What You Need to Know About Sugar, Agave Nectar & Fructose

It's easy to be quick to judge when we don't have all the information, and I think many of us are judgmental of obesity, viewing it as an effect of overindulging. But is it really that easy? I don't know about you, but I can put down my fair share of food. And though I'm careful not to overeat, I can say that I know plenty of people much larger than myself who regularly eat much less than I do. As a healthcare practitioner I commonly see people who come in trying to lose weight and I can't tell you how many of them actually under-eat (which in and of itself can be a problem as well, but that's another story). For so many years we've been programmed to believe that weight loss is all about caloric intake and output - i.e., eat less and exercise more - BUT there’s so much more to this picture.

Nowadays we hear a lot of press about sugars and how harmful they are for out body, but let's look a little deeper from a science based perspective and then you can form your own opinion.

First off, our bodies basically run on glucose by breaking down carbohydrates to create APT or energy. Glucose and Fructose are both simple sugars. Sucrose (table sugar) is a 50/50 combination of fructose/glucose, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a 55/45 combination of fructose/glucose. That small difference is what makes HFCS that much sweeter than regular table sugar but it's also part of what makes HFCS so potentially toxic to our bodies.

The corn industry argues that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are basically the same and that they are both safe when eaten in proper doses. But what is a “proper dose?” With these ingredients hidden in practically every packaged food, most Americans consume an average of 140 pounds of sugar a year. In 1986 the FDA report said sugar is safe when consumed in the current amounts, which at the time was only 40 pounds per year. At what point is sugar unsafe?

So how does fructose function in the body? The pros -- well it doesn't trigger the insulin response that glucose does which makes it low glycemic (items like agave nectar -- yes I know, I used to love it too) because there's no glucose in it. Great news. However, because it doesn't trigger insulin the body can't tell when it's full, which leads to all sorts of unfortunate effects (it also suppresses leptin which tells you when you're full and does not suppress ghrelin which stimulates the appetite).

The other problem with fructose is the formation of AGE's (advanced glycation endproducts) - yes, the name is actually quite appropriate in this case. In this process proteins in your body are basically caramelized (glycated) and therefore permanently damaged. There is a strong connection between these AGE's and Alzheimer's, cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks, strokes, cataracts, arthritis, atherosclerosis and is thought to be one of the main reasons for the health problems associated with diabetes.

But above all, the liver takes the toll in the breakdown of fructose - even more so in its liquid form (e.g. juice, sodas) because it hits the liver all at once versus a whole apple with the fiber still intact.  The metabolism of fructose in the liver causes an increase in uric acid (increasing inflammation, gout and blood pressure) and over time a fatty liver (one of the major causes of insulin resistance). Stay with me -- I know it can all be a little overwhelming.

So we have the damage that glucose and insulin do from a high carb diet now combined with the liver damage from fructose that only works to speed up the process of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (linked to heart disease, diabetes and higher risk of cancer and associated with an ever growing waistline).

Research is suggesting that with as little as 3 juice or soda drinks a day, fatty liver can result in just 2 weeks. Notice I said juice or soda. I know many of you are thinking "but its juice!" But remember the chemical composition I mentioned earlier - fructose is fructose whether it’s in soda form or juice form. When you extract the fiber from fruit that is high in sugar, it acts the same way as soda would. Your body doesn't know the difference. Yes, there's a lot more to the story here. Fruit juice has antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to the body so don't throw it out completely, but know that the sugars in fruit juice are concentrated and act similar to soda in the body. This is why when I juice I usually mostly only use vegetables and I even go easy on high sugar veggies like carrots and beets. You can also dig up the nutritional content of fruits to see which have the highest sugar content because there is definitely a range of sugar levels within the fruits with some being much higher than others (bananas and pinneapple being especially high).

All of that aside, back to the science.

The effects on the liver explain why we are seeing obesity on the rise in babies and children and why we see 12-year-olds with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Pretty sad really, since packed foods are often cheaper and easier than their whole foods counterparts. Did you know that in most formula for babies over 40% of the formula is corn syrup solids and over 10% is sugar? As they get older they have pop tarts for breakfast, fruit roll ups for lunch, crackers with high fructose corn syrup for snacks with juice or soda most likely, then spaghetti with sauce from a jar with added sugars. Don't forget the straight up candy, drinks, cereals, popsicles, sauces, etc, etc. Did I mention 1 in 5 children in the US is obese? (The number of simply overweight kids is nearly twice that!)

Enter the skyrocketing cases of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the last three decades. Oh my!

In Chinese Medicine we take an interesting approach to the sugar dilemma. We rarely talk about calories but what we do say is that it's important to have a fine balance of the six main flavors on the palate. They are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy and bland. The key to nutritional health is eating the proper combination of these flavors depending on where your imbalance is, however for general health a balance of all of them is necessary. Of course there's a lot more to it but that is a major factor and to me it explains my theory that there are no "free" foods. So many times we eat sugar-free cookies and think its benign or fat free chips and feel ok about it. But it's really all just filler. Which brings us back to yoga and the ability to view our food as a therapeutic tool like our yoga practice. Not that we never eat to enjoy but that the majority of the time we eat to fuel our body & our brain rather than what looks good. So that we eat to create balance not imbalance.

So here's a recap of all the heavy science, and what I feel are the most important things to take away from this information.

1- Avoid fruit juice and soda like the plague.

2 - Remember sugar and high fructose corn syrup are basically the same and fructose creates age-accelerating damage in your cells.

3 - Read your labels and stay away from packaged foods as much as possible since they almost always have added sweeteners of some sort.

4 - Remember nothing is free. There are no "free" sweets or "free" foods, enjoy from time to time but leave it to that.

5 - The internal balance of your body is a delicate balance, why are you eating what you're eating?

Don't forget to balance it with some fun from time to time, it's good for the soul!  

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About the Author
Tiffany is the Acupuncturist and Yoga Teacher at the Nike World Headquarters in Portland, Oregon, runs 200 and 500 hour yoga teacher trainings and has been featured in various articles, video and print ads including ads for Nike and Lululemon. She travels the globe inspiring people all over the world to live their lives to the fullest and her book, Optimal Health For A Vibrant Life, is a 30 day detox for yogis.
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