We are suffering from a chronic disease epidemic.
The CDC reported that the leading causes for death in 2014 were from the following chronic diseases: heart disease, cancer, stroke, alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
614,348 people alone died of heart disease in 2014.
Chronic disease is responsible for 7 of 10 deaths each year, and treating people with chronic disease accounts for 86% of our nation’s health care costs.
One of the major culprits of chronic disease manifestation is chronic inflammation. (Another post is necessary to fully explain chronic inflammation, stay tuned!)
The focus of this post is one of the major culprits of chronic inflammation: Sugar.
Starting in the 1980s, the rise of processed food, combined with an emphasis on “low fat”, created a massive increase in sugar. At the same time food-marketing became deregulated, allowing food and beverage companies to market freely, encouraging Americans to buy sugarfied foods – (aka Lucky Charms and Coca-Cola).
With so much added sugar in our foods, it is no wonder how swiftly chronic disease rates have increased.
Let us show you why.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a specific form of carbohydrates. The simplest (smallest) carbohydrates are called monosacharides, which include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Table or granulated sugar is called sucrose, a disacharide made up of one unit each of glucose and fructose.
Table sugar is made from sugar beets and sugarcane. It is composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
Another type of sweetener that is also a major culprit in the increase in chronic disease (and obesity) is High Fructose Corn Syrup.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is made from corn starch and is cheaper in the United States because of corn subsidies. Unlike sugar, HFCS is composed of 45% glucose and 55% fructose. HFCS is prevalent in processed foods and soda.
Glucose and fructose each play damaging roles in regards to the body’s metabolism and overall inflammation levels, which we will go into below. To understand and make decisions for yourself, we find it very important to understand how sugars work in the body – as in how they are broken down, stored, etc. With this understanding, you have the ability to determine for yourself how to approach diet and eating.
Keep in mind the difference in these two “sugars” in regards to their glucose/fructose balance. It plays a big role in the consequences we are seeing population-wide in our overall health.
Let’s start by looking at what happens when you eat a sugar-filled cupcake (see below).
When the cupcake enters the stomach, it is broken down into its component nutrients, which are subsequently absorbed throughout the digestive tract. In this example, we are only going to focus on glucose and fructose, but honestly there are many other things in a typical cupcake worth considering in regards to health effects.
Free glucose (released by the digestion process in the stomach) is absorbed rapidly. This is due to the fact that sugar/HFCS are very small molecules (disaccharides, as described above) that are broken down quickly to their respective glucose and fructose components (monosaccharides).
Compare this to plant starch (such as in many vegetables, also known as fiber) which takes a long time for the digestive tract to break down for absorption (some fiber is not even digested at all).
Since these sugars are digested quickly, they are also quickly absorbed from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. The burst of glucose leads to a large spike in blood glucose levels.
This rapid digestion and absorption and subsequent surge in blood glucose causes what is known as the “sugar high” (and is often times followed by a sugar crash).
When glucose enters the bloodstream, it is the job of the hormone insulin to transfer it from the bloodstream to the cells of the body (very important since high levels of glucose in the blood for any extended period of time is toxic to the body).
Some glucose is used immediately by the various cells of the body for basic cellular mechanisms. But with the massive blood glucose loads that come from eating something like a cupcake, that extra glucose needs to be stored somewhere.
Insulin has 3 places where it can store glucose for later use – muscle, liver, and adipose (fat tissue). In the muscle and liver, glucose is converted to glycogen. Glycogen is used in the muscle for energy during activity. The liver, on the other hand, uses glycogen to maintain stable blood sugar level by converting glycogen back to glucose for release into the bloodstream.
The liver and muscle have limited storage capacity for glycogen. When these organs reach this capacity, the remainder of free glucose gets shunted to adipose (fat) cells where it is converted to fat for long-term fat storage.
An important point which I want to spend the next article in this series discussing is how sharp spikes in blood glucose leads to accumulation of fat tissue and an over-reliance on sugar-burning for overall body energy. Slower digesting carbohydrates do not cause these blood glucose spikes, allowing more stable energy levels and better use of fat stores for energy. Dietary fat also does not cause these spikes.
But for now, I want you to understand that glucose goes a few different places, and that simple sugar/glucose, and the large blood glucose spikes it causes, is one of the biggest culprits in fat/adipose generation.
Fructose is its own special kind of carbohydrate. Unlike glucose, fructose does not cause a significant insulin response. Likewise it does not cause a significant change in blood glucose levels (like glucose does), which makes sense since fructose is not glucose. This is why fructose has a low glycemic index, and why fructose has recently been touted as a “healthier” choice of sweetener.
Unfortunately, this is just not the case.
As you can see from the cupcake diagram above, when fructose is absorbed from the digestive tract, it is brought to the liver where it is converted straight into triglycerides (or free fatty acids). This conversion into fat that leads to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and the disease processes collectively known as metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, cholesterol abnormalities, insulin resistance, etc.)
In addition, the combination of glucose and fructose leads to a perfect storm of fat-tissue generation. The insulin spike created by a flood of glucose in the bloodstream not only causes deposition of glucose into adipose tissue, it also allows the triglycerides created from fructose to be deposited in adipose as well. The insulin spike also turns off the body’s ability to burn fat for energy.
What this means is this combo is a ridiculously potent recipe for weight gain and inflammation and with it, chronic disease.