Uncle Sam and George are too
There is a new piece on sugar in the latest National Geographic that is fantastic and painting the story of sugar and illness that the world is faced with right now.
It is short, yet manages to piece together the important strands of:
Why is sugar bad for us?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that the badness of sugar is related to calories, which misses the point. What is really happening?
If you eat too much sugar in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, your liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides.
Some of these fats stay in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. But a lot of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood too. Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin, trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition known as metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterized by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can lead to type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attack thrown in for good measure.
“It has nothing to do with its calories,” says endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco. “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses.”
How did we get here? Why would we crave something that is so bad for us?
This is so key.Why would our bodies let us down like this? Our bodies are so good at protecting us in so many ways. Miraculous even.
It comes down to the stories of evolution, and geo-politics accelerating us to a point where evolution can’t help fix the problem.
On evolution we go back to the apes:
One day, perhaps five million years later, a cold wind blew through this Eden. The seas receded, the ice caps expanded. A spit of land emerged from the tides, a bridge that a few adventurous apes followed out of Africa. Nomads, wanderers, they settled in the rain forests that blanketed Eurasia. But the cooling continued, replacing tropical groves of fruit with deciduous forests, where the leaves flame in autumn, then die. A time of famine followed. The woods filled with starving apes. “At some point a mutation occurred in one of those apes,” Johnson explained. It made that ape a wildly efficient processor of fructose. Even small amounts were stored as fat, a huge survival advantage in months when winter lay upon the land and food was scarce.
Then one day that ape, with its mutant gene and healthy craving for rare, precious fruit sugar, returned to its home in Africa and begot the apes we see today, including the one that has spread its sugar-loving progeny across the globe. “The mutation was such a powerful survival factor that only animals that had it survived,” Johnson said, “so today all apes have that mutation, including humans. It got our ancestors through the lean years. But when sugar hit the West in a big way, we had a big problem. Our world is flooded with fructose, but our bodies have evolved to get by on very, very little of it.”
It’s a great irony: The very thing that saved us could kill us in the end.
Sugar made its way from Guinea to Asia, and then Europe got into the game:
Perhaps the first Europeans to fall in love with sugar were British and French crusaders who went east to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel. They came home full of visions and stories and memories of sugar.
And then everything went quickly downhill from there:
In 1493, when Columbus set off on his second voyage to the New World, he too carried cane. Thus dawned the age of big sugar, of Caribbean islands and slave plantations, leading, in time, to great smoky refineries on the outskirts of glass cities, to mass consumption, fat kids, obese parents, and men in XXL tracksuits trundling along in electric carts.
I have found that I had an addiction, and it is hard to break. Some studies show how it compares to cocaine, nicotine and other drugs. It isn’t anything to be sniffed at.
It could be time for an “A A” for sugar.
I find it interesting that one of tools that I use to stop a craving reminds me of smokers trying to change their habits. I use gum. Instead of nicotine gum, I use Xylitol gum because it seems to be a decent alternative. I do worry about how good it really is and try to keep it to a minimum (e.g. gum, not putting other sugar in items that I consume… I switched the black coffee), and am trying to change behavior so I don’t crave sweetness in general.
I have other tricks up my sleeve too. I drink plenty of water (now!) which fills me up, I use coffee time as another excuse to put something in my mouth (addicted to caffeine though, which I justify via the research on how coffee is good for you and can boost your metabolism [note the info on how it can have the opposite effect!]) and I get out for exercise, which seems to help too.
Little Sugar Addicts
When you think sugar, you also think about the kids. I just got the book Little Sugar Addicts in the mail and look forward to learning about how to help bring some of the tricks to my children and help shed the addiction from the entire family.
As an addict though, I know that the battle may be constant. One question comes to mind, unlike with cigarettes, is there a “safe” amount? Is my cheat day OK?
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