Sugar wreaks more biochemical havoc than a century of wars – just in slow motion of pain and inflammation. It’s time to quit sugar.
Sugar. I spent four and a half decades in her embrace – fondling her thousand and one manifestations.
She was sweet, loving and caring. On a regular day she would give me energy, drive and motivation. On rainy days she’d reward me with compassion or thinly veiled indifference. And when the shit hit the fan, she’d help me forget both the shit and the fan.
Sugar was there from the beginning. She entered my crib in the form of treats. She sang a lullaby and dripped a sweet substitute for mother’s milk. Later, she took my hand and guided me through life’s ups and downs.
I swam with her, intoxicated, as a juvenile, a bachelor, an addict and a multiholic. I felt lost without her, and focused and determined with her. Together we hit the rat race and rode life’s roller coaster, fueled by a Western diet. And after every day of grind, it was her comfort and warmth that I looked forward to, without understanding why.
I didn’t know that she was history’s most prolific assassin.
Nor did I know that life doesn’t actually move like a roller coaster, except on and off sugar.
Either fact is going to be hard to accept, at first. Unless we belong to the Yanomami tribe in Venezuela, or other off-the-grid indigenous people who remain uncompromised by modern diet and Western living standards, we’re most likely still within her grasp, brain fogged.
Sugar messes with both body and mind
Sugar operates in mysterious, multitudinous ways, custom tailored to our individual psychology. She is an empress and a dominatrix, operating on the deepest levels of our subconscious, both individually and collectively.
Today, sugar seems to be nowhere, yet she is everywhere, from staple to culture. When someone dies, we mourn with sugar. When someone is born, we celebrate with sugar. And in between these two events, we eat sugar.
It’s a mistake to associate her with just the sweet stuff. She hides in 80 percent of the processed foods. Her safe house is refined carbs, anything that is canned, processed or packaged. She is wheat, all forms of grains, bread, pies, dough, pasta, couscous, chips, tortillas, soda, yoghurt, rice, pizza, bagels, jams, cereals, waffles, energy bars, muffins, ice cream, syrups, fruit, flour, oatmeal and a thousand others. She is two-thirds of the Healthy Eating Pyramid. She goes hand-in-hand with booze. She shape shifts, mixes and hides in forms that are invisible to her concubines.
There is both a biochemical and emotional edge to her deadly brilliance. The truth about sugar also happens to be the truth about our civilization.
How We Became Her Junkies
A baby with the expectant eyes of a delighted junky will reject her mother’s milk in favor of sugary water (which has zero nutritional value). Children shut up when we give them the standard parental shut-up remedy: candy. An alcoholic in withdrawal eats a Mars bar for relief, per the Alcoholics Anonymous manual. A lab rat that has been addicted to cocaine with intravenous shots, will switch to sugary water in record time.
Sugar is not a nutrient. It’s a drug. And we are her addicts in denial.
In The Case Against Sugar, author Gary Taube tells the story of a pharmacist who got addicted to morphine after being wounded in the Civil War. John Pemperton tried to wean himself off the habit with a mix of sugar, water, caffeine and cocaine. The mixture worked so well that it became the world’s most popular drink. By 1938, a Kansas newspaper editor wrote about Coca-Cola as the “sublimated essence of all that America stands for.”
The removal of cocaine from Pemberton’s secret recipe didn’t slow down Coke’s growth; it enabled it. Coke became the world’s most widely distributed product, and the second-most-recognized word on Earth. (“Okay” is first.)
The secret behind Coke’s “secret formula,” of course, was and is sugar. (One quart, or liter of Coke contains 28 sugar cubes.)
Or take tobacco. Only after R.J. Reynolds dipped their tobacco in sugar in 1913, followed by the rest of the tobacco industry, did cigarettes became more inhalable and addictive. This drove the worldwide explosion in cigarette smoking, and the first lung-cancer epidemic in human history, with today’s cancer death rate due to smoking at 1 in 4.
The addictive nature of sugar is intimately related to the same biochemical nature of illegal drugs, booze and pharmaceuticals, although most scientific studies avoid making this parallel.
Alcohol, opioids, cocaine and other psycho-stimulants work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin regulates our feeling of well-being and happiness. Sugar achieves this effect by allowing a serotonin building block, tryptophan, to enter the brain at a rapid rate. You can test it yourself by eating chocolate, which is rich in both sugar and tryptophan.
When we eat a refined carb snack, we also take an opiate-like hit, along with a drop of comfortable numb and a bit of pleasurable buzz. That’s because sugar also activates enkephalins and endorphins, morphine-like painkillers and pleasure drivers. And beta-endorphins, which stimulate cravings for more sugar and refined carbs. And dynorphins, a class of opioid peptides that increase overall craving.
