(This is part of a series of articles about health, you can see the other installments on the website: https://www.gettingthemercy.com/blog)
Very few people are going to disagree that sugar is bad for our health. Srila Prabhupada was eating white sugar in different preparations, but in small amounts (different from what most of us tend to do). The problem with sugar is that the body needs a lot of different minerals and other nutrients to metabolize it (it’s quite a complex process executed by the liver). Natural sources of sugar, like sugarcane and dates are also rich in minerals, as well as fibers, therefore the body gets what it needs. When the sugar is refined, such nutrients are lost, and the body has to sacrifice its own nutrients to metabolize the sugar, which leads to different problems. In other words, Krsna created fruits and vegetables rich in sugar as a package that contains what the body needs to digest it. Modern civilization dismantles the package and takes only the sugar, and thus everyone starts to become diseased.
If we eat a little bit of sugar in some preparation rich in nutrients (like when we take a burfi after prasadam, for example), it’s not going to do any harm, but if we consistently exaggerate in preparations that have a lot of sugar and little nutrients, we are going to face serious problems later.
The worst possible way to consume sugar is when you take something very rich in sugar by itself, as a snack or refreshment, and not as part of a meal. For example, many devotees have the habit of drinking sprite or other soft-drinks. Sprite is just a combination of sugar and citric acid. A 600 ml bottle has about 60 grams of sugar, which is already far more than we are supposed to consume in a day. Someone that got the habit of drinking it when he feels thirsty, can end up ingesting more than 100 grams of sugar per day just from the Sprites!
Sugar can very easily cause weight gain. Most of the obesity we see all over the world is because of the increase in the consumption of sugar. Why does sugar cause more weight grain than a piece of bread, for example? The answer is in the composition.
Table sugar is composed of a combination of fructose and glucose. Although considered a type of sugar, fructose is metabolized by the body in quite a distinct way. No cell in the body can use fructose directly, therefore it needs to be converted into fat by the liver. This is quite a long and complicated process.
The first problem is that in order to convert fructose, the liver has to execute a complicated process that involves the use of minerals like magnesium and zinc. Sugar doesn’t contain any minerals, therefore the body has to use it’s own minerals in the process, causing deficiencies. Minerals are one of the biggest deficiencies in modern diets, because commercial agriculture depletes the soils. To eat foods that deplete minerals that are already in short supply in the body is not a good idea.
The second problem is that once converted, the fructose is going to be stored as abdominal fat (which is the most dangerous type of fat stored in the belly, around the vital organs). Not only too much fructose causes accumulation of abdominal fat, but it also causes fat liver, and even non-alcoholic cirrhosis, a dangerous condition.
When one eats a small quantity of fructose, like in a fruit, for example, this is not a problem, since the body would store a very small amount of fat that would just be used later. Sugar, however, is usually eaten in much bigger portions, resulting in the accumulation of the most dangerous type of fat.
Third problem is the associated glucose. Sugar contains glucose in it’s refined form, therefore the absorption is extraordinarily fast. When one drinks a bottle of sprite, the glucose is very quickly absorbed and injected in the bloodstream. This forces the body to release a huge amount of insulin, so it can be absorbed by the cells. Insulin increases hunger, and at the same time blocks the burning of fat. These two factors in combination assure that whatever you eat alongside the sugar will be stored as yet more fat. Over time, the fat accumulates and one becomes obese. Most cases of obesity are associated with excess sugar.
There is also a fourth factor, that is perhaps even worse: high glucose in the bloodstream is highly oxidative. In other words, it basically rusts our body from the inside. Not only does it cause premature aging, but it also attacks our veins and arteries. We can see practically that people with diabetes have serious problems related to the vascular system, which results in damage to the kidneys, eyes, circulatory problems in the hands and feet, etc., problems that are directly caused from high levels of glucose in the blood, a serious problem for diabetics. A non-diabetic person will not face such serious problems because the body can respond to the increase in the glucose levels by releasing more insulin, but still the glucose can cause a lot of damage, especially to the arteries, which over time result in clogs. Many think that clogs in the arteries are caused by cholesterol, but actually the cholesterol is a response from the body to the damage caused by the glucose, just like firefighters are a response to a fire, and not the cause of it.
