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Sugar..Is It Really Poison - Mudita Institute


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                                                                             & HEALTH CLINIC

Sugar… Is It Really Poison?
by Nadia Marshall

One of the biggest health fads sweeping       the biggest diseases facing our                hormone (ghrelin) is suppressed so our
the nation at the moment is the sugar-        population!                                    brain knows we’re full.  For every 100
elimination diet. When people started                                                        calories of glucose we eat, less than about
turning up at our Zen retreats last month     Is it all sugar we need to give up?            2% is turned into fat (2).
with ‘fructose intolerance’ and ‘no sugar’                                                   Fructose is metabolised in a completely
as a dietary requirement (and I am the        If you do any amount of reading on this        different way to glucose. The only cells in
chef) I thought it was about time I           approach, you soon realise that not all        the body that use fructose for energy are
attempted an impartial investigation of       sugar is considered poison to the body.        sperm cells, so unlike glucose, it isn’t
the idea.                                     Just one is - Fructose. Most of you will       readily used as an energy source. When
                                              immediately associate fructose with the        we eat fructose, insulin isn’t released and
Being an Ayurvedan (that isn’t a word)        sugar found in fruit but fructose is           our hunger hormone isn’t suppressed so
and a recovering dietary fanatic, I am        actually found in most foods of plant          there is no ‘off ’ switch for eating
committed to a moderate approach to           origin (including tree and vine fruits,        fructose. Fructose is either bonded to
eating. The idea of eliminating any food      berries, grains and most root vegetables).     cellulose and transported out of the GI
from my diet tends to sound off my            It is also now found in virtually all          tract or processed by the liver into uric
alarm bells. The idea of quitting sugar       processed food.                                acid (which causes gout and
when I’ve finally allowed myself to           Here’s a quick lesson on sugar. There are      hypertension), citrates (acids), aldehydes
embrace the sweetness of jaggery and          three monosaccharides (simple sugars/          (toxic to the body), lipid droplets (fat) and
less-refined sugars without guilt….           simple carbohydrates) in our diet –            free fatty acids. The free fatty acids affect
sounds them off even more!                    fructose, glucose and galactose. Fructose      the insulin receptors in the liver which
But I wanted to understand where these        and glucose often combine in nature to         can directly lead to liver insulin resistance
sugar-free folk are coming from. And          form sucrose. Glucose and galactose            (i.e. type 2 diabetes). Fructose metabolism
perhaps you do too?  So here is the low       combine to form lactose (the sugar found       also leads to the formation of very low
down for your reading pleasure….              in milk). Complex sugars/carbohydrates         density LDL cholesterol - the type of bad
                                              refer to long chains of simple sugars          cholesterol that causes plaques in our
Why are people giving up sugar?               joined together and are found in starchy       arteries. And, fructose is 7-10 times more
                                              grains and vegetables.(1)                      likely to form AGEs than glucose
The idea of giving up sugar is based on a                                                    metabolism (AGEs are advanced
shift in thinking. We’re used to thinking                                                    glycation end-products and have been
of sugar as ‘empty calories’ or energy        Dietary Mono-saccharides                       implicated in the progression of age-
without nutrition. But not many of us         Fructose, Glucose, Galactose                   related diseases like Alzheimers, heart
think of sugar as something extremely                                                        disease and stroke). For every 100 calories
harmful to our bodies (unless we’re           Dietary Di-saccharides                         of fructose we eat, about 30% is turned
diabetic). To our teeth, yes… to our livers   Sucrose = Fructose + Glucose                   into fat (2)…. but because of its effect on
and pancreas, maybe… but not many of          Lactose = Glucose + Galactose                  the brain, we still think we’re starving and
us think of sugar as a poison.                                                               eat more!
Proponents of the sugar-elimination
approach do. They argue that sugar is an      Fructose vs Glucose Metabolism
extremely harmful substance to the                                                           What is fructose in?
human body… and they have a lot of            Glucose is pretty important for the body.
good science to back it up.  They argue       In fact, it is the energy of life. Every       Fructose is in nearly everything so it is
that giving up sugar will lead to             single cell in the human body can use          pretty difficult to avoid altogether. It is in
weightloss, improved digestion, fewer         glucose as a source of energy. When we         fruit, dried fruit, some root vegetables,
cravings, increased energy, balanced          eat glucose, we release insulin which tells    most grains, honey, agave nectar, maple
hormones, increased longevity, improved       the liver, muscle and fat tissues to take up   syrup and anything containing sucrose
immunity and will directly decrease the       the glucose and store it in its non-toxic      (including all sugars). Tree fruits, berries
likelihood of developing metabolic            form (glycogen) for later use. Therefore,      and melons all have moderate levels of
syndrome, obesity, diabetes, hypertension,    glucose is also known as ‘blood sugar’         fructose while dried fruits have more
heart disease, kidney diseases, liver         and is measured when working out G.I.          concentrated levels of fructose.
diseases and cancer (1 & 3). Just a few of    levels of food. Another good thing about
                                              glucose is when we eat it, our hunger

