Why Unicorns Won’t Quit Sugar!
“Stuck with another day, how should we pass it? If anything worked for you before —I’d give that preference.” – Mirabai, 16th Century
The thing about giving preference to sugar restriction, is that it can – at least at first – feel pretty good.
It can also – if harmful ingredients inside so called ‘high sugar’ foods, are inadvertently consumed less – be beneficial.
Either way, there will probably always be people talking about how much better they started to feel, after having removed some, or all, of the ‘sugar filled foods’ from their diet, but I believe they are largely confused about what has actually happened.
The vast majority, when making these claims, are referring to the removal from their diet, of a wide variety of completely different products, with different compositions, different ingredients added, and consequently, different effects.
And because individual metabolic circumstances or conditions, also range quite significantly – and approaches taken vary so much – ‘diet’ results will often be inconsistent and unreliable.
Here are some of the more common ways people approach the idea of sugar restriction, as well as some explanations for why they might believe – at least for a while – that a reduction in sugar consumption has been responsible for an improvement in metabolic health.
A typical line of attack for many who attempt to reduce sugar intake, is to begin by removing items considered to be the worst of the junk foods (fast food items, donuts and the like) popularly referred to as ‘high sugar’ foods.
It’s accurate to say that this is one way to (unintentionally at least) avoid certain toxic things (not sugar), that are in many of these foods. This can obviously be a good thing, but it is also not uncommon for the result of this to be an overall reduction in fuel intake, which can temporarily seem good, but which can also, in and of itself, lead to problems down the track.
“…dieting may…be deleterious to psychological well-being and biological functioning…monitoring one’s diet increased perceived psychological stress, and restricting one’s caloric intake increased total daily cortisol.”
The truth about most of the ‘junk foods’ is that they are filled with a range of harmful ingredients. Some have very little white sugar or sucrose in them at all. It is customary to find large quantities of the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), many types of chemicals and preservatives, as well as a variety of toxic gums, heavy metals, and other potentially harmful things.
“The most striking modification of the US food supply during the 20th century was the >1000-fold increase in the estimated per capita consumption of soybean oil from 0.006% to 7.38% of energy…The LA [linoleic acid] content of mature breast milk from American women increased from 6% to 7% to 15–16% of total fatty acids between 1945 and 1995…”
“Linoleic acid is the most prominent polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) in the Western diet… linoleic acid is the metabolic precursor of arachidonic acid and bioactive eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid…dietary linoleic acid could augment tissue arachidonic acid content, eicosanoid formation and subsequently enhance the risk of and/or exacerbate conditions associated with acute and chronic diseases (i.e., cancers, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, neurological disorders, etc.).”
Often the ‘sugar content’ in the ‘junk foods’ is in the form of carbohydrates from wheat glucose (and other varieties of pure glucose) or different grains and starches. Not so much sucrose anymore.
The polyunsaturated fats interfere with metabolic function. They promote digestive distress and chronic inflammation, and are partly responsible for the onset of the symptoms of degeneration – including obesity, diabetes and cancer – popularly blamed on white sugar ingestion.
“…a shift in dietary fats could be linked to physical inactivity and insulin insensitivity…high-fat…diets [corn oil (CO)]…reduced spontaneous locomotor activity…depressed activity…was accompanied by a lower respiratory ratio, hyperinsulinemia and impaired glucose disposal…”
There are plenty of reasons why removing ‘junk foods’ can lead to almost immediate metabolic improvements. Restriction in consumption of ‘refined’ white sugar isn’t high on the list.
The combination of PUFAs and starch can be particularly detrimental to metabolism. Together, starches and PUFAs can interfere with proper blood sugar regulation, promote insulin issues, and encourage the release of many inflammatory stress promoting substances.
“…increasing societal concern that consumption of specific foods such as sugar might become ‘addictive’ and, hence, promote weight gain…Overweight correlated only with addictive-like problems for high-fat savoury and high-fat sweet foods…while this was not found for foods mainly containing sugar.”
“Subjects…ingested…75 g glucose, orange juice, or water along with a 900-kcal HFHC meal (egg-muffin and sausage-muffin sandwiches and 2 hash-brown potatoes that contained 81 g carbohydrates, 51 g fat, and 32 g protein)…the intake of glucose and a HFHC meal are profoundly and rapidly proinflammatory…when orange juice was taken with the fast-food meal, there was no change in glucose concentrations…orange juice…prevents an…inflammatory response…in contrast to the…HFHC meal with glucose or water.”
Polyunsaturated fatty acids damage the ability of the cell to properly use sugar. Starch (and other complex carbohydrates) tend to raise blood glucose and insulin levels at a faster rate than fructose or simple white sugar (as well as promoting other potential issues). Reducing intake can lead to health improvements on numerous fronts.
“…these results suggest an inhibitory effect of fatty acids on glucose transport/phosphorylation…with a subsequent reduction in rates of glucose oxidation and muscle glycogen synthesis…FFA [free fatty acid] metabolism may play an important role in the pathogenesis of the insulin resistance observed in patients with NIDDM [Type 2 Diabetes]…”
“…the accumulation of PUFA from (n-6) and (n-3) series elicited an intracellular oxidative stress, resulting in the activation of oxidative stress-responsive transcription factors such as AP1 and NFkappaB.”