In the same vein as a classic drug addict, a sugar abuser will incrementally up his dose to stimulate dwindling tryptophan levels in the brain. Just a little bit more. The genius, pull-push motivational mechanism of sugar is both biochemical and emotional. Every bite becomes another nudge that speeds our biochemical tailspin. A tailspin that starts in childhood, with every little piece of comfort and reward.
It’s the surplus and deficit of sugar that appears as “life’s ups and downs”
The difference between sugar and Schedule 1 drugs like heroin and cocaine is that the biochemical damage of sugar accrues slower. And because sugar works invisibly, the damage goes deeper.
Because the drug-sugar analogy goes against everything we’ve been taught, we tend to ask defensive questions.
“If sugar is so bad, why did we evolve a sweet tooth?”
“Why does the human tongue, roof of the mouth and throat carry special receptors for sugar?”
“Why do babies light up with a smile when sugar hits their palate?”
“Why does Aunt Betty finally shut up and stop complaining 10 seconds after having her chocolate cake?”
“Shouldn’t millions of years of hominid evolution have taught us better?”
“So why didn’t someone label this stuff with skull images?”
Relative to the environmental problems, wars and all other conflicts that are going on in the world, sugar seems like a minor infraction. We downplay it. We tend to do comparative judgements on what is, more or less, “bad” versus “good” to eat, but oddly the comparison tends to always favor foods with sugar in them.
Instead of examining sugar as an ethical or dietary choice, we need look at its influence on natural selection, evolution and our biochemistry. Both humans and plants evolved with sugar through millions of years of trial and error, to survive and procreate.
For the early humans and their hominid predecessors, life consisted of gathering and hunting food on a daily basis. Our biochemistries adapted to intermittent starvation as a norm. Coming across fruit was a rare delicacy, reserved for spring and summer, for a reason.
Dr. Richard Johnson, an expert in leptin and insulin resistance, argues in his book The Fat Switch that the metabolic syndrome (having excessive fat) is a biochemical condition to protect us against famine while we were still roaming the plains as hunter-gatherers. Excess fat is activated by an enzyme called fructokinase, which is triggered by fructose, aka fruit sugar. Fructose basically accumulates as fat directly and doesn’t tell us when we’re full, so that the early hominoid could gain the extra few pounds of energy reserves to get to his next destination, with a bit of buffer for the winter.
That extra fat was not intended to stay there
Excess fat around the belly is not a body type, it’s a sign of a metabolic disease that wears and tears us on a cellular level, depleting both body and mind. But sugar doesn’t care about that. It’s sole purpose is entrapment.
Our sweet taste buds evolved to spot the sources for this precious burst of energy. It probably saved more than a few hunters who migrated across the great plains in search of new sources of energy. For the plant, or fruit, that carried her sweet taste, sugar became a way to guarantee survival.
The fruit plant learned to propagate by having herbivores and carnivores “hitchhike” its progeny across the plains. The reward for the carrier was a hit of energy and momentary sense of well-being. Plants have evolved thousands of ways to attract seed carriers, ranging from little parachutes that get carried away by the wind to psychoactive substances that attract the prey to alter their states of consciousness. Yet sugar won the natural selection battle for the best entrapment drug.
Millions of years of natural selection made fructose a leading psychoactive stimulant in helping plants build their dominion. We learned to differentiate the lush fruit that was “ripe” for us to eat by color, taste and smell, unwittingly making ourselves the taxi drivers of plant heritage.
The Paleo man got his sugar high at best once every few weeks during the summer season. He certainly wasn’t digesting 170 lbs of fructose per year (or eating a life-size sugar statue of himself) in highly refined form, like the average Westerner does today. To replicate modern levels of fructose consumption, the hunter and gatherer would have needed to eat about 30 apples per day, every day, for 365 days per year. That doesn’t leave much time for either hunting or gathering. Instead, the hunter would transform into a shapeless prey, unable to keep up with the tribe. Eventually, the hyenas would catch up with him.
The hyenas are also catching up with us. The average modern man and woman is high on fructose, non-stop, 24/7/365. Table sugar, also known as sucrose, is made out of fructose and glucose in equal proportions. Even if we manage to say no to sucrose, we still get our hit from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a universal ingredient that’s hiding in practically all processed and packaged foods today. HFCS is also half fructose. Even if you make a conscious effort to avoid refined fructose, you’re probably still eating it in hidden forms.
Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist and author of The Third Chimpanzee, has an apt analogy about the introduction of refined carbs into our diets. Imagine the evolutionary journey from a chimpanzee to human as a 24-hour clock. Every hour represents 100,000 years of past time. We go through night, dawn, afternoon, day, evening … all the way to minutes before midnight, as hunter-gatherers, eating high-fat, low-carb diets. During this time, fruit is a rare delicacy. At 11:54 PM, we get the idea to separate plants and animals with a fence, in order to grow monocultures like cane sugar, corn, wheat and other grains, the cornucopia of carbs that we recognize as the birth of agriculture, and thereby civilization.