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Fructose is also found in very high           times sweeter than sucrose so you’d think    From a GI perspective, foods with a high
quantities in soft drinks, fruit juices,      they wouldn’t need to use as much (1).       GI (70 or more) are considered bad for
concentrated fruit drinks, sports drinks,     Wrong. They use more. Since that time,       us because our bodies have to release a
sauces and condiments, chocolate,             the amounts of HFCS have gone up and         huge hit of insulin to mop up the glucose
cookies, museli bars, cereals, yoghurt,       up and our low fat diets have been           from our blood stream. This can result in
lunch meats and most other processed          making us all fatter and sicker than we’ve   blood sugar swings – from high blood
food (especially low-fat foods). In many      ever been before…                            sugar to lower than normal blood sugar,
processed foods, it is found in the form                                                   creating moodiness and sugar cravings. If
of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).           Is HFCS so bad?                              we ride the blood sugar roller coaster for
Hard-core proponents of the sugar-                                                         too long, our insulin receptors may get
elimination approach argue that there is      The corn industry in America would           worn out, resulting in type 2 diabetes.
no difference between natural sugars and      argue HFCS is no worse than sucrose          Eating low GI foods (55 or less) is
man-made sugars as they are metabolised       because it contains about the same levels    encouraged – to help moderate blood
in the same way (and from a purely            of fructose and glucose (although there      sugar levels and give our poor pancreas,
biochemical perspective, they are right).     are actually three types of HFCS with        liver and insulin receptors a break.
So, they suggest you give up most of the      varying levels of fructose from 42% to       Anything that slows down the
above!                                        55% and up to 90%) (1). All short-term       metabolism of sugar decreases its GI.
                                              studies on the stuff indicate it has a       And the two things that slow the
                                              similar affect on the body as sucrose. The   metabolism of sugar the most are fibre
High fructose corn syrup = 42-90%             only real difference I could find between    and fat. These are also the two things that
fructose                                      HFCS and your average table sugar is the     have been taken out of all of our
Agave nectar = up to 90% fructose             fructose and glucose in HFCS exist in a      processed food!
Table sugar, Raw sugar, brown sugar =         ‘free’ state (as mono-saccharides rather     An interesting point here is - fructose
50% fructose                                  than as a di-saccharides) so they are even   sweeteners are often recommended for
Honey = 50% fructose                          more ‘simple’ (1). The other troubling       low GI diets or people with diabetes
Maple syrup = 48% fructose                    thing I found was a 2009 study which         because no insulin is required to
Dried fruits = 10-20% fructose                reported almost half of the commercial       metabolise it. It therefore has a much
Most tree fruits = 4-8% fructose              brands of HFCS had detectable levels of      lower GI than other sugars.  But,
sources: (1) & (3)                            mercury in them – a cross-contamination      hopefully you now understand this is a
                                              bi-product of the production process.        bad idea because fructose directly affects
                                              As there have been no long-term studies      our insulin receptors in the liver at a later
Why do processed foods contain so             into the affect of HFCS on the body          stage of metabolism! It is a cause of
much fructose?                                compared to sucrose, all I can really        diabetes, even more so than glucose.
                                              conclude is: the main reason HFCS is so
When westerners still ate home-cooked         bad is because it is super cheap to
meals, our sugar intake was pretty normal     produce and so readily available. This       The problems with the approach
and epidemic rates of hypertension and        means it is used by manufacturers without
obesity didn’t exist. Even when food          hesitation or moderation.                  The main problem I can see with the
processing first arrived on the scene, the    Someone who eats a processed western       sugar-elimination approach, as with all
situation was still okay.                     diet consumes at least four times as much  reductionist approaches is it can promote
This all changed in the 1970s with the        fructose as someone who eats home-         fanaticism if taken out of context.
simultaneous discovery of LDL                 cooked meals and a natural consumption     Without appropriate research, people can
cholesterol, the invention of high            of fruits and vegetables. Teenagers are    miss the point.
fructose corn syrup in Japan and a study      particularly at risk, because they tend to For example, if people don’t understand
by the American Scientist, Ancel Keys. It     eat even more.(2)                          that the antidote to fructose is fibre
was at this time, as a result of Ancel’s                                                 (because fructose bonded to cellulose is
work, that the ‘lipid hypothesis’ was truly   Where does GI fit in to all this?          excreted), they may give up eating fruit
taken on board – the idea that dietary fat                                               altogether (although if you're a fruit-a-
causes heart disease (2). In response to      GI or the Glycemic Index is a measure of holic, cutting back on your fruit
this idea, food manufacturers started         the effect of carbohydrates in food on     consumption isn't a bad idea). This
taking all the fat out of our food.           blood sugar levels. It estimates how much approach may also lead to people cutting
Unfortunately this made it taste like         each gram of available carbohydrate in a   out complex carbohydrates as well as
cardboard! The solution? Add more salt        food raises a person's blood glucose level simple ones – that is, giving up
and more sugar. Much more!                    after eating, relative to the consumption  wholegrains as well as sugar. I noticed
At the same time, President Nixon was         of glucose. The GI chart can be            that some proponents of the approach
keen to get food off of the political         measured from 0 to 100 with glucose        tell you to give up fruit but say you can
agenda by making it cheaper… and sugar        having a GI of 100.(1)                     still drink alcohol – even though ethanol
was expensive. But High Fructose Corn                                                    is made from the fermentation of sugar
Syrup was about half the price – and so                                                  and is metabolised with even more
began the infiltration of HFCS onto                                                      detrimental effects to the body.
supermarket shelves (2). Fructose is 1.73

