If I had to define one nutritional foe that processed food has made virtually inescapable, I could do it without so much as blinking: Sugar.
Oh, yes, the dastardly dynamo that breaks hearts and busts waistbands is found everywhere, in everything and is quite possibly the most omnipresent ingredient in processed food. Hiding behind wholesome names like “apple juice concentrate” and “honey,” or more science-project-esque names like high fructose corn syrup and sucralose, it will find you…and force you to enjoy its sweet goodness.
And why, on Earth, would this be a problem?
When it comes to general weight loss, sugar—out of the presence of fiber—is your worst enemy. Fiber serves as a barrier; it prevents you from being able to over-consume the sugar, and it prevents the sugar from bludgeoning your pancreas and flooding your blood stream. That barrier is invaluable because sugar without fiber simply makes you more inclined to eat—more sugar. Not ever, in the history of food, has eating a cupcake compelled a single person to go binge on broccoli. It only serves as a gateway to over-consumption, which means more calories and more weight gain.
Over-consumption often results in unhealthy emotional attachments to food. Not in the sense where a food brings back fond memories; no—we’re talking about using food to make ourselves feel happy, less stressed and more satisfied. Sugary foods can wind up becoming the same kind of crutch that smoking has become to people in high-stress situations. When’s the last time you heard a commercial encourage a heartbroken woman to indulge in a pint of ice cream to make herself feel better?
And, while we’re on the subject, we can discuss what over-consumption of sugar—without fiber—does to the body. It is widely documented that high blood sugar results in type 2 diabetes, with the link between the two being further implied by the fact that “pre-diabetic” people are encouraged to drop the sugar (and simple carbohydrates) in order to change the condition. It is further implied by the fact that the rates of type 2 diabetes tracks almost perfectly with the increase of sugar in processed food. The same could be said of high fructose corn syrup and non-fatty liver disease, as well.
But what about the link to Alzheimer's?
To quote from Tom Philpott of Mother Jones:
What's emerging, the magazine shows, is that insulin "also regulates neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine, which are crucial for memory and learning." That's not all: "And it is important for the function and growth of blood vessels, which supply the brain with oxygen and glucose. As a result, reducing the level of insulin in the brain can immediately impair cognition."
The effects of high sugar consumption don’t end simply at the blood stream. They make their way up the chain, affecting our brains.
So when people develop insulin resistance, New Scientist reports, insulin spikes "begin to overwhelm the brain, which can't constantly be on high alert," And then bad things happen: "Either alongside the other changes associated with type 2 diabetes, or separately, the brain may then begin to turn down its insulin signaling, impairing your ability to think and form memories before leading to permanent neural damage"—and eventually, Alzheimer's.
What this means is that the effects of high sugar consumption don’t end simply at the blood stream. They make their way up the chain, affecting our brains.
A few years back, Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, penned an extensive article for The New York Times that asked a simple question: Is Sugar Toxic? On top of touching on issues like diabetes and sugar’s ever-present status in processed food, he also makes a very disconcerting correlation:
The last time an agency of the federal government looked into the question of sugar and health in any detail was in 2005, in a report by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies. The authors of the report acknowledged that plenty of evidence suggested that sugar could increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes — even raising LDL cholesterol, known as the “bad cholesterol”—– but did not consider the research to be definitive. There was enough ambiguity, they concluded, that they couldn’t even set an upper limit on how much sugar constitutes too much. Referring back to the 2005 report, an Institute of Medicine report released last fall reiterated, “There is a lack of scientific agreement about the amount of sugars that can be consumed in a healthy diet.”
So if you want to cut sugar out of your diet, you won't get much help from the federal government. But if you still want to dump the sugar—and there is quite the case for doing so—you’ll have to dump the processed foods, as well. Because of our nature as human beings to embrace things that present us with a nice sweet taste, processed food manufacturers give us more than a little bit; they give us the entire pound. Literally. There’s a reason why