Emphasis is continually placed on the sugar content of foods we consume daily. When it comes to well-being, sugar generally has a reputation described as bittersweet. It is therefore crucial to understand the distinction between natural and refined sugar. While it is okay to consume naturally occurring sugar contained in whole foods, professionals in the field of health advise against eating foods that contain refined sugar. Intake of refined sugar is reported to be responsible for a wide range of health conditions that could be as serious as cancer and heart disease. So let’s investigate what refined sugar actually is, what foods contain it, how it compares to natural sugar, and how much more safer your life will be avoiding it.
Sugar that has been extracted and processed from natural sources such as sugar cane, sugar beets and corn is known as refined sugar. It can be processed as regular table sugar or white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or evaporated cane juice, all of which are devoid of their natural nutrients. These are artificial sweeteners typically added to some diets such as soda, juice, baked goods, and the majority of processed (canned) foods. Even they can be found in some foods you wouldn’t suspect, like tomato sauce, soups, condiments and some bread varieties. Given that these lots make up the majority of our daily diet, it is crucial to be aware of the risks associated with added sugar consumption.
Refined sugar is often referred to as “empty calories” because its supposedly beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and fiber have been stripped out. It was studied to contribute a large number of calories and very little nutritional value. Hence it is not surprising that the consumption of refined sugar is linked to several detrimental health repercussions. Here are some:
Obesity or overweight is a major health problem associated with the consumption of diets high in refined sugar, with a study estimating that it affects at least 20% of Australian children. And this is not simply a problem for kids; the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised obesity as a global problem affecting people of all ages in their Technical Report Series. Refined sugar consumption may cause the body to become resistant to leptin; the “satiety hormone”, leading to overeating. This is explained by a study to drive weight gain, especially when complemented by physical inactivity. On top of being a consequence itself, obesity is even understood to be a pathway for many other serious health conditions such as gallstone disease, diabetes and heart disease.
According to a 2021 study, gallstone disease (GD) is a fairly common pathology with a high frequency of between 10 and 20 per cent worldwide. Although early research found that refined sugars were inherently lithogenic – promoting inflammation and directly increasing the risk of gallbladder disorders, it is established in a recent research that obesity is partly a risk factor for the development of gallstones. Consuming refined sugar triggers a rise in insulin secretion, a condition also associated with obesity. As a result, there is a higher concentration of cholesterol in the bile, which increases the possibility of gallstone formation. Given that WHO reports a global rise in the prevalence of overweight and obesity, the incidence of GD is anticipated to rise even further. Further aggravating the situation, some Mexican researchers linked GD to a number of diseases, including gallbladder cancer, metabolic-associated fatty liver disease, carotid atherosclerosis, and cardiovascular diseases, “probably because they share many of the risk factors,” they said.
Type 2 diabetes is strongly associated with added sugar-containing diets. According to an analysis, every 1 out of 4 people who regularly consume sugar-sweetened beverages has a risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A single sugar-sweetened beverage a day actually raises your risk by 13%. Numerous scientists believe this could be due to the direct impact of fructose on the liver, which encourages inflammation and localized insulin resistance. These effects are reported by a study to be catalysts for abnormal pancreatic insulin synthesis, which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, a study identified weight gain and increased body fat as separate risk factors for developing diabetes.
Another explored impact is the risk of cognitive declination. Frequent consumption of diets high in added sugar leads to high glucose levels indicated which diminishes mental capacity. In a study published in the journal Diabetologia, this is associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, one of the largest studies published in the journal Scientific Reports linked sugar consumption with a greater incidence of depression and anxiety. According to this 2017 study, people who consume the most sugar are 23% more likely than people who consume the least amount of sugar to be diagnosed with a mental condition.
One extensive study to link diets rich in added sugar with an increased risk of heart disease was published in JAMA Internal Medicine by health experts, Dr Hu and his colleagues. The result of the 15-year research indicates that people who got roughly one-fifth of their calorie intake from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed lesser calories as added sugar. Moreover, already known consequences of consuming added sugar – including weight gain, diabetes, higher blood pressure, fatty liver disease and increase chronic inflammation – are pathological pathways to heart disease. It was concluded in the 2014 study that the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk of dying from heart disease.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, processed foods, high in refined sugars, may increase the risk of certain types of cancer. This is due to the resulting spike in the levels of insulin, a hormone that stimulates cell division – by boosting cell production whilst reducing cell death. This is argued to promote the growth of cancer cells. Additionally, as blood sugar and insulin levels fluctuate, inflammation rises, which is linked to breast, prostate, pleural, gallbladder and small intestinal cancers.
As suggested by the name, these are sugars contained in natural whole foods. Examples include fructose found in fruits, glucose in starchy vegetables and lactose in dairy products. In addition to natural sugar, these foods contain many other beneficial compounds that are crucial for a healthy body such as fibre, protein vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is well-researched that they support our daily energy metabolism, immune system, cell health, and more. Due to the complementary presence of these compounds, natural sugars are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream at a slower rate. This lessens the possibility of blood sugar spikes, which prevents the development of insulin resistance. Hence consuming whole foods, albeit in moderation, significantly lowers the risk of health issues like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers, as reported in a study published by Oxford University Press.
The dangers of refined sugars, which are mostly added to processed foods, have been established in cohorts of research. Weight gain and chronic inflammation are associated health consequences, which can further increase your risk for heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, and more. These, however, can be avoided by consuming the substitute – natural sugars present in whole foods instead. These foods provide additional nutrients such as fiber, protein, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that curtail the surge of sugar in the bloodstream, producing effects that are in contrast to those of refined sugars. So keep in mind that the next time you’re tempted to reach for a refined sugar-sweetened treat; it’s not doing your body any favours. Choose a natural sugar option instead, and your body will thank you.
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