There is much confusion about the importance of sugar and starches in the diet. They are categorized as carbohydrates but they both end up as simple sugars within the body once they are digested. Many people seem to think that since they both are metabolized as sugar, they amount to the same thing in regards to weight control (and also for diabetes). But, of course, they don’t. The main difference is a matter of timing. You could view starches as long chains of sugar molecules that must be broken down into their component sugars before they can be utilized for energy. Starch digestion is relatively slow compared to how quickly sugars are absorbed and metabolized. It is the rapid digestion and absorption of sugars that is a problem for us.
Our body has a potential problem with sugar since high glucose levels in our bloodstream are quite toxic. The main defense our body uses to control bloof glucose is the release of insulin into the blood. The faster that carbohydrates raise the blood sugar levels the higher the insulin level must reach in order to control the rise in glucose and prevent damage. High insulin levels can also become a problem. One of insulin’s many important actions in the body is to very rapidly convert glucose into fat. Thus, consuming sugars in high quantities results in very high insulin levels and produces a lot of fat storage. Insulin also inhibits fat release from fat cells. This is the worst situation you want your body to have to manage: lots of insulin driving increases in fat storage while also preventing the release of fat from fat storage cells.
An additional factor comes into play that makes the situation even worse. While glucose is turned into fat quickly, insulin levels take much longer to be cleared and may continue to push the blood sugar down below normal. Consuming a lot of sugar easily results in a subsequent drop in blood sugar and increased appetite that can last for hours after a meal (not to mention increasing your craving for more sugar). From all these factors you might anticipate that a lot of sugar in the diet will tend to cause weight gain. This is exactly what we find in the research that has looked at this question.
To my knowledge, every species of animal studied has also shown this effect from sugar in their diet. If you allow animals in an expereiment to eat and drink as much as they desire, and you put sugar in the water of half of the animals, the group with the sugar in their water will gain weight steadily. Not just because of the extra calories passively consumed in their water, they will actually drink more and eat more than the control group. Human studies show the same effect. Sugar containing drinks tend to cause weight gain while sugar free liquids do not. It is not just sugar in liquids, though, even sugar intake in solid foods often creates a problem. While the weight gain stimulating effect is worse when sugars are dissolved in liquids, all sugar containing foods foster weight gain. The research also shows that if you want to consume some sweets, natural fruit is your best bet by far, as long as you do not carry their consumption to extremes, and do not make the fruit into fruit juice.
Many people are currently questionig the impact artificial sweeteners in our diet. Some contend that artificial sweeteners also stimulate the appetite. The best studies to date, however, do not show an appetite stimulation nor weight gain from artificial sweeteners. I do not recommend aspartame since one of its breakdown products is methanol and methanol is potentially toxic. Sucralose (brand name Splenda in theUS) does not have this disadvantage. This is what I use as a sweetener for myself.
The bottom line with sugar for long term weight management is to avoid it as much as possible. Very few people can consume a high sugar diet and not gain weight. This does not apply to starches since they are absorbed much more slowly. In fact, a healthy diet will contain the majority of its calories from starches.
This is a good time to bring up the topic of “food addictions.” A few people do seem to handle certain foods as if they are addicted to them. They crave them and can actually have a sort of withdrawal from them when they stop them suddenly. This is not a true addiction, but it is similar in many ways. Sometimes it is chocolate, sometimes it is any kind of sugary sweets, sometimes it seems to be starches rather than sugars that cause this kind of problem. I think these “addiction” situations are emotionally driven. The best way I know to deal with this problem is through certain “energy psychology” techniques, particularly EFT. A number of EFT practitioners have programs designed to handle these kinds of emotional food cravings. (You may want to read my article about EFT: https://chuckgebhardtmd.com/2011/07/26/a-healing-method-i-would-stake-my-reputation-on/, this article will guide you to the appropriate resources.)
In the next article of this series, I will discuss another problem nutrient – fats. As always, if you have questions or comments, I encourage you to put them below.