Updated Thoughts on Sugar

If you’ve been here for longer than a hot minute, you’ll know I started this blog as a way to chronicle my journey of giving up refined sugar. However, as time has passed, my perspective and opinions have changed (as well they should). Since I’ve noticed an increasing number of people putting their bodies on a sugar-purge, I’d thought I’d weigh in once again, and share (in my typical numerical list) the experiences I have had that changed my opinions, and in what capacity they have done so. Happy reading!

(Disclaimer: I am not a dietitian; I am not trying to advise your health. I am a student of science giving my opinion based on the facts I have gathered. If you think your diet is negatively affecting your health, you should see a medical professional. With a license. In person. Not on the internet, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter)

  1. Learning More About the Science

    This past year, I had to take a course on Anatomy & Physiology, taught by a med school professor. HooEEE, was that class a doozy. I learned everything I could ever want to know about the human body. Our textbook was the Guyton and Hall Textbook of Human Physiology, which I recommend if you ever want to learn more about yourself.

    One of our last units of the semester was on the digestive system, starting at the first thought of food (did you know thinking about food starts the digestive process?), and going all the way through to…secretions. I could keep you here for days typing on and on about your gut, but for now I’ll stick to the topic at hand, and save your gut for another day.

    When it comes to sugar, there is one specific type that reigns supreme over all others: glucose (you can read about the different types of sugar in my Halloween series). Glucose is the sugar that your body runs on; it’s what gives you energy and brain power (In fact, glucose is the only thing that can power your brain). Lucky for you, glucose is found in grains (mostly), fruits & vegetables (somewhat), and meat (a little), so it’s very easy to get your daily intake. But what happens after you ingest all that tasty, tasty, glucose?

    Basically, there are 3 options when glucose enters your digestive system. First (and maybe most obvious), it can be absorbed into your body for use. You eat some penne a la vodka, your body takes the glucose out of the pasta, and BAM! there’s your energy for a run, or going shopping, or sitting on your couch and watching TV (yes, that requires energy).

    Second, any extra glucose that your body doesn’t need right now will continue to pass through your digestion for you to pee out. Nothing too complicated about that. If your body can’t use it, it’s waste, so you get rid of rid of it, right? Well…your body can only process waste so quickly. Any glucose that isn’t used or removed from your body will be stored for later use, and that glucose makes itself a little storage capsule by turning into…

    Fat. Yep, that’s right. The third option for glucose when it enters your body is to go through a process called lipogenesis and become converted into fat, which the body will turn back into glucose next time you’re short on energy.

    But glucose isn’t the only kind of sugar out there, is it? No, there are many, many kinds of sugars. Glucose probably isn’t even the one most familiar to you, outside of the plant biology you learned in middle school. Most often when you hear about sugar, you hear about fructose or sucrose. There’s a whole war on high fructose corn syrup, right? And the first ingredient you’ll find on most sweet treats is sugar (read: sucrose). Does your body treat these sugars the same way it treats glucose? Does it all turn to fat? Well, luckily for me and my love of cookies, no.

    Sucrose, or table sugar, or honey, or Sugar in the Raw, or the white stuff you use in baking and put in your coffee, actually contains glucose. Each molecule (or piece) of sucrose contains one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose bound together. When you eat foods with sucrose in it, it is broken down to separate fructose and glucose, so the glucose goes off to do what is does. But what about fructose? What role does it have to play?

    Fructose is the sweetest of all the sugars (2x sweeter than glucose), and naturally occurs in fruit to make it sweet. To be perfectly honest, I have not been able to find the actual function of fructose in the human body. It doesn’t provide energy, it doesn’t facilitate protein travel, it just goes through your digestive system and out your tubes.

    There is evidence that the role of fructose is purely sensory, that during the hunter-gatherer days edible food was identified by its sweetness. Now, I can’t refute that claim, because I can’t think of any sweet fruits that are poisonous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. My mind is far from an extensive encyclopedia of horticultural knowledge. I can tell you with 100% confidence that while fructose is the sweetest sugar, it also has the lowest glycemic index, which means fewer blood sugar spikes (good!), but it also means you’ll feel less full eating fructose, and more likely to overeat (not so good).

  2. Speaking with a Professional

    Now that I’ve hit you with excessive amounts of technical mumbo-jumbo, we’re going to have some real talk. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with someone who works in the food industry. I’m choosing to give him anonymity, because while I don’t think he said anything particularly groundbreaking or extreme, I wouldn’t want to get him in any trouble, or get me into any trouble by aligning his statements with his company.

    One of the first things I asked him (we’ll call him “Fred” for the time being), was why wasn’t the food we eat regulated. We’ve all heard about how sugar is killing our children. You go on Netflix and there is documentary after documentary about how terrible the food we eat is, and how choc-full of junk it is. So why are we still eating it???

