By Cathy McNease, Herbalist
Spring is a time of year we all anticipate change. A huge number of Americans resolved recently to lose weight, exercise more, and eat healthier in the new year. More than 90% will fall short of the goal before very many weeks of 2015 pass. Why? Are we weak willed? I say, no. We are addicted to bad foods, mostly sugar, fats and refined carbohydrates.
Unfortunately, this addiction is killing us very insidiously. The current generation of kids are predicted to live shorter lives than their parents, in large measure due to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in children these days, with 1/3 of Americans kids and 2/3 of adults now overweight or obese. This number has been rising since 1980, when high fructose corn syrup became widely used in our foods and drinks. Sugar in all of its forms is very addictive, activating the same brain centers as cocaine, causing the release of dopamine and a feeling of euphoria. Just like other drugs, frequent sugar eaters develop a tolerance and need larger quantities to feel good. Recent research shows that fructose in particular, never appears to register “enough” in the brain, so we keep eating more. That is also a problem with the artificial sweeteners which cause us to eat more calories in an attempt to “fill in” what is missing calorically with that extreme sweet taste. Do our lives lack sweetness?
Table sugar (aka sucrose) is made from sugar beets or sugar cane. It is composed of ½ fructose and ½ glucose. In the 70’s a cheap sweetener was developed from the subsidized corn crops, and high fructose corn syrup was born (aka Karo Syrup). This human creation is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Even though the different forms of sugar have the same amount of calories, they are metabolized differently.
I, personally, do not eat corn or corn products, period. About 15 years ago I learned that caterpillars of monarch butterflies were dying in large numbers from exposure to genetically modified corn pollen, growing beside their favorite weed, milkweed. If GM corn pollen is killing caterpillars, can corn be a healthy food for humans? Anyhow, that was when my corn ban began. Unfortunately, now the corn all around the world has been polluted by the GM corn so widely distributed everwhere. Seed producers high in the mountains of central Mexico, for generations have grown many unique varieties of maize, but even these no longer are pure strains of corn. For you animal lovers, read labels: corn should not be fed to dogs, cats (or cattle) as it leads to digestive and skin problems. Part of our global warming problem is that the feedlot cows are being quickly fattened up on corn which makes them fart a dangerous amount of methane gas for our environment.
The average American eats 130 pounds of sugar per year. That is 1/3 of a pound of sugar per day! The scientific community is recognizing that in those quantities, sugar is toxic. There is a very interesting lecture on YouTube called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” by Dr Robert Lustig. He talks about a study they did with college kids for 2 weeks, in which they controlled their sugar intake completely. After establishing a baseline of blood values on a low sugar diet, 25% of their calories were replaced by sugary drinks, made with high fructose corn syrup. In only 2 weeks, the students experienced significant increases in their very low density cholesterol numbers (VLDL). These are truly the bad guys who cause cardiovascular disease. The liver is unable to convert the sugar fast enough and converts it instead to bad fats.
So why do we love sweets so much? In Nature no food that contains fructose is poisonous. Evolutionarily speaking, the sweet flavor tells us we are making a safe food choice. But, we used to get fructose primarily from fruit, mixed with fiber which slows absorption, and eating whole fruits limits consumption. Now with fructose separated from its other natural components and consumed in such large quantities, it has become a wolf in sheep’s clothing: we remember “safe” but this is a dangerous fake. When we went through the “low-fat foods craze” a while ago, the fats were replaced with sugars. No wonder heart disease, diabetes, and obesity continued to rise.
Cancer is another concern for we sugar addicts. There is a significant decrease in risk with limiting sugar consumption. Sugar causes the body to produce insulin which fuels some types of cancers, in particular, breast and colon, in which the tumors have insulin receptors, so that cupcake goes straight to the tumor to help it grow. For cancer patients it is important to avoid all of the forms that sugar takes: wine and other alcohols, white flour products, white sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup. These are all ultimately processed as sugars, producing an increase in insulin. Sugar creates an inflammatory response in the body, so most health problems will worsen with the increase in inflammation.
Usually sweets provide emotional comfort. I do not have the answer to this challenge, but I have found some guidelines that have helped me with my sweet tooth. Read labels for starters. If sugar is near the top of the list, leave it. If I have sweets, I make them. That way I have controll over how much and which kind of sugar I use, and reserve this for special occasions only. Even the healthy choices in sweeteners can be over done, so I use sparingly honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, coconut nectar. I also have been experimenting with the herb stevia as a sweetener. Mostly, I rely on fruit for my sweet treats. Sometimes a big craving for sweets can signal a protein deficiency, so be sure to explore that possibility. For me, when I crave sweets, usually it is my little inner child wanting comfort. Now I sit, breath, relax and hope the craving passes soon….Once I get to about the “3 weeks without sugar point”, it will get a little easier, just like changing any other bad habit. The goal is progress, not perfection.
Food, Inc. – a documentary about the current state of food production in US, including factory farming and GMO’s.
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan – a sensible guide to making mindful, responsible food choices.
Cathy is a nationally certified herbalist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology from the NCCAOM, a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Western Michigan University and two Master Herbalist certificates from Emerson College of Herbology in Canada and East-West Course of Herbology in Santa Cruz. She has co-authored two books, The Tao of Nutrition and 101 Vegetarian Delights and a distance learning course, TCM Nutrition.
You can read more of her columns, advice and guidance in her collection, In Harmony with the Seasons: Herbs, Nutrition and Well-Being.