Sugar: Weight-Loss, Taste, and Health
The following post is the second of a three-part series on salt, sugar, and oil. These nutritional elements are essential in their natural form to human health and are the three pillars of taste in almost every culinary dish in existence regardless of its ethnic or cultural origin. The first post on table salt can be found here. Refined or table sugar, nutrient-ly speaking, is a carbohydrate. It comes in many forms with each having its own impact on one's health. Refined sugar is discussed in detail while other forms of sugar are defined and referenced for clarity. The final post on the topic of fat (with a focus on oils) will be posted in the coming week.
As previously stated, the purpose of these posts is not to cause controversy by demonising or sensationalising health claims around three common food additives. There exists conflicting and at times polar opposite information and recommendations in the health & wellness space on these elements. The sole purpose of these posts is to carefully define each, explicitly outline its various forms and use non-bias, credible scientific evidence to educate the reader. This, in turn, will allow you to make better-informed purchase and consumption decisions which will aid in health improvement and overall well-being.
What Is Sugar?
Refined sugar is a processed, pharmaceutical grade isolated nutrient which is added to processed foods and fizzy drinks as a sweetener. It is also referred to as added sugar, simple sugar, table sugar, and free sugar. Sugar consumption has risen astronomically over the past 250 years since it was first isolated and used as a condiment. It became both increasingly available and cheaper over time, but its addictive nature is a common debate topic in recent times. An article which appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine argued sugar should be classed in the same addiction categories as illegal drugs such as cocaine.
Ireland is the fourth largest consumer of sugar per head in the world. The Healthy Ireland Survey 2015 found that 65% of participants consume snack foods and sugar-sweetened drinks daily, while 62% consume processed snacks twice a day, which usually contain high quantities of refined sugar. A positive data point to consider is that the amount of added sugar in Irish products is being reduced over time. An IBEC study published in 2017 on over 600 products showed that added sugar levels had fallen 14% from 2005 - 2012.
It must be reminded again at this point that all information contained thus far and below refers to refined sugar. Unrefined sugar in its natural form (e.g. found within whole fruits and vegetables) has vastly different effects on the body and should not be viewed in the same light. Visit our post on carbohydrates to learn the difference between unrefined and refined sugar. The role and effects of excess refined sugar consumption are discussed below in relation to weight, taste and overall health.
Weight gain is a complex topic which is attributed to many different causes. Refined sugar consumption is one of the main causes in the modern diet. The body increases insulin in the bloodstream to lower blood sugar levels. This sugar is then stored as fat in the body to be used as extra energy. With increased consumption over time, fat stores continue to increase as the body is simply taking on more sugar than it can burn off as energy. This, in turn, can also lead to insulin resistance and metabolism difficulties. Ireland's excess sugar consumption has contributed to the alarming statistic that 70% of Irish males & 52% of Irish females are now overweight.
Human taste buds are sensitive to sugar, salt and fat. Millions of years of evolutionary biology crafted the brain to release pleasurable chemicals in response to eating these foods to ensure future consumption and therefore survival. However, in the modern world, our primitive circuitry is hijacked by processed versions of sugar, salt, and fat. This leads to habituation and taste bud numbing over time, requiring constantly increasing levels to achieve basic pleasure levels. There is even evidence that indicates that sugar or "sweetness" sensory pathways exist in both the gut and the central nervous system.
Excess refined sugar consumption has multiple negative impacts on health. The Harvard Medical school explicitly cautions against excess sugar consumption as it is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, fatty liver disease, weight gain, high blood pressure and chronic inflammation. Fatty liver should be of particular concern to those who consume alcohol. Both sugar and alcohol are processed the same way by the liver, which can lead to damage over time. A foolproof strategy to greatly reduce the risk of developing these health issues is to greatly reduce and avoid refined sugar where possible.
Refined sugar is detrimental to human health, particularly in the levels consumed by the public today. Refined sugar levels in processed food far exceed the levels in whole foods which our digestive systems are equipped to deal with. Excess sugar consumption starts a vicious cycle of taste bud numbing, which requires higher levels of consumption to get the same pleasurable taste response. Over time this leads to weight gain, inflammation, and increased risks of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease.
As previously pointed out, this article focuses solely on processed or refined sugar. Naturally occurring sugars in fruit do not spike blood sugar levels or cause the damage that processed sugars do. Fibre and phytonutrients in whole foods slow absorption into the bloodstream, which does not cause the blood sugar and insulin-spike issues found
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