What Exactly Does Sugar Do In Your Body?
Sugar. The name has become synonymous with that white granulated powder that plays a crucial part of our diet. Unfortunately, our affection for the sweet stuff can have a negative impact on our health. There are a number of reasons why people over indulge with sugar, but the problems with it can far outweigh its apparent benefits.
Sugar is a carbohydrate and is the general name attached to any ‘carb’ that is sweet, chemically short-chained and soluble including monosaccharides (those sugars that end in -ose), oligosaccharides and disaccharides; you can see now why we refer to them all ‘sugar’. Sugar isn’t only added to our favourite foods and drinks, it also occurs naturally. These ‘natural sugars’ are fine, but it’s the other type, that is either added to food during its preparation or afterwards to sweeten the taste, that can be bad for you.
For most people, sugar is a normal part of their diet, and it should be, but many studies have shown that the vast majority of those people eat more sugar than they should and this is where it begins to cause a problem to your health. When it is consume your body only has two options in how to deal with sugar. It can use it for energy or convert it into fat. If you’re not a particularly active person, neither of those options are especially attractive.
Sugar does much more than make you fat. Of course if you’re looking to lose weight by cutting down on your calorie intake, then it’s a great place to start, but sugar can attack your body on a number of fronts. It can negatively affect your immune system, cause insulin resistance, has a detrimental affect on the body’s metabolism and can even damage your liver. How? Let’s take a look.
Sugar is pure energy. I know that sounds like a good thing and if you’re looking to give yourself a surge of energy to get you going in the morning or before the gym then it is, but nutritionally it’s far from beneficial. It is good for the bacteria in your mouth however, which use it as fuel to attack your teeth, but it’s not good for you internally. Sugar contains a lot of calories, but nothing in the way of essential nutrients that you need for a balanced diet. There are no proteins, no essential fats, no vitamins and no minerals in sugar; nothing that will help your body in the long run. It is known as an empty calorie.
The reason sugar is bad for you lies in its construction. After eating sugar, but before it enters your bloodstream, it is broken down in two simple sugars, namely glucose and fructose (two of those monosaccharides that end in ‘ose’). Glucose appears in every living cell on earth and our body can produce it biologically if we don’t get enough. Fructose, on the other hand, isn’t produced in significant amounts by our body because we have no physiological need for it. The liver can metabolise it into glycogen, storing it as energy until we need it, but if there is too much of it, the liver becomes overloaded turning it into fat. Too much sugar equals too much fructose which equals too much fat. If this process is constantly repeated, then the fat can leave as cholesterol or become lodged inside the liver, which can lead to a number of more serious liver-related problems.
Once sugar reaches your bloodstream, your pancreas detects it and releases insulin to deal with it. Insulin is there to regulate the sugar levels in our blood and maintain balance, especially useful if you’ve consumed too much of it, but that’s where problems can arise. If too much insulin is released, blood sugar levels will drop as the body’s delicate equilibrium becomes unbalanced. This is know as hypoglycaemia, or a ‘sugar crash’ – the exact opposite of the common ‘sugar rush’ we sometimes experience – causing the body’s desire to take in more sugar to rebalance. The more this process is repeated, the more often the body’s alarm bells are triggered causing sugar, not be stored as energy, but stored as fat.
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As we mentioned earlier, sugar is more than just the white crystals you put in your tea or coffee. It plays a vital role in many of the foods we buy in the supermarket, including some you may not have realised. Sugar can be a deceptive ingredient. It would be easy to look at the list of ingredients on the packaging to see how much sugar it contains, but sugar goes by a number of pseudonyms. In actual fact there are over 50 different names for sugar in food including Dextran, Agave Nectar, Molasses and Panocha plus all our friends ending in -ose; fructose, glucose, dextrose, sucrose, etc. You may see more than one name appear, that’s just another way for food companies to include more sugar without drawing attention to it. Also, don’t be fooled by thinking because it comes later on in the list that there isn’t much of it, this is another deliberate ploy by manufacturers to disguise the fact that their food is full of sugar.
The World Health Organisation recommends that no more than 5% of your diet, or approximately 5 teaspoons per day, should be made up of sugar. It might not sound like a lot, but that can of Coca-Cola you had earlier, for example, contains around 35 grams (or 10 cubes) of sugar in one 330ml can. When looking for foods to buy, be aware of those containing ‘hidden sugar’. You may be surprised that food and drink you may consider healthy, are hiding a sweet secret. Volvic’s Touch of Fruit flavoured water may seem like a healthier alternative to Coke, or other fizzy carbonated drinks but it contains around 27.5g per 500ml serving. Similarly Yeo Valley 0% Fat vanilla yoghurt has almost 21 grams of sugar in a 150g and Heinz Tomato Soup has nearly 15 grams in each 300g can.
The best way to limit your intake of sugar is knowledge and discipline. Be vigilant to the ingredients in the food and drink you consume. Avoid processed foods wherever possible and get to know the various disguises that sugar comes in. Pay particular attention to the term ‘Carbohydrates (of which sugars)’ on food labels. You should be aiming for around 5g (or less) for every 100g. No-one said losing weight is easy, but by taking more care over what you eat, your weight loss journey will become a touch more bearable and even a little sweeter.