Julian Whitaker, MD
“Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” “Man cannot live on chocolate alone, but woman sure can.” These quotes, which will likely resonate with some of you, are reflective of our collective sweet tooth. On average, Americans consume 22.2 teaspoons of sugars every day. That adds up to 355 calories a day—20 percent more than we were eating 35 years ago—and it’s showing up in our hips and waistlines, blood sugar and blood pressure, and overall health.
Not Only High-Fructose Corn Syrup
You’re no doubt aware of the bad press high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has received in the past couple of years. There’s even talk of creating an “anti-obesity” tax on this inexpensive and ubiquitous product, which has overtaken sucrose (white sugar) as the sweetener of choice in drinks and prepared foods. Many health-conscious people are shunning it in favor of honey, raw sugar, evaporated cane juice, molasses, or newer sweeteners such as agave nectar. Even sucrose is purported to be better than HFCS.
HFCS certainly deserves its bad rap, but I wouldn’t let other sugars off the hook. Sucrose is broken down in the body into 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. High fructose corn syrup, despite its name, is actually a blend of fructose and glucose (in ratios of 55/45 in soft drinks and 42/58 in foods). Other common sweeteners have comparable ratios or breakdowns. From a health perspective, HFCS, sucrose, and most other sugars have more similarities than differences. They all drive up blood sugar and insulin. None provides significant nutritional value besides concentrated, empty calories. And each delivers a wallop of fructose—which creates problems of its own.
The Problem With Fructose
For years, we believed that fructose was the best of all caloric sweeteners. Mother Nature put it in fruit, so what could be more natural and healthy? Furthermore, because fructose has less of an effect on blood sugar than sucrose, it was thought to be better for people with diabetes.
We were wrong. Our bodies can certainly handle a little fructose—the amount, say, in a piece of fruit—especially when it comes packaged with fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. We cannot, however, handle the massive amounts we get in sodas and other sweetened beverages, desserts, and processed foods.
Fructose is readily taken up by the liver, where it is converted into fat. Some of it is released into the bloodstream (that’s why this sugar drives up triglycerides), and some is stored as fat. Extra calories from any source put on the pounds, but fructose has a special talent for packing them on in the abdominal area—the fat distribution that is linked with metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Early research suggests that fructose also interferes with satiety-signaling hormones, which may contribute to overeating and greater weight gain.
Excessive fructose consumption is clearly linked with metabolic syndrome, as it boosts virtually every risk factor of this increasingly prevalent condition. In a 2010 study, Spanish researchers placed men on a very high-fructose diet, and after just two weeks, they had significant increases in blood pressure, triglycerides, insulin, and liver enzymes, as well as reductions in insulin sensitivity and protective HDL cholesterol. Overall, markers of metabolic syndrome increased by 25-33 percent! (These parameters returned to normal within two months of resuming a normal diet.) The researchers concluded, “High doses of fructose raise the blood pressure and cause the features of metabolic syndrome…. Excessive intake of fructose may have a role in the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes.”
A high-fructose diet also raises blood levels of uric acid and increases risk of gout. It is implicated in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is most common in overweight people with metabolic syndrome. In addition, it accelerates the creation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are formed when sugars react with proteins and are an underlying cause of diabetic complications, cataracts, Alzheimer’s, and overall aging. Fructose is eight to 10 times more reactive than glucose in terms of initiating the chemical reactions that create AGEs.
Lay Off All Sugars
Most of the excess sugars Americans consume are in drinks, so the next time you have a hankering for a Pepsi or Snapple, think again. And don’t believe that HFCS-free drinks sweetened with “natural” sugars or fruit concentrates—or pure, concentrated fruit juice, for that matter—are any better. The end result, in terms of calories and fructose delivery, is pretty much the same.
I know your sweet tooth is going to act up from time to time, and a little sugar is likely to slip into the healthiest diet. But be aware of all the hidden sources of sugar in foods and drinks and do your best to avoid them.
- Read labels carefully and minimize your intake of all sugars. Do not replace them with artificial sweeteners, which also have a host of problems, but with stevia or xylitol.
- To make an appointment with the nutritionist at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (800) 488-1500.
- Perez-Pozo SE, et al. Excessive fructose intake induces the features of metabolic syndrome in healthy adult men: role of uric acid in the hypertensive response. Int J Obes (Lond). 2010 Mar;34(3):454-461.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.