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Sugar in your body
Sugar is energy. When you eat it, you can use some immediately, but in most cases, your body will need to store some of it for use later, either when you’re not eating or when your activity level increases.
You’ll find sugar in some form in all of the carbs you eat, whether it’s white table sugar or kale. The important differences are in dose and speed of delivery.
White sugar is 100% sucrose—a mix between glucose and fructose. That means that 1 ounce of sugar in a spoon is 1 ounce of sugar in your body. Compare that to kale. One ounce of kale (about 2 cups) is about one-tenth of an ounce of carbohydrates, and less than 1 gram of that is actually sugar.
What’s more, very little has to be done to common sugar to make it available to your body. Sugar enters your bloodstream as glucose, and sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose molecules. It is basically one step away from the form your body will absorb for use. That means it hits you FAST. All that sugar, all at once.
Kale, on the other hand, has its nutrients, sugar included, bound up in a whole structure of fiber that has to be broken down before even a molecule of glucose can be accessed. That means that even the minuscule amount of sugar in kale is dripped very slowly into your bloodstream.
Finally, the sugar you eat isn’t always as obvious as the white powder, golden liquids, and even fresh fruits and vegetables you eat every day. Sugar is added in small and not-so-small quantities to about 80% of all processed foods you buy in the market. Everything from pasta sauce and chicken broth to peanut butter and salsa. Foods that you don’t think of as “sugary” are having a hidden and insidious effect on the amount of sugar we have to deal with in our diets.
All of this is very important for how your body handles sugar.
All of the sugar in your body is managed by the hormone insulin. When you eat sugar, your pancreas is signalled to create and release insulin. Insulin helps to quickly remove sugar to your cells. It “tells” your cells to let the sugar (glucose) in where it is converted to glycogen and stored, as well as to stop making glucose from the glycogen it has stored (since you now have glucose circulating in your blood). When its work is done, when there is no more excess sugar circulating, the insulin is then cleared from your blood by your kidneys.
Insulin is like a guardian, and as long as there is insulin in your bloodstream, your cells will pull in glucose and keep their stored glycogen inside. Remember that, it’ll be important later—as long as there is insulin in your bloodstream, your cells will keep the glucose out of your bloodstream.
Why this all matters
You can only hold onto a limited amount of sugar as energy in your cells. You store it in your muscles and liver, and can basically store the equivalent of a day’s worth of energy as glycogen.
Because you can only store a limited amount of glycogen, your body converts any excess sugar to fat and stores it in your fat cells.
The bad news for your waistline is that your body has practically unlimited storage capacity for fat.
But that storage ability is important for a couple of reasons:
- It is very important that sugar is removed from your bloodstream. Sugar in your bloodstream is toxic, which is why hyperglycemia is so dangerous. Sugar in your blood can, over time, damage your heart, your nerves, and your kidneys. If you don’t have space in the muscles and liver to store that glucose, your body needs somewhere to remove it to. That’s where your fat cells come in.
- As living things, we require the ability to go for long periods of time without actually eating food. This was important not only during our early evolution when we hunted and gathered, but during more recent periods of famine. Living off of fat stores allowed us to survive when food was scarce.
Just to give you some context, while you can store that day’s worth of energy in your muscles and liver, an average person (who is not overweight) can store around a month’s worth of energy as fat. That gave us a lot of leeway for finding food.
Now, because the glucose in your muscles can only be used by the muscles it is stored in, if your brain needs energy or your muscles run out of glucose, you have three options:
- Use the glucose from your liver, if you have it
- Eat more sugar
- Convert stored fat into ketones or ATP (a product of glucose or ketone metabolism). This is something that your body does, but for a primary sugar burner, your body is looking for sugar first. This is especially important for your brain, as your brain can use glucose or ketones for fuel.
This makes energy storage a very big deal. If you were a hunter, you could not get run down and hangry the longer you went without food. You needed to be just as focused a week, even two weeks, after your last meal.
Now converting fat to energy works well if you’re used to it, but if your body is conditioned to burning glucose, it can take a while to bring this fat burning system online to its greatest efficiency. During that time, you’re gonna be really hangry. And if sugar is available, you’re gonna eat it.
This is where the idea of “willpower” gets interesting. There’s a certain amount of discomfort you can deal with when you get hungry. Hunger, however, is driven by powerful hormones that can exhibit quite a great deal of pressure on you to eat. You can think of it a bit like being very, very tired. You can fight it for a while, but you wouldn’t think anything was wrong with you if you eventually fell asleep. It has been said that people don’t become overweight because they overeat, they overeat because they are overweight. That excess weight is a sign that you may be in the grip of a vicious cycle.
Here’s how things can go terribly wrong for us. It’s where the vicious cycle begins. It can be dealt with, but it’s something that is driven to a great extent by internal physiological forces that are powerfully driven to help you survive.
We have a lot more food available to us now than when this system was designed. Not only that, but with the advent of large-scale agriculture and industrial food processing, we have a lot more carbohydrates and refined sugar available to us.
While this kind of access to calories was a lifesaver for our civilization early on, we’re now operating with a system that is designed for free storage in a world where we can easily hoard as much energy as we can get our hands on.
That has turned into a big problem for us. We can get cheap, storable energy everywhere we go, and we have a lot of space to hang onto it. This is what makes us fat.
And if that were the only consequence, it might not be so bad. Just cut back on eating and let your body burn through the energy you have stored. It might be hard, but if nothing was standing in the way of the system doing its job, it would be relatively painless.
But remember what I told you to remember? As long as there is insulin in your bloodstream, your cells will keep the glucose out of your bloodstream.
This is where things get tricky.
