In this article I will try to bust some myths and explain some of the science behind the facts. Lastly I shall elaborate on the effects of excess sugar consumption on the body from a Chinese Medical and Acupuncture perspective. The main health problems I will discuss in relation to sugar are obesity and hypertension.
1) Sugar is the number one cause of obesity
2) It is excess sugar as opposed to fat consumption that is the problem.
In summary, sugar (fructose) is converted to fat as well as making you eat more and leads to other ‘modern’ problems such as obesity, hypertension and type II diabetes.
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal.
There are bad sugars and there are good sugars and what determines this is not whether they are ‘natural’ or not. All sugar (apart from high-fructose corn syrup) are ‘natural’. Sucrose, fructose and glucose etc are formed by photosyntheses and found in all plants in differing proportions.
What is sugar? The main sugars are
- Glucose – used by every cell in the body and easily absorbed through the cell membrane. Doesn’t actually taste that sweet.
- Fructose – the main subject of this blog is not absorbed your cells and is only metabolised in the liver with toxic byproducts
- Sucrose – crystalline table sugar from cane or beets is made of 50% glucose and 50% fructose is instantly broken down in the stomach into glucose and fructose
- Lactose – sugar found in milk
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – 55-60% fructose and 40-45% glucose – a cheaper alternative to sucrose rapidly finding its way into many processed foods.
Fructose is not Glucose
Glucose, tasting less sweet than fructose, is instantly absorbed and utilised by every cell in the body. Only about 20% goes to the liver for metabolism where is is stored as glycogen for future use. Only a tiny fraction of this is converted to harmful byproducts such as LDLs (low density lipids). Fructose is not absorbed by the cells and can only be metabolised by the liver and there are far more end by-products such as fat-forming, VLDLs as well as appetite-suppressed functions not being stimulated. Remember, when you consume 100g of sucrose, 50% is glucose and 50% is fructose. With a soda sweetened with HFCS you or your child is consuming even more fructose.
- Fructose is 7 times more likely than glucose to form advanced glycolation end-products (AGEs). This is the ‘browning’ you get on the grill when using sweetened BBQ sauce and is what causes the hardening in your arteries. (1)
- Fructose does not suppress ghrelin – the hunger hormone.
- Acute fructose does not stimulate insulin (or leptin). There is no receptor on the beta cell that makes insulin therefore insulin levels and therefore leptin levels don’t go up so your brain does not see that you ate something so you eat more.
- Hepatic fructose metabolism is different. Your liver deals with fructose in a completely different way to glucose.
- Chronic fructose exposure promotes the Metabolic Syndrome. The Metabolic Syndrom is the conglomerate of the following syndromes: Obesity, Type II diabetes, lipid problems, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
You may well be asking yourself “I thought fructose was natural and found in fruits and therefore good for you?”. Well, yes and no, not everything natural is good for you for a start. More importantly, it is how the fructose is consumed. Nature provides the ultimate antidote: fibre. So it is not the natural sugar found in fruits and vegetables containing various fructose-glucose ratios but the added sweeteners of sugar (sucrose) and HFCS to our foods and soft drinks or excessive ‘all natural’ fruit juice consumption that is the real bad boy here.
Why is exercise important in obesity?
- because it burns calories? – hardly. The ‘calorie counting’ model is a farce. Can you really say that if a Mars bar is 500 Kcal and about 150-180 Kcal are burned in a 20 minute jog that this is realistic? Remember there are a myriad of biochemical processes going on inside you than just burning energy when you go for a walk. We are not cars.
- because it improves skeletal muscle sensitivity to glucose.
- because it reduces stress and resultant cortisol release and therefore reduces overall appetite
- because it makes the TCA cycle run faster and detoxifies fructose, improving hepatic insulin sensitivity. i.e. you burn it off
Why is fibre important in obesity?
- it reduces the rate of intestinal carbohydrate absorption, reducing insulin response
- it increases speed of transit of intestinal contents to the ileum to raise PYY and promotes satiety (feeling full)
- it inhibits the absorption of some free fatty acids to the colon, which are metabolised by colonic bacteria to short chain fatty acids which suppress insulin
Sugar and Chinese Medicine
In Chinese medicine and acupuncture 5 Element (wuxing) theory, sugar, is one of the 5 flavours that correspond to your internal yin organs. The consumption of each flavour – sweet, sour, salty, pungent (acrid) and bitter affects the qi of the associated organ, in this case, the Spleen. The Spleen and its function in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is also closely associated with the pancreas (an organ which either wasn’t known about or separately named in ancient times). The yang counterpart to the Spleen-Pancreas is the Stomach. These are associated with the Earth element and the emotion pensiveness or cognitive thought. This is all part of the theory of Systematic Correspondences and in this example they look as follows:
Element Organ Flavour
Earth Spleen Sweet
Metal Lungs Sour
Water Kidneys Salty
Wood Liver Pungent
Fire Heart Bitter
These are used extensively in herbal medicine preparation but are also relevant to dietary regulation. Excessive consumption of any of the five flavours will effect the function of the corresponding organ and first manifest elsewhere in the body eventually damaging the organ itself. In this case, too much sugar (especially the wrong kind) effects the Spleen. When the Spleen’s TCM function is impaired, symptoms of ‘dampness’ , ‘stagnation of qi and fluids’ and ‘inability to hold or raise qi’ appear in the form of weight gain, water retention, sluggishness in both physical activity and bowel movements, lack of energy and weakness in the limbs, haemorrhoids, prolapse and Type II diabetes.
In summary: consume less sugar! That includes ‘naturally’ sweetened with grape and apple juice products. Eat more fibre and whole foods and take regular exercise.
Please feel free to post comments or questions on this article.
Edward practices Acupuncture in Brighton and Hove, East Sussex.