    Fred gave me answers, you guys. The most important thing Fred told me is that the food industry does its best to trick us into buying things. Sure, a serving is only 70 calories, but that serving is the size of a packing peanut. Food companies rely on us not reading the labels, not interacting with our food. Next time you buy food at the store, read the nutritional facts.

    I’ll go first. I packed a Smucker’s Uncrustable in my lunch today (yes I’m aware they’re for children. I ran out of grown-up lunch food). The whole sandwich is 210 calories, which is about the same as a regular candy bar. It contains 11% the recommended daily value of fat, and 15% daily value of sugar. That’s over one tenth my daily value of sugar and fat from something that won’t keep me full for longer than an hour at most. So if I were only eating those Uncrustables, I would need  about 10-12 to get me through the day, giving me 2,100 calories, 110% of my DV of fat, and 150% my DV of sugar. Obviously I wouldn’t eat only Uncrustables for a day, but it certainly paints a picture (The picture is too much fat and sugar in our food, in case you’re not a fan of impressionist art).

    Another tactic food companies use is word-choice. What do you think of when you read the word “Healthy?” What about “Lean?” “Light?” “Skinny?” All of these words that you see on food labels, and they’re all absolutely useless. Fred admitted that the word “healthy” is completely arbitrary – it’s not something that can be quantified or agreed on. So a food company will slap it on the label to make people think their food is better, and maybe the FDA will say “Hey, you’re misleading people, stop that!” Then the food company says, “okay, we’ll change the name and keep the packaging” or “okay, that’s fine, we made our money anyway. See ya!”

    Next time your in the store, pick up a product, and then pick up the “Light” version. I bet you $10, right here, right now, that if you look at the label, you’ll find that the Light version of the product has less fat, and more sugar.

    So when I asked Fred “Why are people being allowed to eat this much junk???” He said “because you can’t regulate common sense.”

  3. I Stopped Caring so Darn Much

    Here I’m going to get a little existential on you. After learning all this about sugar, I was absolutely convinced it was the devil. I was also eating it all the time. I had a stash of sweets in my desk to fight my afternoon grogginess, which soon turned into my morning, noon, and evening grogginess. I went through an entire bag of Dove caramel chocolates in 3 days (totally worth it, because those things are delicious), and I hated myself for it. But I didn’t know what to do, because I needed that sugar to get me through the work day. I needed that little extra *zip* to function. So I decided to go see a licensed dietitian for help. I expected her to help me find replacements for the sugar so I could have more sustainable energy, and finally kick the habit.

    Instead, she said I needed to have bloodwork done. If you’re like me, you probably just went “huh?” The reason, she said, was she wanted to get to the bottom of why I was so tired all the time. She didn’t want to just treat the craving, she wanted to follow it to the source.

    The second thing she did was tell me to have dessert every day. No wait, hear me out. She said instead of keeping a drawer of bottomless snacks, I should pack a set amount of sweets in my lunch every day to satisfy my craving. After going over my usual diet with me, she said I ate a very balanced diet already, so there was no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to treat myself in moderation.

    My blood came back as incredibly vitamin D deficient, and a bit low in iron. So the dietitian helped me increase those nutrient levels in my body, and I noticed that slowly but surely my need to constantly be eating sweets went away almost entirely. I still try to pack a treat in my lunch most days, because being a grown up is hard and I deserve chocolate, but other than that I rarely feel the need to binge. Hooray!

    The final experience actually came in the form of a gift. Recently my boyfriend bought me a copy of Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book, because he thought it was something I would like. And boy, do I. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I haven’t finished it yet, and I want to do a full review, but suffice it to say I really really like it so far. It focuses on making yourself healthy and strong, both inside and out. It’s about making sure you have a body that can do anything you want it to. If you give your body what it needs, it will give you what you need.

    I love every page of it, because I’m not being fed (haha!) another diet, or another quick fix workout to “blast body fat” or “be [season] ready,” or any other promise. In fact, Cameron doesn’t offer any promises at all. The premise of the book is that she wanted her body to be healthy and strong, so decided to learn everything she could about it, and the book is the culmination of what she learned (kind of what I’m trying to do here). That idea really spoke to me, because I felt my best back when I was strongest. I remember working out twice a day, 5 days a week, and eating 5-6 solid meals, drinking gallons of water and the way I felt when I woke up in the morning was just so solid.

So what does this all boil down to? How would I sum all of this up to explain how I feel about sugar now?

The way I see it, life is too short to not eat the food that makes me happy, but it is also too long to not take care of the body I have so it can take care of itself and carry me through all that I want to do in life. Knowing what I know now about how my body functions and how food helps it function, I don’t bother trying to limit myself. I don’t count my calories, I don’t look for the best “diet” to follow, and I don’t forbid myself to eat something. I first supply my body with everything it needs (and be sure, every body needs different things), and then whatever room is left goes to what I want.


