I've mentioned before that I'm writing my thesis on nutritional literacy and consumer perception of health and nutrition products, with an angle on sugar consumption, specifically. Now that I am finally able to focus solely on this topic, I can share with you some of my findings. For my research, I have read a number of articles and books (and still have many more to read) in which I have uncovered information that I believe the average consumer is not aware of. An example is this weekend, when at a shoot, the photographer seemed to know a lot about nutrition (so much so, even I was being challenged! and I thought I knew a lot), while the make-up artist appeared to know very little. With everyone brushing off their running shoes, heading to the gym, and trying to get back in shape for the new year, I thought it was fitting that I give my two cents. Here are my thoughts on sugar and getting fat.
Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It is a book by scientific writer Gary Taubes, in which he argues that certain kinds of carbohydrates--not fats--have led to our current obesity epidemic. The book is an extension from his earlier book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and which makes such an argument easily accessible to a wider, nonscientific audience. Taubes reveals what he refers to as bad nutritional science of the last century and the good science that has been ignored, particularly insulin's regulation of our fat tissue. I highly recommend giving this book a read.
Another book I have been reading (and which offers a straight forward explanation of the topic I'm about to discuss) is Living the Low-Carb Life by Jonny Bowden, who also--and very necessarily--looks at insulin and its function when it comes to the metabolic breakdown and distribution of fats within the body. Basically, when an excess of sugar is consumed, there is an increase in triglycerides and cholesterol. Here's how it works:
When a meal heavy in sugars is consumed (high in carbohydrates), part of the excess sugar will be converted to the storage form of glucose, glycogen, much of which will be stored in the liver. Because the liver doesn't hold a lot of glycogen, if there is still excess sugar--which there almost always is after a high-carbohydrate meal--it is packaged into triglycerides (fats). The high level of insulin accompanying the high-carbohydrate meal stimulates the production of cholesterol, which then packages together triglycerides into little containers called VLDLs (very low-density lipoproteins), most of which become LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) or "bad" cholesterol. Thus, high levels of insulin ramp up the production of cholesterol in the liver and high levels of sugar consumption ramp up the production of triglycerides, neither of which are good.
What can happen is something called insulin resistance, which essentially is when insulin is no longer effective at lowering blood sugars. Insulin resistance can make losing weight extremely difficult and can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Particularly for those who live a sedentary life, muscle cells will eventually resist the acceptance of sugars. In this way, they also become resistant to insulin. Instead, fat cells welcome insulin, fill up, and lead to weight gain. In the bloodstream, the VLDLs are carrying triglycerides, trying to rid of them. After the VLDLs have been dropped off at their corresponding tissues, most of them turn into LDLs or "bad" cholesterol. This, in turn, leads to being overweight, high triglyceride levels, high LDL cholesterol, and high levels of insulin forcing the pancreas to work extra hard. And this is how increased levels of insulin (due to increased levels of sugar) can lead to heart disease and diabetes.
If the pancreas becomes weak and can't keep up with the amount of sugar entering the body, the sugar will run out of places to go and will stay in the blood. Blood sugar levels will rise, leading to elevated insulin (and elevated blood sugar), high triglyceride levels, and abdominal obesity. The other thing that can happen when the levels of insulin in the blood become dangerously high is the increased production of cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol and adrenaline are added to the blood to counteract the "building up" effects of insulin and to attempt to bring the body back in to balance. However, cortisol breaks down the muscle, which further reduces the metabolic rate, while too much adrenaline can eventually lead to even more insulin, as insulin will eventually be secreted to combat the effects of too much adrenaline.
So, what to do? Well, in Bowden's text, he suggests a number of different dietary programs, all of which emphasize the consumption of proteins and fats in place of carbohydrates, and if carbohydrates are consumed, they should be those with a low glycemic index (something I'll discuss at a later date). But you're also probably wondering about what you can take away from this post, as I do throw a lot out there all at once, without really saying "Well, this is what you should do...". Really, it's not my job to tell you what's good and what's not, but this topic really interests me and I do think it's worth considering.
I still eat carbohydrates. They're everywhere. Almost unavoidable. Fruit is a carbohydrate. The carbohydrates that Bowden and anyone else who has researched the topic (many, many people) are concerned about tend to be refined, processed, those which enter the bloodstream quickly and send our blood sugar levels skyrocketing. It is these carbohydrates that are making us fat. But what about plain ol' fats, you ask? Well, that's another topic for another day, but simply put, stop consuming trans-fats. Consume more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s. And as for carbohydrates, toss that granola bar in the trash. It's probably only making your 4 o'clock slump worse.
But also, keep in mind, going low-carb is not the answer for everyone. It really depends on your nutritional goals, your day-to-day activities, and of course, your genetics. I guess, then, what I want most for you to take away from this is a warning. This is a warning about the potential health risks you could be exposing yourself to by consuming too many sugars. And the truth is, far too many people are unaware of these risks. Educate yourself!
Here's to a healthier, happier you!
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