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Sugar or Fructose — Which is the Better Choice?

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Sugar is a good thing. It tastes good and in small amounts as a treat, does not interfere with health. It’s excessive sugar and simple carbohydrates that lead to problems.

How much is too much? The average American consumes about 160 lbs. of sugars a year (gasp!), translated to about 40 teaspoonfuls a day. That’s way too much! One can of soda contains about 10 teaspoonfuls of sugar and a “can-a-day” habit can cause a 15 lb. weight gain in one year! One flavored yogurt serving can have as much as 7 teaspoonfuls of sugar. I won’t even get started on those fancy flavored coffee drinks.

Although 60% of our calories should come from carbohydrates, none of it needs to be from simple sugar. Fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, alcohol and sugars are all carbohydrate sources.

How is sugar processed in the body? All carbohydrate foods cause a rise in the blood level of sugar. In response, the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin’s job is to carry sugar from the blood to the cells for use, and to carry the excess to be processed and stored as fat for later use. Our best health results from getting most of our carbohydrate needs met with low-glycemic carbs. like most fruits, vegetables and beans, because they release sugar more slowly into the blood causing a lower rise in insulin levels. This is the way it works when we eat healthfully and everything is working right.

Problems start when we consume too much carbohydrate, or too much high-glycemic carbohydrate, or too much food of any type at one time. This causes a rapid rise in blood sugar with an excess of insulin released. The excess insulin causes too much sugar to be carried to the cells and too much to be stored as fat. When the cells are bombarded with so much sugar, they start to refuse entry and become what’s referred to as insulin-resistant. As a protective mechanism, they resist the effects of insulin, causing the pancreas to release even more of it in response to rising blood sugar. This exaggerated level of insulin then causes blood sugar levels to crash too quickly, resulting in sugar cravings, hunger and increased appetite, creating a vicious cycle of eating more and more carbs. Then the adrenal glands pump out stress hormones in an effort to balance the rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels, which leads to a whole host of additional problems.

High blood sugar and insulin levels create all kinds of symptoms and diseases in the body including accelerated aging, weight gain, mood swings, anxiety, heart disease, high cholesterol and triglycerides, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, weakened immunity, and plaque formation in the blood vessels. Insulin also increases inflammation, escalating the symptoms of all inflammatory diseases like arthritis, asthma, allergies, and is the cause of most chronic disease.

Is fructose a better choice? Fructose and high fructose corn syrup are now the added sugar of choice in packaged foods, and even some “nutritional products”. Because fructose does not cause a rise in insulin levels it was believed to be the healthy choice when it was first introduced in the 1970s. But much has been discovered since then about the effects of fructose and it is definitely not a healthy choice. Of course, the small amounts of naturally occurring fructose in fruits are not a problem. It’s the chemical fructose and the excessive amounts that are the problem.

Because fructose is metabolized in the body in a completely different way than most other sugars, a whole host of problems have been discovered with excessive fructose consumption. One significant effect is the hormones that regulate appetite and satiation are not activated. Therefore, one may continue to desire and consume more and more of a fructose-sweetened product, without ever feeling satisfied.

My recommendation right now is to make sure fructose and high fructose corn syrup aren’t ingredients in most of the products you are using. Look at your nutritional products as well, like protein powders, meal replacements, supergreen foods and vitamin products.

A little sugar goes a long way. A small sugar treat once or twice a week should not interfere with a healthy diet. But it’s important to look at the whole picture of how you are consuming all carbohydrates to be sure you have a complete and balanced diet.

See the newsletter archives for two other articles. The effect of sugar on the immune system is addressed in “Balance your Immune System and Stay Healthy This Winter”. If your looking to replace those sugary drinks with healthier options see, “What is There to Drink?”.