Sugar: The Bitter Effects

Sugar, sugar….honey, honey….

We’re all familiar with the catchy tune by the Archies. But what exactly is sugar, and what is sugar doing to us?

Sugar is found in many forms- cane sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, and maple syrup, to name a few. When we hear “sugar”, most of us think of candy, cake, and other sweet treats. Sugar also occurs naturally in fruits and starchy veggies (like potatoes, carrots, beets) as fructose. Carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, or rice break down into sugars when they are digested, even though they are not sweet to the taste buds the way candy is.

Let’s start with a quick biology lesson: Sugar digests very rapidly; in fact, your saliva contains enzymes called salivary amylases that start breaking down carbohydrates and sugars while they’re still being chewed!

Your body likes to operate with your blood sugar in a specific range. When you consume sugar or grain carbohydrates like bread or pasta (which break down into sugars), your blood sugar level starts to rise. When blood sugar levels surpass your body’s comfort level, the pancreas begins to secrete the hormone insulin.

Insulin has multiple purposes in the body, but in this case, insulin’s role is to take excess sugar out of the blood stream so that your blood sugar can return to a healthy level. Insulin then transports the sugar to a different part of the body for storage. The sugar may be converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles for future use as fuel in daily activities or exercise. However, the liver and muscles have a limited storage capacity in the range of 1200-2000 calories depending on body size (larger bodies have larger storage capacities). Unless you’ve just finished a long, strenuous workout, your liver and muscle glycogen stores are likely close to full simply by virtue of the carbohydrates you consume daily.

So, what happens when the liver and muscle glycogen stores are full? When this happens, the sugar is converted to triglycerides for storage in your fat cells. And guess what the bad news is? Unlike liver and muscles, which have a limited storage capacity, fat cells have an unlimited storage capacity!

When the sugar is transported out of the blood stream and into storage, your blood sugar levels drop quickly and you may experience that shaky, “hangry” (that’s hungry + angry!) feeling, that typically has you reaching for a snack to boost blood sugar again. This starts the blood sugar spike, insulin release, and subsequent blood sugar drop all over again; I call this effect the “blood sugar roller coaster”.