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System theory…Every part is vital to the whole; the whole is greater than the sums of the parts. Plants, through photosynthesis, create whole, carbohydrate foods that are transformed by people and animals into proteins, fats, and nutrients vital for survival. Whole foods are systems ideally suited to the human body, which is also a system. Sugar is one of the most fractured, denatured products we consume.
Sugar is a chemical…sucrose, C12-H22-O11. Sucrose, stripped of 99% of its original cane nutritive essence, offers calories, while tapping into the body’s store of minerals that are required for its metabolism. Sugar is not one of nature’s foods. It is only through great labor, capital investment, precision, and expense–cane must be pulverized, refined, and bleached–that sugar cane is converted into the simple chemical, sucrose. Without human tinkering and innovation, we would not have sugar, a preservative (there is nothing left to spoil or go rancid) and cheap energy source, so integrated into our food culture of today.
Inviting sugar into our lives is a bit like falling in love with and coming to rely upon a pet: Sugar lifts our spirits, brings us comfort, calms1 our anxieties, and adds its own extra energy to life. We like it. It makes us feel good no matter what trials we face each day. Similarly, when it is no longer in our diet, we feel empty: we crave its instant energy, its calming effect, and the “feel good” lift that it brings to our brain and to our digestive core-emotional center. When we give up sugar, our body keeps looking for it. Then, it begins gradually to adjust to life without it. Along the way, we may suffer some healing reactions as we try to acclimatize, ultimately feeling comfortable in its absence.
Sorting out Sugar
Sugar has a long and fascinating history, first as an early “medicine” and later as a major commercial force that helped shape naval trade routes, colonialism, and the growth of empires. Sugar’s colorful history makes for delicious reading, replete with romantic and gallant stories of greed, imperialism, human sacrifice, and conquest. For centuries, cultures have risked lives and fortunes in its quest.2
Sugar is a powerful force, a fact that modern science can verify. Nancy Appleton, Ph.D., has compiled and documented a thorough and creative list of 146 ways that sugar is injurious to our health (www.nancyappleton.com). While her well-documented summary is instructive and commendable for its depth and breadth, if you are anything like me, you will not remember all of these reasons, so let’s look at several general concepts.
Sugar can alter our DNA3 and upset our brain chemistry. Sugar can also set the stage for a variety of acute and chronic diseases because it disrupts the body’s immune,4 digestive, and endocrine systems. These systems work synergistically and interdependently to support each other, but to operate efficiently they require the proper balance of minerals. Sugar creates an acidic condition in the body and undermines the mineral relationships that are required for good health.
But, as I contemplate sugar, what interests me most are the bigger-picture questions: Why do we crave sugar? Why, after its initial “high,” does it leave us feeling depressed and hollow? What is it about sugar—this powerful force that altered the course of history and for which some 20 million people, mostly slaves, perished in its early days of harvesting and refining—that makes the still-Herculean efforts to grow, process, and refine it seem so worthwhile? And, why is it detrimental to our health?
For me, perhaps most intriguing of all is this question: Why does it cause a physical reaction when we stop using it? When we suffer headaches, skin eruptions, tiredness, or fever, yet at our core, still feel generally all right with the world, what is our body trying to tell us?
Nature’s Gifts of Whole Foods and the Sweet Taste
Whole foods nurture us. “Whole,” “health,” and “holy” all stem from the same word root. Whole foods are benevolent. They surrender to us their mysterious life force energy, along with vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, fiber, and water. And, they provide our senses with delectable fragrances, tastes, and textures. Sugar cane, with its fiber, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients and water offer the same complement for people living in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Nature seems to have packaged sugar in the form of a tough fiber-cane (where 17 feet of cane are required to make just one cup of sugar!) in order to insure it would be used sparingly by people in tropical zones as an occasional and pleasant treat.