The antidote for the oxidative damage caused by the glucose is antioxidants, that are found in fruits and vegetables. Therefore, to reduce the damage caused by the glucose, we need to act on two fronts:
By making it be absorbed by the body slowly, which means to consume foods with a lower glycemic index, where the starches and sugar are combined with fibers and other nutrients.
By eating plenty of antioxidants, which implies a diet rich in vegetables and fruits.
By doing these two things in combination, the damage is contained and glucose can feed our cells instead of poisoning our body.
We can see that sugar is both high-glycemic (being absorbed very quickly) and completely devoid of antioxidants. This combination makes it very damaging for our body. It’s better to limit our consumption of sugar to natural sources, like fruits. Different from table sugar (which is the concentrated, isolated form) fruits are a package that includes fibers, vitamins, minerals and a good amount of the all-important antioxidants. Two observations about fruits: it is always much better to eat fruits whole, instead of making juices (which takes out the important fibers) and that although fruits are healthy, they can still have adverse effects if one eats two much of them.
One alert about fruit juices is that the only acceptable fruit juices are the ones you make at home. Industrial fruit juices are stripped from all the fibers and most of the nutrients are destroyed by the pasteurization process and contact with the air. In fact, orange juice loses its taste and color completely during the processing, becoming a white liquid that needs to be mixed with citric acid (which is actually produced from black mold) and other flavouring and coloring agents so it can again look and tastes like orange juice. Industrial fruit juice is no better than Pepsi or Sprite. If you don't drink Sprite, you are also not going to want to drink it.
Apart from fruits, there is also the option of using honey (provided you can get “real” honey, not the processed type that is sold nowadays under many brands). Chemically, honey may be similar to sugar, but the way it acts in the body is very different. Many modern studies point out that honey has a positive effect on the body and the Ayurveda recommends it as a means to preserve health and increase longevity. Different from white sugar, honey contains significant quantities of antioxidants, enzymes, and minerals, and is an antibacterial agent that acts against microbes and germs, preventing different diseases (if you put honey in an open wound and cover it with a bandage, it will cure much faster, for example).
Another good option are dates. They are so sweet that they can also be used as a natural sweetener in many circumstances. However, just as honey, they contain several important nutrients, that (in the right quantities) makes them beneficial for our health. By using small quantities of honey or dates instead of sugar, we are taking out something that is harmful to our health and adding something that (in moderate amounts) is actually beneficial.
Not only is sugar unhealthy, but it is highly addictive, messing up with the chemistry of our brains. Every time we eat sugar, opioids and dopamine are released. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a key part of the reward circuit of the brain. Every time we eat sugar, dopamine is released and we experience pleasure, which in turn leads us to want to re-experience it. Research shows that sugar can be as addictive as drugs like cocaine, leading to cravings and compulsive behaviour. We can practically see that many people become addicted to Oreos, to milk shakes, to Sprite and so on, and for most of them it is very difficult to stop.
Human beings are accustomed to consume sugar in the form of fruits and honey since antiquity. The point is that, as explained, the sugar in fruits is not concentrated like white sugar, and therefore the effects are mild. Although many people like to eat fruits, we don’t see people addicted to apples or oranges, for example. Fruits are natural foods, while white sugar is actually a chemical substance. In this case, the problem is not in the substance, but in eating it in concentrated form.
The addictive nature of sugar started to be debated in the 1970's, with the publishing of the book "Pure white and deadly" by John Yudkin. From there, more and more evidence piled-up. Fortunately, unlike heavier drugs, consumption of sugar doesn't result in permanent changes in the function of the brain. Just as it's easy to become addicted to sugar, it's also not so difficult to break one's addiction. As soon as one stops completely with white sugar and changes to a diet rich in nutritive food (vegetables, beans, nuts, low-glycemic carbohydrates, milk and butter, etc), the cravings for sugar diminish or even completely disappear in a span of a few weeks. One just needs to have willpower to go through this withdrawal period.