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Another problem with this approach is         Ayurveda, as usual, has a slightly more        the metabolism of sugar. And, you eat
that a lot of the ‘replacement’ snacks and    holistic view but reaches many of the          loads of cinnamon which helps to
foods recommended in sugar-elimination        same conclusions as this approach.             regulate blood sugar levels. Importantly,
diets (like cheese,  meat and coconut         Rather than looking at sweet as                you also introduce Sweetness to your life
products) are actually quite heavy and        molecules, it looks at Sweet as a taste,       in other ways… not just through your
difficult to digest so may have there own     made up of elements and qualities which        food.
deleterious effects on digestion.             all have an effect on the body and mind.       Some people take the ‘eat lots of sweet’
Some people in a fructose-fearing-frenzy      In addition to the bio-chemical                thing in Ayurveda a little too literally and
may decide to give up fructose in favour      understanding, Ayurveda provides us            decipher it as ‘eat lots of sugar’. This
of glucose. They may buy dextrose (used       with a bio-energetic and bio-spiritual         tends to manifest in the form of ultra-
to make beer) from the supermarkets and       understanding of food.                         sweet chai drunk throughout the day! But
use that as their sole sweetener of choice.   Before I delve into the detail, it should be   this is not the actual teaching of
Not a bad idea, in theory, but the            noted that the Sweet taste is considered       Ayurveda and is definitely not something
problem is glucose doesn’t exist as a di-     by Ayurveda as the most important of all       a practitioner would advise you to do.
saccharide with itself in nature so this is   of the six tastes and should be eaten in       Ayurveda is a science of long-term
frankin-sugar (which makes me a little        the largest quantity. But by Sweet,            moderation combined with well-timed
nervous)… with a super high G.I.              Ayurveda means naturally sweet foods           and precise restraint.
                                              including milk, ghee, rice, wheat and
But the biggest problem of                    other grains and legumes, as well as sweet     The main difference between
                                              fruits, dates, honey, jaggery and sugar.
all is… no matter how you                     Composed of Earth and Water, the Sweet         the Ayurvedic view and the
dress it up, giving up sugar is               taste is generally cooling, heavy and          western view is Ayurveda
about deprivation. And                        unctuous. Ayurveda teaches that the            believes every single sugar is
                                              Sweet taste nourishes and invigorates the
anything that is based on                     mind, relieves hunger and thirst, increases    different due to its qualities.
deprivation is rather                         all of the tissues and improves the              
depressing and usually not                    immune system. Importantly, it is              For example, honey is sweet and heating,
                                              associated with the positive emotions of       has the specific effect of ‘scraping fat’
sustainable beyond the first                  happiness, contentment, calmness,              from the body and it pacifies Vata and
wave of weightloss euphoria.                  cheerfulness, love and satisfaction when       Kapha while increasing Pitta. Jaggery is
In my experience, a more                      eaten in appropriate amounts.                  sweet and cooling, has a heavy,
                                              However, if eaten in excess, particularly at   strengthening effect on the body and
moderate approach is usually                  the wrong time of the year, Ayurveda           pacifies Vata while increasing Pitta and
required for long-term                        says that the Sweet taste can contribute to    Kapha. White sugar and HFCS on the
success.                                      high ama, dull agni/digestive fire,            other hand, are sweet, heating, have a
                                              heaviness, obesity, diabetes, parasites,       stimulating effect on the body and
The great things about the approach           obstructed circulation, vomiting, gas,         aggravate all of the doshas (Vata, Pitta
                                              lethargy, asthma, hayfever and congestion      and Kapha).
The most fantastic thing about this           (undigested food waste or ama correlates
approach is it encourages people to           to the western view of very low density        This demonstrates the more ‘gross’
reduce their consumption of soft drinks,      LDL cholesterol and AGEs). Excessive           effects on the body/mind. However,
processed foods and fast foods… and to        sweet can also feed attachment,                perhaps the biggest difference comes
make more home-cooked meals. If we all        complacency and greed in the mind.             when looking at the ‘subtle’ effect of
just did these three things, the health of                                                   these substances on the body/mind
the Western world (and the Eastern world      If you are following an Ayurvedic diet to      through the three universal qualities of
adopting the Western diet) would be           the letter, you will naturally be avoiding     Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Less processed
completely transformed.                       processed foods including soft drinks,         sugars like jaggery, honey and maple
Another very exciting part of this            sports drinks, condiments, cereals,            syrup are considered more Sattvic, having
approach is it tends to encourage people      sweeties etc. You’ll also tend to have less    a peaceful effect on our minds. Highly
to start eating moderate levels of healthy    fruit and fruit-juice because you only eat     processed sugars like white sugar and
fats again, including full-fat milk. It has   (or drink) it between meals, rather than       HFCS as well as synthetic replacement
brought attention to the fact that fat is     with everything.  You mostly eat home-         sweeteners, on the other hand, are Rajasic
not necessarily the great evil it has been    cooked meals made from wholegrains,            and Tamasic – creating strong outward-
made out to be and that fructose may          legumes, vegetables, spices, fats/oils and     seeking desire combined with dullness,
infact be the cause of most of our            full-fat milk – all low fructose and low       depression and ignorance in the mind.
Western health problems.                      GI. Although you do eat small quantities
                                              of dry fruit and natural sweeteners in
                                              your porridges and home-made sweeties,
The Ayurvedic view                            they’re usually consumed with
                                              wholegrains and spices (i.e. fibre) and
                                              ghee (i.e. fat), both of which slow down

