Do you know how much sugar you are eating daily? Most people don’t. Not only do we think we are eating far less sugar than we are, but we may not understand what sugar does to our bodies. Here we will cover how your body reacts to sugar and how to eat less of it.
Your Body on Sugar
The human body does a wonderful job at its daily operations despite the curveballs we throw at it with our diet. With the abundance of convenience food, we have lost track of what we are consuming.
With regards to sugar, the pancreas and liver are often put into overdrive while we go about our normal daily eating.
First, we need an awareness of the different types of sugars. For this discussion, we will focus on natural sugars and added sugars.
Natural sugars, like fructose, are found in fruits. Added sugars are the sugars that are added to our food during the manufacturing process. These added sugars are now listed on a separate line on food labels to make it easier to know how much sugar you are eating.
Back in the days when humans hunted and gathered their food, only natural sugars were consumed. When a piece of fruit is eaten, there is fiber present along with the sugar. This fiber helps the body slow down digestion and prevent rapid blood sugar spikes.
Added sugars go by many names, some of them often sounding healthy. The problem with these added or man-made sugars is they’re foreign to the body. Or in the case of high fructose corn syrup, they are chemically altered to be unnaturally sweet. Our body sends the chemical waste of the overload of add-sugars to the liver to detoxify.
There is a difference between fructose found naturally in fruit and fructose that is chemically altered.
You would need to eat six cups of strawberries to get the same amount of fructose as one can of Coke. The strawberries contain fiber which means you won’t get the same amount of fructose overload as you will with the soda.
Eating fruit versus drinking a can of soda does very different things to your body. The can of soda, by delivering the same amount of fructose in concentrated liquid form, creates an instant sugar high.
Sugar Turns to Fat if Not Used
When we eat more sugar than our body can use for immediate energy then it has no choice but to turn it into fat.
Glucose is a type of sugar used almost immediately for energy. Glucose goes directly into the bloodstream and signals the pancreas to pump insulin. When there is too much glucose, the body stores it as fat.
Sugar is Addictive
It has been said that sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Have you ever noticed after eating that first cookie you want more?
When you eat sugar dopamine is released in your brain. Dopamine is most notably involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain’s reward system. When looked at in this context, it’s easy to understand why you’ve eaten that whole sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies before you realize it.
Dopamine can contribute to causes of addiction so to blame sugar cravings on this process isn’t a stretch. Our brain is so powerful even the smell of cookies baking in the oven can release dopamine, giving the body a pleasant feeling.
Sugar is Hiding Everywhere
If we only had sugar in obvious places like cookies, cakes, and sodas, we would be better off. Our great-grandparents’ generation didn’t have such a problem with obesity, diabetes, and gut problems.
Today, added sugars are in almost every food we buy. Look in your pantry and try to find 5 items without added sugars. It’s a challenge I assure you! There is added sugar in bread, milk, pasta sauce, salad dressings, crackers, peanut butter, and even lunch meat. Cereal, yogurt, and oatmeal are breakfast foods that are increasingly hard to find without sugar added.
If sugar wasn’t added to these regular foods, we might have a better chance of staying within the recommended daily allowance of sugar.
Recommended Daily Allowance
The daily allowance of sugar is 25 grams for females, or 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day. For men, it’s 36 grams or 9 teaspoons. This is put into perspective when one yogurt and granola for breakfast can easily be over 25 grams of added sugar itself, leaving the rest of the food for the day adding up rapidly in excess.
The American Heart Association reports the average American eating far over the allowance at 88 grams of sugar a day.
Read Food Labels
Looking at the labels on the food you buy is the start of being aware of how much sugar you are eating. I’ve talked to clients who don’t have a “sweet tooth” but are still well over the amount of daily sugar intake. Notice the sugar listed on one line of the food label. The line below it should show “added sugar.” This will give you a good insight into the amount of sugar that was present before it was sweetened extra to appeal to our conditioned taste buds.
If all you’ve known is eating these sweetened foods, it will take your body some time to adjust to a less-sweet diet. When I stopped drinking soda, it was months before I tried a sip of Dr. Pepper. I couldn’t believe how sweet it was. I can’t drink more than ¼-1/2 can now. It’s just too sweet.
Your body will adapt. It isn’t natural to feed our bodies the amount of sweetener in our current foods. The more whole, from the earth foods you consume, the more your body will crave them instead of the sugary ones.
Eat as few processed foods as possible. Think, “no” to foods with a shelf life and, “yes” to foods that need to be eaten within a certain time frame before going bad. When choosing packaged foods, pick items with more fiber than sugar listed on the food label. This will help the body process food.
Sugar and Your Gut
Sugar is linked to gut issues. Since sugar is inflammatory, it makes sense that an excess of it could cause gut imbalances.
The gut has a natural healthy balance of good and bad bacteria. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria in your gut while reducing the good bacteria. This causes inflammation and can lead to leaky gut syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, while also adding to sugar cravings. This can become a hard-to-break cycle.
Fiber is always your friend. As we mentioned before, the sugars which also contain fiber help the absorption process and help your gut stay healthy.
Sugar and Your Pancreas
The pancreas is responsible for releasing insulin in response to blood sugar spikes. If you eat sugary foods, your blood sugar spikes which trigger the pancreas to release insulin to bring the blood sugar back within normal ranges.
As with any other organ in the body, we can wear it out by not looking after it. The pancreas can only take so much sugar before going on strike or reducing the effectiveness of insulin receptors. This is when the body reduces insulin output and consequently type 2 diabetes is diagnosed.
One of my favorite analogies of an overworked pancreas is by David Zinczenko, who wrote in “A letter from your pancreas,” “It’s O’Hare Airport at Christmas down here! Sugar all over the place and I’m pumping insulin like mad!”
Sugar and Your Liver
The liver helps when artificial sweeteners are eaten and your body needs to rid itself of the chemicals. All of those diet foods and diet drinks aren’t doing your body any good. In fact, they may be taxing your body more with their chemicals than regular sugar.
The liver’s job is to purify and cleanse. Fructose can’t be used by the body right away like glucose can. Fructose is sent to the liver to be metabolized and stored as fat. Too much refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup cause a fatty buildup that can lead to liver disease.
Sugar Delays Massage Results
While this is all good information for massage therapists to have in keeping their own bodies healthy, it’s good to speak with your clients about sugar as well. A diet high in sugar can cause inflammation in the muscle tissue and may delay the massage results you are working towards.
Sugar is on top of the list of foods that may increase muscle and joint inflammation.
It is believed that processed sugars release pro-inflammatory substances in the body, causing further inflammation in the joints.
A high sugar diet results in the loss of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium in the urine. These minerals are not only critical to the proper function of every cell but also play a key role in skeletal muscle contraction and function. An imbalance or deficiency of any of these minerals can lead to muscle cramps.
While a massage therapist’s scope of practice doesn’t include advising clients on what to eat, having a basic understanding of the role sugar plays in the body gives insight and may help develop more effective treatment plans.
[Check back the last Thursday of every month for a new article by Angela Lehman, an educator who runs The Fit MT, providing self-care information to massage therapists.]
About the Author
Angela Lehman is a massage therapist of 25 years turned online educator, promoting fitness and nutrition for massage therapists. She runs The Fit MT. With her kinesiology degree specialized in nutrition, she trains therapists in healthy eating, exercise and body mechanics to prolong their careers. Search massagemag.com to read her The Fit MT column on topics including body mechanics, gut health and more.