Because cane is perishable and cannot weather long days of travel, it seems doubtful sugar was intended for people in the northern latitudes.5 Plants are the first to adapt to a climate and climate change. By eating local, seasonal foods, plants help us stay attuned to our environment. (See Resources tab: Plants as Adaptogens, providing anti-oxidants and phyto-nutrients).
Nature also had our best interests at heart by endowing us with a plethora of sweet taste buds. This gift helped to steer us not only toward non-poisonous foods in our environment, since sweet foods are generally not poisonous, but also toward sweet foods to nurture our powers of digestion and assimilation (the Earth/Spleen-Stomach/Sweet Phase of Chinese 5-Phase theory6 ). But, Nature’s beautifully-devised plan to safe-guard our interests through the taste sweet began to unravel under our own human ingenuity as we devised ways to process cane juice into refined white sugar. With time, sugar became affordable for most people throughout the developed world.
Through Massive Off-Shore Capital Investment and Industrial Precision, The Developed World Turned Whole Cane to White Crystals
Driven by a sweet tooth and the “good feeling” sugar brings, creative entrepreneurs found ways to satisfy our cravings for sweets by producing refined sugar in great quantities. Beginning in the 17th century, major sugar-cane planting efforts on large plantation farms and elaborate boiling houses sprang up in tropical growing areas, which, with slave labor, began to turn sugarcane juice into raw sugar. It was a capital-intensive, arduous, and risky process, requiring armies of field laborers; massive mill stones for grinding the cane; lime and animal blood and bones for skimming and refining; and skilled technicians for the boiling and filtering process. To make sugar required precise cooking times as well as exacting temperatures, which were difficult to control given the crude methods of the time. Because good cane required just the right amount of rainfall to grow but not mold and because cane was so perishable once harvested, successful sugar refining on the early tropical plantations took on the flavor of the most sophisticated of modern assembly lines. The process was time-sensitive, required discipline, and demanded teams of skilled and unskilled laborers that worked in teams or “gangs.” Even in its earliest 17th century stage, the sugar plantation was an “industrial process” that separated production from consumption and worker from his tools.7
Now, even with today’s up-to-date technology seen in the modern sugar mill, sugar refining is a complicated process that involves revolving shredding knives, massive rollers, lime filtration, multiple-effect evaporators, vacuum pans, a centrifuge, and then final-stage evaporation and bleaching with sulfur dioxide. Whether by old or new technologies, sugar making is far from a backyard/cottage industry and far from a natural process.
Refined sugar seems to break the key rules of Nature’s It is probably the furthest thing from a whole food that we could imagine. It violates the whole-foods concept and the major criteria for food selection: fresh, natural, real, seasonal, local, balanced, and in harmony with tradition. Refined sugar is really a highly concentrated anti-food, and the epitome of non-wholeness. It fosters acute disease by depressing the immune system, and it fosters chronic disease by upsetting the delicate interplay and intricate balancing of the endocrine-immune-digestive/assimilation systems of the body. Sugar addiction is now thought to be a “gateway” to alcohol and other intoxicating drugs.8
So, Why Do We Love Sugar?
