Sugar: Friend or Foe?

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

by Dr Susanne Bennett

Most of us love sugar, and some may even argue that they are addicted to it. Sugary foods and liquids such as sodas, cookies, and candy are often the first choice when we need a quick surge of energy. Delicious indulgences like cake, ice cream or sweetened pastries tempt us at every turn, especially during the holidays. Sugar is basically empty calories with no nutritive value; no vitamins, minerals or antioxidants. The more we eat sugar, the more we gain weight.

Cutting the extra sugar out of our diet can help eliminate that extra ten pounds around our belly, but did you know that you or your child might actually be sensitive and intolerant to sugar? High sugar intake can contribute to various types of symptoms such as fatigue and sluggishness, feelings of brain fog, water retention, irritability, dizziness, emotional outbursts and tantrums, muscle cramps, anxiety, restlessness and even insomnia.

One of my pediatric patients, Marty, came to me after his teacher asked his parents if they ever tried giving him a drug similar to Ritalin (a medical prescription for attention deficit and hyperactive individuals.) They said he was hyperactive and had difficulty sitting still in the first grade. Turns out, he loved “white” food - white bread, pasta, breakfast cereals and drank fruit juice at every meal. After just one week of changing Marty’s diet - taking out refined sugar, lactose and gluten, - the difference was noticeable. He was less fidgety, stopped having tantrums, and his teacher said he was more attentive in class.

Marty may be an extreme case, but it’s worth thinking about. High and low blood sugar fluctuations not only alter our body’s ability to function smoothly, they also affect our mental and emotional states. Oftentimes, the biggest problem is when we eat the wrong type of carbohydrates; food made with simple sugars such as white sugar and high fructose corn syrup and starchy carbohydrates that digested quickly, such as bread and pasta.

Refined starchy grain carbohydrates are usually overly processed, which means most of the nutrients and fiber have been stripped from the grain, changing the grain from “brown” to “white”. When you eat pasta and bread, there is a surge of glucose sugar that is dumped in your blood stream which then triggers a rapid surge of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that helps stabilize your high blood sugar level and increases the delivery of blood glucose into all of your active tissues and glands, heart, muscles, liver, brain, etc. These rapid surges can ultimately be dangerous to your health. Repeated bouts of high and low blood glucose levels, will increase your risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes is a chronic condition where there is a defect in your ability to metabolize sugar into energy. According to the CDC, in 2011 the number of children and adults with diabetes was 25.8 million (8.3% of the population) and climbing.

A useful guide for judging how fast a food raises your blood sugar after eating is the Glycemic Index (GI). GI is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100. Foods with a high GI (over 55), such as white rice (GI=85) and white sugar (GI=83) are digested and absorbed quickly. They raise the blood sugar rapidly, followed by a quick rise of insulin from the pancreas. On the other hand, low GI (below 55) foods such as beans and brown rice, are digested slowly in the intestines, producing a gradual rise in the blood sugar and insulin levels.

By following these recommendations below, you and your family may experience more energy, alertness, physical stamina, better digestion and optimal mental focus.

Here is a list of Carbohydrate Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Do not go on a low carbohydrate diet! Include complex carbohydrates such as beans, sweet potato, brown rice, or quinoa to every meal to help stabilize blood sugar levels and sustain optimal energy throughout the day.

  2. Utilize natural sugars such as maple syrup, honey or molasses and try using fresh pureed fruit or almond butter as a delightful topping

  3. Eliminate crackers, potato and tortilla chips and popcorn and replace with flax, hemp and sesame seed crackers

  4. Add high fiber foods to your diet such as nuts, seeds, beans and vegetables, to slow down overall digestion as well as increase bulk for healthy bowel movements.

  5. Replace semolina flour pasta with brown rice pasta, and minimize the amount of serving to ¾ cup per meal

  6. Replace breakfast toast with slices of tomato or roasted sweet potato

  7. Pass on the breakfast cereals and serve hot oatmeal with fresh banana slices