March 27, 2023

What Sugar Does To Your Body

What are the different types of carbohydrates, and how do you properly incorporate them into your diet?

According to professor Susanne Klaus, our craving for sugar and sweet foods is inborn. “Experiments have shown that the combination of sugar and fat is especially effective in stimulating the brain’s reward system,” Klaus says. Further research shows that we, as humans, are inclined towards sweet flavours because of our mother’s milk and its quantities of lactose.

Two hands holding a cupcake with icing, a raspberry, a slice of lemon and a small flower on top. Blurry kitchen background.
Photo by Taryn Elliott

Visit activeplantbased for professional help and plant-based nutrition training.

The industry’s influence

With time, however, industrially manufactured products have been holding a particular place in our everyday diet, resulting in us craving more and more of them and not getting satisfied with the natural sweetness of fruit and other whole foods.

Muffin vs Strawberry?

Muffin — wins, or so it seems. Did you know that about 180 million tons of sugar are produced worldwide every year? That means that each European consumes nearly 50 kg of sugar annually.

To get an idea of how much that is: I am 154 cm tall (or should I say small?) and weigh 50 kg.

Aren’t all carbohydrates sugars?

Well, chemically speaking, yes.

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient found in many foods, like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. They are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms and an essential nutrient for humans.

Ketogenic Diet, Keto, or Low-Carb. Yes or no?

Simple no.

In fact, our brains mainly use carbohydrates as an energy source. So when you don’t eat carbs or heavily restrict eating them, your body will create energy via complicated and exhausting pathways, as glucose is the preferred and most efficient source of energy.

That is because glucose can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and be used directly by brain cells to produce ATP, the body’s energy currency. Remember that the mitochondrion is the powerhouse of the cell? ATP is what it produces. So that’s why it is the powerhouse of the cell.

While the brain can use other fuel sources, such as ketones and some amino acids, glucose is preferred because it requires less energy to metabolise than other fuel sources. This is because glucose is easily broken down into ATP in the brain’s cells via the process of glycolysis, which is a relatively simple and quick process.

In addition, the brain’s ability to use alternative fuel sources, such as ketones, is limited, and prolonged use of alternative fuel sources can have potential side effects. Therefore, while the brain can use other fuel sources in certain circumstances, glucose is the preferred and most efficient fuel source for the brain.

Is a muffin brain food, then?

Sadly, no, not really. Well, technically, yes, but still no. Let me explain.

For instance, bananas and grapes contain carbohydrates. A muffin contains carbs, too. Plain sugar is a carb. Hopefully, you will agree that the carbs in the lentils are not treated the same as carbs that occur in simple white sugar.

That is because a banana or a grape also comes with other benefits, such as dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other good stuff that makes us healthy. In contrast, a muffin made out of fat, plain sugar and flour does not provide the same health properties.

So what we need to do is: Eat the right carbs.

What happens with the carbohydrates after I eat them?

The body metabolises most carbohydrates into sugar molecules, which are then used for energy production.

Glucose, for example, is then used for energy production or stored in the body as glycogen or fat.

The amount of sugar in a particular food can vary depending on how much carbohydrates it contains and how it is processed. Note that eating too many carbohydrates can lead to insulin resistance and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and other diseases.

Eating the right carbs: Complex vs Simple carbohydrates

  • Complex carbohydrates contain sugar molecules that need to be broken down in our digestive system since they are strung together in long chains.

They include dietary fibre that assists digestion and metabolism. Whole grain food, pseudo-cereal, potatoes, legumes and other vegetables are the best sources of complex carbohydrates. Lastly, note that they positively affect the body by maintaining a balanced blood glucose profile and slowly raising blood sugar levels.

  • Simple carbohydrates (also known as sugars) do not need to be broken down, or only slightly. They do cause a quick sugar blood spike.

Fruit and its freshly squeezed juices (including the pulp) are the most important and healthiest source of simple sugars, along with several beneficial nutrients and vitamins.

Other industrially manufactured products should be consumed in moderation.

General tips when consuming sugar

  • Your daily sugar intake should be at most 10% of your energy intake. That comes to around 50g of sugar daily per 2000 kcal.
  • Maintain fruits as your primary source of easily soluble carbs.
  • Reduce your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, and fruit juices, especially not freshly squeezed ones and those that don’t contain fruit flesh.
  • Be mindful of hidden sugars found in condiments, sauces, and dressings. Read the labels.
  • Hidden sugars can be found in many of your daily meals; keep an eye out for those to prevent excess intake.

Fresh fruit

  • They provide a variety of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
  • There is no concentrated sugar in fruit.
  • They are highly hydrating, with 80–90% water content.
  • About 5 portions of fruit and vegetables are recommended daily (about 400 grams).
  • Smoothies are high in fibre that help maintain balanced blood sugar levels and help you feel full for longer.
  • Fresh fruit juice often causes a sugar spike, does not help satiety and some substances are lost, compared to if you consumed that fruit as a whole.
White and brown packet of coconut sugar with a dark background and a whole coconut on the side.
Photo by Tz.dhanjit

The common household sugar is not vegan.

Not all people know this, but white and brown sugar is not vegan because it’s processed with bone char (also known as natural carbon), which is used as a decolourising filter.

Some white and brown sugar alternatives are coconut sugar, stevia, other plant-based sugars, maple and agave syrup, dates…

Read more about “hidden non-vegan products” that’ll surprise you.

Sugar and blood sugar levels

Ensuring that our blood sugar levels are kept within a specific range is essential to maintain our health. Our body needs blood sugar levels to balance between 70–110 mg/dl (milligrams per decilitre). Naturally, though, after a meal, those levels rise, mainly due to the carbohydrates, but even then, it shouldn’t exceed 140mg/ml.

Insulin & Glucagon

To maintain that balance, our pancreas produces insulin and glucagon hormones. Insulin is responsible for lowering sugar levels with the help of glucose (simple sugar). Glucagon, on the other hand, with the release of carbohydrates, assists in rising sugar levels when they have fallen below average.

Consuming simple carbohydrates rapidly increases our blood sugar levels from insulin release, followed by an equally rapid drop. A constant state of cravings, as well as an automatic fat build, are the consequences.

Now, consuming complex carbohydrates (wholemeal foods) ensures that the glucose will be administrated slowly into the blood since it comes in the form of chains that need to be broken down. Hence, insulin levels are kept balanced, and excess cravings should not occur.

Hopefully, you got some insight into carbohydrates and how they participate in bodily functions. They play an important role in our body’s energy production, and you shouldn’t fear them, despite what diet culture says.

Eating a healthy balance of simple and complex carbs is essential for maintaining energy levels and preventing the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes. By being mindful of our food choices, we can ensure we get the nutrients our bodies need from our diets.

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