Something Else About Sugar

This is a follow-up to a previous post that discussed some issues regarding sugar. I’m not an endocronoligist, registered dietician, or even a nutritionist. Why the need to comment further? Sugar is one of those topics that is often misunderstood and seems to pop up around every turn. Sugar and associated matters do indeed occupy our mental space and even dictate daily decisions. Just today I had to repeatedly tell no less than three kids “After you eat lunch.” Right now I’m a bit groggy for having dumped most of my tea, which is fairly gross with no sugar.

There is nothing magically bad about sugar.

“Okay chief. But if sugar is not so bad for cancer and in general, then why is everyone always saying it’s bad?” 

Sugar is vilified but undeniably loved. For many reasons, eating too much of it is as easy as breathing. Eating even reasonable amounts requires deliberate, inconvenient action. Our biology…exists. Our culture and environment betray common sense long-term health. There ARE ultra powerful lobbying groups. Manufacturers DO answer to wall street, mega-advertise, and hyper-engineer foods. As humans, we DO misprioritize and plain make poor choices. Yet at the end of the day, we DO have to eat.

I know little about all of that. I do know some things about physiology. This, with personal life interests and experience, begat a fascination with further learning. There are plenty of excellent, evidence based places to find that information. Most of us could use a few months refresher in biology and chemistry before even thinking about physiology. And of course, there are even more pseudoscientific, mostly quack-ish places to be misled. The real science can be tedious. Skipping steps and taking in pseudoscience is…costly.

What would I write if I wanted to avoid most of the above, but hoped to show something like “how it is” with sugar? Hmm. That would be an entirely separate writing.

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Lane grew up in the small town suburbs. His backyard ended in a patch of unkept woods and around the corner was a township park. Venturing outside was safe enough, and Lane had freedom and plenty of room to move. Mostly, he benefitted from having working class parents that hoped to lead by example. They exercised sporadically, did their own house and yard work, and made good on most of their attempts at moderation. They provided imperfectly balanced meals and didn’t obsess with a new diet every other year.

As a boy, Lane had an active temperament. He was blessed with a handful of neighborhood friends who enjoyed the outdoors and their bikes. Lane ate what he liked of what was offered. At times he ate what was required to get to the snacks or desserts. Lane knew plenty enough about nutrition. Even a child can perform the truly lifetime skill of deciphering an “anytime” versus a “sometimes” food. But in practice, he rarely thought much about it.  Lane gradually became serious about training and competing in athletics. As a teenager, Lane felt a sense of obligation regarding what should be eaten. But this was easily long forgotten in light of very real cravings and social gatherings.

Through all those years, there was stability and structure to Lane’s days, weeks, and months. A consistent rhythm to life, supportive environment, and active lifestyle left him strong and fit. Sugar was plentiful, but kept reasonable by equally plentiful checks and balances. It was absolutely no threat to his health or well being.

At eighteen, Lane left for college. After settling in, he remained physically active with a part time job, plenty of pick-up sports, and lifting some weights. But there was X-box and plenty of young adult friends more than eager to learn about freedom and sleep and time management the long, difficult way. The peers who previously had diets and lives tightly controlled by their parents were often (but not always) the worst. Lane managed just fine, but did lose sight of his previous life rhythm. He was busy. The convenient snacks and fast foods were no longer tempered by home cooked and mostly healthy meals. Lane often felt exhausted but was still riding the wave of youth. Sugar was -still- no real threat to his physiology. But the patterns and times, they were a’changin’.

By his mid twenties, Lane fell into a well paying but sedentary job. He made some effort to eat better but depended on snacks and drinks and take-out to get through the day. He usually missed playing and instead biked or jogged at the gym for 30- minutes three times per week. There was Netflix and sports on TV and still, X box. On average, the calories in far exceeded the calories out. The years of sugary and hyper engineered snacks that his body once easily processed added up. In some ways, he was malnourished and always hungry for more. Sugar was now a legitimate problem, but by no means was it the entire picture.

Internally, Lane was losing muscle, which has long been recognized as a part of both the endocrine system and as a pancreatic organ. He was getting slightly soft in the middle. Less muscle meant less capacity, “a smaller bucket,” to burn and store energy [Energy = blood glucose]. The added adipose tissue subtly tipped off a series of fairly complex hormonal and metabolic changes that caused all the cells of his body to be less efficient in receiving the energy they need.  With a few YEARS of this, his blood glucose and triglycerides levels did indeed rise, especially after unhealthy foods and even after somewhat “normal” meals. Sugar was definitely an issue, but far from the only issue.

Though Lane made efforts to squeeze in some formal exercise, his days were busy and largely missing in fresh air and general, unstructured m  o  v   m  e  n  t. Taking in more energy than he spent was, for the most part, still due to a diet that consisted largely of easy-to-inhale starchy carbs. In former years, his body and lifestyle easily handled a bagel, a turkey sub, a plate of spaghetti, and after-dinner bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. But now, all such things caused a mild but far too frequent internal, cellular level injury. This, in combination with malnutrition and lack of sufficient sleep, further threw off the fine-tuned hormonal balance. The slightly soft middle accumulated rather quickly despite efforts to ramp up a formal exercise program. A few not well thought-out efforts to “really buckle down” on diet stalled rather quickly.

At this point, any extra sugar or even typically “good” carbohydrate entering Lane’s system from the diet caused an abnormal in the blood response. Due to various factors mentioned above, increased amounts of insulin were needed to shuttle energy from the blood into working cells. Would Lane’s pancreas be up to task? It turns out that his had limits; simply not genetically capable of picking up the slack for the years of what had been set in motion. Sugar was a major problem, but by no means the sole villain. Lane suspected that why he was tired and achy and so often feeling bleh. A strict no carb, ketogenic diet seemed to help but for many reasons did not last. This was followed by a focus on some minutia the type of dietary sugar, gluten, and then organics, all of which did very little other than temporarily, expensively, force him to eat less. But they were a step toward turning the ship around.

Lane felt stuck until he saw a doctor who sat down for a while to take in the big picture. He may or may not need to -really watch his diet- for the longer term, and take a mild to moderate does of medication. Lane realized the need for a change in life patterns and habits. He would simplify and focus on getting more unprocessed foods, getting adequate rest, weight training to build back some muscle, and making time for some of the active labor and leisure of his youth.  He had plenty of time, but it would be a long-term committment. In time, Lane found that so long as he mostly kept up with his overall lifestyle changes, he did not always have to eat -perfectly- to manage his condition. He would do well with eating the right stuff ~90% of the time.

Dietary sugar would be a relevant factor in that simple calculation, but by no means the only factor. Unless the wheels really start falling off the cart, that’s how it is with sugar.

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