5 serious diseases caused by sugar
As regular readers will know, sugar is somewhat of a recuring theme when it comes to promoting a healthy diet. There is a very good reason stress its impact, because despite countless warnings, many of us still underestimate the devastating impact sugar can have on our bodies. What’s more, even those aware of the dangers are still likely consuming far too much of it.
How much is “too much” sugar? Traditionally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended getting no more than 10 per cent of our daily calorific intake from sugar. However, an update to its guidelines in 2015 saw them half that recommendation to 5 per cent - equatating to around 25 grams, or six teaspoons, of sugar a day.
Now considering that a can of soft drink contains about 35-40g of sugar (about 8 teaspoons), and this is really still the tip of the iceberg. In fact, many countries that adhere to the Western diet, have an average sugar intake that is well above the WHO's recommended amount. In the United States, for example, that figure tops 120g per day. In Germany, the second highest sugar consumer in the world, it hovers around 100g. It is safe to assume that the figures for several Gulf countries, including the UAE, are likely to be quite high too. We are, after all, among the most overweight and obese countries in the world today, and it is sugar that causes obesity.
Statistics published by the University of California in 2012 suggested that sugar was responsible for over 35 million deaths globally per year, Clearly then, this is about more than a couple of extra cavities and a few extra pounds. It is far more serious than that, and deserves a closer look:
The medical world has long suspected a link between sugar and cancer, and in light of several ground-breaking studies over the past decade, there is now a plenty of scientific evidence to back up these suspicions. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation points to sugar not only being a fuel source for existing cancers, but also cites it as a primary factor in the initiation of cancerous characteristics in previously healthy cells.
The study goes on to suggest that rather than increased glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to provide energy) being a consequence of cancer, it is rather the activation of sugar-based metabolism in a cell driven by high sugar quantities on the cell membrane that actually causes cancer to form in the first place. Further research by America’s National Center for Biotechnology Information found that those who ate a diet with a high glycemic load (GL) increased their chances of developing prostate cancer by almost 30 per cent, rectal cancer by 44 per cent, and pancreatic cancer by 41 per cent.
Overweight and obesity
There are few easier ways to pack on the pounds than by eating a high sugar diet. This is largely due to the sugar, fructose, found mainly in fruit juices, wheat products and “high fructose corn syrup” – which is most commonly added to food by manufacturers as it is sweeter and cheaper that sucrose (table sugar).
There is no hormone to remove fructose from our bloodstream, and very few of our bodies’ cells can make use of it. Therefore, it is left to the liver to remove it. When the liver is overwhelmed by too much of this sugar, it converts it to fat – which ultimately leads to insulin resistance, hardening of the arteries and, of course, obesity.
Fructose has also been known to cause weight gain by interfering with the way our bodies respond to the hormone, leptin. Leptin is secreted by fat cells – the bigger they are, the more they secrete – to tell the brain that we have adequate fat stores and, therefore, do not need to keep eating. However, high fructose levels can block the transport of leptin from the blood to the brain – making it incorrectly believe that the body needs to eat more and burn less in order to replenish our fat stores.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death here in the UAE (occurring 15-20 years earlier than the global average), and once again our high sugar intake is the biggest contributor to increases in rates of these diseases.
When we eat high amounts of sugar, our bodies release insulin to get excess glucose out of the bloodstream and into our cells. The higher the level of glucose in our blood, the higher the amount of insulin released. While this is a perfectly natural response to sugar in our bloodstream, when insulin is chronically high (which it is for most people adhering to that Western diet high in sugars and grains and processed foods) it causes inflammation and damages the lining of our blood vessels, leading to a host of cardiovascular-related concerns.
According to statistics from 2014, one in five of us here in the Emirates is diabetic – and the rest of the world doesn’t fare much better either. The disease affects nine per cent of the global adult population and is responsible for a staggering 1.5 million deaths around the world each year. Or to put it another way, one person dies from diabetes every seven seconds.
Many medical professionals have stopped short of placing the blame for the Type 2 diabetes epidemic at sugar’s door, pointing to other factors such as a sedentary lifestyle. However, a recent study from 2013 has shed more light on the correlation between this all-to-common affliction and sugar intake.
Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco examined data on sugar availability and diabetes rates from 175 countries over the past decade and found evidence to suggest a direct link between the two.
The reality is that the link is very easy to explain: If you consume a diet consistently high in sugar (150 pounds per year) and grains (200 pounds per year) and processed foods (full of sugars and trans fats), your blood glucose levels will be chronically elevated. The pancreas then becomes overworked and even damaged, the body becomes desensitised to insulin, and the end result is insulin resistance and eventually full-blown diabetes.
Perhaps the least publicised health complaint on our list is fatty liver disease. Once again, this particular problem is caused by your body's least favourite sugar – fructose. As liver cells are the only ones that can break down fructose, they set about turning the sugar into fat in a process called lipogenesis. Over time, and given enough fructose, fat droplets start to accumulate in the liver cells, which ultimately results in non-alcoholic liver disease – so called because the effect is much the same as that which alcohol has on the liver. As with alcohol damage, if left untreated the liver becomes scarred, leading to irreversible cirrhosis and irreparable damage.
The opinions in the column are by Dr Graham Simpson, the Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai, and are not necessarily those held by Esquire or Hearst International.