In the first two parts of this series, we discussed meat, blood, and reasons to move to a vegetarian and eventually a vegan diet. In this piece, we will discuss some of the health challenges facing modern Americans from our highly processed and sugared diet.
The Sugar Tsunami
We Americans have indulged our sweet tooth, increasing our consumption of sugar by about 40 percent since the 1950s. Ellen White warned about eating too much sugar:
Far too much sugar is ordinarily used in food. Cakes, sweet puddings, pastries, jellies, jams, are active causes of indigestion. Especially harmful are the custards and puddings in which milk, eggs, and sugar are the chief ingredients. Ministry of Healing 301-302
Americans are eating a lot of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) rather than table sugar (sucrose), mainly because of government distortion of the market. Politically powerful mid-western farmers and large agri-businesses like Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto, and Du Pont have successfully lobbied the United States Government to adopt policies that massively subsidize corn while raising the price of cane and beet sugar. As a result, our consumption of HFCS has increased over 80-fold since 1970, from about half a pound per person to 43.5 lbs/person.
American farmers receive $20 billion in subsidies annually, and by far the most heavily subsidized crop is corn (for you Brits, that is maize, not wheat). Between 1995 and 2012, corn producers were subsidized to the tune of $84.4 billion, or about $4.7 billion per year, resulting in many millions of tons of excess corn being grown. Producing this corn has had unintended environmental impacts, particularly from the millions of pounds of fertilizer used. The excess corn is turned into ethanol (which ruins small engines like lawn mowers and gas-powered weed-eaters), and used to fatten cattle (producing unhealthy red meat). But much of this excess corn is used to make HFCS.
At the same time, the agricultural lobby has secured tariffs that protect American producers of cane and beet sugar from foreign producers, raising the price Americans pay for table sugar by an average of 10 to 20 cents per pound above the world price. The tariffs cause Americans to pay an estimated $1.4 billion to $3 billion per year extra for table sugar. The result of these policies is that table sugar remains a staple in our pantries at home, but processed foods are being sweetened overwhelmingly with the much cheaper HFCS.
Some argue that HFCS is worse than table sugar, that it carries health risks that are unique to HFCS, but the close chemical similarity of the two substances makes this unlikely. In HFCS, the fructose and glucose are in solution, and the proportion varies from (42% F, 58% G) to (55% F, 45% G). In table sugar (sucrose), the fructose and glucose molecules are bound in a 1 to 1 ratio, meaning that sucrose is always 50% fructose and 50% glucose. But the same chemical components are common to both substances, only in slightly different proportions. Given this close similarity, I would need to see compelling scientific research to conclude that HFCS has significantly more or different health risks than table sugar, and I have not yet seen that. The problem is that we are eating far too much sugar of all types. HFCS is only “worse” because it is the subsidized, cheap sugar that is being added, almost ubiquitously, to our processed foods.
Sugar, Excess Calories, and Obesity
Over the years, Americans have become used to sweeter bread, and we are consuming ever greater quantities of sugar in hamburger and hot dog buns, pizza crusts, rolls, and almost all store-bought sliced bread. We are also getting added sugar in soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce, pre-prepared rice dishes, canned vegetables, canned fruit, fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, breakfast cereals, and many brands of peanut butter.
The worst sugar offenders are carbonated colas and sodas; subsidized HFCS means that a typical 12-ounce can of soda costs about 25 cents when bought in bulk at the grocery store. It seems such a bargain, but the health results are grim, because that 12-ounce can of soda contains over 9 teaspoons (39 grams) of sugar, which is the maximum recommended daily amount (for men). If you eat one can of soda and also eat a dessert, cookies, candy, sweetened bread, donuts, or anything else sweet, your daily sugar intake is excessive. Even worse is the fountain drink served at any number of restaurants and fast food outlets; such sodas are typically at least 20 ounces and may contain up to 18 teaspoons of sugar, double the daily recommended maximum for men and triple for women. And the calories in soft drinks do not make us feel full, so they tend to be entirely additional to the calories from the solid food we must eat for nutrition and to satisfy appetite. No wonder nutritionists place much of the blame for today's obesity epidemic on sugary sodas!
"And from the light given me, sugar, when largely used, is more injurious than meat."
The result of all this added sugar is that more than a fifth (22 percent) of our caloric intake consists of sugar (as compared with 16 percent in 1970). The extra, empty calories are causing an obesity epidemic. Some 34% of American adults are classified as obese and an additional 32 percent are classified as overweight, so two thirds of us need to lose weight. The proportion of overweight and obese people today is about double what it was in 1960, and the average American adult is 24 pounds heavier than in 1960.
Some of the health problems caused by obesity include coronary heart disease and heightened risk of heart attack, Type 2 diabetes, some types of cancers, such as endometrial, breast, and colon cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol triglycerides, heightened risk of stroke, liver and gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and other breathing problems, osteoarthritis and other cartilage, bone, and joint problems, and infertility.
An overweight person is discouraged, because of unfitness, from walking, hiking, bicycling, jogging, playing sports, and other forms of exercise, creating an add-on or multiplier effect, as those most in need exercise are least likely to seek it out. Obese people dread airplane seats, shopping for clothes, and being outdoors in hot weather. Extreme obesity leads to reclusiveness, as such people tend to avoid society because they feel self-conscious, unattractive, and vulnerable to demeaning ridicule and snide comments from other people. Obesity and the secondary health, social, and self-esteem problems that come with it can cause depression and even suicide.
