About sugars and addiction…

WHAT STARTED MY JOURNEY: SWEETNESS ADDICTION

If I started cutting the use of added sugars (from being a sugar-holic to reducing my intake to almost zero) in my initial attempts to follow the Zone Diet (circa 2005-2006), it was not until around 2008 that I started to become almost obsessed about avoiding them. It was before the recent witch-hunt against added sugars (at least before it got more media and social attention) and I remember reading on a news webpage something like “Sugar is more addictive than cocaine”… It obviously caught my attention, so I read on, found the link to the original scientific paper and tried to find out if it was just another big media claim or science was actually behind it… Much has been written since then and with that, much more I have been reading and learning… What follows is a quick journey into what I learnt about sugars, to try to understand why they have become the number one suspects for the obesity epidemic, why I strongly believe that cutting their intake is a necessity for health and wellbeing and possibly giving you some practical tips on how to control / reduce their intake…

I will divide the topic on sugars into several subsections (as different posts, all starting with the “About sugars and…” title line) as I realise that one single post would probably have most of you sleeping halfway through…! I hope that by going through the different sections, not only you will keep alert and interested, but also you will be able to more easily find the part you are most interested in for future reference…

Before I continue, I would like to point out a couple of things:

  1. Most of these posts will be about added sugars, which represent a very small portion of the carbohydrate family. Do not take these posts as a generalisation about carbohydrates (I will talk about different types of carbohydrates in future posts). If you are not sure about what is a sugar and what is a carbohydrate, or what is the difference between fructose and sucrose (among many others), hopefully you will know by the end…
  2. For those of you who want to do what I did, here is the link to the freely available original paper I just mentioned: Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward (Lenoir et al, 2007). For those who cannot be bothered, but are just curious, I will start this post with a summary of what the researchers did, and discovered..

The researchers wanted to compare the addictive effect of sweet taste (saccharine, but also sucrose in one part) and cocaine in laboratory rats. After all the preparation which ensured an appropriate learning phase (the rats knew what they were choosing, as thoroughly described in the paper), they divided around 100 rats into 3 groups (C+/S-; C-/S+; C+/S+). Rats were placed in identical cages, in which two levers were connected to two “feeding” systems. In the C+/S- group, if the rat pressed the C-lever (linked to the cocaine feeder), they would receive a cocaine dose, but nothing would happen if they pressed the S-lever (linked to the saccharine feeder). In the C-/S+ group, if the rat pressed the S-lever, they would receive a saccharine-sweetened beverage in their cage, but nothing would happen if they pressed the C-lever (no reward). The C+/S+ would receive either their cocaine dose or their sweetened beverage, according to their choice. Here is what happened:

What the rats chose
What the rats chose

 

The empty circles are the C+/S- group. When only the cocaine lever gave the reward, then rats ended up predominantly choosing the C-lever.

The full triangles are the C-/S+ group. When only the saccharine lever gave the reward, then rats ended up predominantly choosing the S-lever.

Now the first interesting finding in the full circles (the C+/S+ group). When the rats could choose between the cocaine and the saccharine reward, they behaved almost in the same way as if the C-lever did not give them any reward: essentially they predominantly favored saccharine over cocaine (!!!).

But then the scientists went further.

They wanted to see how cocaine-addict rats would behave when exposed to saccharine. To test this reaction, they took the rats that had previously shown preference for the C-lever in the C+/S- condition together with other rats which had been self-administering cocaine for up to three weeks. They put them in the same condition as the C+S+ condition (free choice of either cocaine or saccharine) and here is what happened…:

 

Cocaine to Saccharine Addiction
Cocaine to Saccharine Addiction

 

As you can see, after an initial period of preference for cocaine, almost all rats switched to the saccharine lever by day 10…!!! Cocaine-addict rats preferred saccharine-water to cocaine if given the exclusive choice…!!! The authors concluded their article presenting some hypothesis about the neurological pathways activated by cocaine and sweetness and how saccharine could surpass cocaine as an addictive substance.

It is important to note here that not only the experiment was on rats, so translation to humans should be done cautiously (actually many studies since then have also identified an addictive behavior of foods – sugars and fats in particular – on the human brain, please see my link page for more info…). The scientists also used saccharine (a sugar substitute, not a sugar itself) as it is much sweeter than sugars. They however reported that similar results were obtained with sucrose. In addition what I am interested in, is actually the addictive property of the sweet taste, not of the particular substance as it is the taste addiction that can go on to play a major role in human health…

THE FIRSTS STEPS OF THE JOURNEY: WHAT ARE SUGARS?

