Shelley Stepanuik, BSP, Pharmacist, Nutrition Coach, and Founder of ShellBell Wellness
If you have ever said to someone that you want to reduce or cut out sugar in your life, they may have looked at you like you are crazy. They may say, “That is impossible”, “We NEED sugar”, or “You can’t survive without sugar.” Those sorts of statements are widely heard and have some truth to them but they do not paint the full picture.
In this article, we will discover that all sugars are not created equal. This is a myth. Sugar is not sugar. Some build up the body, others tear it down. From natural whole-food sources of sugar (such as fruit or brown rice) to refined sugars (such as table sugar or high fructose corn syrup) to artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame) there is much confusion.
To begin with, table sugar – both white and brown – is sucrose. Sucrose is made up of 2 sugar molecules, glucose and fructose. It is concentrated from sugar cane or sugar beets. A similar sugar is high fructose corn syrup, processed from corn starch. These sugars make up the majority of sugars added to modern processed foods. This may be a surprise, but it is true, you can survive without sucrose. If you never consumed another drop of sucrose, you would not only not die you would be healthier. This is NOT true of glucose. The sugar molecule glucose IS essential to human health. You cannot survive without it.
Glucose, unlike sucrose, is a mildly sweet “simple sugar”. Glucose is found in all plant foods, fruits, grains and vegetables. Glucose is the main source of energy produced and needed for plants to live and is consumed by animals to meet their energy needs as well. Human bodies are wonderous machines and most of the foods we consume are sooner or later converted into glucose by the body. This is true even when we eat meat and only meat, such as those on the carnivore diet. The liver can manufacture glucose from non-carbohydrate sources (such as protein and even fat) through a process called “gluconeogenesis”. When food is broken down into or converted into glucose this is what is measured in our blood stream. When we talk about blood sugar levels, we are talking about blood glucose levels. These levels need to be tightly controlled by our body for optimal health. We need enough but not too much. Too much, too fast is a major problem. Too little, for too long is also a problem, think low-sugar diabetic coma.
Glucose is one of two forms of fuel burned by our mitochondria to generate energy, the other form of fuel is fat. Both sugar and fat power up our bodies and give us the energy we need to run our bodies and live our lives.
Having the right amount of glucose in the blood affects everything. Our energy and our sleep. When levels are too high or dip too low, we can experience insomnia. Both high and low blood sugar levels also impact our cognitive abilities, such as our capacity to think, focus, and remember. It is also well known that our blood sugar levels affect our moods. Blood sugar swings = mood swings.
The sugar industry leverages the fact that our bodies use sugar for fuel to their advantage. They would have you believe that sugar is essential to our health, which it is, and that we cannot possibly cut it out of our diets. But the sugar they use in their products (sucrose and other forms of refined and artificial sugars) is NOT ‘glucose’. And these added sugars are NEVER needed by the body.
Of course, the sugar industry is propagating this belief. It is a very clever marketing angle. They want you to keep purchasing their products believing that “a little” won’t hurt or that sugar is part of a balanced diet. Wrong! Glucose is, sugar is not. Healthy whole foods with glucose in them are essential to the human diet, all forms of refined sugars are not. In fact, most are non-nutritive, toxic and detrimental.
Let’s take a closer look at how the manufacturers of processed junk foods promote their products keeping us as confused and hooked.
First, we are bombarded with carefully created images of happy people, laughing and socializing with sugary drinks and foods. We see them on billboards, in magazines, on TV and in Movies. Product placements have been used for decades to sell cigarettes, alcohol and junk food. And it works! Subliminally our brains begin to link sugary foods with being happy, healthy and socially connected – the very things we really want. Only they are the very things processed sugar cannot deliver. In fact, refined sugars make us tired, overweight, and miserable – at least when eaten in excess of the recommended 6 teaspoons a day (for women) and 9 (for men).
Second, we have been sold on the idea that sugar gives us energy. Not true, glucose does. And glucose is richly abundant in all whole-food carbohydrates. Assuming we have not damaged our metabolism through refined sugar consumption, whole food sources of sugar, in combination with exercise, will give us plenty of energy.
While sugar and caffeine (think ‘energy drinks’) will give us a boost, this will always be followed by a crash. After all, what goes up, must come down. The fall will hurt. You will be MORE tired than you were before, requiring more of your ‘energy drink’. This rollercoaster will set you up for dependency if not addiction. A fact companies forget to mention in their advertising.
Another malevolent way marketing has us confused is through biased science. Do you remember the “low fat” food craze where low-fat (high-sugar) snacks were being promoted as healthy? This craze did not just happen. The sugar industry deliberately funded research and promotional campaigns todownplay the role sugar plays in rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease and shift the blame towards dietary fat and a lack of exercise. Got a weight problem? Eat low-fat, eat fewer calories and move more. That will solve your problem their research claimed. WRONG. DEAD WRONG.
One of the more unconscionable ways Big Food marketing dollars have been spent is targeting children. Their efforts to turn children into high-sugar consumers have worked. They have successfully created brand recognition and brand loyalty in preschool children. Cartoon characters, cute jingles, colourful packaging, advertising during children’s TV programming and more have been highly effective. What is more, they have been able to fool mothers through slogans such as “Cheerios, part of a heart-smart breakfast”, or “Bet you can’t just eat one” which normalizes the consumption of nutritionally inferior and toxic foods. Nothing to worry about here, they say. These foods are safe and fun for children.
“Creating brand loyalty from a young age is the mission of every major junk food manufacturing company. The younger the better,” states Florence Christophers, The Kick Sugar Coach and a mom on a mission to help protect children from excess sugar consumption. She adds, “This is why Coke and Pepsi Co., for example, spend millions funding youth infrastructure projects such as sports arena upgrades. It is profit-driven predatorial behaviour. Plain and simple. Sad but true.”
Despite the confusion about sugar and the commercial interests that drive our consumption, there are ways to break free. It begins by understanding that all healthy whole foods have an abundance of sugar already packed inside their beautiful, colourful, and tasty forms. We can get all the sugar we need and want from fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Even nuts and seeds have natural sugar (glucose and fructose) in them. (And if we don’t eat these foods but focus on protein instead, our liver can turn animal protein into glucose too.)
Once we have recalibrated our taste buds, these abundant sources of glucose can be genuinely enjoyable and plenty satisfying sources of sweetness. And unlike the processed forms of sugar that have taken over our grocery stores and fooled all of us, these mother nature sources of sugar make us healthy and happy.
If learning how to reduce your consumption of sugar is a priority for you, consider grabbing your free spot at the upcoming online Kick Sugar Summit, October 16-23, 2023. Multiple speakers, many topics, and so much to learn. It will help you better understand how to break up with ‘sugar’ and why you want to. It is hosted by Florence Christophers, the Kick Sugar Coach. I’ll join you there!