Is your daily intake of sugar causing you pain and inflammation? With the increase in sugar consumption over the last several decades, we have also seen a rise in obesity, chronic illness, diabetes and many other painful and inflammatory conditions. The average American consumes about 150 pounds of sugar per year, where less than 100 years ago, the intake was only about 4 pounds per year. Our western and modern-day diets are often high in refined starches and sugars which can promote inflammation, leading to numerous diseases, achiness, and chronic pain. (1)
What does pain and inflammation from sugar feel like? It can present as joint stiffness, muscle aches, tightness, tension, digestive discomfort, fibromyalgia, migraines, or even PMS pain. And the truth is, sugar is hiding in the food and beverages you consume all day long! You may not think that you are eating much of the sweet stuff, but when you consider the hidden sugar in your food, plus the fact that even healthy carbohydrates turn to sugar in your body, it can all add up quickly.
Three Places Sugar is Hiding
It’s Disguised as Corn
Let’s look at the most damaging sugar of all: high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar in fruit. When eaten in its natural form, it comes packed with beneficial vitamins, minerals, nutrients, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. (2) One to two servings of fruit per day can be a part of a healthy diet. However, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the chemistry lab version of fructose, and it’s made from the overabundance of genetically modified corn. It’s much sweeter than glucose or sucrose and provides a sweet taste but no nutritional value.
We do not have a biological need for fructose, according to the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. (2) It is an intermediary in glucose metabolism, and is poorly absorbed from the intestinal tract; HFCS is cleared almost entirely from the liver and results in the production of triglycerides, resulting in insulin resistance, obesity, and inflammation. Glucose, on the other hand, requires insulin to enter cells and to be stored as energy, so that the cells can perform their essential functions.
Sugar is highly addictive, and especially the HFCS variety because it alters the transmissions of brain chemicals and triggers the pleasure center of the brain. It leaves us unsatisfied and wanting more, and causes intense cravings, preoccupation with food, and withdrawal symptoms. (3)
HFCS has been steadily replacing table sugar in foods, and now accounts for as much as 40 percent of caloric sweetener used in the United States, according to the Princeton University study. The main reason: It’s cheaper. And some critics charge that this has led to a situation where foods that never used to include sweeteners, or did so in limited quantities, now are routinely made using copious amounts of high-fructose corn syrup.
Although HFCS was declared safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1976, health experts and shoppers alike have worried about its effects on human health.
Scientists have speculated that HFCS disrupts normal metabolic function and contributes to cancer, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. However, most research has been inconclusive and study results have been debated. While researchers have determined that excessive consumption of HFCS may contribute to obesity and diabetes, the same can be said of regular sugar.
There isn’t enough evidence to say that HFCS is less safe to eat than table sugar, according to the American Medical Association, which has stated that HFSC does not appear to be more harmful than other caloric sweeteners.
High fructose corn syrup is addictive and should be eliminated from the diet as you begin to heal your pain naturally.
It’s In Your Beverages
The intake of soft drinks that contain HFCS or sucrose has risen at the same rate as the obesity epidemic. (2) Not only does this put us at risk for cardiovascular disease, but it’s also associated with the pain of weight gain and obesity. In the 1940s, the average consumption of soda was just 2 servings per week; compare that to the consumption in 2000, which increased to two servings per day. HCFS is not just found in sodas – it’s also used in juices, juice drinks, flavored milk products, tonic water, smoothies, energy drinks and flavored coffee drinks. The more HFCS you consume, the worse it is for your health.
It’s In Packaged and Processed Foods
Pre-packaged and processed foods, the ones you find in vending machines and sometimes your own pantry, are likely fueling your sugar addiction. It may surprise you to know that it’s not just the obvious foods like cookies, cake, ice cream and candy bars. Savory foods like chips, popcorn, and pretzels can be problematic too, as well as granola bars, rice cakes, buttery crackers and fruit bars! Not only do many of these foods contain HFCS and other added sugars (see the list below), but they are often loaded with carbohydrates, which when eaten, turn right to sugar in your body. (4)
During digestion, most carbohydrates end up as glucose, which your cells use as a source of energy. The more complex the carbohydrate molecule, the more slowly it breaks down. The simple carbohydrates that break down quickly include natural foods such as milk and fruit, but also processed foods like candy, sugary drinks, chips, cereal and baked goods.
Sugar hides behind many different names, besides those that end in “ose” like maltose or sucrose. Some other names include molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, agave, honey, or fruit juice concentrate. Be a sugar detective, read labels, and see how many places you spot these sugary ingredients in the foods you eat on a regular basis.
5 Ways Sugar Can Cause Pain
1. Linked to Blood Sugar Dysregulation
Eating sugar causes blood sugar levels to rise and then drop quickly. When your blood sugar is not stable, it leads to mood swings, fatigue, painful headaches, and more cravings for sugar. Before long, you are in an endless loop of cravings, hunger, and more sugar intake. By ditching the sugar, you can end the rollercoaster ride of high to low blood sugar swings.
2. Linked to Heart Disease
Eating too much sugar increases your risk of cardiovascular diseases such as a heart attack or stroke. And it appears that even if you eat a healthy diet, those of us eating more sugar are at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. (5) High-sugar diets stimulate fat production in the liver which is associated with heart disease; furthermore, researchers have found that patients reporting chronic pain are at an increased risk of cardiac disease. (6)
3. Linked to Diabetes
Blood sugar imbalance eventually leads to prediabetes and diabetes, a condition where the body cannot regulate insulin well enough to metabolize carbohydrates and sugar. While there are many symptoms of diabetes, those that are most painful include osteoarthritis, neuropathy, slow wound healing, and neuropathy. High blood sugar damages the nerves and can cause pain and numbness in the hands and feet, as well as problems with blood vessels, the heart, and the digestive and urinary tracts.
4. Linked to Obesity
Sugar drives fat storage, and with more and more Americans consuming hidden sources of sugar, both adults and children are heavier now than in the last several decades. The Journal of Pain Research has found accumulating evidence that pain and obesity are related to each other in that obesity is a marker for various pain diagnoses including low back pain, headaches, fibromyalgia, and abdominal pain. (7)
5. Linked to Cancer
Cancer loves sugar! In fact, the PET scan, which is used to detect cancer, uses radioactively labeled sugar to detect tumor cells. In an NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, participants were followed for 7 years to investigate the association between sugar and cancer risk. (8) Researchers found that all investigated sugars were positively associated with some type of cancer. (8)
How Much Sugar is “OK” to Eat
As we know, the fructose in whole fruit is OK to consume, 1-2 servings daily, as part of a healthy diet. However, added sugar provides zero nutrients plus calories, and this is what we want to limit. Watch for HFCS and other sugar names on food labels, and do your best to avoid them. Most women should limit added sugar to 25 grams per day, and men should limit to 35 grams per day. This works out to be no more than 10 grams per meal. To put this into perspective, one can of soda contains about 35 grams of sugar!
What is the best way to calculate that added sweetness to your morning cup of coffee or oatmeal? You can calculate this by knowing that one teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams. Last year, the FDA announced a new look for nutrition labeling, and added sugars will appear under the carbohydrate heading, making it easier to keep track. Be sure to check out the nutrition labels before taking food home from the grocery store. The typical frappucino has 102 grams or 20 teaspoons of sugar!
Sticking with a whole-food diet will make it easy to avoid both added and artificial sweeteners! Remember that artificial sweeteners are not a good substitute.