If you were alive in the 1980s, you may recall the statistic widely broadcast that every can of Coke® has nine teaspoons of sugar. We used Coke® as the measure of all things bad in our diet. That number has increased to ten.(1) Unfortunately, we’ve been steadily increasing the amount of sugar in other beverages, too – some sugar-sweetened drinks contain up to 16 teaspoons.(2) Not only has sugar been on the rise in soda, but most of today’s package foods contain sugar or some other kind of sweetener.
Sadly, packaged foods make up the bulk of the Standard North American Diet.(3) John Robbins, the biological heir to the Baskin-Robbins® ice cream fortune, turned down the opportunity to take over his family enterprise when he learned what the Standard North American Diet was doing to people. He writes in his book, Healthy at 100, that as of 2006:
“The average American consumes 53 teaspoons of sugar per day.”
That number might seem impossible. It is the equivalent of a five-pound bag of sugar being consumed by every man, woman, and child every ten days. A major source of caloric intake in North Americans has become soda, which is packed with sugar. In fact, many of the lemon-lime drinks contain more sugar per serving than the traditional cola drinks.
In 1996, the average American consumed 55 gallons of soda per year. In 2012, that amount fell to 44.7 gallons per year. Unfortunately the reduction of consumption in soda was replaced with, in addition to water choices, other non-carbonated beverages containing sugar including juice and fortified waters.(4) Beverages make up 30% of a teenager’s caloric intake, and 9 – 16% of that is made up of sweetened drinks and fruit juices.(5) Teenage girls who consume soda are three times more likely to have a bone fracture than girls who do not.(6)
Families switching to juice aren’t doing their children any favors either. American children between the ages of six and eleven each consume approximately 19 gallons of juice per year — and each serving of juice, on average, contains more sugar than a serving of soda.
We don’t need any added sugars in our diet at all. And the government gives us a recommended maximum intake of sugar. The World Health Organization has also instituted its own guidelines. Even by conventional standards, a typical diet should include no more than 130 calories from added sugar. A 20-ounce can of soda has more than twice that many.(2)
If you look in your pantry, you may be surprised to find sugar added to your pasta sauce, lunch meats, canned soups, condiments, and even table salt. For that reason, it doesn’t take much to reach your 53 teaspoons per day. Robbins makes the important point in Healthy at 100 that in countries where it is a cultural norm to reach the age of 100, the population consumes no refined sugar whatsoever.
Unfortunately, Robbins’ numbers may be an underestimate. Although “white foods” (white bread, white rice, and white pasta) may not list many grams of sugar on their labels, the moment the food touches the digestive enzymes in saliva it breaks down into simple sugar within seconds. And that contributes to overall sugar consumption. Starting with refined flour, these white foods make up the base of the traditional food pyramid. And although governments recommend that we consume more whole grains on a regular basis, even the “whole,” healthy foods are often disguised. Robbins noted in Healthy at 100 that “whole wheat” bread in the grocery store typically has “whole wheat” added to white flour, which in its simplest form is sugar.
What is the deal with sugar?
Sugar is cheap and addictive. These two qualities make it the perfect additive to nearly every boxed food in today’s grocery store. Those boxed foods are “tasty”, and often less expensive than healthier options like fruits and vegetables. There is a correlation between low-income households and the amount of prepared, packaged and fast foods they consume. Unfortunately, those foods with added sugars contain the number one food risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. (7)
While you may be trying to do your best by switching to “natural” and “organic” brands, don’t be fooled. Organic sugar, maple syrup, honey, and cane juice, while less processed than white sugar, have the same negative impact on your body. The emphasis should be on the word “sugar,” not the word “organic.” While organic manufacturers must meet guidelines to label their foods organic, those guidelines don’t mean they must exclude sugar. And organic sugar is still sugar.
If you’ve attempted to eliminate white flour from your diet, and have moved strictly to whole grains, think again. You may be shocked to see refined flour appear on food labels, in addition to a whole host of other additives. If you have done very well and selected items that contain only “100 percent whole grains,” it is only a matter of seconds before your body breaks down the fiber, germ, and bran of the grain, leaving the endosperm, the sugar of the plant, to wreak havoc on your body.
Historically, our sugar has come from processing sugar cane. However, sugar cane grew in limited quantities on North American soil, and a more economical source of sugar was soon derived from the cornfields of the Midwest: high-fructose corn syrup. More potent than white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is now used in soda — which explains why sugar levels in soda and other sweetened drinks has been increasing.
Corn is now the number one source of sugar products used in America, specifically in its derivatives including corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn meal, cornstarch, dextrose, xanthan gum, and maltodextrin. Wheat is the biggest North American source of refined flour, which may not be listed as sugar on the label, but nonetheless will cause the same problems.
So, why is there so much talk about the consumption of sugar? After all, we’ve traditionally been taught that it is excess fat that causes heart disease and obesity, while sugar provides energy and is acceptable in moderation. In truth, we are now learning that the increased consumption of refined carbohydrates is playing a greater role in heart disease and in obesity. The CBC and TVO in Canada have recently aired prominent specials to this affect!
