How Excess Sugar Affects Our Bodies

in Sweet Treats

Last night we celebrated my daughter’s 15th birthday, so I made one of our favorite recipes: Lemon Layer Cake from Cooking Light (with a few modifications). They describe it as a “Chocolate Lover’s substitute” – and, as a chocolate lover, I must say it’s irresistible!

So, due to my indulgence (which I oh so enjoyed while it was happening), today I am a bit off balance. I am craving carbs, and doing my best to resist. But even with a substantial amount of protein and vegetables, I feel like a bottomless pit. I’ve had an insatiable appetite all day.

Which is not surprising. Sugar has a powerful effect on our bodies. Understanding what is happening helps me deal with this temporary imbalance. Here’s what I know…

There are a couple of key issues in play when it comes to overconsuming carbohydrates. One has to do with insulin and the other with leptin.

Insulin and leptin are both hormones that are involved in managing metabolism and satiation. Thus, they ultimately affect our cravings, weight management, energy metabolism, and overall health.

Here’s a simplified explanation:

Through the process of digestion, carbohydrates break down and end up as glucose in the bloodstream. Glucose is a major source of energy for most cells in the body. The blood stream can hold a limited amount of glucose, and when it exceeds its capacity, the liver takes over by converting the excess glucose into glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver and in muscles for later use.

The body also has a limit on how much glycogen it can store. When that storage capacity is maxed, excess glucose is stored as fat.

When our diet consistently includes an excess of carbohydrates, our ability to transport, utilize, and store glucose becomes desensitized.  When we overdo on carbs, our insulin loses its ability to function efficiently. We call it insulin resistance. The more insulin resistant we become, the less glucose we can effectively use, and the more we convert to fat.

That fat tends to collect around our middles. Makes sense, doesn’t it? And it pretty much matches up with what a lot of us experience.

So, what happens when we are insulin resistant? The cells ignore the insulin – so the body can’t transfer glucose into the cells for energy. The net result is that the body is exhausted, starving, and getting fatter – all at the same time. It’s hard to imagine that an overweight person can actually be starving, but that can easily be the case.

Now let’s take a quick look at the other important hormone in this puzzle. Leptin plays a role in energy intake and expenditure, and is also involved in signaling satiation. Let’s focus on satiation for a moment. When we eat too many carbs, it decreases the sensitivity of the cell receptors to leptin, and as a result satiation signaling is impaired. That’s right – when we carb load, our body never picks up the message that we are satisfied. (No wonder we want a second and third helping!) So when I ate all that yummy cake (which was way more carbs than my body is used to), those increased sugar levels actually tanked my leptins. Not surprising that I had trouble feeling satiated.

Some consider carbohydrates to be “anti-nutrients.” Why? Because in order to digest a piece of white bread (as a high-carb example), you need B vitamins, trace and macro minerals, and essential fatty acids. But that white bread (or pasta, or cookie, or whatever high carb food you tend to go for) is typically not going to contain the nutrients you need to digest it, so your body will “donate” from its reserves to give you what is needed. The net result is that piece of bread could easily result in nutrient depletion rather than offering any substantial nutritional value.

The bottom line: if the majority of our diet is carbohydrates (bread, cereal, pasta, baked goods, and even fruit), then odds are great that we have excess glucose in our blood stream all the time. This triggers the pancreas to produce insulin too frequently (in an attempt to moderate all that excessive blood sugar), and then our cells keep getting bombarded by insulin, and it ends up being a chemical version of the boy who cried wolf… The cells lose their ability to respond. In the long-run, if this insulin desensitization or resistance is not properly managed (by minimizing carb consumption and eating more proteins and non-starchy vegetables), Type 2 Diabetes is the exceedingly likely result. Generally speaking, Type 2 Diabetes is the result of a diet high in refined carbohydrates.

By the way, when we are short on sleep it negatively impacts our leptin’s ability to regulate energy and deliver the satiation signal. So when we feel tired and crave sugar, we’re trying to get an energy boost – but if we eat more sugar, we’re actually working against ourselves. The best thing we can do is go to bed.

So, now you know – after a carb binge, you’re likely to crave more and more. The best response is to eat healthy proteins, lots of veggies, and some healthy fats. Give it a day or two and the cravings will subside.

It’s a good thing that lemon cake is a once a year event in our house. I’m not sure how often I could deal with a sugar hangover.