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The Link Between Sugar and Aging

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How Sweet it Isn't!

At the beginning of this century, when the health movement was just getting started, refined sugar was Enemy #1. Pioneers in this area almost universally believed that health and longevity required the total elimination of sucrose from the diet.

Despite these early warnings, U.S. sugar consumption has been steadily increasing. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans take in 20 teaspoons of sugar per person, per day--and that's just added sugar, not the sugars that occur naturally in fruits and other foods.

Even with the introduction of artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame later in the century, sugar remained the sweetener of choice. These lower-cost, non-caloric "sugar substitutes" initially threatened the sugar industry, but their downsides quickly made them even less attractive than plain old sugar.

Research shows that eating foods artificially sweetened with these chemicals increases a person's cravings for sweets. This finding quickly negated the highly touted weight-loss benefits of artificially sweetened foods and drinks. Even more significant is that each popular artificial sweetener has now been shown to cause a long list of health problems, from headaches to an increased risk of cancer.

Fructose Isn't the Solution

The manufacturers of many so-called "health foods" have led the way in denouncing the use of artificial sweeteners, and fortunately people seem to be listening. Unfortunately though, health food manufacturers are now touting the fruit sugar fructose as a healthy alternative. They point out that because fructose is the natural sugar in fruit, it doesn't lead to the quick spikes in blood sugar levels associated with sucrose. These spikes trigger mood swings and energy level fluctuations, and place additional stress on the pancreas and adrenal glands.

What makes this unfortunate is that the manufacturers' claims about fructose are only half-right. It's true that fructose consumed in fresh, whole fruits doesn't cause spikes in blood sugar. But when that same fructose is extracted from the fruit and used in processed foods, it acts just like sugar... if not worse!

Research has recently revealed that the consumption of fructose, sucrose and all the other forms of sugar could turn out to be one of the biggest "hidden" threats to our overall health. When the early pioneers sounded the warning against sugar, it seems they knew exactly what they were talking about.

Glycation (the Maillard Reaction)

One of the major problems stemming from sugar consumption has to do with a chemical process called glycation (or the Maillard Reaction). If you're concerned about preventing health problems like heart and artery disease, Alzheimer's, cataracts, vision loss and aging in general, glycation is something that you should know about.

In simplest terms, glycation refers to the combination of a sugar and a protein molecule. Most everyone has seen the effects of glycation in the kitchen. During baking, sugar (whether it be white table sugar--sucrose; fruit sugar--fructose; or milk sugar--lactose) combines with certain amino acids in the grain proteins of flour. The chemical reaction that takes place causes loaves of bread and pastries to turn brown. The same reaction also occurs when meats are glazed and coffee is roasted.

Glycation also occurs in the body when the sugar in your blood (glucose) combines with the amino acids tryptophan, lysine and arginine. During this reactive process, certain by-products are created and released within the body. The byproducts are known scientifically as Advanced Glycation Endproducts. And in terms of what Advanced Glycation Endproducts do inside the body, well, their acronym says it all: AGE.

How do AGEs Work?

AGEs are now thought to accumulate in your body and remain there throughout your entire lifetime. The formation of these endproducts is accelerated when you have lower levels of antioxidants in your system and when the kidneys are weak or malfunctioning. More importantly, extremely large numbers of AGEs are also created when blood sugar levels are high. This helps explain why diabetics always seem to have abnormally high levels of AGEs.

To help get a better picture in your mind about AGEs, visualize the clear, runny portion of a raw egg. This part of the egg is mostly protein. An amazing chemical reaction takes place when you heat this clear portion of the egg. It quickly and permanently transforms from a runny, clear liquid to a rubbery, white solid.

Proteins similar to those in the egg are found throughout your body. Proteins, after all, are the body's building blocks. They are used in the construction of enzymes, blood vessels, muscles, nerve fibers, organ tissue and just about every other body part. When glycation occurs and AGEs form, these proteins are changed forever. Just like the changes to the egg, the process is irreversible. The long-term health consequences of this protein-altering process can be disastrous.

For example, when proteins in blood vessels undergo glycation, you get stiffer, less flexible arteries which lead to higher blood pressure, plaque formation, blood flow blockages, heart and artery disease, stroke, heart attack, etc. The smallest blood vessels are the hardest hit, such as those in the back of the eye, the kidney and the brain. These areas require a constant supply of glucose to meet their high energy requirements. As a result, they have the highest degree of glycation of any tissue in the body.

Animal studies have confirmed that damage occurs to areas like the eyes when diets high in sugar are consumed. In particular, we now know that cataracts are a result of glycation. The increasing incidence of cataracts in this country seems to be linked to our ever-increasing sugar consumption.

Researchers also now believe that glycation lies at the heart of the alteration of proteins in the brain that causes Alzheimer's disease.

What all this boils down to is that refined sugars speed up the aging process and accelerate the formation of what we commonly call "age-related" diseases. If you are diabetic, you're well aware of the importance of monitoring sugar intake. For those of you who are not diabetic, here are some steps you can take to help keep your own blood sugar levels in the healthy range.  dementia

How To Guard Against Glycation

1. The most obvious step is to cut back on your intake of refined sugar... not just the white granules we all keep out on the counter. Sugars of all types are being added to just about every processed food imaginable, even unsweet things like ravioli, milk and soup! Because these sugars undergo glycation during processing, they're every bit as harmful as table sugar--and maybe even more so.

No one really gave much thought to the effects of these processed foods in the past. Researchers at the Picowe Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York have developed assays that show considerable amounts of AGEs from food are absorbed into the blood.

In other words, not only will consuming sugar trigger glycation in the body and create AGEs, but if you consume foods that have already undergone glycation you absorb the harmful byproducts directly into the bloodstream. Eating these foods year after year leads to accelerated aging and disease.

Based on these findings and the ever-increasing levels of sugar consumption, it's no wonder diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, cataracts and kidney failure are on the rise.

In general, the easiest way to cut back on refined sugars is to read food labels and make sure sugar (sucrose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, etc.) is not one of the first five or six ingredients on the label. The most popular sugar among manufacturers these days is high-fructose corn syrup--which, unfortunately, also appears to be the most active in triggering the glycation process and the formation of AGEs. Steer clear of that ingredient as much as possible.

Also, if you do choose to buy processed foods, opt for those that have at least a few grams of fiber. This will help slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream.

2. Use xylitol or stevia to sweeten baked goods and beverages. Unlike sugar, stevia doesn't trigger glycation or spikes in blood sugar. In fact, it's now used in South America to help stabilize blood sugar in diabetics. And unlike artificial sweeteners, stevia has no aftertaste, side effects or connection to cancer.

If you have trouble finding stevia in your area, try the following mail-order sources: Body Ecology, 1266 West Paces Ferry Road, Suite 505, Atlanta, GA 30327, 800-478-3842; The Heritage Store, P.O. Box 444, Virginia Beach, VA 23458, 800-862-2923; or Allergy Resources, 557 Burbank Street, Suite K, Broomfield, CO 80020, 800-873-3529.

3. It is also recommend that you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Eating unprocessed fruits high in fructose doesn't appear to cause the problems associated with glycation and AGEs. As is usually the case in nature, fruits have built-in co-factors like fiber, antioxidants, minerals, etc., that help prevent such problems. So go for the pineapple, not the pineapple upside-down cake.

4. You can slow the aging process and dramatically improve your health by maintaining high antioxidant levels. Eating more produce and using a high-quality daily supplement to ensure adequate and consistent levels of these nutrients is an excellent start. Vitamins C, E, B6 and alpha-lipoic acid are ones that have been shown to be particularly beneficial in combating the effects of glycation.

Early health pioneers knew that refined sugar was dangerous. And while some studies have detected a link between high-sugar diets and problems like heart disease, no one seemed to be able to pinpoint the connection. The latest research on glycation provides that connection.

It may not be long before we begin to hear more and more reports about the effects of glycation and the dangers of eating sweets and highly sweetened foods. Whether the public takes notice or not is another matter. Our society's addiction to sweets will be a hard one to break, and as long as we continue to invest in these foods at the grocery, they'll always be in ample supply on the shelves.

Don't wait until all of this becomes public knowledge. Eat whole foods. Take your natural supplements faithfully and begin to cut back on or eliminate processed sweets and products loaded with sugar.

A little bit of willpower now can help you slow the aging process and significantly lower your risk of developing diabetes, Alzheimer's, cataracts, heart and kidney disease and dozens of other so-called "age-related" problems. They're not age-related. They're diet-related.

 

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