Plug of the Month: Unwind Dystology

I’m going to do something I absolutely love today (not): I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone, and giving my personal opinion on a highly controversial topic (yikes!) in the context of one of my all-time favorite book series.

So, the subject is…abortion. I know it’s a pretty gutsy move, due to the heavy chatter going on about the subject, as well as the microscope Planned Parenthood is currently under. However, my completion of this series just happened to coincide with the times, so I’m going to roll with it.

This installment of Plug of the Month is a YA book series: The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman. The series contains 4 novels and one accompanying e-story, but don’t be fooled by the shelf the series is sold on. The series delves into some pretty heavy topics – abortion (if you haven’t guessed already), ethics, medical experimentation, stem cells, and humanity.

The world of the Dystology takes place approximately 50 years from now (an exact date is never given, but a character describes an iPod as “from his grandfather’s day”) where the United States is defined by its most recent civil war (yep, another one).

Referred to as the Heartland War, the country came to a violent clash over a single issue: the pro-choice vs. anti-abortion argument.

Now, I’m sure you’re already thinking, wow, that’s pretty ridiculous, that would never happen. Are you so sure? Go to the internet and Google “planned parenthood” or “abortion.” Chances are, you’re going to find a least one article about anti-abortionists trying to take down Planned Parenthood. Just this past week, Congress voted on whether or not to pull federal funding from the organization. This ongoing battle is because of the 3%(!) of Planned Parenthood services dedicated to performing abortions. People are pulling serious spy moves over 3%. That’s not happening in a novel, folks, that’s happening today. Right now. Schusterman’s book isn’t really all that outrageous.

So how did the Heartland War end? A “Bill of Life” was passed. This bill stated:

“…human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively ‘abort’ a child. . .on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t ‘technically’ end. The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding.'” (Shusterman. Unwind)

This quote makes it a little unclear, so I’ll elaborate. To be unwound is to be medically “disassembled” while living to be used as medical transplant parts (arms, legs, eyes, brain matter, everything). To give a little context as to how this bill came to be: there were 3 sides in the war – the Life Army, the Choice Brigade, and the American military, who took no sides, but attempted to maintain peace. The American military brought the concept of unwinding to the other 2 sides, hoping that this “solution” would be extreme enough to make them see reason. Instead the Unwind Accord was signed and the Bill of Life was passed.

Now again, you may thing this is an extreme case that would never happen. Well, I hate to tell you, but you need to think again. Have you heard of the little boy who received the first hand transplant? The organ shortage crisis? Throughout the novel, Shusterman includes real articles relating to the concept of unwinding – a man on ebay who tried to sell his soul, illegal organ harvesting, parents making life or death decisions for their children, alternative methods to dealing with unruly teens, and many many others.

So how does the Bill of Life create enough material to fill 4 novels and an e-story? The Unwind Dystology actually begins after the end of the Heartland War, where unwinding is now a common practice. The series follows 3 children who face unwinding: Connor Lassiter, whose parents chose to unwind him because of his bad behavior; Risa Ward, a state ward set to be unwound due to budget cuts in her state home; and Lev Calder, a boy raised by his family to embrace his unwinding as a religious tithe. The fates of these three children intertwine, as they all (willingly or unwillingly) try to escape their unwinding, and in the process, end up changing the world.

Now, if you think I’m trying to push an anti-abortion agenda on you, I’m sorry, but you’ve missed the point. That’s neither the point of this post nor the point of the series. Conveniently enough, Shusterman gives you a hint with a brilliantly subtle smack to the face.

In the first novel, four AWOL unwinds have the discussion that started the Heartland War in the first place: when does life begin? The first two children give the usual answers. One boy (Emby) believes life begins in the womb, once we start kicking and sucking our thumbs. Another (Connor) believes life begins at birth – before that we are part of our mothers. A third boy (Diego) goes a little existential on us; he says life begins the moment we are loved – love is what gives us a soul and makes us human.

But it’s the fourth boy (Hayden) who gives the most important answer. His answer to when life begins is “I don’t know.” Emby angrily dismisses this as a lack of answer,  but Connor stops him, believing that Hayden’s answer was viable: “Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”

This is the crux of the series – when it comes to the really tough questions, admitting that you don’t know is one of the most important things you can do.

You may think that I’ve given you all of the information you need to know, and you can go on without having to read the series, but I hope you’ll change your mind, because there are many important things I left out. The series explores the political force and greed that drives unwinding, how a group of unwanted children can create a collective voice to change the world, the limits of medical research and ingenuity, how close we truly are to treating people only as the sum of their parts, and ultimately, what really keeps us whole.