Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners*

Some Effects of Sugar

Maintaining optimal mental and physical health and being successful at losing excess weight require an understanding of the mechanism of sugar metabolism and its physiological and psycho-chemical manifestations. Sugar is the “food” of the brain, and blood-sugar levels strongly influence whether you experience hunger or satiation, depression or well being, and fatigue or pep.

There are four consequences of ingesting excess sugar, the severity of which depends on the amount eaten and its concentration: (1) Sugar is the food of yeast, which produces carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. Thus, sugar is the main cause of intestinal gas. (2) By eating excess sugar, you will produce a body that burns sugar rather than fat (one of the most important facets of losing weight is to convert your body from a sugar burner to a fat burner). (3) Excessive sugar consumption results in low blood sugar, one symptom of which is urgent cravings for food—especially sweets. (3) Sugar prduces mood swings, which are disruptive to mental stability and sabotage self-discipline. Once you understand the mechanisms next explained, you will be better able to make appropriate decisions and exercise self-restraint.

Low Blood Sugar

After ingestion, sugar becomes glucose. Normally, when the blood glucose reaches an undesirably high level, the pancreas secretes insulin, which changes the glucose into glycogen. The higher the blood-sugar level, the more insulin the pancreas must secrete. Therefore, eating excess sugar trains the pancreas to become over-active. Then, when moderate amounts of sugar are consumed, the pancreas over-secretes, causing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Low blood sugar is characterized by urgent hunger, depression, tiredness, forgetfulness, disorientation, headaches, insomnia, frustration, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and dozens of other unpleasant symptoms.

Consider what happens when a person who routinely consumes large amounts of sugar eats a meal. The pancreas promptly secretes habitual amounts of insulin, which are now too large for the amount of sugar entering the blood stream. Thus, that person will experience low blood sugar, characterized by a craving for food—especially sweets. He will end up eating much more in response to low-blood-sugar-induced cravings than from true hunger. Sufficient self-restraint to eat less may be sustained over the short run but will eventually dwindle, and he will gain weight. The lesson here is that, to achieve and maintain proper weight, an overweight person must understand carbohydrate metabolism and resolve to act in accordance with this knowledge.

It should be kept in mind that the most important factor concerning sugar is its eventual concentration in the blood. Under certain circumstances, ingesting a quantity of sugar can have a different effect than the same amount of sugar taken differently. For example, if you drink a glass of orange juice on an empty stomach, the sugar in the juice enters the blood stream very quickly and causes an abrupt rise in blood sugar. On the other hand, if you slowly chew an orange or two containing the same amount and kind of sugar, that sugar will probably take longer to enter the blood stream. One reason is that it takes longer to peel and chew oranges than to gulp down their juice. Another reason is that much more saliva is secreted during chewing than during drinking, and the saliva dilutes the sugar. In general, the effect on blood sugar is determined by both the amount of sugar ingested and its rate of absorption into the blood stream.

Ironically, many people on a weight-loss diet regularly eat a container of yogurt for lunch. An 8-ounce container of “non-fat“ yogurt with strawberry preserves contains only about 240 cal. But it also contains a whopping 47 grams of sugar (almost 1/4 cup!) in the form of sucrose, fructose, and lactose, all of which are converted to glucose. About four or five hours later, they may feel depressed or ravenously hungry but fail to associate how they feel with what they ate. Eventually, no amount of willpower will be sufficient to keep them on such a diet. Thus, a low-calorie weight-reduction diet consisting primarily of carbohydrates is very difficult to sustain and almost guarantees that any lost weight will eventually return with interest.

Fructose Versus Other Sugars

A number of years ago, I was at a party. At that time I was keeping my sugar intake at a very low level, so when I was offered some ice cream, I declined, saying, “I’m off sugar.” The reply was, “This ice cream is home-made. I made it myself without any sugar.” After tasting it, I was amazed at how good sugarless ice cream could be and ate a fairly large portion. I then asked for the recipe. To my surprise, a main ingredient was honey!

Many people erroneously think that the ill effects ascribed to sugar only apply to white cane sugar and not to “natural” sugars such as honey or maple syrup. Others erroneously think that all forms of sugar have essentially the same effects. True, non-fruit sugars such as sucrose (cane sugar), lactose (milk sugar), maltose, and (barley sugar) all eventually become glucose after digestion. Then insulin metabolizes some glucose to glycogen, which is then stored in the muscles and liver. The remaining glucose is then used or is converted to fat and stored. Thus, other than fructose (fruit sugar), all the above sugars can have the same negative effect on blood sugar because they require insulin to covert them to glycogen after they are digested.

But fructose is metabolized differently. It goes directly to the liver, which converts some of it into glycogen, thereby obviating any use of insulin. Remaining fructose is converted to glucose, which is then used or stored as fat.

The existence of liver metabolism of fruit sugar directly to glycogen makes sense as humans are descended from mainly fruit-eating animals who had little access to, say, honey or maple syrup but probably consumed some starches. Starches require the hormone, ptyalin, and the enzyme, insulin, for their conversion, which may explain why we have evolved to produce both ptyalin and insulin.

My thoughts about some studies on high-fructose corn syrup.

Artificial Sweeteners

Aside from any possible undesirable health or psychological effects of artificial sweeteners, they may stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin, triggering low blood sugar. If you want to lose the craving for sugar, it is best not to tantalize your sense of taste with any diet-sabotaging reinforcement of the idea that "sugar tastes good."

Some critics of aspartame, which is the main ingredient of most artificial sweeteners, warn of its danger. One critic asserts that it “is, by far, the most dangerous substance on the market that is added to foods” and “is responsible for ninety different documented [adverse] symptoms.”

Craving Sweets After a Low-Carbohydrate Meal

Are you a person who habitually eats foods containing sugar (such as desserts) with or immediately after meals? If so, then you have probably trained your pancreas to secrete insulin as soon as you begin to eat—or possibly as soon as the thought of food enters your mind. The reason that the pancreas has learned to be so prompt and over-active is that damage is done if the blood sugar goes above a certain level. Such harm is evidenced by the many problems diabetics have when they take insufficient insulin. Thus, the pancreas must get an early start in order to process a large jolt of sugar. If it “knows” that sugar—or even starch, which soon turns to sugar—is coming, it automatically secretes insulin as soon as the meal begins, or even as soon as the thought of food begins. If the meal then does not contain a large amount of carbohydrate, the secreted insulin is excessive and brings the blood sugar below a safe level. The most common symptom of low blood sugar is a craving for sweets.

The way to correct an over-active pancreas is to stop over-stimulating it with excessive sugar and starch. Instead, assume that the body will adapt to changes. If you refrain from succumbing to a craving for sugar, it will diminish in about fifteen to thirty minutes. Moreover, after a few weeks of eating sensibly, the activity of your pancreas will stabilize, your low blood sugar will go into remission, and cravings for sugar will noticeably diminish. A good rule to follow after a low-blood-sugar condition subsides is never to eat anything with a greater quantity or concentration of sugar than in one banana.

*From Robert Chuckrow, The Intelligent Dieter’s Guide, Rising Mist Publications, Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1997.

Dr. Joseph Mercola, Aspartame: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You


©Copyright 1997 by Robert Chuckrow

More Articles on Nutrition and Health

Book on Optimal Nutrition and Weight-Loss

Home Page