The good, the bad, and the ugly about sugar

We have a love-hate relationship with sugar. We put it in everything, but we know it’s linked to high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. Still, we can’t get enough of it. It’s complicate, for sure.

There are different types of sugars and different ways our body processes them. For example, there’s glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Glucose is the primary source of energy for our cells and the main component of carbohydrates. It is metabolized in the pancreas. Fructose is found in fruits and plants, and is only processed by the liver. Sucrose is made of 50% glucose and 50% fructose and is the scientific name for table sugar. There is also high-fructose corn syrup, which is often used in processed foods, soda, and sports drinks. HFCS is a popular replacement for sucrose due to its lower cost food manufacturing.

Without going into a chemistry lesson, let’s look at how sugar generally affects our body.

The Good

Sugar is a great source of energy. In particular, fructose replenishes our glycogen supply quickly, giving us that boost when we’re fatigued. Sports drinks have high levels of it. After sugar is processed, it goes straight to our bloodstream and gives our cells what they need to function. Glucose, because it’s broken down in the pancreas, releases insulin, which signals to the brain to stop eating. In other words, it regulates hunger and appetite. A healthy blood-glucose level equals a healthy body. Conversely, a healthy body could in turn modulate our blood-glucose levels. This means, of course, regular exercise maintains a healthy metabolic system which keeps all the important body chemicals in check.

The Bad

While a great source of energy, sugars if unprocessed get converted to fat. So unless you’re burning it, your body packs it away and you pack on the pounds. Glucose also causes your brain to release dopamine, aka the happy chemical. This is why we love our sweets. They make us happy. Like drugs, we develop a craving for it. There’s something else that causes the release of dopamine without the side effects of craving, and that’s exercise. Regular exercise gives you the double bonus of regulating your blood chemicals and your hunger.

The Ugly

Unlike glucose, fructose isn’t recognized by the brain and tells it to stop you from continuing to eat. This is why drinking a soda does very little to sate your hunger. Furthermore, high consumption of sugar has been shown to lead to insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes. Fructose after being processed in the liver produces triglycerides, which could build up in the arteries and lead to a variety of health risks like heart disease and high blood pressure. Large sugar consumptions could cause organ damage–particularly the liver and pancreas where they are processed–joint deterioration, reduced skin plasticity, affects our mood, and interferes with brain functions.

Again, regular physical activity can help mitigate much of the adverse effects of sugar. As long as you keep the consumption of sugar on a moderate level, exercise could be the difference maker. Our sedentary lifestyles have led to minimal physical activity. On top of that we are consuming unhealthy levels of a product that wreaks havoc on our body. The sensible thing would be to move more and eat less sugar. Doing one of those things would help, but doing both would accelerate our path to a healthier life.