Did you ever go through a period of time when you drank a little more than usual? Maybe the holidays, maybe on vacation. At first, a couple of drinks got you tipsy, but by the end, two drinks did nothing to you. You increased your tolerance. You were more sensitive to alcohol at the beginning, and you were less sensitive to alcohol at the end. In other words, it took more alcohol to “do the job.”
Insulin is like that.
As we eat more sugar, and as we produce more insulin, our cells increase their tolerance to insulin. They become less sensitive to it (unlike your emotions, you want your insulin sensitivity to be high). Insulin comes a knockin’ but the cells ain’t answering. Just think if a salesman knocked on your door every day. After a while, they’d have to get pretty insistent before you opened the door.
If your diet is made up of large amounts of carbohydrates—especially refined ones like sugar and flour—your body produces a lot of insulin. But after a while, when the cells become less sensitive to the insulin, it takes more insulin to “do the job.” Because it’s so important that the sugar gets stored, your pancreas produces more insulin and the time needed for clearing the sugar and insulin increases.
That has two effects:
- It overworks the pancreas (greater demand to produce insulin)
- It takes longer for the kidneys to clear the insulin from your blood (more insulin to start with working against cells that are less cooperative)
An overworked pancreas is like an overworked anything. It can do it for a while, but after some time, it’s going to start to burn out. That means it’s going to produce insulin less efficiently and have to work even harder to produce even normal amounts of insulin, let alone the greater amounts you need because your cells are now so tolerant.
And because it’s taking longer for insulin to be cleared from you bloodstream, that glucose is staying “locked up” when you need it. If you need glucose, you can’t get it from your stores—the insulin circulating in your bloodstream won’t allow it. That means you’re going to need to eat more sugar. And what does that do? It signals your now-overworked pancreas to work some more to release insulin into your bloodstream to clear the sugar—before your kidneys have even cleared the last dose of insulin. At a certain point, this sort of thing begins to become an endless cycle.
These are the profound consequences I was talking about:
- Your pancreas becomes so overworked it may eventually fail to produce enough insulin to do the job. You know this as Type II diabetes.
- Sugar stays in your bloodstream for longer, exposing your tissues to high levels of sugar for longer, leading to cardiac disease, nerve damage, and kidney failure.
- And when you’ve run out of room in your muscle and liver cells for glucose, everything extra is going into your fat cells.
This is why it is so important. Once this cycle takes hold, it works on its own. It actually takes intentional effort to break the cycle. The experience of not eating sugar when your body needs it can be anything from mildly hungry, to hangry, to being viciously run down, cranky, and mentally foggy—totally unable to work (again, think of trying to work when you’re exhausted).
This doesn’t mean it can’t be broken. As a matter of fact, it is very important for your health that it is. Remember, this isn’t just about being overweight. The effects on your whole system will quickly wear out the parts of your body that are meant to work well for 70, 80, even 90 years and beyond.
What you can do
There are a few things that you can do to help manage the transition from this cycle to a healthy, well-functioning system. There are things that can help push your system back into good working order and there are strategies that can help with the physical symptoms you might suffer from.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Reduce or eliminate excess sugar or refined carbohydrates from your diet. This doesn’t mean all carbohydrates. But things like soda and fruit juice, pasta, potatoes, white rice, and most bread, as well as sugar condiments like honey and maple syrup, and anything like pastries, cakes or candy need to get phased out.
- If you need to, start with one thing at a time, for example soda and/or juice. Then remove pasta and move on to bread. Phasing will likely help keep you from the failure that might easily occur if you try and go “cold turkey.”
- Make sure you are not increasing the amount of one carbohydrate source in response to removing another (e.g. increasing bread in response to removing soda).
- Replace some of those carbohydrates with plant-based sources of carbohydrates like whole fruits and non-starchy vegetables as well as whole grains and beans. The sugar is released more slowly into your bloodstream, but you’ll still be taking in the sugar you need.
- Steer clear of dried fruits, which tend to have a more concentrated level of sugar.
- Berries, oranges and apples are good fruits to try, while fruits like mangos and pineapples should be avoided.
- You can also include boiled sweet potatoes if you need a little something more, but avoid baking them.
- Play around with meal timing. The longer you can go between meals, the greater chance you are giving your system to clear out any insulin that is circulating.
- One great way to start is to increase the amount of time between dinner and breakfast. Known as “time restricted eating” it reduces the window of time in which you eat during the day and increases the window of time in which your body rests and does maintenance. Start with a 10 hour window at least (e.g. dinner done by 8pm and breakfast no earlier than 6am). Increase to up to 12 hours, if you can.
- Avoid in-between meal snacking, if possible. If you must, limit yourself to one well-planned snack each day.
- Don’t eat when you’re not hungry. Many of us have a tendency to eat when we’re anxious or bored. Try to notice if you’re about to eat to relieve an emotional state versus a state of hunger.
- A supplement called exogenous ketones may help with the “hangriness” (known in the low-carb arenas as the “carb flu”). Because your brain can use ketones for energy, putting some into your bloodstream can help to feed your brain when the sugar it needs isn’t available.
- Eventually, as you get out of the vicious cycle, your body will be much better at both liberating glycogen from your cells and utilizing stored fat to convert to ketones when you need energy.
That’s the skinny, so to speak. Insulin is a powerful hormone. It provides a mechanism that allows us to have long-term stores of energy. But in a modern environment, it needs to be more consciously managed than at any time in our past. We have the fuel sources that can make the system go haywire and, by necessity, we must be more conscious and choosy of our food than our predecessors.
With good choices and a little discipline and hard work, we can reverse processes that aren’t working and have a body that lasts us well into the long, healthy life that we all want to have.