Sugar and Metabolism

What You Need to Know About Sugar and Metabolism

The debate about sugar and health effects comes down to sugar and metabolism. In other words, sugar itself is not the issue. What we need to know and focus on is how our bodies metabolize sugar. This is an extremely important point because it takes our attention off the source of the sugar (table sugar, honey, fructose, stevia, agave, high fructose corn syrup) and forces us to look at the biochemistry of sugar—which is what can explain where, when and how our bodies use sugar. This is the information that truly matters when it comes to making the right decisions for our health.

Sugar is big business. This means that big bucks are behind much of our “information” about sugar. Take, for example, the high fructose corn syrup industry and their campaign to sweeten our image of high fructose corn syrup. (Check out —but only after you’ve finished this article!) How we view their product matters to their bottom line, and right now there is a lot of demonizing of HFCS. Their strategy? Change their name to “corn sugar” (sounds more down home) and focus on the fact that HFCS has the identical components of glucose and fructose that table sugar, honey and maple syrup have. They also point out that HFCS has the same number of calories as cane sugar. Which is all true—but inconsequential, as we shall see.

fructose dangers

Then they claim that HFCS and ‘regular old’ cane sugar are metabolized by the body in similar ways. Well…that’s where we can start to quibble about what “is” is because there is a big gap here about sugar quantity and the toxicity of fructose that needs to be filled in. The best sources I’ve found for this information are Dr. Robert Lustig’s YouTube lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” and the writings of New York Times science journalist Gary Taubes. Here’s the short list for the bad news about fructose, and therefore sugar and health effects:

• only the liver can metabolize fructose
• eating fructose increases uric acid
• fructose inhibits NO production, leading to hypertension
• 30% of consumed fructose ends up as fat–weight loss and sugar don’t go together it seems
• a high fructose diet leads to insulin resistance (and probably metabolic syndrome)
• fructose bypasses the satiety signal that tells us we’ve eaten enough

sucrose vs. fructose

Why does this matter if table sugar (sucrose) and HFCS are roughly the same in terms of glucose and fructose? And if they are isocaloric (the same number of calories)? Well, the calorie issue is a non-starter. The issue here is the metabolization of sugar, and caloric counts, despite what we’ve been told about “empty calories” and burning calories, are not in play because we are concerned here with the toxicity of fructose. And that’s the point. Fructose from any source is a danger to our health.

Dr. Lustig clarifies the point. Fructose, he argues, is a poison. And our sugar consumption, and therefore our overall consumption of this poison went from less than half a pound to 56 pounds per person per year in about 30 years. Our obesity levels skyrocketed during those same 30 years. As did our incidence of diseases like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and even cancer.

The source of our sugar matters little. Except that one reason that our consumption has escalated to these levels has to do with the economics of high fructose corn syrup, combined with its higher sweetness index. Nowadays, sugar is in everything in one form or another (largely to hide the bad taste of produced foods—especially the low or nonfat ones). Our bodies simply weren’t designed for that much sugar.

Dr. Lustig compares fructose to another known poison—ethanol, our favorite party mixer. We control alcohol because we know that it is an acute toxin. Fructose is a chronic toxin, meaning that the negative effects show up over a longer period of time. And now we’ve been eating enough of it for long enough that we are getting really sick. Sugar and health effects are directly linked. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised. What is alcohol made from? Oh yeah—fermented sugar.


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