I often suggest recipes for people that avoid sugar and refined grains, and often they’re followed up with a lot of questions about the subject. Many people just hear that they are “bad,” but don’t really understand why, how they are related, or how they affect their body, which makes it something that they just kind of ignore. What’s more, it’s often difficult to know how to avoid sugar and refined carbs, or what to eat instead. Here’s a little run-down to hopefully clear up some questions without getting too detailed.
It’s estimated that our Paleolithic ancestors ate about 22 teaspoons of sugar per year. Now, Americans eat an average of at least 20 to 30 teaspoons of sugar a DAY and the US is the largest consumer of sweeteners and one of the largest global sugar importers. Also, processed grains are a HUGE part in our SAD (standard American diet). When talking about this topic, I lump refined grains and sugar in the same category, because basically, they have the same effect on your body—the blood sugar/insulin rollercoaster, which I will describe below.
However, I first want to mention that sugar/carbs in and of itself is not a bad thing. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that occurs naturally in foods such as whole grains (e.g. rice, quinoa, etc.; not talking about 'whole grain' bread here!), beans, vegetables and fruit. When these unprocessed, whole foods that have lots of fiber are chewed and digested, the natural carbohydrates slowly break down uniformly into separate glucose molecules released into our blood stream to provide our cells with energy. Our pancreas senses this rise in blood sugar and secretes insulin to keep our blood sugar regulated and to allow muscle and fat cells to take in glucose; insulin essentially allows our cells to use the glucose in our blood.
But, when we eat food that is highly processed, using refined sugar and processed flours which are devoid of fiber, our bodies rapidly break them down into glucose, very quickly increasing our blood sugar. Our insulin levels skyrocket very quickly to deal with the surge in blood sugar, but can essentially overcompensate, not giving our bodies’ other systems and hormones (i.e., glucagon) time to stabilize blood sugar. This causes our blood sugar to drop as quickly as it went up, leaving us feeling hungry and fatigued the short term, and causing a plethora of other health issues in the long term.
Therefore, not all carbs are created equally. (1)
Diets high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates (and the resulting insulin resistance which I’ll cover in another post) are a major promoter of inflammation in the brain and body, obesity and diabetes, poor thyroid function, poor adrenal health, general hormonal imbalances, poor gut health and poor brain function (3).
In addition, disruptions in our hormones from continued blood sugar and insulin spikes can affect ovulation hormones needed for reproduction; these hormonal changes can throw ovulation off-kilter.
In fact, in the Nurse’s Health Study, it was found that women that consumed the highest glycemic load were 92% more likely to have had ovulatory infertility than women in the lowest category; in other words, it wasn’t the number of carbs in the diet but the type or quality of them. (5)
To single out sugar for a second, sugar also stimulates the brain’s pleasure and reward centers through neurotransmitter dopamine, working just like addictive drugs like heroin or morphine. Over time, our brains develop a tolerance to sugar and lowers dopamine receptors, making us crave more dopamine, but needing more and more sugar to satisfy the craving.(2) The link between oxidative stress, which is directly related to brain degeneration, and sugar is strong. (4)
The type of carbohydrate and how your body digests it (is it refined with no fiber vs. a whole food with lots of fiber) affects your blood sugar and insulin
The human body was designed to lower blood sugar on only an occasional basis, not on an hourly or even daily basis, (6) and doing so highly stresses our body and brain, leading to all sorts of lifestyle diseases and potential fertility issues.
What Can You DO:
Choose whole foods
Instead of only the number of carbs, pay attention the kind of carbs you eat.
Avoid highly-refined, highly-processed carbohydrates—things like bagels, cereals, muffins, white and whole wheat bread, pasta, doughnuts, cookies, pastries, crackers, pizza, etc.—and choose lower-glycemic, whole foods like vegetables, gluten-free whole grains like brown rice, oats and quinoa, sweet potatoes, beans, some fruits. The fiber makes the food digest more slowly, keeps us full for longer and helps prevent blood sugar spikes.
Eat more quality fat and protein
Also, eat more high-quality protein and fat, especially for breakfast.
Remember: (quality) fat at does not make you fat! Think foods high in Omega-3s, such as salmon & other fatty fish, avocados, eggs, nuts, olives, and seeds.
Quality is key here… fats from fried or fast food, transfats, fake foods like margarine & vegetable shortening, vegetable oils like canola, sunflower and cottonseed oil should be avoided
Read labels carefully
If you must eat processed foods, read the back!
Sugar is often under the guise of tricky names like high fructose corn syrup, fructose, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, maltose, glucose, cane sugar, dextrose, agave, and maltose, and many “health foods,” like gluten free items and protein bars are anything but healthy.
Avoid sugary drinks and drink more water
Soda, energy drinks, Frappuccinos, fruit juice (yes, even organic 100% juice) should be avoided
“Diet” sodas are no better for you!
Water helps you detox and supports proper functioning of all bodily systems
Everything in moderation
Mindfully eat and ENJOY indulgent foods. Don’t sit in front of the TV and eat them.
When you do decide to indulge in sugary and/or starchy foods, try to avoid them before bed; blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night only mean a night of poor sleep and restlessness.
(1) David Perlmutter, MD. (2013). Grain Brain.
(2) Mark Hyman, MD (2012). The Blood Sugar Solution
(3) Datis Kharrazian, MD. (2013). Why Isn't My Brain Working.
(4) David Perlmutter, MD. (2013). Grain Brain.
(5) Jorge Chavarro, MD, and Walter Willet, MD, PhD. (2008) The Fertility Diet.
(6) Datis Kharrazian, MD. (2013). Why Isn't My Brain Working.
“Like heroin, cocaine and caffeine, sugar is an addictive, destructive drug, yet we consume it daily…”
-William Dufty, author of Sugar Blues.