“Replacement of either glucose or sucrose by fructose resulted in significantly lowered peak postprandial blood glucose, particularly in people with prediabetes and type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Similar results were obtained for insulin.”
Avoiding PUFAs in particular, can lead to a reduction in the stress issues (often associated with hyperglycemia), which promote inflammatory disease states, that commonly get wrongly put onto sucrose or fructose consumption.
This can eventually allow for improved utilization of sugars remaining in the diet, better functioning energy systems, more regeneration potential, stronger digestion, more optimal immune system performance and an increase in overall metabolic health.
If, after PUFAs (and some other things) have been removed, there is still enough sugar being consumed – preferably from fruit and honey and white sugar – in combination with sufficient protein (and other important nutrients) from dairy products and some other sources, there is greater potential for the harmful effects of chronic stress and suppressed thyroid metabolism to start to fall away.
“…findings suggest that sucrose feeding may attenuate stress….the brain is vulnerable to a stressful environment…The brain is the most important site where glucose is used. If a massive amount of glucose is consumed in the brain during stress…it is possible that feeding a high-sucrose diet contributes to counteracting stress.”
“…when sucrose was substituted, resting metabolic rate rose toward baseline values even though total caloric intake was unchanged and weight loss continued. The sucrose-induced rise in resting metabolic rate was accompanied by a rise in serum triiodothyronine values, but not plasma insulin or norepinephrine concentrations…”
Often times sodas made of simple ingredients like cane sugar, caffeine and carbonated water (hint hint, also starts with c), are thrown out with ‘junk’ foods, missing the opportunity to experience some of their beneficial, therapeutic effects.
“…sugar may provide the fuel needed to meet the energetic demands of stress, which may reduce the need for glucocorticoid-driven energy catabolism and mobilization of the body’s energy stores…humans’ ingestion of sucrose, but not artificially, sweetened beverages reduced stress-induced increases in circulating cortisol.”
Some people make the decision to remove as many things from their diet which contain simple sugars (including sweet fruits and fruit juice), leaving starchy grains and vegetables as their sole carbohydrate source.
Rapid blood sugar rising impact aside, the ‘healthy complex carbs’ are composed of difficult to digest fibers and starches, as well as a variety of chemicals, known to interfere with digestive function.
Seeds, grains, nuts and legumes can be a major source of PUFAs, and PUFAs directly suppresses digestive function. These types of carbs can promote bacterial overgrowth, eventually causing an increase in endotoxin exposure, which in and of itself interferes with metabolic function and promotes inflammation.
“…bacterial LPS [endotoxin] deriving from the gut microbiota may trigger inflammation and oxidative stress in response to diets…“metabolic endotoxemia” has been shown to initiate or promote obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and finally diabetes…”
“…stress-induced increases in intestinal permeability, in combination with modern life-style factors, raise the possibility of translocation of bacteria and/or their toxins across the more permeable gut barrier. The resulting, long lasting, endotoxemia should be considered much more than just a risk factor for chronic disease; it could be a cause…”
All of this can encourage more stress and thyroid dysfunction, and can promote excessive levels of the inflammatory metabolism suppressing stress substances, including serotonin, estrogen, cortisol and nitric oxide.
“Bacterial and viral products, such as bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS) [endotoxin], induce inducible (i) NOS synthesis that produces massive amounts of NO [nitric oxide] toxic to the invading viruses and bacteria, but also host cells by inactivation of enzymes leading to cell death.”
These substances of stress have a basic physiological role, one of which is protecting against the harmful effects of insufficient energy provision or availability. When too high, or chronically raised, however, they add to or become part of the issue, and can even be deadly.
“Serotonin is a primal signaling molecule…that is implicated in the control of energy balance. Central serotonin is known to regulate energy balance by decreasing appetite through effects on the nervous system…serotonin is the first metabolite shown to be elevated in obesity…inhibiting…serotonin may be effective in reversing obesity and related clinical disorders such as NAFLD and type 2 diabetes.”
If, after the removal of the simple sugars, problems are worsened (or at least remain unresolved), it is common for the belief to be that this is because there is still too much ‘sugar’ left in the diet.
It might seem logical for the next step to be the removal of all carbohydrates, in order to go more deeply into sugar restriction territory, and this can often cement existing confusion by promoting symptom reduction, or creating an immediate improvement in feelings of well-being. This tends to be the result of the short term defensive response to increased stress, or to temporarily reduced metabolic needs, rather than an actual metabolic improvement.
Initially (at least until thyroid metabolism slows significantly in response to the stress of lack of energy supply), it is true that there can also be benefits which arise out of improvements in digestion, due the removal of many inflammatory hard to digest bacteria promoting things.
And it’s also true that this can possibly even lead to genuinely positive flow-on effects, where the liver is given the chance to function better, and systemic inflammatory issues are reduced.
