Ask Eartha: The not-so-sweet effects of sugar |

Ask Eartha: The not-so-sweet effects of sugar

Spoonful of sugar
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Dear Eartha,

I have been hearing a lot of talk lately about the adverse effects of eating excess added sugars. As an avid outdoorsman, I am concerned about living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. Could you explain the difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars? Also, could you explain why eating an abundance of sugar is bad for the human body?

Dan, Breckenridge

Lately, it seems, more and more folks around the country are opening their eyes to the adverse effects that added sugars can have on their health. It has long been known that eating too much sugar can be detrimental to dental and heart health, but more evidence is popping up that connects excess sugar consumption to obesity. Recently published studies have looked at the way added sugars react in the body, making the subject a hot topic for the medical, diet and weight loss industries.

So, what is the difference between naturally occurring sugars and refined sugars? And how is one worse than the other? Sugar that occurs naturally in fruits is called fructose; sugar in dairy products, like milk and cheese, is called lactose. Sugar also occurs in vegetables and some grains.

Added sugars are sweeteners put into food products to make the food more flavorful. These can range from brown sugar and high-fructose corn syrup to honey and the like. Many health experts are not concerned with how fructose or lactose react in the body, because the fiber, protein and nutrients in these foods absorb the sugar so the body can process it correctly. However, added sugars do not usually contain these ingredients, causing the sugar to turn directly into fat in the body.

Refined sweeteners have been shown to have huge health effects in humans. It has been widely noted that sugar can increase the risk for heart disease. A 2013 study done by Journal of the American Heart Association found that excess sugar can affect the pumping mechanism of the heart itself, leading to an increased risk of heart failure.

Excess sugar consumption affects many more mechanisms in the body. A 2008 study found that it can cause leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone your body produces to tell your brain when you are full. Leptin resistance can lead to overeating, and, consequently, obesity. In addition, excess refined sugar consumption can lead to brain and liver damage, certain chronic conditions and shortened life.

Excess sugar consumption is also making us fat. A University of Bristol study found that fructose, eaten in prolonged periods throughout adolescence, can lead to maturing fat cells becoming fatter.

This leads to a predisposition for a larger trunk area, and could explain the recent childhood obesity epidemic in the United States.

Foods that are rich in nutrients, fiber and protein give the body a feeling of fullness. The lack of nutrients in sugar means it’s full of calories but lacks the ability to make one feel full. There are no physical cues while eating sweeteners that warn of the adverse health effects to come.

Sugar also has the ability to influence our behavior. There are many ways in which sugar causes overeating and weight gain, but one of the most powerful is the way it reacts with the reward centers of the brain. When large amounts of sugar are consumed, the brain releases a large amount of dopamine. After one consumes large amounts of sugary foods, the dopamine receptors begin to down-regulate, resulting in fewer receptors for the dopamine.

This means the next time sugar is consumed it will have to be eaten in larger amounts to elicit the same reaction in the brain.

So, Dan, if you want to sustain a healthy and active lifestyle here in the High Country, I recommend you limit the added sugars in your diet.

The World Health Organization recommends that we limit sugar to 5 percent of daily caloric intake, and the American Heart Association recommends that women consume just 100 calories (6 teaspoons), and men only 150 calories (9 teaspoons), of sugar a day. You can limit the amount of excess sugar you take in by eliminating processed foods.

Doing this will ensure that you maintain the energy levels necessary to stay active all year long.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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