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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Bari Levine

Why a spoonful of sugar is not the answer.

Don't listen to Mary Poppins. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but it will also increase your risk of chronic illnesses. Sorry, but it’s true. And to understand how, we have to first talk about insulin.

The hormone insulin helps regulate blood sugar levels in our body. When food is consumed, it’s broken down into blood sugar and enters the bloodstream, signaling the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin binds to muscle cells to enable storage of sugar as glycogen for energy. Once glycogen stores are full, the remaining glucose is stored as fat. As nutrients are removed from the bloodstream, blood sugar levels drop, insulin dissipates and the body moves into energy-burning (rather than energy-storing) mode.

Sugar, particularly glucose (which appears in table sugar and refined carbohydrates), causes blood sugar levels to spike and interferes with this cycle in at least two ways:

  1. Glucose requires minimal processing and can quickly fill available glycogen stores before all the insulin has been cleared from the bloodstream. As a result, insulin goes looking for more food (hello sugar cravings) although glycogen stores are already full (more fat storage).

  2. With more insulin coursing through the body, our cells may become less receptive to taking up nutrients as glycogen. The pancreas responds by producing more insulin which makes the cells even less receptive, and the result is insulin resistance. If our body is constantly producing insulin but our cells are not responding, we can have perpetually elevated blood sugar and insulin levels.

One outcome of this resistance is fat storage or weight gain. But the less obvious though equally important result is a greater risk of chronic illnesses. Specifically, insulin resistance has been linked with metabolic syndrome, a set of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Metabolic syndrome has been found to increase the likelihood of certain chronic conditions previously thought to be unrelated including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

If this all sounds scary, remember that our body is designed to regulate itself, sometimes we just have to give it a push. Next time we’ll talk about the ways to prevent and reverse insulin resistance but, in the meantime, maybe set down that spoonful of sugar.

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