Sugars (simple carbohydrates) come in many different forms, but the body utilizes them all in much the same way. Glucose, the body's primary fuel, is the dominant sugar in the blood. The body makes glucose from complex carbohydrates (starches), proteins and fats. We do not have to consume any sugar to have enough glucose. The liver breaks down the sugars we eat while a hormone, insulin, allows the cells to absorb the glucose and use it for energy. What isn't needed for immediate energy is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, or is converted to fat and stored, usually in places we wish weren't there.

Sugar has been blamed for almost every health problem, from obesity to hyperactivity. While sugar may not be the culprit as claimed, there is some evidence that it may be responsible, at least in part, for some health problems. Sugar is not nearly as much of a problem for many people as eating too much fat. People gain weight when they consume more calories than they burn. Per gram, fat contains more than twice the calories of sugar (carbohydrate), so it is more likely that fat consumption will promote more weight gain than sugar. Analysis of food intake of thin people showed that they eat more sugar (but fewer fats) than obese people. Cookies, cakes and many sweets are also often high sources of fats, and what is called a sweet tooth may really be a craving for fats. No direct link has been found between heart disease and sugar consumption. While people who have diabetes should be careful about the amount and type of sugar they eat, there is no evidence that sugar causes this disease. The most probable risk factor for non-insulin dependent diabetes is obesity. For people eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular aerobic exercise, moderate sugar consumption is not usually a problem.

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is relatively rare, although many people who suffer from fatigue, light-headedness, drowsiness and anxiety often blame their symptoms on this disorder. Blood sugar rises after we eat a meal. As the pancreas makes insulin to allow the liver to utilize sugars and carbohydrates, blood sugar levels may drop somewhat for an hour or two. Most people do not suffer any negative effect from this normal process. Studies of people with chronic fatigue syndrome show that it is not related to blood sugar fluctuations.

A common myth is that sugar will give extra energy if taken before exercising or competing. Taking sweets just before a workout may bring on fatigue more rapidly, as the sugar triggers off the body's production of insulin, further lowering blood sugar available for quick energy. Marathons and triathlons are exceptions; if the workout lasts more than two hours, performance may be increased with a high energy snack during the event.

The belief that some children behave in unacceptable ways after eating sugar has been proven to be false. The same kids behave the same way without the sugar. Sweets are a pleasure food for most people. Many fruits are sought after mainly for their sweet taste, and are seldom eaten if not ripe, even though unripe fruit usually has equal nutritional value. It used to be thought that sugar is addictive, but there is no scientific evidence for this belief. Some people seem to be able to become addicted to almost anything, but this is more a reflection of their self-control than of any physical or chemical dependence. While we can all live without eating refined sugars, the control of sweets can be a serious problem for some people.

Food labelers often hide sugars in their products by calling them other names. They also use more than one kind of sugar so that sugar will not have to be listed first, as the most common ingredient. In a list of ingredients sugar can be called corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, glucose, sorbitol, mannitol, barley malt, grape sweetener, sorghum, lactose, maltose and honey. For example, if two of these hidden sugars are listed as the third and fourth ingredient, it may be that sugar is the greatest ingredient in the product.

A number of delicious products have come on the market, proudly proclaiming they are Fat Free and contain no refined sugars. Sweetened with fruit juices and concentrates, they are much more healthful than many traditional confections and may contain fiber, but they are still high in sugar. The result is high calories with less nutritional benefit than many natural foods. For those with less than perfect will-power, these products can become an irresistible temptation. Sweets often create a craving for more of the same, and can fill a person without providing the fiber and nutrients needed. If you have a weakness for sweets, be sure to limit your consumption to small amounts of these healthy products.

For a comparison of sweeteners, click here.

The pharmacy in your refrigerator will most likely amaze you. Almost all vegetables and fruits contain a combination of phytochemicals, compounds which help avoid cancer by preventing carcinogens from binding with DNA. They also increase the efficiency of the body's immune system. They can cause a form of a hormone, estrogen, to fragment into a harmless variant rather than the one that can lead to breast cancer. Broccoli is rich in these compounds. Tomatoes contain substances that prevent cancer causing cell unions. Garlic and onions may not prevent vampires, but they do activate enzymes which protect against stomach cancer and help reduce cholesterol. Berries and citrus fruits are rich in flavonoids that prevent cells from being joined with cancer-causing hormones. Soybeans, in their natural form or in tofu or miso, prevent some kinds of tumors connecting to capillaries, preventing them from growing. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, a substance known to keep toxins, like tobacco smoke, from binding with DNA, which can bring about lung cancer.

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation