Sweet Insights Into Sugar — from Celebrity Nutrition & Fitness Professional JJ Virgin, CNS, CHFS

By Sheila Collins

LBW: What role does sugar play in our bodies?

JJ: Sugar can be a source of steady sustained energy in the body if eaten in low amounts from whole foods with plenty of fiber. When you go overboard on it by adding it to your foods rather than consuming it as part of whole foods or eating it in processed foods, sugar can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance initially and has been implicated in all of the major diseases including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, osteoporosis and cancer. 

LBW: What is the difference between sucrose, glucose and fructose?

JJ: Sucrose is made up of half glucose and half fructose and is commonly found in fruits, vegetables, and grains but also processed foods and is another name for table sugar.

Our body’s and brain’s preferred carbohydrate fuel source is glucose. When you consume it, it raises blood sugar which triggers an insulin response to get it into the cells. There it is either used as energy or stored as glycogen in the liver or muscles for later use as energy. 

Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver where it is either converted to glucose and stored as glycogen if there is room in the liver to do so and if not it is turned into fat and can then wreak havoc in the form of elevated triglycerides or fatty liver. Fructose is super sweet and doesn’t raise blood sugar so it initially appeared to be a better sweetener option until it was discovered that it is super aging, doesn’t trigger satiety signals so you still feel hungry after eating, feeds the most aggressive cancers and increases gut permeability (leaky gut) which can lead to food intolerances. 

LBW: Why is fructose worse than glucose? Isn’t it just natural fruit sugar?

JJ: There is a big difference between eating an apple, rich in the prebiotic fiber, pectin, and antioxidants including quercetin and guzzling a glass of apple juice or using apple juice concentrate as a sweetener. When you eat fruit in its whole state in moderate amounts (1-2 servings per day) you get great fiber and antioxidants. When you unwrap the fruit and turn it into juice, you toss the benefit-rich fiber and get a big hit to your blood sugar from the glucose and to your liver from the fructose.

LBW: Are artificial sweeteners good or bad?

JJ: Artificial sweeteners are a science experiment gone wrong. When you eat sweet you want more sweet — it lights up your taste buds. And artificially sweetened drinks can cause caloric dysregulation — the inability to correlate the degree of sweetness with the amount of calories. But the final coffin was the recent study that showed that artificial sweeteners could change the gut microbiome (the bacteria in your gut) in just a week to be more glucose intolerant which is probably why the studies are showing that those who drink one diet soda a day have a greater than 30% risk of developing diabetes. 

LBW: Where do sugars hide the most?

JJ: Beware of anything labeled light or low-fat …. If the fat is taken out, quite often sugar is added in. And if it isn’t actual sugar then it is often artificial sweeteners which are even worse. The most likely culprits are low-fat salad dressings and packaged sauces - some marinara sauces have more sugar per serving than a couple of Oreo cookies! Other offenders are fruit on the bottom yogurts, juice smoothies, and energy bars. And beware of the “no sugar added” line on the label. An easy way to get around that is to add apple juice concentrate as it isn’t considered an added sugar despite the fact that it is higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup! 

LBW: How do I know how much sugar I can eat?

JJ: In the Sugar Impact Diet I take you through a process to help identify how many carbs you should be eating per day. Remember all carbs (except for fiber) turn to sugar — you want to ensure that you are making them slowly from the whole foods you are eating rather than mainlining them from added sugars and processed foods. If you are eating foods with added sugars my recommendation is no more than 5 grams of added sugar for a reasonable serving size. 

LBW: What about natural sugars, can I use honey or agave?

JJ: All sugars are natural unless they are artificial. Your body doesn’t know the difference between table sugar, honey or agave when it hits your mouth. Organic, local, raw & unfiltered honey is SMALL amounts (think ½ teaspoon a day) can have some health benefits but don’t go overboard. Conversely, agave is one of the worst choices as it is the highest source of fructose — 90% or higher and fructose is the most damaging sugar there is. 

LBW: What are some safe sugar substitutes?

JJ: Thankfully there are some safe sugar substitutes — ideally you are retraining your taste buds to appreciate spicy, savory and sour — especially sour as it can take your sweet tooth away and appreciating the natural sweetness of fresh fruits. I also love cinnamon as it is naturally sweet and helps lower the blood sugar response to a meal and vanilla as it can boost serotonin. I recommend the herbal options of stevia and monk fruit, the sugar alcohols erythritol and xylitol and then the low calorie “rare” sugar allulose. I still recommend using these in limited amounts so you don’t start to crave more sweet.

LBW: You say that all sugar is not created equal, what do you mean by that?

JJ: Ideally you are eating sugars that come from whole foods like fruits & veggies rather than adding them through processed foods. And you want to make sure you are limiting the amount of fructose you get into your diet to avoid the issues that are unique or exacerbated by excess fructose consumption including fatty liver, hypertension, accelerated aging, leaky gut, and insulin resistance. 

LBW: What role does stress play in sugar addiction?

JJ: Stress depletes both serotonin and dopamine which send you racing for a sugar hit which will boost both of these quickly but only for the short term which then means you will be searching for another hit. Sugar is the number one recreational drug of choice!

LBW: Share a success story with us.

JJ: Kathy started the Sugar Impact Diet with her husband and daughter solely because she wanted to support them. She didn’t think she had a problem. When she took my Sneaky Sugar Inventory in the book she realized she had a lot more sugar in her diet than she had thought and it was making her tired, a little brain foggy and she had an extra few inches on her waist she just couldn’t lose. She tapered down her sugar intake and swapped out higher sugar impact foods for lower ones. By the end of the 2 weeks, she had lost 10 pounds, 2 inches off her waist and her brain fog and fatigue. More importantly, she had lost her sweet tooth and knew the right choices to make to keep these changes for the long haul.

“This content is provided for your information only, and should not be relied on as medical advice, you should always consult your own physician before making changes to your own health or treatment plans.”