The shift to modern civilization was rapid enough to present a toxic dump on our virgin biochemistry. Our cells were attacked, unprepared. After the evolution of a particular lifestyle for over two million years – actually seven million if you include our great ape ancestors – we switched to a high-carb diet only six minutes before midnight (or 10,000 years go). That’s the time you should be in bed.
In the same vein, refined sugar, which is the crack cocaine version of carbs, hit us in the last 0.36 seconds of our existence (the 20th century). That’s about the same time it takes to shove an adrenaline syringe into the heart of a comatose junkie, a’la Pulp Fiction.
No wonder we’re having problems adapting to her sweet, refined forms.
Our biochemistries weren’t expecting the invasion of processed carbs
In 1822, when Americans still consumed 6 lbs of sugar per year, a British army surgeon needed nearly two decades to pinpoint two diabetes cases in the Wild West. Today, 80 million have pre-diabetes and 29 million have type 2 diabetes in the U.S. Soon, up to half of the population is expected to have diabetes.
Sidney Mintz, professor of anthropology, estimates that the Brits were eating 4 lbs of sugar per person per year in 1704 and 90 lbs in 1901, a 22-fold increase over the colonial heydays. No one had the guts to tell Queen Elizabeth that her teeth had turned black in the late 16th century, or that her Majesty’s army had a hard time finding recruits without rotten dentures. Dental issues only appeared after sugar entered our diets. Pre-agricultural skeletons had perfect teeth.
Two missionary physicians who arrived in Kenya in the 1920s wrote that “hypertension and diabetes were absent… the native population was as thin as ancient Egyptians.” It took 40 years of British high-carb diets to convert the slim Kenyans into obese Africans with a host of health issues, starting with tooth decay and leading to “gout, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, and eventually encompassing all of them,” the missionaries observed.
India was similarly transformed into the “Diabetes Capital of the World” with British-introduced nutrition habits in half a century, after millennia of natural, healthy eating habits. Western diets literally wiped out the perfectly healthy Inuit, the Native Americans, the Zulus, the Natal Indians, Polynesian cultures, Yanomamo and Xingu Indians of Brazil, and whoever else was either forcibly or willingly acculturated to our lifestyle.
The problem of sugar boils down to a hormonal imbalance
The two hormones that manage our energy and metabolism, leptin and insulin, adapted over millions of years for us to survive in unpredictable environments.
Leptin tells us when to stop eating. The “satiety hormone” is stored all over our body inside our fat cells. As more fat accumulates, more “I’m full”-signals are received by the brain via the hypothalamus.
Insulin, aka the “energy storage” hormone, is produced by the pancreas. It tells our cells to convert the new energy into cellular fuel (ATP) or store it as fat for later use, effectively balancing our energy needs.
The normal process goes like this. Eating sugar releases insulin. Insulin makes cells convert sugar (glucose) into glycogen (ATP). Excess glucose is turned into triglycerides (fat) and distributed around the body. The extra fat increases leptin levels. Extra leptin, in turn, tells the brain that the body’s energy requirements have been satisfied.
This is a delicate, predictive hormonal cycle that helped our ancestors achieve an optimal weight-and-energy-burn balance. We could run fast, hunt, and avoid predators while also carrying adequate, but not excessive, energy reserves.
Civilization changed all that. A high and constant sugar intake desensitizes the leptin and insulin receptors in our tissues, cells, muscles and organs, causing us to remain hungry, even though our fat and energy reserves are plentiful .
Sugar desensitizing means that even though leptin and insulin levels rise, the receptors for these hormones don’t pay attention. They’ve been “fed up” with the constant bombardment of the respective hormones.
Imagine going into a college dorm room crammed with sweaty sports clothes. After a few minutes, you forget about the stink because your nose becomes desensitized to the stimuli. The same goes for the hormone receptors, except this time we’re dealing with a much bigger problem than smelly socks. In the hormonal world, the problem is known as leptin and insulin resistance.
”In a healthy fat cell, rising leptin levels cause leptin receptors to release triglycerides to use for energy. In leptin-resistant fat cells, the receptors are clogged with triglycerides, and no fat is being released for energy,” points out Richard Byron in The Leptin Diet.
