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MEGAN MONDAY: CARBS – The Often-Confused Macronutrient Broken Down, Part III: Focus On Sugar Balances in the Body

on May 20, 2013

sugar 2To wrap- up this thrilling trilogy on carbohydrates, I figured to save the best for last, focusing on what seems to be the bane of most parents’ existence – SUGAR and sugar levels in the body.  As highlighted in the other two articles covering carbs, what we can deduct is that the carbs – sugars, starches, and fibers all contribute to energy production in the body.  We need energy to function healthy; it’s a fine-tuned system of chemical conversions and the storage & burning of energy.  To keep this system in balance is known as homeostasis (well, that term applies to keeping ALL systems in the body balanced, but they all depend on each other, starting with the intake and breakdown of food for energy).  Maintaining a constancy of blood glucose in children and adults affects not only our energy levels, but our behaviors and overall well-being.  When things fall “off kilter,” we know it – the infamous sugar crash, energy burn, exhibiting itself in many ways: on-the-floor-fist-pounding tantrums, melt-downs, mood swings, wanting to sleep, scream, or just cry…. You name it, it’s affected by our energy levels staying in-check.  Something we need to worry even more about this day-in-age is how carb-heavy many diets are (either with starches and/or added sugars) and how that can lead to Type II Diabetes.  When I was a kid, hearing such a scare was rare; nowadays, it’s becoming more and more common – and it’s affecting millions of CHILDREN a day.  Yes, I repeat, MILLIONS of kids.  What’s wrong here?  This is why it’s important to know how our bodies keep those sugar levels from carbs in check….and what you can do to maintain optimal health for yourself and your family.

Every blood cell depends on glucose (you remember that guy…the simple sugar that is known as blood sugar) for its fuel to some extent, and the cells of the brain and the rest of the nervous system depend almost exclusively on glucose for their energy.  The activities of these cells never cease, and they have limited availability to store glucose.  Day and night, they continually draw on the supply of glucose in the fluid surrounding them.  To maintain the supply, a steady stream of blood moves past these cells bringing more glucose from either the small intestine (from food) or the liver (from stored glycogen, the storage form of glucose).  To function optimally, the body must maintain blood glucose levels within limits that allow the cells to nourish themselves.  If blood glucose falls below normal, a person may become dizzy and weak (or turn into a cranky hot mess); if the blood glucose level rises above normal, a person may become fatigued (which may happen after the sugar high!).  If these imbalances are left untreated, fluctuations to the extreme (either high or low) can be fatal.

Unless you’re a medical pro, you’re probably wondering how the body knows to keep these blood glucose levels in check.  Well, two hormones – insulin and glucagon get props for this tedious job.  Insulin moves glucose from the blood into the cells and glucagon brings glucose out of storage when necessary.  So how do these hormones actually accomplish this task?

  • After a meal, blood glucose rises, and special cells of the pancreas respond by secreting insulin into the blood. à The amount of insulin secreted matches to the rise in glucose (so the more sugar, the more insulin is released).
    • Too much glucose (sugar) at one time can cause something called a spike, which later leads to a “sugar crash” because so much insulin was released to break down the glucose.
  • As insulin circulates through the body hitting the “receptor” cells of the body, the receptors respond by ushering glucose from the blood into the cells (this is how your organs have energy to perform their functions).
    • Most of the cells take only the glucose they can use for energy right away.  An exception to this are the liver and muscle cells – these can take extra glucose and assemble small glucose units into long branches of glycogen (storage form of glucose) for storage.
    • Here’s where it gets ugly à the liver cells can also convert extra glucose to fat for export to other cells.
  • Blood levels return to normal as excess glucose is stored as glycogen and fat.
  • Interestingly, another hormone that signals the liver cells to release glucose is epinephrine – the “fight-or-flight” hormone.  When a person experiences stress or feeling scared, epinephrine acts quickly to ensure that all the body cells have energy fuel in emergencies.  (Which also explains why people feel exhausted after one of these “energy spikes.”)

How to Keep the Healthy Blood Glucose Balance

Here’s the easiest way I can break it down:

  • When blood glucose falls below normal à food can replenish it OR glucagon can signal the liver to break down glycogen stores.
  • When blood glucose rises above normal à insulin can signal the cells to take in glucose for energy à
    • Eating balanced meals at regular time intervals helps the body maintain a happy medium between the extremes.
      • Balanced meals that provide abundant carbohydrates (fibers and a little fat help slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrate so that glucose enters the blood gradually).

