Passing on the sugar


By Richard Sutton

Our bodies are a gift from G-d and it’s actually a mitzvah to make every effort to ensure that we keep them healthy and vital. Maimonides cautions us that “maintaining a healthy and whole body is an integral part of Divine service,”[1] as, without a healthy body, a person cannot serve Hashem to his fullest. Like many things that add value to our lives, looking after our health is not easy. It’s hard work, time consuming, and, with so much information available, it can be somewhat confusing!

Consider how our bodies are perfectly designed for our ancestral past: highly adaptable and capable of withstanding hostile environments with relative ease. Also, activity levels were once high and consistent. We also ate natural foods that were high in fibre and omega 3 fatty acids, and rich in vitamins and minerals. Our genome and cells thrived.

Approximately forty years ago, this all changed with the emergence of the ‘western diet’. A diet our body doesn’t know, can’t understand, and is, consequently, not responding favourably to. There are ten primary issues with this relatively new western diet. Our current diet is deficient in micronutrients and low in omegas 3s and fibre. At the same time, it contains pro-inflammatory trans-fats, is high in preservatives, colorants, flavourings, artificial sweeteners, omega 6 fatty acids, alcohol, and (worst of all) is loaded with sugar!

According to a 2008 study in the American Journal of Nutrition, the average processed sugar intake in industrialised countries now exceeds 100g/day, equating to just under 30kg per year. There are reports that show even higher statistics. In many parts of the world people are consuming 500 calories a day from processed sugar. If you weigh 60kgs that equates to around 2-3 hours of yoga, 2 hours of Pilates, 90 minutes of walking, or an hour swim.

Health experts cite no less than 76 ways in which processed sugar is damaging to our health. That said, there are three principle effects that accelerate our trajectory towards ill health and premature ageing: disrupted hormonal function (insulin), the formation of compounds in the body that promote inflammation, and the formation of molecules known as free radicals that damage our cells and genetic material.

Hormonal chaos

Eating processed sugar, especially fructose, is known to cause large spikes in insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that controls many important processes in the body. Its main role is to regulate the amount of energy and nutrients that circulate within the bloodstream. When we eat, sugars enter the bloodstream, activating specialised cells in the pancreas that in turn release insulin. Insulin travels throughout the bloodstream, facilitating the use or storage of this energy. In this way, blood sugar levels are kept constant, as excess levels can be highly toxic and lead to compromised health.

Most natural, unprocessed foods create a slow rise in blood sugar and a very consistent circulatory environment. Sugar and refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, create major peaks in blood sugar, forcing the pancreas to work overtime to remove the excess glucose. The on-going peaks in sugar and insulin can impair our cells responsiveness to this hormone. In other words, our cells no longer take in as much glucose on the directive of insulin. This is known as insulin resistance. In an attempt to curb dangerously high levels of blood sugar, the pancreas churns out even more insulin and the cells responsively become more resistant. Eventually the strain on the pancreas leads to damage, resulting in compromised insulin production. Low insulin, high sugar levels, and non-responsive cells are nothing short of a biological disaster with severe health consequences.

According to Dr Ron Rosedale, a medical professional specialising in nutritional and metabolic medicine, the single biggest accelerator of the ageing process is insulin resistance. His opinion is based on centenarian studies (people who live over 100). In many of these studies, scientists were unable to link habits, genes, and behaviours to the participant’s exceptional longevity. There were no behavioural or lifestyle congruencies with the exception of one biological feature – the centenarians’ remarkable sensitivity to insulin.

In a study published in the journal Circulation, researchers at Washington University discovered that spikes in insulin damage our genetic material and increase our trajectory towards ageing and disease. The culprit? Sugar, refined carbohydrates (breads, pasta), as well as overeating!

Sugar and AGE

Sugar consumption is also associated with the formation of a complex group of compounds called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs). These are formed when sugar reacts with proteins (amino acids). Scientists believe that AGEs are one of the major molecular mechanisms whereby damage accrues in the body. These compounds can form both inside and outside the body. According to a 2013 study published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, two of the main triggers in AGE formation are exposing sugars and proteins to high heat (chargrilling marinated meat) and high blood sugar levels.

According to Dr Andrea Golden from the University of Buenos Aires, AGEs affect every cell and molecule in the body, impairing both cellular function and structure. Fortunately, we have built-in protections, but these defences are not limitless. Our immune system works tirelessly to remove these abnormal formations. However, both the formation of AGEs and elimination processes are inadvertently linked to inflammation, which in itself is harmful to the body and has strong relationships with illness and disease. This is why those who have autoimmune diseases (a deregulated immune state) such as allergies, asthma, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, fibromyalgia, or Crohns have flare-ups following sugar consumption.

Free radicals

Free radicals are short-lived unstable molecules that form within our cells. They occur as a by-product of normal energy metabolism, but levels can increase through exposure to external factors like pollution, smoke, chemicals, lack of sleep, poor diet, and radiation. Every minute, we produce millions of these volatile molecules. Free radicals are not entirely bad, in that they help kill pathogens (viruses and bacteria) within our cells and are an important aspect in immune regulation. Free radicals are normally kept in check by the body’s natural production of free radical scavengers (which are enzymes that neutralise these toxic molecules) and consumption of foods that contain antioxidants (fruits, vegetables, nuts).

A balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary for health and vitality. Processed sugar is known to completely offset this delicate equilibrium, with dire consequences. If free radicals overwhelm the body (by becoming too numerous), a condition known as oxidative stress ensues. This state will damage the body on an unprecedented scale, altering fats, proteins, and even our genetic material, triggering a number of diseases.

Healthy guidelines

Limit sugar as much as possible – this is not as easy as it sounds as so many foods on our shelves have added or hidden sugars. A 2012 study published in the journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets had added sugar! In addition, there are over 61 names for sugar, including barley malt (sounds healthy), agave nectar (sounds exotic), corn syrup (sugar disguised as a vegetable), and so on. There is only one solution here, stick to natural, whole foods!

How much sugar is ok?

According to Dr Rachel Johnson, a world authority in nutrition and energy metabolism, if you are going to have processed sugar, there has to be limitations. Children (the biggest sugar lovers) should not exceed 12-25 grams (3-6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. Men can have up to 38g/day (9 teaspoons) and women 22g/day (6 teaspoons).

Keep sugar intake to 10% of total calorie intake

It is recommended that sugars should not make up more than 5-10% of one’s overall diet. According to the American Heart Association, when sugars make up more than 20% of our diets, we begin to see health compromise.

What about natural sugars in fruit and honey?

A resounding yes! Fruit does contain sugar, but it is also packed with fibre, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, thereby neutralising most of the harmful effects associated with processed sugar. Importantly, stay away from juices and dried fruits for a number of reasons. As for raw honey, there are numerous studies evidencing health advantages (anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant). It is a great sugar replacement – all in moderation!

It is strongly recommended that you consult with your doctor before starting any new diet plan, especially if you have existing health issues.

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[Riz: Please add Sutton bio]

  1. See Hilchos Deos, Chapter 4.

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