Daniel Schulman

/ 4 min read

Monday, 16 November, 2015

There is a lot I could say about sugar from the perspective of Chinese Medicine.  But on this occasion, I’m not going to do that.  I am going to stick with simple modern physiology and some basic numbers.  It’s very important we are all very clear about sugar  .   .   .   .

.  .  .  it’s likely the biggest public health problem we face – certainly far greater than most public health concerns our governments focus much more of their time, expertise and money towards.  My guess is, if nothing changes, we will have kidney dialysis stations along the highways, at gas stations, in airports, hockey rinks and other public buildings within a few decades.  Imagine that!   The big neon sign on the highway reads . . . Doughnuts – Coffee – Gas – Dialysis!

You probably don’t quite realize the extent to which you are wreaking havoc with your body on a daily basis.  Here are some basic facts that should make that perfectly clear.

The total amount of sugar in your blood stream on average at any given time, in the form of glucose is about one teaspoon (4.2 grams in a teaspoon).  The safety range for glucose in your entire blood stream is between 3.3 and 7 grams.  That’s right, I said ‘safety range’.  Danger lurks outside that range.  Above that range lies the potential for coma.  Below that range lies shock (insulin shock).

Your body works diligently to keep you out of danger.  So, to avoid going high, your body promptly stores excess glucose in your liver as glycogen and then slowly releases it back as levels go down.  Or, if levels don’t go down (because you keep eating more sugar!), your liver converts it to fat.

Let’s put these numbers in context with common intake scenarios.  Remember, a ‘normal’ total sugar in your entire bloodstream is 3.3 to 7 grams.  For comparison, one chocolate cookie has 8 grams of glucose.  That’s right!  ONE cookie takes you promptly out of ‘normal’.  And who has just one?  I don’t know anybody who has just one.  It get’s worse.  A processed breakfast pastry has 17 grams, a small bowl of sweet breakfast cereal has 24-30 grams, one chocolate bar has 25-50 grams, and a can of cola has 35 grams of sugar.

Think about that for a moment.  One can of cola has 35 grams of sugar.  That’s over 8 times more sugar than your entire blood stream likely has just before you drink the cola.  If you were lifting weights and, let’s say you were a 200 pound man, that’d be like asking you to lift 1600 pounds!  One can of cola is asking your physiology to do some VERY HEAVY lifting!

Eat a few cookies, a chocolate bar, a bowl of sweetened cereal or drink a can of cola and your body must very VERY quickly get blood stream glucose stabilized back to the ‘normal range’.  It’s the physiological equivalent of the fire department being called to put out a fire.  It’s an emergency and decisive response has to happen fast or someone may die.  I’m so glad we have fire departments!

But fire departments have their limits.  If fires start happening too often (like having sweetened cereal for breakfast, a can of cola at lunch and three cookies in the afternoon!), the local fire department soon gets overwhelmed and neighbouring firefighters are called in.  Of course, that means those firefighters are no longer available for their local community, should the need arise.  And if too many fires keep popping up, eventually, the entire system gets overwhelmed.  At that point, the event gets eulogized in history as ‘the Great Fire of 2015’.

Your body is brilliant.  It’s well equipped to have the odd chocolate bar, the odd can of pop, the odd pastry.  Very well equipped.  So, by all means, enjoy the occasional delightful excursion into extreme sweetness.  But, do this hundreds and thousands of times over weeks, months and years and you put a tremendous and unrelenting stress on your adrenals (the shock of it all), your Liver (managing the excess glucose) and your Pancreas (responding to the roller coaster with insulin).   And beyond these direct impacts, your body reserves are drawn down and distracted from all the other routine maintenance and crisis response scenarios in play every day.  It’s physiological mayhem.

And just to be clear, every time I say ‘sugar’ above, I am also referring to all refined carbohydrates (white flour, white bread, pasta, etc.) because they are, once eaten, essentially presented to our bloodstream as a sudden surge of sugar.

Our (the culture we live in) relationship to sugar is off the charts and through the roof.  There are more donut shops in my home town than churches.  And all their drive-thrus are around-the-block-traffic-jams every morning, every mid-morning break time, every lunch hour and every mid-afternoon break time.

For all the successes in awareness of the past decade, all the Dr. Oz and Oprah, all the whole health advocacy, the sugar breakfast cereal aisle at the grocery store is still many many times larger than the ‘whole food section’ of the same store.  And grocery stores do not stock that stuff for decoration.  The modern grocery store is a highly fine-tuned real-time stocking system.  They stock precisely what sells in precisely the amount it sells.  They ARE our mirror. Sugar is the new religion.  It is a gross distortion with a truly heavy cost, to each of us personally and to the collective public health disaster we are all having to fund and manage.  What is required is not a ‘tweaking’, but a radical re-alignment.  The sooner you and I and all of us together can take the steps necessary to ctrl-alt-del our relationship to sugar, the better.