January 14, 2024

Sugar and our health

I stopped eating refined sugar about a year ago, and I've been wanting to put into writing all the things I've learned about sugar. So, this article is an attempt to answer most of the questions I've been asking myself about sugar.

Small disclaimer, this article is part of my 1-week, 1-article challenge. I realized while writing it that sugar is a very extensive topic, and I had to keep it short and leave some parts out. There will be a second part on how to quit sugar.

Sources of sugar

Sugar in our diet comes from two main sources:

Natural sugars

These sugars are found in unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. They are of two types:

Simple sugars (Monosaccharides)

  • Glucose (found in fruits, vegetables, and honey)
  • Fructose (found in fruits)
  • Galactose (found in milk)

Monosaccharides are single-molecule sugars that are directly absorbable into the bloodstream. They are immediate energy sources, with glucose being the primary energy molecule for the body. Other monosaccharides like fructose and galactose are converted into glucose in the liver before they're used for energy.

Compound sugars (Disaccharides)

  • Lactose: glucose + galactose (found in milk)
  • Sucrose: glucose + fructose (found in many plants)
  • Maltose: glucose + glucose (found in germinating grains)

Disaccharides are composed of two monosaccharides and must be broken down by enzymes into monosaccharides before they can be absorbed. This process occurs during digestion, primarily in the small intestine, where enzymes like lactase, sucrase, and maltase cleave the glycosidic bonds. Once broken down, the monosaccharides are readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

Fun fact: The root cause of lactose intolerance is the small intestine's inability to produce sufficient lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. This undigested lactose moves into the large intestine where bacteria ferment it, resulting in symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, etc...

Refined sugars

Refined sugar is sugar that has been extracted from plant sources and processed to produce a sweetener that can be added to foods and beverages. This is what most people refer to as "sugar".

About 80% of the world's sugar is extracted from sugar cane, predominantly grown in tropical regions, while sugar beets account for around 20% of production, mostly in temperate climates like the U.S. or Europe.

Refined sugars are often added to processed foods to enhance flavor, color, texture, and shelf life.

It's important to note that all refined sugars are considered added sugars when they are put into foods during processing, but not all added sugars are refined. For example, honey is a natural sugar that becomes an added sugar when used in food preparation.

Why we like sugar

Our preference for sugar is rooted in evolution. In the past, when our ancestors found sweet foods, it signaled a rich energy source. Sweetness in fruits and natural sugars meant high calories - essential energy for the body. During times when food was scarce, this energy was vital for survival, helping them stay active and healthy.

Through evolution, our bodies learned to associate sweetness with quick and reliable energy. This natural inclination towards sugar helped our ancestors prioritize energy-dense foods, a key survival strategy. Today, we still have this evolutionary trait, making us naturally drawn to sweet tastes. Sweetness acts as a signal that a food can provide a fast energy boost, explaining why sugary flavors are often irresistible.

What is different today

Today's world is much different when it comes to sugar. We're not in survival mode anymore; there's always plenty of food around. We don't have to worry about the hard days without food, as we can easily get energy from various sources.

We've moved from finding food in the wild to growing it ourselves. This means we can have as much as we want. However, we didn't stop there. We started extracting sugar from plants and adding it to everything, even foods that never had sugar in them naturally. We do this to keep our dopamine levels high, always seeking that sweet pleasure, even when it's not necessary for survival.

The problem with too much sugar

Sugar is a huge part of our diets nowadays, which is a big change from the past. Back then, sugar was something special, not something you'd eat every single day. Now, it's in so many foods, even in those that don't really need it, just to make them taste sweeter.

My wife once asked me, "If you like chocolate, why don't you eat the 100% kind?" It got me thinking. Then she said, "Most people think they like certain foods, but they actually just like the sugar in them.".

I have this running joke where whenever I eat something that's really good, I half-jokingly say they must be sneaking a bit of cocaine into the recipe because it's addictively good. While this is obviously a joke with cocaine, this is 100% what happens with sugar. Sugar is used to enhance flavor in a cheap and lazy way. The presence of sugar should be an alarm that tells you something is off, and someone is trying to trick you.

Ketchup, which is essentially tomatoes and sugar, is often preferred over simple tomato sauce. But why is this the case?

Why do all the kids love Nutella? Because it's 58% sugar.

Then there are fruits. We often go for the sweetest ones we can find. Farmers know this, so they grow fruits to be as sweet as possible. But when we eat these super-sweet fruits, we're not just getting the vitamins and fiber we need; we're also consuming more sugar than is good for us.

Health consequences of sugar

Refined sugar, despite its widespread use, brings with it a host of health complications and offers virtually no nutritional benefit. This sweet culprit is a key factor in numerous health issues, ranging from minor discomforts to serious chronic conditions. Here are some of the health concerns associated with high sugar consumption:

Liver disease

  • Refined sugars, mainly sucrose, can overload the liver. Excessive fructose intake, metabolized only by the liver, can lead to fat accumulation, causing fatty liver and metabolic disorders.

Weight gain and obesity

  • Foods high in sugar are often high in calories but low in essential nutrients, leading to overeating without satisfying hunger. Excess calories from sugar are stored in the body as fat.
  • Sugar also disrupts the balance of hormones that regulate hunger, leading to increased cravings and making it more difficult to control eating habits.

Oral health

  • High sugar consumption significantly increases the risk of cavities. Sugary foods and drinks create an acidic environment in the mouth, promoting the growth of bacteria that erode tooth enamel. This process leads to dental caries or cavities.
  • Maintaining oral health is crucial as it's the gateway to our digestive system and closely linked to our overall health, including the balance of our gut microbiome.


  • Spikes in blood sugar can harden and narrow blood vessels, thereby increasing the risks of heart attacks and strokes. High blood sugar levels also contribute to cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance, which is a common precursor to diabetes.

To conclude, I would recommend that everyone be more mindful of their refined sugar consumption and, ideally, consider stopping its intake completely. There are only benefits and your body will thank you.

I'll be posting an article on how to quit sugar in the coming weeks.