If you are shocked as I was after reading about the addictive properties of sweetness (and sugars are sweet…), you will probably understand why I decided to spend much attention into understanding more about this food category. So what is a sugar? And what are carbohydrates? Are they the same? And what about the sugars in fruit? And vegetables? Why is more likely that you would crave a dessert than some broccoli? I have been surprised over the years about the lack of general knowledge about food and nutrition… After all, we make a “conscious” choice  (is it really conscious?) several times a day: what shall I eat? And despite this, very few people know the difference between proteins and carbohydrates, or if vegetables are good or bad sources of proteins, or if they are rich in sugars… If it is normal not to be a food scientist or to analyse each snack at the microscope, I hope that by the end of this post you will not only know a bit more about carbohydrates, but most importantly, you will be able to make that conscious choice a bit more consciously…

Sugars are a subclass of carbohydrates. Consider a carbohydrate (also called saccharide) a construction made of many small pieces. Each piece is only made of Carbon and Water (hence the name carbo-hydrate). If the construction has only one (mono-saccharide) or two (di-saccaride) units, it is referred as a sugar. Other carbohydrates can be made of up to 3000 single units… So, point number one: every sugar is a carbohydrate, but not every carbohydrate is a sugar…

Glucose is a sugar in its simplest form, it is one of the major sources of energy in our body and it is made of only one unit (a mono-saccharide). Like glucose, fructose and galactose are also monosaccharides and if the chemical difference among them is minimal (mainly related to the three-dimensional structure in the case of fructose and the position of one chemical link in the case of galactose), their behaviour in our body is very different. It is also important to know that galactose is barely present alone in nature, while it binds to glucose to form lactose (a di-saccharide I’m sure you have heard of…). On the other hand, fructose is commonly present naturally in fruits and plants (although, do not be fooled by the name, it does not mean that fruit only contains fructose!). Fructose is also (and very importantly when talking about diet and “un-health”) a major component of sodas and processed foods under the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup) or it also can bind to glucose (roughly 50% each) to form sucrose (another di-saccharide, the common table sugar you use for your daily dose in coffee, tea, cakes, etc…). Sucrose is also the sugar form present in fruit (as I just mentioned it is not only fructose at all!). Fructose is sweeter than glucose and its role in human nutrition has dramatically changed with the industrial production of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a cheaper sugar than glucose or sucrose. HFCS is still made of a combination of fructose (anything up to 55%) and glucose (the remaining part) but differently than from in sucrose, in HFCS the two mono-saccardies are not chemically linked. Glucose can also be found alone in nature (in honey, partly in fruits and plant-foods) although the highest stake in the food industry nowadays is in desserts and processed foods. As discussed, it can bind to galactose (to form lactose) and to fructose (to form sucrose) or less commonly to another glucose unit to form maltose. Point number two: fructose is sweeter and its industrially manufactured form (HFCS) is cheaper than glucose. For this reason the food industry (sweetened drinks in particular) has almost completely substituted the use of sucrose or glucose with High Fructose Corn Syrup. Point three: glucose, fructose and galactose are the smallest units of carbohydrates and are assimilated differently in our body. Point number four: glucose is a constituent (with fructose) of most of the sugars commonly used in home-cooking (sucrose), while fructose alone is the most common sugar used in most industrially-processed foods (because it is cheaper and sweeter). 

When more than one or two single units of carbohydrates bind together, then oligo- and poly- saccharides are formed. These are still part of the carbohydrate family but while sugars provide essentially immediate energy to plants or animals, longer chains have generally storage (starch in plants and glycogen in animals) or structural roles (think about the hard “backbone” of celery, or just the “skeleton” of plants and flowers). To this latter category belong the well-known fibers. Because of their structure and complexity and the lack of specific enzymes in humans, fibers are not absorbed by our bodies (similarly to the subclass of starches called “resistant starch”). They therefore travel through our digestive system, attracting water to them (hence their role in softening the stools). Because we cannot digest them, fibers and resistant starches are also often recommended to dieters because they make you feel full although eventually your body does not take much energy (calories) from them. Carbohydrates that go through the digestive system without being absorbed are often left for our intestinal bacteria to digest. Because in essence they are food for our intestinal bacteria, those “undigestible” carbohydrates are often referred to as pre-biotics (they support the bacteria). PS: pre-biotics should not be confused with pro-biotics, which are live bacteria that are considered beneficial to our organism and we ingest from food (most commonly with yogurt). Point five: starches and fibres are more complex forms of carbohydrates than sugars. Point six: fibers and resistant starches are not absorbed by humans, while giving a sensation of fullness and keeping the stools soft by attracting water. Point seven: pre-biotics are eventually digested by our intestinal bacteria, which take great benefit. A healthy intestinal bacteria has been linked to a myriad of positive effects for our body, so in essence, eating pre-biotics makes you feel full, gives you little calories, spoils your intestinal bacteria which in turn give back plenty of benefits (and some gases…) .

 

Classification and nomenclature of common carbohydrates
Classification and nomenclature of common carbohydrates

 

As this series of posts need to focus on added sugars, I will now get back on track (I thought a brief digression was worth just to at least make sense of some common words often misused or not well known) with a discussion on the different effects of different types of sugars on the body and why these differences are relevant in my post “About sugars and metabolism”. This will lead to the practical post “About dietary sugars: grocery shopping and eating advice”.

Stay tuned and please feel free to comment, add more, critique, ask or just say hi…! 😉

My Detox Experience – Part 3 – Objective changes

They are here, they are plain, they are numbers… And they are finally coming…!!! The physiological markers, the health parameters… All the geeky part of the experiment that will hopefully shed some “scientific” light on the adaptations of the body to a sudden and rather significant diet change. In this section, I will discuss the most relevant findings, in addition to publishing some of the raw (yep, even numbers can be used raw…!) data on myself (not on the other people in order to respect their privacy).