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So, from an Ayurvedic                          And, if you want to take things further
                                               than that, start learning about Ayurveda.
perspective, sugars ain't                      It is pretty unlikely I'll ever give up sugar
sugars! You should always                      personally but I do feel better about my
choose more natural sugars                     limited fruit consumption and I’m extra
                                               motivated to make my own sweet treats
over their highly processed                    rather than buying toxic cookies from the
counterparts!                                  supermarket!  I also now understand why
                                               others might choose to give up sugar (at
The Sweet taste is the natural antidote to     least for a little while). “Whatever works”,
aggravated Vata (Air/Ether). We live in a      I say!
world that constantly aggravates our Vata
so we naturally look to Sweet to ground        References/More reading/More
ourselves. Unfortunately, highly processed     watching
sugar and HFCS are the only types of           1) Wikipedia searches - Sugar, Fructose,
sugar that increase Vata rather than           Glucose, Sucrose, Dextrose, Maltose,
decreasing it. So, as we reach out to pacify   HFCS
our Vata, we actually end up aggravating       2) “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” http://
it further which leaves us wanting more
and more Sweet! Vaidya Dr Smita Naram          oM&ob=av3e
teaches that the majority of obesity these     3) “I Quit Sugar eBook”, Sarah Wilson
days is Vata-type obesity (rather than         4) “Pure, White and Deadly”, John
Kapha-type). Our light-headedness longs        Yudgin
for grounding so we eat and eat to try and     5) “Sweet Poison”, David Gillespie
ground ourselves… but just get more
light-headed, and hungrier (and fatter)
due to the  junk we're eating!                 Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Lifestyle
                                               Consultant, Ayurvedic Cook, Professional
My conclusion                                  Writer and Blogger. She is also Managing
                                               Director of the Mudita Institute and Health
After reading, watching and thinking           Clinic. If you would like to know more about
about sugar for many days, the                 eating Ayurvedically, Nadia has written an
conclusion I come to with all this is the      Ayurvedic Food & Lifestyle Course, called
same as any other dietary article I’ve         "AGNI", that walks you through the concepts
written or ever considered writing.            of Ayurvedic eating, cooking and living in a way
                                               that is both fun and super easy to understand. 
And that conclusion is… don’t worry too        For more information go to her blog,
much about the details.  Instead, pick up
on the important take home message
which is:

Take back control of your
food. Stop eating so much
processed food. Stop
drinking soft drinks, sports
drinks and poor-quality
sweeties entirely. Cut down
your consumption of coffee
and alcohol. And...start
cooking at home… with love!
Especially for your kids! Eat
more plants. Stop eating so
much. And get some
moderate exercise, everyday.

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