Sugar, you ain’t so sweet.

Ugh! I’m in the grocery store, still, trying to find food.  You wouldn’t think that to be a difficult task, given that I am surrounded by it, but if you have ever tried to exclude anything from your diet then you know it can be hard to shop.  And right now, it is taking for-ev-ver.  My family has decided to go without refined and processed sugar for a year because we recognised that we consumed a lot of candy and sweets and because we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into.

When I agreed to do this no-sugar thing, I figured “okay – I’ll give up gummi worms and jujubes for a year.  Chocolate and pop too.  I can do this.” but when we started to clean out our fridge and cupboards, I was shocked to see what we had to give up.  Suddenly, this didn’t seem as do-able.  Gone went our breads, our cereals and our condiments.  Reluctantly, I watched my authentic Jamaican Jerk seasoning rub get placed on the pile.  Even our powdered chicken stock was not spared.  We were left with some meat, some vegetables and some fruit and to be honest, I don’t really like fruit. Or vegetables.

With something as essential as food there ought to be easy ways to find stuff that won’t kill you.  Food companies are jerks though; even the so-called ‘healthy’ choices are full of junk – very delicious junk and if one doesn’t know how to read the labels, it is very easy to be fooled.  The producers of our foods have been made to list their ingredients from most to least and since most of us know that if an ingredient ends in “-ose” it’s going to be a sugar, the food makers have come up with a surprisingly long list of names and ways to say “sugar”:  Agave nectar, cane crystals, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, organic evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup.  By splitting the sugars up the food manufacturers are able to spread the sugars and sweeteners throughout the ingredients list, instead of having them consistently show up in the top five.  In most cases the food doesn’t even need the sugars.  Mayonnaise? It has sugar.  I’ve made mayonnaise and it was really good.  I didn’t use sugar.  Tomato sauce? Sugar.  Cereals, like Rice Krispies and Shreddies? Sugar.  Salad dressing? If you guessed “Sugar” you’d be wrong.  I’m just kidding – it’s full of sugar too.  So why all this sugar?  Aside from making the food taste sweeter (a North American preference, it seems) sugar is added to increase bulk, shelf life and to aid in fermentation.   It used to be fats that added the flavour to food but as doctors started to complain about the amount of fats in foods, these fats were eliminated and sugar was added to keep the food appealing.  If you stop to think about it, that is a pretty bad First World Problem: “The thing that I need most to stay alive doesn’t taste good enough.  I mean, I can eat it and everything, but I think I want more flavour.”

The shame I felt eating my candies was horrible.  Especially after I began to attend Kettlebell and Jiujitsu classes.  I felt like I was doing all this good work for nothing.  Shame and guilt.   It was curtain-drawing shame (curtains are made to hide shame, it’s a fact).   I thought I was doing horrible things to myself, eating gummi worms or Swedish berries, but as it turned out, I was consuming more sugar in my dinner: Caesar salad and penne with homemade Marinara sauce.  I wasn’t just fighting candy to stay in shape, I was fighting with everything I ate.  When a person eats sugar, their body does two things with it; the sugar is burned for energy or stored as fat.  Generally speaking, the more refined (processed) a food is, the more quickly our body will convert it to sugar and the more likely it will get stored as fat.  Our bodies process sugars differently according to what kind of sugar it is.  Here is a quick look at the major sugars found in foods, how we process them and what affects they have on us:

Glucose is a product of photosynthesis and our bodies make it when carbohydrates are broken down.  Specifically, glucose is food for cells, especially the cells in our brains and nervous system.  In the liver and kidneys however, glucose is converted into glycogen which is used to fuel our muscles.  Without enough glucose in our blood we tend to get light-headed and dizzy; too much glucose though, and we feel tired.

Fructose (fruit sugar) is most commonly found in plants and honey. Commercially, fructose is usually derived from fruits, sugar cane and honey.  It is favoured in food production because it is very sweet; it is the sweetest naturally occurring carbohydrate. Organically, fructose will sometimes be found bonded to glucose where they form sucrose.  Free (unbonded) fructose is absorbed directly by our small intestine and delivered to the bloodstream.  Sucrose needs to be broken down into its simple sugar forms before fructose can be absorbed.  When fructose is added to our food, it becomes all kinds of bad: too much fructose in our bloodstream has been shown to increase insulin resistance, obesity and a rise in  LDL cholesterol levels.  Some studies have concluded that excessive fructose consumption can cause accelerated aging.  More importantly, however, is the consumption of fructose, in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup, in beverages with meals.  Fructose has been shown to decrease the amount of circulating insulin levels while increasing the levels of the ‘hunger hormone’ after a meal.  Since insulin decreases our appetite, having soft drinks, which are a source of High Fructose Corn Syrup, with our meals increases our appetite and can lead to overeating.

Lactose is milk sugar.  It is a disaccharide, meaning it is comprised of two sugars: glucose and galactose.  The enzyme lactase breaks apart these two sugars so that we can digest lactose as two simple sugars.  Commercially, lactose is normally extracted from whey.  From a dietary standpoint, lactose’s biggest drawback is that many people are intolerant to it.  As we age, our bodies stop producing lactase due to a decrease in consumption of breast milk.  However, people with ancestry from Europe, West and South Asia and East Africa are normally able to digest lactose because they continue to produce lactase into adulthood as a result of their ancestors using milk from cattle, goats and sheep as a food source.  This allowed genes for constant lactase production to evolve, but for those people from regions not included in the above list, lactose is not broken down and becomes food for gut flora, which can cause all sorts of discomfort, from bloating to diarrhea.

If it were a movie, sugar just might be the “feel-good movie of the year.”  Eating it excites the pleasure and reward centers of our brains and, because of this, it is possible to become physiologically addicted to sugar.  The video below, “How Sugar Affects the Brain” by Nicole Avena, explains this so much better than I could hope to.  It is well worth the six minutes – or, if your connection is as slow as mine, fifteen minutes.  When a person who craves sugar (me, for lack of a better example) decides to quit eating it, it is important to identify why they crave it in the first place.  Bored? Hungry? Depressed?  All of these feelings can be fixed by sugar.  In my case it was largely boredom.  I want candy the most when I can absentmindedly eat it: watching a movie, driving or reading.  Since none of these things have changed, I have had to change my habits and ignore my cravings when I am, say, writing a blog post.  Cravings or not, I would never cheat on this no-sugar challenge, especially since I better understand sugar and its effects.  I am doing my best to stay away from sweets but it is not really necessary to keep my distance because I am not the cheating type.  Well, I say that now.  I can’t predict the future – I am not so naive as to think there isn’t a river long enough that doesn’t have a bend in it.  For now though, I can honestly say I won’t cheat.