When sugar enters the body, it is broken down into its simplest form for appropriate use. The sugar is then moved into the bloodstream for transport. The body can function in a state of health — homeostasis — and optimal performance when there are approximately 1-2 teaspoons of sugar in the bloodstream.(8) In greater quantities, your body faces the risk of coma, or even death. Therefore, when faced with excess sugar, as it is daily in North Americans, the body uses insulin to move the sugar out of the blood and into the cells so that it can be used for energy. Because the average North American consumes and has so much sugar available in the body, not all of it can be used as energy. Because the average North American consumes and has so much sugar available in the body, not all of it can be used as energy. Therefore, the body must do something with the excess sugar that shows up in the cells. The body’s solution: store the excess sugar as fat.
Type II Diabetes
In order for your body to use sugar in its cells for energy (rather than leaving it in the bloodstream), it requires the hormone insulin to move sugar across the cell membrane. Insulin, produced by the pancreas, binds to insulin receptors on the cell membrane to bring sugar into the cells to be converted into energy. While this system is effective with reasonable levels of sugar in the bloodstream, the constant bombardment of sugar and elevation of insulin eventually causes the insulin receptors to burn out. The result is elevated blood sugar, in other words: diabetes. The long-term complications of diabetes include vision damage, kidney dysfunction, heart disease, neurological paraesthesia in the body, and poor healing of wounds, which can lead to amputation of limbs.
The good news is that attention to diet (specifically eliminating consumption of sugar and grains, and eating good fats and healthy proteins) can reverse the damage done by years of sugar consumption, helping type-2 diabetics to restore normal body chemistry, and to regenerate the insulin receptors previously destroyed.
In 1931, German Professor Otto Warburg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his studies showing that cancer cells and tumors generate energy by glycolysis, the non-oxidative breakdown of glucose in the absence of oxygen. Fundamentally, Dr. Warburg hypothesized that cancer cells use sugar as their main source of energy, in contrast with healthy cells, which use oxygen.
When insulin levels become high, in response to high blood sugar, the liver releases IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor), which causes the cells of the body to grow in the presence of food. Cancer cells have eight times the number of receptors of IGF-1 than do healthy cells of the body and therefore utilize sugar as their primary fuel. Furthermore, IGF-1 has an estrogen-like action, making it very dangerous in hormone-responsive cancers, such as breast cancer. IGF-1 also promotes the formation of blood vessels in tumors, allowing cancers to grow and spread.(9)
Not only does sugar feed cancerous cells, it also impedes the function of the immune system, which would otherwise identify and destroy potentially mutated and harmful cells.
Remember, cancer is not caught like a cold. We all have 100 to 10,000 cancer cells in our body at any moment in time. The way to prevent cancer cells from spreading is to maintain a strong immune system and not fuel them with their number one food choice: sugar.(7)
The above figure illustrates the increased incidence of pancreatic cancer in men as correlated with levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Dr. Otto Warburg, a pioneer in cancer research, proposed that sugar in the bloodstream was the biggest cause of the proliferation of cancer cell growth in the human body in his book The Prime Cause and Prevention of Cancer (1966).
“Cancer, above all other diseases, has countless secondary causes. But, even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar.” ~ Dr. Otto Warburg
While medical theorists and pharmaceutical companies have proposed many other causes of cancer since Dr. Warburg’s research, his principle that cancer cells switch to glycolysis remains widely accepted today and continues to be utilized in the development of cancer drugs.(10, 11) However, wouldn’t it make better sense to eliminate the cause of the problem, rather than develop medications to combat the symptoms?
What About Fruit?
If we eliminate sugar and other natural sweeteners, and we eliminate the carbohydrates that turn into sugars, such as grains and starches, how can we get our sweetness fix?
First, let me say that sweetness is an acquired taste, a habit, even an addiction. If we were eating food in its purest form, fresh from the garden, any sweetness we could taste would be as it was naturally provided in the food. We have become desensitized to that delicate sweet flavor. Onions are loaded with sweetness, especially Vidalia onions. Red peppers, almonds, even milk have their own degree of sweetness that we can barely taste because we have become so accustomed to the overload of added sugar in our foods.
If you have a desperate need for sweetness, fresh fruit can satisfy that craving. So the big question that arises is whether the sugar in fruit will contribute to illness and disease in the same way. The answer is a qualified no. Eating the whole fruit means that the body is absorbing phytonutrients, antioxidants and fibre that counteract the impact of the sugar in fruit and slow down the absorption of the fructose in the fruit to a level that can be managed by the body’s system of converting and storing sugar. (12) Fruit is the unqualified best source of sweetness in your diet, and it comes with fibre, water, other nutrients and sometimes fat and protein (in avocados for example).
Of course, everything in moderation, which is the qualified part of the qualified no. Fruits vary in the amount of sugar they contain. Some are extremely sweet and others have a slight sweetness. Berries and green apples have a low glycemic index (the length of time it takes to digest and absorb the nutrients in the food). We definitely want to balance fruit, vegetable and protein consumption to get the best nutrient mix for our body’s use. Even the most natural of sugars will have a lesser negative impact on the body when consumed with protein, fat, or fibre.
You can do it! As you begin to “lick the sugar habit,” your body may take time to adjust its physiology and taste buds. However, countless success stories of sugar abandonment will keep you motivated to keep making the best choices for your health.