We like the taste, of course, and that sugar makes us feel good. And, it appears to do this in far more powerful ways than by simply elevating our blood sugar/energy levels.9 Sugar feeds a glucose “shot” to the brain that alters brain chemistry, creating the sugar “high.” The military has long taken advantage of this, by feeding sugar to soldiers before battle. Sugar so powerfully affects body-brain chemistry that, with time, it can create addiction similar to a narcotic.10
And, I believe yet another, clue about why we desire sugar relates to where in the body we “digest” it. The small intestine, a key emotional center, is where sugar is ultimately absorbed by the digestive system. Sugar, sucrose, is essentially a pre-digested substance. It requires no chewing or real digestion, so it travels quickly to the intestines, “the organ most similar to the brain” in terms of its neurotransmitters and hormones.11 Here, as sugar is absorbed through the intestinal wall, the “gut-brain” gives “happy, calming” messages to the central nervous system and the brain. Many scientists now believe our “gut-brain,” with its elaborate interactive network of some 100 million neurons, carries even greater weight than our “head brain” in determining our moods. Interestingly, the gut produces psychoactive benzodiazepines, which are types of chemicals that are the active ingredients in the drugs Valium and Xanax.12
As we consider sugar and health, in a broad and general context, sugar’s link to disease relates to its “non-wholeness” and its concentrated nature. Sugar acts as a shock to the system. Its glucose is absorbed through the intestinal wall into the blood stream, which requires a critically balanced chemistry to protect the brain and to sustain life. Nature did not foresee sugar; she did not equip us adequately for the long-term “emergency” efforts required to “right” our blood chemistry after a large sugar dose. Neither the pancreas, maker of insulin, nor the liver and other detoxifying and elimination systems of the body were designed to deal over time with metabolic stress associated with “sugar overload.” The body’s limited and over-taxed emergency systems eventually tire, paving the way for chronic diseases linked to sugar. Fortunately, the body has an inherent and remarkable ability to renew, repair, and restore itself, through what is traditionally called a “healing crisis.” (see discussion, below).
Sugar and Disease
We can think of at least three ways that sugar fosters disease, we can name at least three:
- Sugar’s empty calories “crowd out” and displace real natural, nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Even more harmful is the fact that, unlike whole foods that lend their nutrients, sugar borrows from the body’s stores of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients to metabolize its concentrated empty calories. Sugar is so depleting, in fact, that people survive longer on a fast with no food than on a diet limited just to sugar.13
- Sugar is so ingrained within our food system that it allows us to keep up a fast pace in a way that can undermine traditional forms of emotional connection. In this way, a sugar-charged life can be both physically14 and emotionally depleting. Sugar, as an easy pre-digested source of calories that needs no chewing, allows us to eat on the run, in our car, at our desk…any place. We never have to stop. When our energy flags, we can reach for sugar. It provides empty energy that keeps us going, but in an artificial way.
Just think how easy it is to obtain calories throughout the course of the day at any take-out, vendor, or a newsstand. Sugar is everywhere. With sugar at our ready call, it is not necessary to return home to refuel with family or friends around the dining table. Sugar satisfies our calorie needs but it can not recharge our emotional battery in the same ways as a wholesome dining experience.
Ironically, if the modern on-the-go lifestyle makes us feel frazzled, less “centered” and connected, and emotionally depleted, we will naturally crave a sugar “fix.” We can rely on it for its momentary calming effect, its “feel-good” vibration registered by the “head-brain,” and its soothing effects on our “gut-brain” emotional center. Because sugar provides a quick, easy, inexpensive, and multi-dimensional lift to the mind/body, the sugar habit is easily entrenched and difficult to “kick.”
Eliminating Sugar Triggers a “Healing Crisis”–What Does This Tell Us About Sugar?
When we alter our diet to eliminate sugar (or alcohol, coffee, tobacco, or commercial dairy)15 the body, when sufficiently strong, will begin to cleanse itself. Reactions to expect once sugar is cut out of the diet may last up to five days and may include fatigue, sleepiness, and/or depression.
Healing reactions are a positive sign. It is the hand of healing, not disease, that is at work. The key idea is to recognize these symptoms as a constructive healing effort, when the body is trying to cleanse itself of internal toxins: “A healing crises is an acute reaction resulting from the ascendancy of nature’s healing forces over disease conditions. Its tendency is toward recovery…in conformity to nature’s constructive principle.”16 To support the healing/cleansing effort, requires patience. It also requires understanding and willpower to resist sugar, as well as any attempt to suppress symptoms through the use of medications.
Interestingly, it is only when the body is sufficiently strengthened by supportive foods and a healthy lifestyle that it is able to undertake the job of expelling toxins and residues left from sugar. Therefore, when sugar is eliminated, healing reactions may not be immediate.
