Blood Sugar: What You Need to Know

I’ve been thinking a LOT about sugar lately, and with the 10 day Kick the Sugar Habit Challenge coming up on January 27th (There are still spaces by the way…..  challenge and register here!), it’s been on the forefront.  I often give myself “permission” on the holidays and when I’m traveling to give into my cravings.  But, once I do this it is a seriously vicious cycle.  I’m to the point right now, that when I come home at night, even if I’m coming home from eating a fabulous meal, I still want something sweet.  Currently, I have zero snacky things in my house, which helps, but I don’t want these cravings anymore.  Be gone! So, I thought it would be helpful this week to talk about what happens IN YOUR BODY when you eat sugar and those fluffy, comforting carbs.  It’s going to get a little detailed, but I think there is importance in knowing how your body responds, and how your body will, over time, become increasingly damaged from consuming these foods.

The Low Down of Blood Sugar

Your body needs around 1 tsp of glucose  circulating in your blood stream at all times….too low (hypoglycemia) and too high (hyperglycemia) are both dangerous and can lead to problems. Some Symptoms of Hypoglycemia

  • Shaking
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty in focusing
  • Sugar cravings
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Many other things too…….

Many of us have symptoms of hypoglycemia, which lead us to eat lots of quick fixes….simple carbohydrates and sugar, which eventually can lead us to the path of high blood sugar.  Here’s a simplified explanation why: Your body is constantly switching between burning fat and burning the glucose from your meals.  It’s very efficient at doing this.  When you eat a meal, preferably one that has nice fats and proteins, your body will slowly digest and glucose will be released into your blood stream at a nice, slow steady pace throughout the day.  Perfect to keep you alert and running optimally.  Usually there is a little more than you need, so your pancreas will release insulin, which is the hormone that signals your cells to take in any excess glucose from your blood stream.  Your body wants to keep your blood sugar stable. More often than not, however, we are eating foods and meals that contain too many simple carbohydrates.  You have a scone and a cup of coffee for breakfast.  Or a bagel with cream cheese for lunch with that nice glass of orange juice.  You aren’t eating enough fat, protein and fiber to slow the digestion, so the sugars from your food are quickly digested and flood your blood stream all at once. If this cycle happens too often, then eventually the cells can become resistant to the insulin that your pancreas is releasing.  They become hard of hearing.  So the pancreas releases larger and larger amounts of insulin, which will cause two things eventually: 1)        Your pancreas becomes tired from overwork. 2)       The cells stop listening altogether, so you ALWAYS have high blood sugar and high insulin. With all that extra circulating insulin, is also makes it hard for us to use the glucose stored in the cells.   We then need to eat! (vicious cycle!)   High blood sugar can cause a lot of damage.  It can damage delicate blood vessels, cause chronic inflammation, and a host of other things.  High insulin can cause problems as well, this study from 2007 found that high insulin created damage to blood vessel walls causing cholesterol and plaque to build up.  So not only is diabetes a concern, but heart disease, high blood pressure, and a host of other problems can result. The good news, is that even if we have been abusing our body for the last 10 years, and we’ve noticed abdominal fat has built up and our cells are starting to show wear and tear from all that high blood sugar and high insulin…..our bodies are highly sophisticated.  The body has a tremendous ability to heal itself once we start taking care of it.  It is never too late. Start with Challenge!  Then we can go from there…..

Alternative Sweeteners....which ones?

Alternative sweeteners are not a free pass.  The goal is to get to a place in your diet, that you simply don’t need to add any sweetener.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy a healthy dessert or savor that ripe piece of mango, but if you are looking for a healthy way to carry on with your sweet tooth?   Hm…there isn’t one. So I write the following post with some reservations, because again, we need to stop our sugar cravings, not simply satisfy them in an only slightly healthier way.

 The Nitty Gritty about Alternative Sweeteners.

 Not Recommended:

Brown Sugar, Sugar in the Raw (turbinado):  These are all very similar to white table sugar and although slightly less refined, really aren’t any better to use.

Artificial Sweeteners (Splenda, Equal, anything in a colored packet):  STOP! NEVER USE THESE.  Most people think that when they use artificial sweeteners they are saving themselves the calories.  But there are studies out that show that just the sweet taste alone is enough to cause insulin secretions…which will cause us to store fat.  Not to mention that artificial sweeteners have been linked to cause headaches, sleep problems, fatigue, and a whole host of other problems.  There are many people who have written about this subject at length, Joseph Mercola being on them.  Read more.  Just the word artificial is an accost to my whole foods, nature loving sensibility.  Are you with me?

