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Here’s what you should know about sugar

July 8, 2019

The sweet and not-so-sweet facts

It’s been called toxic, addictive and the cause of our country’s obesity epidemic. With diabetes on the rise and excessive amounts of it in processed foods, sugar has been hotly debated in the medical field. A Q & A with NCH Medical Group Endocrinologist Victoria Ryvkin, M.D. gives the scoop on sugar, including how it’s processed in our bodies.

Is sugar bad for us?

Sugar comes from carbohydrates that are broken down to their simplest components. Carbohydrates are not bad for us. They are a vital nutrient and our bodies depend on healthy carbohydrates – from whole grains, fruits and vegetables – for energy. 

What happens when you eat too much sugar?

It’s so ubiquitous in our diet that it overwhelms our bodies with simple fuel we cannot burn off. The body gets habituated to this abundance of easy fuel, so it starts storing more complex and difficult-to-burn fuels like fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates as fat and instead sends signals to crave more simple sugars for energy needs. This causes us to overeat and continue to gain weight.

How much sugar is safe for the average person’s diet?

There is no amount of pure sugar that is required for a healthy diet, and it is just fine to have no pure sugar in the diet. Sugar is only one type of carbohydrate, and it’s the simplest kind. Many other foods have complex carbohydrates that are healthy and necessary for our well-being.

A balanced diet will contain about 50% of calories from carbohydrates and at least 25g of fiber. I mention fiber because it’s included as a carbohydrate. However, it’s not digested by our stomach, therefore does not go towards raising our blood sugar.

A typical diet of 2,000 calories contains 1,000 calories from carbohydrates, which is about 250 grams of carbohydrates, of which at least 25 should be fiber. It’s notable that many people, such as older adults or women with a smaller body size, require less than 2,000 calories per day.

What is considered a normal blood sugar level?
Normal fasting sugar level in healthy adults is usually under 100mg/dl. We define the presence of diabetes as fasting blood sugar >126mg/dl on two occasions. 

What does a blood sugar test at your office involve?

It’s a simple prick to the finger that is run in a special machine. Results are available in six minutes.

What are some foods that don’t raise your blood sugar levels?

Foods containing protein and fat do not raise blood sugar levels. The healthiest kinds of proteins and fats are from a vegetarian source. My favorite example of this is an avocado. Avocados contain almost exclusively healthy mono-unsaturated fats and will not raise blood sugar. Seeds and nuts also fall into this category. Beans, chickpeas and lentils contain both protein and carbohydrate. These are some of the healthiest foods to have in our diets. Raw vegetables contain nominal carbohydrates and have plenty of fiber. They’re great choices.

What are some ways to lower your blood sugar?

Exercise will lower blood sugar, even if it doesn’t lower your weight. Everyone should be dedicating at least 30 minutes per day to physical activity, especially if they’re working to lower their blood sugar. Eating some of the foods mentioned above instead of high starch and processed foods will be tremendously helpful. 

Are sugar substitutes safe?

Sugar substitutes are known to worsen diabetes and should be avoided. I do not advocate for the use of any sugar substitutes. Most of the data on them was done with older sugar substitutes such as granulated saccharin. Less data is available for today’s current sweeteners, so I treat them as equally undesirable until new data suggests differently.

Is sugar addictive? 

Sugar consumption and over consumption follows the same brain chemistry as any addiction, such as smoking. Quitting sugar is like quitting cigarettes. It’s tough initially, but eventually the habit can be broken with sustained abstinence. Artificial sweeteners can be likened to vaping versus smoking cigarettes. They will maintain the addiction and hinder breaking the habit. 
Schedule an appointment with Dr. Ryvkin at 847-725-8401 (Mount Prospect); 847-725-8401 (Buffalo Grove) or request an appointment online.