Sugar: The poison of modern life

There is much science behind the harm of refined sugar.

Tobacco and alcohol are recognised as important health hazards. Governments and NGOs launch campaign after campaign to educate us about the dangers of smoking and overconsumption of alcohol, with varying success.

It is now recognised that the most effective step taken by governments the world over to curb smoking is the high tax on cigarettes. Taxes are slated to go higher still in many countries. To the low-income population, it may soon cost them one-third to half a day's wages to smoke a packet of cigarettes!

Sugar is as harmful to our health as tobacco and alcohol, and yet, by comparison, so little bad press is given to it.

One cigarette or a shot of whiskey is not measurably harmful, and neither is a spoonful of sugar. But considering the amount of sugar consumed by most people over their lifetimes, the harm from sugar outstrips the harm from smoking a few cigarettes or moderate drinking.

There is much science behind the harm of sugar. Of course, it is not possible to completely eliminate sugar from our diet. And neither should we.

All the food we take (even if it does not taste sweet) has sugar in it. Fruit and vegetables contain sugar to a varying degree. Eating fruit (whole, not canned or bottled) and consuming a healthy diet (fruits, vegetables, whole grain, blah blah blah) is more than sufficient for our caloric requirement.

We consume approximately 50 pounds (22.7kg) of sugar a year this way. This is acceptable. Fruits and vegetables come with vitamins, minerals and fibre, and takes a while to be absorbed as it sloshes around in our gut.

The sugar and the sweetened condensed milk we spoon into our coffee and tea are harmful. And so is the sugar in sodas, rose syrup and other sweet drinks. Not to mention the sugar in candy, sweets, chocolates, doughnuts, cakes, nyonya kuih and biscuits encrusted with sugar.

All this sugar is refined sugar as opposed to unrefined sugar, which is found naturally in fruit, vegetable and meat. Refined sugar is usually made from cane sugar, but stripped of all its natural goodness.

The copious amounts of sugar we consume through all the sweet drinks and food make up another approximately 90 pounds (40.8kg) or more of sugar a year. This 90 to 100 pounds of refined sugar (whether sucrose or fructose) is, to use an accurate term, a poison, ie a harmful substance that has no benefit.

Multiply the 90 to 100 pounds of refined sugar taken every year by 10, 20, 30, 40 years, a lifetime, and this accumulated toxin becomes harmful to nearly all humans, and deadly to many.

Refined sugar in our coffee, tea, teh tarik and the sodas we gurgle down is rapidly absorbed by our gut. Sugar peaks in our blood, and this leads to insulin peaks.

Many insulin peaks lead to an "exhausted" pancreas. Diabetes is a likely consequence.

Too much sugar also leads to obesity. We all know the dangers of these two diseases - complex. But the harm of sugar doesn't stop there. Sugar is not only empty calories, but the insulin peaks are harmful in other ways. The immune system is compromised, and cancer is more likely.

Sugar (especially fructose) that is not immediately utilised by the body is stored as triglycerides in the liver, which leads to a condition called fatty liver.

Sugar/insulin peaks also increase blood triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels.

Those of us with high levels of these two kinds of lipids run a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.

A high blood sugar dulls the brain.

Over the long run, a high consumption of sugar and sweets is linked to depression, hyperactivity and schizophrenia.

All this is known, and so little is done about it.

The high taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have limited the consumption of these two "poisons". Yet there is no tax on sugar, even though it is as harmful as the two "poisons", if not more.

Worse still, in some countries, there is a subsidy for it. It is as if we are actively promoting an unhealthy lifestyle.

You may ask, how can a pure white crystalline powder be harmful? How can something that tastes so good and gives us such a buzz be so detrimental to our health?

The answer is actually quite easy. The hominids have been around for about 2.5 million years (Homo sapiens about 200,000 years). For 95 per cent of the time, we were a hunting and gathering society. The only sugar available was in fruit and unprocessed honey. This is unrefined sugar, and is not easily absorbed.

There was not an abundant supply of sweet things, and we would have gorged on them whenever we came across them for their caloric value. The genes that made us love sweet and sugary foods were selected out.

Refined sugar has only been around in abundance for around 200 years.

The Industrial Revolution brought wealth. But it also brought the mass production of sugar. Sugary drinks and foods became freely available and affordable.

Our pancreas and liver have not had time to evolve to handle the sugar load we punish them with. One to two hundred years is a short time compared to the millions of years of evolutionary pressures that have shaped our bodies.

A good diet is in many ways about what not to eat as much as what to eat. We are exhorted to cut down on our intake of salt, red meat, saturated fats and "empty" carbohydrate/calories like white rice and potatoes. But the health benefit of cutting down or eliminating added sugar brings the greatest dividends.

In other words, remove sugar and anything sweet from your diet, and your health improves immediately.

Many Malaysians go for annual medical check-ups where their blood is tested for hundreds of chemicals to reflect organ function and past and present diseases.

Sometimes, they also undergo unnecessaryX-rays and scans, which can be harmful.

Multivitamins and multiminerals are consumed by the dozens daily. The irony is that all these bring little good, if any, as these very same people continue to consume a lot of harmful refined sugar.

La dolce vita? More like la dolce morte.

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