Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sugar vs. Broccoli: Does it really matter what you eat?

I recently overheard a guy at church talking to some older folks at church about sugar consumption and how bad it is for you. Now, I didn't hear the whole conversation, but what I did hear just about made me laugh out loud. He was telling them how sugar just stays in the body and messes everything up. I mean he was talking as if after eating a candy bar you would have granules of sugar floating around in your blood stream. Ludicrous.

It doesn't work that way.

First of all, your body treats all carbohydrates the same way. It doesn't matter if those carbs come from a teaspoon of sugar and corn syrup or whole grains and vegetables. The body turns all carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is a simple sugar that the body utilizes to create ATP, which is the fuel for cellular metabolism. Some glucose is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver.

Now, it is true that when you consume sugar, corn syrup and other simple carbs that your blood sugar level spikes dramatically. This is because simple sugars are easily digested and it takes less time to donvert them to glucose and get them into the blood stream. An occasional spike in blood sugar level is of little consequence to most people. Folks who aren't diabetic have a natural response mechanism (insulin release) that causes the body's cells to start taking in glucose and storing it either as glycogen in muscles and other tissue or combining it with fat to store in fat cells.

The problem with high blood sugar levels is that if they occur frequently the cells max out their ability to store glucose and can become resistant to insulin. This causes the body to release even more insulin in an attempt to lower blood sugar level. If this pattern continues over a long period of time, it seems that the pancreas, which produces insulin, wears down and has difficulty making the amount of insulin needed. This is the current theory on how Type 2 diabetes develops.

Additionally, when the tissue cells reach their maximum capacity for storing glycogen, the only way the body can lower blood sugar levels is by combining the glucose with fat to create triglycerides and storing them in the fat cells. Fat cells seem to have a nearly unlimited capacity for storage. This is why overeating, obesity and type 2 diabetes seem to go hand in hand so often.

But here's the thing, it doesn't matter whether the glucose that causes the problem comes from simple sugars or from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Glucose is glucose. Technically speaking, you can develop obesity and diabetes from eating too much broccoli. Of couse, it's a lot harder to eat too much broccoli than it is to eat too much sugar or corn syrup, which leads me to my next point . . .

The reason sugar, corn syrup, highly-refined grain products and other simple sugars are so detrimental to our health is not because they act differently once digested. It's because it's too easy to overeat them. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables require a longer digestive process, which means the resulting glucose takes longer to get into the blood, so blood sugar levels don't spike as often. This reduces the chance of developing insulin resistance and diabetes. Since digestion takes longer, it also means we feel "full" longer and are less likely to consume as much.

By way of comparison, a candy bar contains three times as many total carbohydrates and four times as many sugars as a banana. You would have to eat three bananas to get the same glucose reaction in your body as eating a candy bar. A banana also has a fraction of the fat of a candy bar and a fourth of the total calories. Most people wouldn't eat more than one banana at a time. They also wouldn't eat less than a whole candy bar at a time. When you consider how many fewer carbs, fat and calories a banana has--not to mention all the extra nutrients that the candy bar doesn't have--it's easy to see why fruits, vegetables and whole grains are a better source of carbohydrates than candy and junk food. But it's not because the body reacts differently to those carbs. It's about quantity.

More information about metabolism and how it affects your health can be found in my upcoming eBook Secrets of a Turbocharged Metabolism published by Lifeline Publishing LLC. Keep an eye out for it at

Live long, stay strong

John Fike


Mr. LowBodyFat said...

Good post John. I think it's also worth noting that the daily consumption of carbs is more important in weight management and overall health than insulin spikes. One more thing is that once carbs are converted to glucose, those that are not either used for immediate energy or stored as glycogen are stored as fat whether or not you consume fat along with them through lipogenesis. I like your blog as I love using KBs too. Take care and feel free to visit my weight loss blog . . .

John E Fike said...

Muata, thanks for your comment. I found your blog very intriguing and will keep an eye on it. It's good to see someone else actually making an effort to understand the chemistry and biology involved in fat loss. Too many people assume that anything found on the best-seller shelf must be true. --John

amanda kai said...

I think what the man in church meant was that by eating sugary food (heavily processed refined type), there is almost always little or no fibre. In nature, fibre goes hand in hand with sugar to help propel along the GI tract, and out. Without fibre, waste products collect in the intestines and become a food source for candida albicans (the bad yeasts).
While you are also correct in how sugar is assimilated in the body, this person likely was referring to sugar being a refined product of whole food that is not digested or eliminated well by the body.

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