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The dangers of having a sweet tooth

Judy van der Velden
via Flickr

Sugar is in a lot of the foods you consume every day, but not all sugar is created equal. Whether it’s refined, naturally occurring, or added – sugar should be eaten sparingly, according to this week’s guest, because addiction to sugar is very real and very possible. And it’s not just the addition to sugar that’s a problem, it’s the damage it can do to your body.

This week on “Take Care,” James DiNicolantonio explains what causes sugar addiction and helps us differentiate healthy and harmful sugars. DiNicolantonio is a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri.

DiNicolantonio says that the reward system in your brain is to blame for sugar addiction, which is a collection of neurons that control behavior by inducing pleasurable effects.

“The reward we get from sugar is actually faster than that of drugs of abuse,” DiNicolantonio says.

Many recent case studies have compared interventions to control the reward people receive from sugar on the brain to that of cocaine. Over 90 percent of interventions were effective in controlling the reward for cocaine, but less than 20 percent for sugar.

DiNicolantonio says that there are two added sugars that are actually more detrimental than most carbohydrates, fructose and sucrose. Those sugars are mostly metabolized by the liver. Every cell in the body utilizes glucose so the overall sugar load is dissipated by all these cells and it’s also regulated by insulin.

“However, fructose comes in like a freight train,” DiNicolantonio says. “It’s coming in at almost 80 percent of the entire load and it’s unregulated. That causes oxidative stress and inflammation of the liver, which leads to fatty liver disease and storing more fat, causing obesity and health issues like Type 2 diabetes.”

DiNicolantonio added that 75 percent of every U.S. healthcare dollar is spent on these and similar chronic diseases and he says the best way to prevent those is to help prevent sugar addiction throughout the country.

DiNicolantonio published a paper recently emphasizing that it is sugar, not salt, that causes hypertension in the body. Our bodies physiologically know how much salt our body needs on a daily basis. It is not the same with sugar and sugar effects the body in monumental ways at a fast pace, he says.

“Anytime you consume sugar, particularly in a beverage form, there’s this tremendous increase in blood pressure and heart rate and it also increases insulin levels,” DiNicolantonio says. “Insulin stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, so now you’re heartbeat is beating more, the blood pressure is chronically elevated, so of course that’s stressful on the heart as well when your heart is beating more, you’re less efficient in pumping blood throughout the body and that can obviously lead to a  heart attack or stroke.”

There are different kinds of sugars that are both good and bad for us. Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is the natural sugar found in fruit. Sucrose consists of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. In order to get as much as eight ounces of sugar from eight ounces of soda or orange juice, you’d have to eat four oranges.

The difference is, the oranges provide more fiber, which will prevent a lot of that sugar from being absorbed and you can’t eat four oranges as fast as you can consume eight ounces of soda, so it’s a big decrease in overall sugar load hitting the body and it’s happening at a much slower pace.

“Even though the sugar is the same, these refined sugars that have been so purified cause metabolical harm,” DiNicolantonio says.

In addition, fructose actually stimulates hunger, and in the long run, promotes lepton resistance, which is the signal from your fat cells to your brain telling you that you have enough fat in your body.

“We used to blame people for overeating because they didn’t have any self-control,” DiNicolantonio says. “In fact, their biochemistry is out of whack from the sugars they’ve been eating. It’s not their fault.”

DiNicolantonio says the American Heart Association recommends only six teaspoons of sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons for men, which translates to 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men.