When Blood Glucose Levels Go Awry

Diabetes and Hypoglycemia are two health concerns when blood glucose levels cannot regulate on their own.  In diabetes, blood glucose rises after a meal and remains above normal levels because insulin is either inadequate or ineffective.  There are two main types of diabetes – type I and type II.  In type I diabetes (the less common type), the pancreas fails to produce insulin (it is believed that this is a genetic disorder) and those affected need to take insulin no matter what – there is no cure for type I diabetes.  In type II diabetes (the more common form, and the form on the rise, especially with poor eating habits), the cells fail to respond to insulin (many times due to too many sugar highs from too much sugar taken in, thus making insulin less effective over time).  Hypoglycemia is normally a consequence of poorly managed diabetes: too much insulin, strenuous physical activity, inadequate food intake, or illness that causes blood glucose levels to plummet.  Most people who experience hypoglycemia often feel weakness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, anxiety, hunger, and/or trembling.  The best way to help treat hypoglycemia is to adjust the diet by replacing refined carbohydrates with fiber-rich carbohydrates and ensuring adequate protein intake at each meal.  In addition, eating smaller meals more frequently may help.

The Health Effects and Recommended Intakes of Sugars

I swear I was cursed with being born with a sweet tooth.  Ever since I was a child, I recall literally craving sugar like a maniac.  I would have borderline panic attacks if I couldn’t get my hands on something sweet throughout the day.  As I grew older, I became scared that I would never be able to kick this habit of needing sweets.  Looking back on things, I realize that if sugar was never even readily available to me, I wouldn’t have been exposed to its luring abilities.  In reality, the taste preference for sweets is inborn – and to a child, the sweeter the food, the better.  In the United States, the natural sugars of milk, fruits, vegetables, and grains account for about half the sugar intake; the other half consists of concentrated sugars that have been refined and added to foods for a variety of purposes.

The use of added sugars has risen drastically over the past several decades, with soft drinks and sugared fruit drinks accounting for most of the increase.  These added sugars assume various names on food labels: sucrose, invert sugar, corn syrups and solids, high-fructose corn syrup, and honey.  A food is likely to be high in added sugars if its ingredient list starts with any of the sugars named.

The two most concerning issues around sugars, especially in children, have to deal with:

  • Nutrient deficiencies – Empty calorie foods that contain lots of added sugars provide the body with glucose and energy, but few, if any, other nutrients.
    • Many people argue that fruits contain lots of sugars and should be limited just like candies, etc. – I have to sharply disagree with that.  A fruit’s sugars arrive in the body diluted in a large volume of water, packaged in fiber, and mixed with essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, all in their natural state, thus extremely bioavailable to the body.
  • Dental caries (cavities) – Sugars from foods and from the breakdown of starches in the mouth can contribute to tooth decay.  Bacteria in the mouth ferment the sugars, and in the process, produce an acid that erodes tooth enamel, causing dental cavities.  These bacteria produce acid for 20-30 minutes after each exposure, so the more often sugar is eaten, the more continual damage is done to the teeth.

So, How Much Is Too Much?

The USDA recommends the following limits of sugar based on total calorie intake:

  • 1600 calories/day: 3 tsp sugar
  • 1800 calories/day: 5 tsp sugar
  • 2000 calories/day: 8 tsp sugar

Personally, I say limit sugars as much as possible (even below these guidelines) and try to obtain them only from fruits and starchy vegetables.  Sugar is addictive; the more you eat, the more your body will crave.  In the U.S…. the AVERAGE amount of sugar consumed is (drumroll, please)… 30 teaspoons of sugar PER DAY!!  Are you serious?!! Something needs to change here!!

Be Sure To Check Out Previous MySuperFoods Posts about Sugar

With my grand conclusion about carbs, and namely sugars, I say limit the refined stuff as much as possible.  Amounts of refined carbs and sugars added to our foods in the U.S. have skyrocketed…. Which is why you need to READ LABELS!!!  Read how many grams of sugar are in the foods you and your children are eating… and know the source!!  Read ingredient labels and if a sugar is listed within the top 5 ingredients, take caution!!

Please check out these past MySuperFoods articles containing lots of great sugar info:

Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health Coaching (Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC):


2 responses to “MEGAN MONDAY: CARBS – The Often-Confused Macronutrient Broken Down, Part III: Focus On Sugar Balances in the Body

  1. […] –          Try and switch out that traditional white table sugar with a healthier alternative (please note: sugar is something that should be used sparingly regardless.  I like to use different natural sweeteners instead of refined table sugar).  One of my faves is Sweet Tree brand organic coconut palm sugar (I order mine through!).  I like the coconut palm sugar because it has naturally occurring magnesium, nitrogen, zinc, potassium, calcium, and amino acids…not to mention it has a much lower glycemic load than most sugars, so it has a slower absorption into the bloodstream (which means less sugar spikes and crashes).  Read about the health concerns regarding sugar here in a past article I wrote:… […]

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