To begin the battle of the bulge, learn your Body Mass Index, or BMI, a more realistic indicator of your ideal weight than just looking in the mirror. There are many websites online that have BMI calculators, including this one. Just enter your height and weight, and it will calculate your BMI, and whether you are underweight, in the normal range, overweight, or obese. A BMI of 18.5 or lower indicates that you are underweight, from 18.5 to 25 is the “normal” range, from 25 to 30 is “overweight,” and above 30 is “obese.” Very likely, you will be shocked at how little you should weigh in order to have a BMI in the “normal” range.
The next step is to start counting calories. Understand that if you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight, but if you burn more calories than you eat, you will lose weight. The math is inexorable. Accordingly, you will obviously need to know how many calories you are consuming, and start cutting down. You should learn how many calories a person with your height and an appropriate weight consumes, but temporarily you will need to reduce your caloric intake even below that level in order to lose weight. Once you reach a BMI in the normal range, a weight that is appropriate to your height, increase your caloric intake to a maintenance level rather than a loss level.
Much caloric information is conveyed in terms of “servings”; the packaging will state what quantity of the food is considered a “serving” and how many servings there are in the container. Vendors like to put modest, non-threatening caloric data on their label, but that data is “per serving,” and it turns out that there are 2 or even 3 “servings” in a container that most of us would assume contains only one serving. Buyer beware! As to unlabeled, raw foods, there are plenty of websites that will tell you how many calories an apple, an orange, a banana, etc. contain, and by eating more raw food and less processed foods, you are moving in the right direction.
No more than 100 calories/day for women and 150/day for men should come from sugar. To help you track sugar, most labeling will tell you how many grams of sugar a “serving” contains. A gram of sugar has about 4 calories (3.87 to be precise), so by multiplying the number of grams by four, you can figure the total calories from sugar. Hence, you can track calories from sugar separately within the total calorie count, and figure out what percentage of your total caloric intake comes from sugar. (A teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams or 16 calories.)
Sugar and the Immune System
"The free use of sugar in any form tends to clog the system, and is not infrequently a cause of disease.” --Ellen White
If you've ever binged on sweets and then come down with a cold or flu in the next day or so—and most of us have—you have learned something else about sugar: it compromises the immune system. A study done at Loma Linda University in 1973 found that eating 100 grams of sugar suppressed the immune system's effectiveness by forty percent (40%). The immunosuppressive effect began 30 minutes after eating the sugar, peaked at two hours, and continued for up to five hours. That means that if sugar is liberally consumed at all three meals, not to mention between meals, your immune system will be functioning at about half its capacity for much of the day.
The leading theory as to why sugar hobbles the immune system is that sugar is chemically similar to Vitamin C, and is taken up by white blood cells (which fight infection) in the same way as Vitamin C. Thus, the more sugar in your system, the less Vitamin C your white blood cells will absorb and carry. And while Vitamin C helps your white blood cells fight bacteria and viruses, sugar does not; it just gets in the way. Sugar does literally “clog the [immune] system,” just as Ellen White stated. You need your immune system in peak condition during the winter flu season but, ironically, that's exactly when the holidays on which we tend to sugar-binge occur: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's day.
Sugar, Blood Sugar, and Insulin
Chronic over-consumption of sugar causes elevated insulin levels. Your pancreas makes insulin in response to rising blood sugar levels, and the more sugar and refined carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin your pancreas produces. Unfortunately, chronically high insulin is associated with an increased risk of some cancers, heart diseases, polycystic ovarian syndrome, acne, and is suspected of promoting myopia (near-sightedness). Reducing your sugar intake will help lower your insulin levels and the risk of developing these chronic conditions.
Those who are battling high blood sugar, or are diabetic or pre-diabetic should familiarize themselves with the Glycemic Index. The Glycemic Index assigns a number between 1 and 100 to foods; foods with high numbers will increase blood sugar levels quickly. The lower the GI number, the slower the release of sugars into the bloodstream. Foods with GI numbers between 1 and 55 include beans, small seeds, most whole grains, most vegetables, and most fruits. Foods with GI numbers between 55 and 70 include some breads, brown rice, some fruit juices, and some fruits. Foods with GI numbers above 70 include white bread, white rice, some breakfast cereals, maltose, maltodextrins, and processed potatoes. (Interestingly, a good weight-loss diet is to avoid white food: white bread and other refined wheat products, white rice, refined processed potatoes, and milk and dairy products.)
Today's over-use of sugar is causing us serious health problems. We need to return to the diet that God created and intended for us. We need to move toward more raw, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, and whole grain bread. We would do well to entirely eliminate sugary soft-drinks, and only sparingly use naturally sweet fruit juices. We need to restrict desserts to special occasions, rather than eating sweets after every meal. Church potluck coordinators should encourage members to bring moderately sweetened desserts such as apple pie, rather than “chocolate decadence cake” and other highly sugared confections. Coordinators should also encourage members to bring some whole grain breads and dishes. By following the inspired counsel, as well as common sense, we can glorify God in our eating (1 Cor. 10:31), and live the healthier, happier, more productive lives God wants us to enjoy.