But it would still be misleading to suggest that real health benefits have come directly from the removal of sugar from the diet, when in fact it is more often the reduction in consumption of specific kinds of metabolism or digestion interfering carbohydrates (and other things), which has been the important change.
In any case, many of the initial improvements have a tendency to be offset by rising stress and the reduction in metabolic function which can eventually occur, due to fuel being too restricted. Lack of protein can also play a part in this stressful thyroid suppressing state.
At this point, the inclusion of enough simple sugars and good quality protein might be wise. Regardless, some who have quit carbs, still report (at least for a period of time) symptom improvement and increased energy levels, combined with feelings that border on euphoria.
Many of the substances of stress which rise when sugar is restricted, can be responsible for the good feelings mentioned. With continued release however, inflammatory issues tend to worsen and positive effects likely diminish.
As well as this, when low sugar supply and rising PUFA circulation (as free fatty acids released for fuel) cause energy systems to slow down, immune function can be interfered with and, as I stated earlier, nutritional requirements can be temporarily defensively reduced.
This can easily look and feel like symptom recovery (it’s probably more like symptom avoidance or suppression) but long term damage to metabolic function, very often taking a while to become obvious, can be quite severe.
“…tumor growth was directly dependent on the plasma concentrations of linoleic and arachidonic acids…increased arterial blood plasma linoleic acid concentrations…specifically stimulate growth, lipid storage and linoleic acid metabolism in hepatoma…in vivo.”
“Reactive aldehydes produced by LPO [lipid peroxidation], such as 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal, malondialdehyde, acrolein, and crotonaldehyde, react directly with DNA bases…Modification of DNA bases by these electrophiles…is thought to contribute to the mutagenic and carcinogenic effects associated with oxidative stress-induced LPO.”
“…intakes of HAs [Heterocyclic amines formed when meat and fish are cooked at high temperatures] are not associated with breast cancer incidence in this Swedish cohort, but dietary patterns very high in omega-6 PUFA may promote breast cancer development.”
Sugar consumption directly fuels metabolism, suppresses stress, assists with the safe removal of PUFAs out of the system, and can help to limit the release of stored PUFAs, and other stressful inflammatory things into circulation, where they can wreak havoc.
“Carbohydrate deprivation, like diabetes, led to an impaired ability of endogenous insulin to suppress N.E.F.A. [free fatty acids] release…a rise in plasma-glucose concentration does produce a fall in plasma N.E.F.A.”
Sugar consumption helps thyroid metabolism to function more effectively in times of stress, helping with the production of the genuinely protective anti-stress hormones, such as pregnenolone and progesterone.
Sugar consumption assists with cholesterol production – and conversion into pregnenolone – and this is fundamental for protection against stress and disease.
“…the significant increase in complicated atherosclerotic lesions in the treatment group after cholesterol lowering by diet, and…the fact that high cholesterol predicts longevity rather than mortality in old people, suggests that the role, if any, of high cholesterol must be trivial….most likely…rather than promoting atherosclerosis, high cholesterol may be protective…”
If weight is gained as a result of excess sugar consumption – rather than from the consumption of fat – it is predominantly made up of the safer anti-inflammatory saturated fats. Having some fat stores – preferably not from PUFAs – can confer an advantage against stress.
“…overweight and obese patients who undergo cardiac surgery have a survival advantage over underweight, normal weight, and morbidly obese patients…At times of illness and stress, excess adiposity may confer an advantage…lowest survival following cardiac surgery in the underweight group…”
You probably won’t meet many people who can let go of the idea that quitting sugar is a good thing, at least until they have become noticeably unwell. Even then it can be difficult to let go of what is commonly an illusion, that sugar restriction once really helped.
Without a contextual understanding of why a person might feel better (or look better) when they restrict certain foods, it can easily seem logocal to conclude that it’s as simple as – ‘I quit sugar, I feel great, and this is going to last.’
Unfortunately however – even for unicorns – not all that glitters is gold.
Stories of suffering due to the crashing of metabolism (leading to chronic illness), arising out of extended periods of sugar restriction, are far from rare. But they are nowhere near as popularly publicized as the so called success stories.
“Exacerbated atherosclerosis occurred on the LCHP [low carb high protein] diet independent of significant alterations in traditional atherogenic serum lipids, serum inflammatory markers and histological indicators of inflammatory infiltration…an impaired ability to restore vascular function could accelerate atherogenesis despite comparable injury and inflammation.”
“An understanding of the mechanisms of aging is important for prevention of age-related diseases…Lipid accumulation in hepatocytes and morphological aberrations and hypertrophy in pancreatic islets were also promoted by a high-fat diet and aging…a high-fat diet accelerated aging in the liver…”
I’m not a doctor, or an expert of any sort, but I believe that there is a great deal of powerful evidence pointing to the conclusion that the most beneficial approach might be the least common approach, that is a diet free of PUFAs and limiting problematic starchy fibrous complex carbs, with sufficient protein and nutrients from milk, cheese and gelatin, and an abundance of sugar from sweet ripe juicy fruits, fruit juice, white sugar, honey, and even some sugary sodas or – as they are called in far away mythical lands – soft drinks.
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