Agave:  There was a huge fad to use agave for a time, and because it is low glycemic (it doesn't raise our blood sugar immediately) people thought it was the greatest thing in the world.  It is made almost entirely of fructose, and again to cite Dr. Robert Lustig, a majority of the calories from fructose will end up being stored as fat!

Recommended

Raw Honey:  Honey is one of those traditional sweeteners that should be held as a treasure.  One bee, during its lifetime, will only make 1/12 a teaspoon of honey!  So our use of it should reflect that hard work.  Quality is extremely important when it comes to honey.  Buy local and raw, and don't buy the cheapest.  A study by Food Safety News found that 3/4 of the honey bought at local grocery stores had zero pollan traces and were contaminated with cheap sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup.  Beware of honey that says it's "ultrafiltered."  This is a high heat processing that makes it difficult to trace the source of the honey, and high heat will destroy all the beneficial enzymes present.  According to Ayurvedic medicine, the medicinal properties of honey are lost in heating.

Maple Syrup (organic/grade B):  Maple Syrup is another sweetener that takes an immense amount of work.    It takes roughly 46 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup!  I use maple syrup as a sometimes sweetener because it contains more minerals and I love the flavor.  It is a bit on the expensive side, and again, you should always choose quality over quantity, but this is a reminder to use it sparingly.

The other day I was in a "natural" cafe in Berkeley, and the maple syrup they brought out wasn't real!  You have to ask for "real maple syrup."  So, don't let appearances fool you and ask your server if the syrup is pure or not.

 Brown Rice Syrup:  Brown rice syrup is made from fermented brown rice.  Enzymes (usually from barley) are added to the rice to break down starches into sugars, and then it is boiled until it thickens.  Mineral and vitamin rich, brown rice syrup, sourced correctly, can be a good alternative to use.  It tends to make things crunchy, so think cookies and granola.   Early in 2012 there were reports that brown rice and products made from brown rice syrup were heavily contaminated with arsenic.  Arsenic is naturally occurring in the soil, and for land that once used a lot of pesticides, there is still a lot of arsenic left in the soil.  Sourcing is important; the southeastern states with its heavy cotton production left a lot of arsenic in the soil.  California has much lower amounts of arsenic.   All of this is another reminder that brown rice syrup, as with any sweetener, should be used sparingly.

 Date Sugar:  Date sugar is made simply by grinding up dried dates.  I like how natural this is, but it does not dissolve in liquids and can clump, so it's ideal for sprinkling on top of foods.  Dates themselves are a great way to add sweetness, and can be used in oatmeal and ground up in desserts.  Dates are alkalizing and are great way to add minerals and vitamins to your diet.

 Sucanat:  Sucanat is sugar cane juice that is heated and dried.  Therefore, it retains many of the nutrients that sugar refining takes out.   It has a distinct flavor, so be aware when trying to use it in baked goods.  I personally like it, and this is one of the sugars that I keep in my kitchen to use when I need to make something sweet.   (Sucanat is similar to the rapadura you see in Latin stores.)

 Palm Sugar and Coconut Sugar: This is another sweetener that I keep in the kitchen to make desserts.  Palm sugar comes from the sap of certain palm trees, and is boiled down to make a thick syrup. Coconut sugar is collected from the flowers of the coconut palm.   I find that the taste is very similar to table sugar, and it often comes sold in little packed cakes often found in asian food stores.   Now, it is becoming available at natural food stores, but in a loose form.

Stevia:  Beware of white powdered Stevia, as it is a highly refined product.  Packets such as Truvia or Sun Crystals are highly processed and usually have another sugar added in, such as dextrose.  The Stevia plant itself is a wonderful, natural sweetener.  You can dry the leaves and grind them up for a natural sweetener.  Oooh…I just did a web search and found a cool source of the natural herb on Etsy.  Click Here. 

So.  indulge a tiny bit and try some of the more natural sweeteners.   The more pure and less processed something is the better.  But remember, that sweeteners are in general something to be used extremely sparingly, as ALL of them can lead to excess weight gain, or prevent you from losing anything.  There are many more whole delicious foods out there waiting for you.  Give them a try instead!  After you start taking sweeteners out, you'll find that foods like squash and sweet potatoes are all the sweetness you need :)

Resources:

Murray, M. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: ATRIA Books.

Wood, Rebecca. (2010)  The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia.  New York.  Penguin Books.