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia. I think it’s helpful to liken sugar to a ‘fake friend’ who promises you comfort during your worst times, but in reality, turns out to be a fleeting visitor who leaves you feeling lower than ever and drained of energy.
Most people now know that eating too much sugar is damaging to their health, but personally I find that understanding some of the “why” is a massive motivator for change. So in this first blog, let’s take a brief look at some of the different guises for sugar, and then let’s examine the action and effects of sugar in the blood.
Sugar is Sneaky Stuff
When we talk about sugar in its most basic form, we are of course referring to the white, table sugar (sucrose) that we are all familiar with. It is a highly refined form of simple carbohydrate. In fact, during the refining process white sugar has approximately 90% of its vitamins and minerals stripped away, leaving us with ‘empty calories’ that stress our bodies and fail to provide essential nutrients. However, when we use the term ‘refined carbohydrate’ in its broader sense, we are also referring to the many other forms of simple sugar that need to be strictly avoided if we are aiming to prioritize our health. These come in a range of different guises such as lactose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, brown sugar, syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, cane juice etc. Unfortunately, these simple sugars also lurk sneakily in many savory processed foods where perhaps we wouldn’t expect to see them such as condiments, dressings, ready-meals, crisps, jars of pre-made sauce etc.
Let’s not forget about processed flours, grains and cereals which are also forms of refined carbohydrate. Regardless of whether these appear in sweet foods such as cakes and biscuits, or savory foods such as white bread, white pasta, white rice or pies; these highly refined grains act in much the same way as sugar in the body and therefore need to be avoided.
A Spoonful of Sugar?
More and more, we are fueling our bodies with excessive refined carbohydrate, rather than healthy fats, high-fiber forms of complex carbohydrates, and protein. I find it fascinating that our bloodstream can only hold approximately two teaspoons of sugar at any single point in time. On average in the 1820’s two teaspoons would have constituted an individual’s daily sugar intake, however by the 1980’s this figure rocketed to 38 teaspoons a day! Nothing’s changed in our body’s biochemistry, so how on earth do we expect it to cope with such an onslaught of sugar, especially when your average confectionery bar alone contains a staggering 10 - 15 teaspoons of sugar?
Sugar in the Blood
But what happens in our blood when we eat these refined carbohydrates? In a nutshell, we place our bodies under stress. Effectively, these heavily refined carbohydrates are already in a kind of ‘pre-digested state’ before we even swallow them. This means that they are very rapidly digested and absorbed across the gut wall, where they quickly enter the blood as glucose. Initially, this resulting surge of glucose is ferried off in the blood to the liver via the portal vein.
Think of the liver as a big sponge - it soaks up as much of this excessive sugar as it can, converting it into glycogen to be stored until needed - at which point it will be released as glucose back into the bloodstream. A similar ‘sponge-like’ action occurs within the body’s muscles too; the problem is, like any sponge, the liver and muscles have a saturation point. When we eat excessive refined carbohydrate, we exhaust this storage capacity which results in the surplus glucose surging into the systemic (whole-body) circulation, causing a huge peak in blood-sugar levels.
The body scrambles to lower blood-sugar levels to keep them within safe (and narrow) parameters. It does this by releasing the hormone insulin from the pancreas, and the excess glucose is shunted out of the blood and packed away into the body’s cells where, if there isn’t an immediate need for this glucose to be burnt for the body’s energy requirements, it is stored as body fat. Notably, the very presence of insulin in the blood prevents the body from switching into fat-burning mode (weight loss), and sometimes this effect can last for hours. At this point the body has effectively lowered the damaging high blood-sugar levels, however the release of insulin causes a subsequent and rapid drop in blood-sugar. This results in a state which can also be dangerous for the body known as ‘hypoglycemia’.
When hypoglycemia strikes, the body compensates by releasing two stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. All of this culminates in symptoms such as lethargy, unstable moods, shakiness, a foggy brain, difficulty sleeping and of course the craving for another ‘sugar-hit’ to bring our blood-sugar levels soaring back up again…and so the damaging cycle of blood-sugar peaks and dips continues.
Interestingly, both fat, fiber and protein hardly have any impact on our blood-sugar levels as they take longer to be digested and absorbed. Be mindful of this if you do indulge a sweet tooth, as combining carbohydrate with a source of fat or protein (e.g. chocolate with a few nuts) will slow down the consequent release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Weight Gain & Energy Loss
Over time, as we continue to bombard our bodies with sugar and carb-heavy meals, we’re likely to lose control of our blood-sugar levels as our bodies become desensitized to the effects of insulin - this is known as ‘metabolic syndrome’. Two consequences of this, which are of particular relevance to ME/CFS and fibromyalgia sufferers, are weight gain (especially around the center of the body) and energy dives caused by the sudden dips in blood-sugar. The lack of energy that goes hand-in-hand with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia and the likely inability (or significantly reduced ability) to exercise, means that a diet high in sugar/refined carbohydrate is likely to compound the energy problems sufferers already experience, and without the ability to burn excess sugar through exercise, weight gain is almost inevitable.
Unfortunately, ‘metabolic syndrome’ is a precursor to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, degenerative diseases and cancer. BUT the good news is, if we view metabolic syndrome as an important warning sign alerting us to potential danger ahead, we can reverse the situation and regain our health.
Look out for Parts 2 and 3, which will examine some shockingly damaging effects of sugar on the body, and then I’ll be sharing some practical tips that can help us to reduce our dependency on the white stuff.
Reference & Further Reading:
Prevent and Cure Diabetes - Delicious Diets not Dangerous Drugs’ (2016) by Dr Sarah Myhill and Craig Robinson
The New Optimum Nutrition Bible (2004) by Patrick Holford
Fat Around the Middle’ (2006) by Dr Marilyn Glenville