Insulin resistance on muscle, fat and liver cells means that their ability to absorb glucose from the bloodstream is hindered. As a result, the pancreas goes on overdrive, trying to drive down blood sugar levels with even more insulin. The oversupply of insulin desensitizes the tissues, organs and cells to become even more insulin resistant, in a downward spiral. Over time this will likely evolve into pre-diabetes and finally type 2 diabetes. It’s the flush of intermittent insulin that is so destructive to the body, like the engine damage you would get from cranking high RPM on first gear.
According to Dr. Dimitris Tsoukalas, founder of Metabolomic Medicine, a medical branch that specializes in identifying and preventing blockades to energy metabolism, by the time diabetes has been diagnosed, “damage to coronary arteries has already occurred in 50 percent of patients… because of high levels of insulin.”
Note: Modern medicine advocates insulin shots for Type 2 diabetes, when the problem in fact has to do with excessive sugar intake rather than insufficient insulin production. Hence, the insulin damage is exacerbated further with insulin shots under the standard protocol.
The typical symptoms for a pre-diabetic or metabolic syndrome (high levels of insulin, triglycerides, excess weight, high blood pressure, inflammation) appear several years before the onset of diabetes and/or other chronic complications.
Fructose is the Darth Vader of carbs, in that it also features what Dr. Johnson termed the “Fat Switch” function, a powerful chemical trigger for storing fat. Most of the fructose is processed into fat in the liver, without entering the bloodstream. This is the reason why Glycemic Index (GI), the measure of how “harmful” different foods may be to diabetics, is misleading. Fructose hardly shows up in the GI since it hardly shows up in the bloodstream.
The more refined the carb, the more fructose, the faster our cells become desensitized, and the more fat is produced, distributed and stored in the body.
We weren’t designed to eat and get hungry every few hours. In fact, it’s not hunger. It’s withdrawal.
Fat doesn’t make us fat. Sugar and processed carbs do.
The alpha and the omega of civilization
Sugar lies at the root of our cumulative health problems. The direct and indirect health effects related to sugar consumption are hard to assess. Or, it’s more accurate to say that no one has really properly assessed the damage because our focus is on other “threats.”
Take, for example, the terrorism threat, which is responsible, on average, for one (1) American death per year since 9/11, the day three skyscrapers collapsed at free fall speeds for the first time in skyscraper history.
Or take drugs.
- About 570,000 people die annually from drug use in the US
- 480,000 of those are tobacco related (indirectly related to sugar)
- 31,000 are due to alcohol (indirectly related to sugar)
- 23,000 are related to pain medication
- 22,000 are due to Schedule 1 drug abuse (heroin, cocaine and other “hard core” substances)
All disease is cumulative and multifactorial, which is why there is never a single culprit for any type of disease. If we lead a stressful life, drink too little water, too much soda, breathe polluted air, isolate ourselves from nature with a sedentary lifestyle, eat processed foods with scarce nutrients… we compound causality.
If we accept sugar as a multifactorial agent of disease, we also need to accept the sci-fi- type reality of its disease impact.
In this reality, sugar connects directly or indirectly to nearly 70 percent of all chronic, premature deaths worldwide (a.k.a. NCDs or Noncommunicable Diseases). That’s 30 million casualties globally. In America, NCDs account for 88 percent of all deaths, or nearly 3 million people per year.
Yet, sugar is a celebration of our culture and lifestyle. She is the pink Godzilla in the middle of our kitchen, whose existence we deny. We give her permission to pull us into a wet, premature grave, while on a permanent high.
Even if we manage to avoid sugar in its most conspicuous forms, other refined carbs boil down to the same biochemical effects on our bodies. Grains and wheat in particular. It’s important to remember that the USDA recommends grains as our dominant calorie source. Grains and sugar together are the Bonnie and Clyde of biochemistry.
Aside from the direct fatality rate, the crippling effect on life quality is hard to fathom. Once we live with a chronic disease, quality of life is compromised. Our performance is handicapped. What about our creativity, innovation, relationships, vitality and other joys that make life worth living? They become negative energy conducts. We seep energy away from all doors of our being, because of a single negative input.
Chronic disease is about becoming a slave to a malfunctioning body and mind. Ninety-five per cent of the global population was sick with a chronic issue in 2013, according to a Global Health Study.
The cumulative statistics from diseases like diabetes (today’s prevalence: 1 in 10), pre-diabetes (1 in 3), cancer (4 in 10), dementia (1 in 4), obesity (1 in 3) and overweight (2 in 3) spell out a slow-motion species collapse.
That is, if we decide to participate in the collapse.
With a bit of awareness and education, we can also choose to close the chapter on the most damaging drug in history, starting with the individual. A significant amount of biochemical damage can be reversed in a surprisingly short time with a clean, individualized, wholesome diet.
People who quit sugar feel the effect in weeks. They change their life in months. The ultimate reward is a long and vibrant existence, without a hint of disease.
Exactly as nature designed us.