How can we know symptoms relate to healing and not disease? Symptoms are a sign of healing (as to opposed illness) if, before the symptoms begin, you feel strong and if, during the reaction, you feel a positive inner sense of well-being that you are all right deep within the core of your body.17
The severity and duration of a healing crisis will depend in part on the length of time and the amount of sugar that was consumed. It will also depend upon the speed with which sugar is cut from the diet, whether you go “cold turkey” or use a more gradual approach.
If we cut out sugar, what happens after a momentary splurge? Fortunately, we do not have to fear the birthday celebration, the holiday feast, or the wedding cake. Once a strong and vital system is restored and the organs of elimination are functioning well, a day or two of deviation will not trigger a healing reaction. The worst that can happen…you may crave sugar for a day or two afterward.18
Resources for Further Reading:
Peter Macinnis, Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar.
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.
William Dufty, Sugar Blues.
Judith J. Wurtman, Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food.
Marc David, The Slow-Down Diet.
Annemarie Colbin, Food and Healing
Henry Lindlahr, Philosophy of Natural Therapeutics
Paul Pitchford, Healing With Whole Foods
Next month, Part Two: Strategies for Kicking the Sugar Habit.
Recipes: Sugar-Free Sweet Treats
Coconut-Covered Date/Nut Balls
2 cups medjool dates (pitted and soaked 30 minutes)
1 cup almonds, pecans, or walnuts, soaked in 2 cups water overnight, drained
1 ½ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1 t. cinnamon
½ t. vanilla
In a food processor, add drained dates and nuts and pulse until finely chopped.
Add 1 cup coconut along with the cinnamon, and vanilla and pulse until mixed.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and kneed. Roll ball to desired size. Roll in extra coconut.
Keeps well in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Source: Raw Living Foods
Copyright 2009 Pathways4Health.org
- Judith Wurthman, Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food. [↩]
- See Resource Readings, at end. [↩]
- “Human genes remember a sugar hit for two weeks, with prolonged poor eating habits capable of permanently altering DNA.” Bad Eating Habits Can Alter DNA, www.newsmax.com, 1.19.09. “Human genes remember a sugar hit for two weeks, with prolonged poor eating habits capable of permanently altering DNA.” Bad Eating Habits Can Alter DNA, www.newsmax.com, 1.19.09. [↩]
- A bottle of soda can depress the immune system for up to six hours. [↩]
- We go against nature, too, when we in northern climates consume tropical foods during the dead of winter: According to John Matsen, N.D., tropical fruits depress the body’s efforts to make its own vitamin D and calcium because the combination of sugar and potassium in tropical fruits signals the body that there is plentiful vitamin D available from abundant sunshine. Besides their cooling nature, this offers yet another reason to avoid tropical foods in the dreary months of winter. [↩]
- See February09 Newsletter [↩]
- Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 52. [↩]
- Professor Bart Hoebel, Princeton University, December 4, 2008. [↩]
- “…for the vast majority of people, changes in brain chemistry are far more important in their food/mind/mood response than changes in blood sugar.” Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., “Food for Thought (And Mood)”, New Age Journal, March/April 1987. [↩]
- William Dufty, Sugar Blues, 43. [↩]
- Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, You: The Owner’s Manual, 188. [↩]
- Marc David, The Slow-Down Diet, 72 [↩]
- Dufty, 138. [↩]
- We might begin to rely on sugar’s convenience as a crutch, a bit like we do with antibiotics. Sugar and antibiotics both allow us to keep going at an unnaturally fast pace, while postponing rest and sleep. [↩]
- Symptoms of healing when these other factors are eliminated from the diet may include general fatigue; aches and pains; fever and chills; headache; excessive perspiration; and/or mucus discharges. [↩]
- Lindlahr, Philosophy of Natural Therapeutics, 154. [↩]
- John Garvy, quoted in Food and Healing, 218. [↩]
- For further reading, see Annemarie Colbin, Henry Lindlahr, and Paul Pitchford, the Resources list. [↩]