Live Well
June 2014

The Biting Facts About Sugar and Your Health

Last month I mentioned an article that I read which highlighted the fact that a recent study found no correlation between the intake of saturated fat and coronary heart disease. What scientists and researchers are concluding now is that saturated fat is not the culprit in raising the risk of cardiovascular diseases but rather the sugar. This is not an entirely new finding but one that is finding increasing validity today.

On average, Americans are consuming about 130 lbs. of sugar per year – that’s almost 3/4 cup of sugar per day! Our overall consumption of sugar in the form of fructose or high fructose corn syrup has gone up because we are drinking more sodas and juices, and eating more cookies, snacks and processed foods. Sugar is the #1 food additive used by the food industry because it makes foods taste better and gives them a longer shelf life. As Michael Moss wrote in his book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, “Pure fructose is highly soluble but does not decompose as readily as other sugars, so it can remain effective for the long shelf life that processed foods demand. It resists forming crystals, which helps keep food like soft cookies from hardening. When baked, it delivers an alluring aroma and a crisp, brown surface that mimics the finish achieved in cooking at home, and when frozen, it blocks the formation of ice. As a result, fructose started turning up in a whole range of foods, from yogurt to ice cream, cookies to breads.”(p.130)

Sugars are simple carbohydrates. There are two different types of simple carbohydrates: monosaccharides, which have the same number and form of atoms but differing structures; and disaccharides, which are pairs of monosaccharides linked together. Glucose and fructose are both monosaccharides, which have the same chemical formula but a different structure. According to Dr. Robert Lustig,MD, the Pediatrics Professor who made the YouTube video Sugar:The Bitter Truth, fructose behaves very differently in the body than glucose. As he demonstrates, fructose does not suppress ghrelin, the hormone that signals you are hungry; and does not stimulate insulin, which, in turn, does not produce leptin, the hormone that signals that you feel full. So, when we consume fructose, we don’t get the signals to stop eating so we continue eating more of it. The difference when we eat fruit (which are a source of fructose) is that they are rich in fiber, which slows the absorption of the fructose.

Only the liver can metabolize fructose, so when there is too much fructose in the body, more of it gets converted to fat. Moreover, when our cells are constantly exposed to insulin, they reduce the number of receptors on their surfaces to respond to insulin, which leads to insulin resistance. Finally, digesting sugar depletes our bodies of B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and iron.

So, how does this mean that sugar is at the root of coronary heart disease and not fat? In the 1970s, we removed saturated fat from our diet but ended up replacing it with fructose and high fructose corn syrup. As our consumption of fructose has increased, we have taxed our liver, pancreas and immune system. Some of the effects are the following:

  • We are becoming fatter because the sugar we eat is getting converted to fat by the liver. This increases our risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
  • As our pancreas produces more and more insulin to digest the sugars we are eating, we are at risk of diabetes. Diabetes causes a narrowing of arteries and makes the brain more susceptible to damage, potentially leading to coronary heart disease and/or strokes.
  • Insulin also regulates the production of triglycerides – which are predictor of coronary heart disease – so as our pancreas keeps producing insulin, our triglyceride levels are increasing, putting us at risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Consuming sugar causes chronic inflammation, which, in turn, can lead to a myriad of health issues, including cardiovascular diseases. As David Perlmutter, MD noted in his book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, “Ultimately, the key downstream effect of inflammation in the brain that is responsible for the damage is activation of chemical pathways that increase free radical production. At the center of chronic inflammation is the concept of oxidative stress – a biological type of “rusting.” This gradual corrosion happens on all tissues…But when it begins to run rampant, or when the body can’t keep it under healthy control, it can become deadly… Because oxidized tissues and cells don’t function normally, the process can render you vulnerable to a slew of health challenges.” (p.39)

In short, getting rid of the sodas, lowfat snacks, and candies will do more for our cardiovascular health than foregoing the butter on our morning toast!

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Freekeh Meatballs

I recently started experimenting with Freekeh, which is an ancient cracked wheat grain. It is similar to bulgur but I find that it has a richer flavor. Researchers in Australia found that because freekeh is harvested when it’s young, the grain retains more protein, fiber and minerals than regular wheat. Freekeh is also said to have more fiber than brown rice or quinoa. These meatballs are inspired by a recipe on www.freekehlicious.com. You can serve them with spaghetti and homemade or store-bought marinara sauce. I also enjoy them accompanied with a green salad.

Serves 6

1 cup cracked freekeh
3 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3/4 cup sourdough breadcrumb*
1/2 cup Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
1/2 cup Pecorino-Romano cheese, grated
3 eggs, lightly whisked
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. olive oil
  1. 1. Combine the freekeh and vegetable stock in a medium pot. Bring to a boil, stir, and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover pot and let cook for 20 minutes. Let cool. This step is best done ahead of time.
  2. 2. Combine freekeh and remaining ingredients except for olive oil in a large bowl. Mix well.
  3. 3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking tray with parchment paper and brush with olive oil.
  4. 4. Form golf-ball sized meatballs with freekeh mixture and place on baking tray. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn meatballs over and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes. Meatballs should be nicely browned on both sides.

*NOTE: You can make your own breadcrumbs by taking some old bread and rubbing it with your fingers so it makes crumbs, and then toasting the crumbs in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. For finer breadcrumbs, use a mortar and pestle or grinder to grind the crumbs.