What is sugar?
Let’s start with the basics. There are three types of macro-nutrients: Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates. Everything you eat is made up of these three parts, all three of them are needed in our diet, and most foods contain at least two of these macro-nutrients. For example, nuts are mostly protein and fat, lentil beans are protein and carbohydrates, and whole wheat contains protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Today, we’ll focus on Carbohydrates because that’s the category that sugar is in. In fact, all carbohydrates contain a “backbone” of sugar molecules. If you picture each sugar molecule as a link in a chain, carbohydrates are a long chain of sugar “links”. It is important to note that “sugar” is made up of a few different types of sugar (glucose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, etc.). And even though we talk about sugar as evil, our bodies do need some, primarily glucose.
When you eat and digest a carbohydrate, it is broken down into the individual “links”, or sugar (glucose, fructose, etc.) molecules. This is where insulin comes in.
Insulin is like a little boat
Now that the sugar molecules have been separated from each other, they can be used by the body, and the cells in our body use glucose for energy. Glucose fuels the little power plants inside of each cell. However, this glucose doesn’t just magically get transported into each cell, it needs to be carried there via your bloodstream in a special carrier: insulin. Insulin acts like a boat to carry the glucose from the digestive system to your body cells.
Think of the bloodstream as fluid highways and roads and think of the cells as houses lined up along the roads. Each house needs some fuel, glucose, and insulin is the glucose-delivery vehicle. The insulin gets loaded up with glucose at the digestive system, then goes around through the bloodstream to deliver the glucose door to door.
But the cell-house does not have its doors wide open, it has little doors for all sorts of different things but they are all closed and locked. Insulin is prepared for this and acts like a key for the cell-houses’ “sugar doors”.
Then, once all of the cell-houses have received all of the glucose that they need at that time, the insulin carries the left over glucose to your belly and stuffs it into fat cells to be stored for later use. (BTW, this is a simplification of an amazingly effective and complex process.)
You can see that insulin does (at least) three things:
- Acts as a Sugar Boat along the blood stream
- Acts as a key to unlock the sugar door in individual cells
- Deposits excess sugar into fat cells (STORES FAT)
You have probably heard the term “Simple Carbohydrates”. These are typically processed sweet and/or starchy foods. White bread, cakes, cookies, crackers, ice cream, candy, white rice, pasta, tortillas are all examples of simple carbs.
Now, back to the sugar-chain known as a carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates are really not much more than just a chain of sugar molecules. This means that the chain is really easy to break down into the individual sugar “links”, and this means that when you eat a simple carbohydrate, it is rapidly broken down into sugar and all of these sugar molecules flood into the bloodstream all at once. This means that there need to be a ton of insulin boats there in the blood ready to take the glucose around to the cell-houses. And it also means that there is probably more glucose going around in the blood than the cell-houses need, so a lot of it is excess and gets stored as fat.
It also means that there is a lot of insulin in your bloodstream. Eating simple carbs throughout the day looks like this:
When your blood sugar dips after the sugar spike, you feel tired and feel hungry again.
In addition, your poor pancreas is going to get tired of making all of that insulin. If your pancreas gets too overworked, it could be too tired to make enough, or any, insulin. This condition is called Diabetes. Likewise, if the “sugar doors” in your cells get used too often, the keyhole wears out and the insulin key is no longer able to unlock it to provide sugar to your cells. This is called Insulin Resistance.
Complex carbohydrates still have that backbone of the sugar-chain. The difference is that they have a bunch of other stuff too, like fiber, protein and fat. Picture the chain all tangled up with fiber, and stuck together with protein and covered with fat. These things make the sugar-chain kind of hard to get to. When a complex carbohydrate is digested, it doesn’t get immediately broken into its sugar-chain molecules. Instead it takes your digestive system more time to untangle the chain and peel off and digest the fiber, protein and fat. This takes more time and results in a slower stream of glucose entering the bloodstream, so fewer insulin boats are needed, and it is more likely that the cell-houses will actually need the glucose when it is delivered, so less or none is stored as fat.
Examples of complex carbs are black beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
So, you can see that simple carbohydrates are essentially the same as sugar, and that sugar requires insulin to be created, and too much insulin over a long time has consequences and long-term effects.