ANTHROPOMETRIC DATA AND BODY COMPOSITION

As you can see from my PRE-detox numbers, if there was a reason I wanted to try the detox diet, it was to see whether I would feel “refreshed” or “energised”, or what it would feel to be “detoxified” (I evetually ended up doing it as part of a group activity and an experiment on myself, but that is another issue…). I was not aiming at losing weight nor body fat, and in fact, I was more concerned about not losing fat free mass than anything else. Starting at 70.77 Kg (by 1.75 m tall, giving a BMI of 23.1 Kg/m2 for those who believe in it…), I ended at 67.46 Kg (BMI 22.03 Kg/m2), with a total loss of 3.31 Kg (or 4.68% of my starting weight). Considering that total body weight is a very poor marker of health or fitness (as is the BMI, on which so many guidelines are based…) my next question was: where did this weight come from? If the numbers don’t lie, 1.14 Kg were fat-free mass, while 2.14 were body fat.

Anthropometric data PRE vs POST
Anthropometric data PRE vs POST

Before celebratory parties get started, I would like to make a couple of considerations:

  • I said if, for the simple reason that at such low level, minimal changes in the machine reading (the so-called reliability of the measuring device), would show as major changes in percentage points. Did my body fat really went from 9% to 6.8%? If I am sure I lost weight (I felt it, I could see it and the scale is much more “reliable” than the BodPod), I can think that most of it was fat, but certainty would need much more data (if it was ever to achieve…). And even then, was it a good thing? With minimum body fat recommended to stay above 5% in elite male athletes, I would leave the answer to you…
  • As mentioned previously, I was not aiming at losing weight or body fat, but rather at maintaining fat free mass while feeling the benefits (if any…) of a plant-based, raw, juiced dietary regime. My fat-free mass went from 64.42 Kg (91%) to 63.25 (93.8%). Maintaining the same consideration as above, this was an unwelcome adaptation, that will lead me to the next part of my data analysis about energy deficit.

For those out there who love playing with numbers, we can indeed see that to lose over 3 Kg in such a short time, a few things need to happen. First and foremost, you must be kept in quite a significant energy deficit (more of that in a moment). This was somehow a pleasant surprise for my brain… I was not just a wimp (if you read Part 2 of my detox experience you will understand), my body was actually paying a rather heavy bill, on a daily basis… Secondly, considering that the mathematical idea of 2.14 Kg of fat equaling 19,260 Cal would give a daily energy deficit of 3,852 Cal (even ignoring the other 1.13 Kg of fat-free mass, a rather unlikely occurrence), my glycogen stores were likely to have been depleted carrying water away with them (pure speculation on this point, if you can suggest any other explanation, I would love to read it in the comment box…). Another pleasant surprise for my brain: my legs and arms were feeling so heavy for a reason!

On another note, I did indeed question the validity of the nutritional information I was given, and would surely recommend the Detox Delight nutritionists to double check their data. So, I lost weight… But how did the rest of my body adapt?

LIPOPROTEIN PARTICLE PROFILE

This was a big one indeed…! If there is one test I would recommend to anyone interested in looking at their cardiovascular disease risk (CVD, essentially the risk you have of suffering from a heart attack or similar, the number one causes of death in the Western World), it would be the LPP. Without going too much into details (I might in future posts, but if you cannot wait I would strongly recommend Dr Peter Attia’s blog) the LPP measures not only the classic total cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol (HDL-C), TG and LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C), but it also measures LDL particle number (LDL-P), LDL subclasses, HDL2b, insulin, high sensitive CRP (the most accurate marker of inflammation) and it gives you a Metabolic Syndrome risk score (what you should essentially be concerned about).

Considering the attention I pay to my diet and the amount of physical activity I undertake, I did not expect any major surprise here. And indeed my Metabolic Syndrome risk score started from 0…! And not just that, my HDL-C (the so called “good cholesterol”) was very high with an LDL-C (the “bad boy”) defined as “above optimal”. First sign that my usual lifestyle already works…

Unfortunately though, you might notice a flashy red number next to my LDL-IV particle number… If initially that was a surprise and a concern (recent studies have shown a much higher atherogenic risk of LDL-IV and LDL-III over the bigger LDL-I and LDL-II), it also sparked an almost insatiable hunger for more knowledge and understanding of this part of lipidology. Hours and hours of reading and discussing with other practitioners later, this ultimately let me understand the even higher importance of LDL-P (the actual number of LDL particles, rather than their size) over LDL-subclasses, and even more so, the importance of “concordance” between LDL-C (in my case low) and LDL-P (also low). In this situation, essentially, the mere size of my LDL was irrelevant, as there were so few of them, carrying so little cholesterol, that everything else did not matter…

I would strongly suggest you to refer to other websites and blogs here or from my links page (The Eating Academy or DocsOpinion to just mention a couple of the most useful in my opinion and in my personal journey to understanding these not so widely addressed topics) if you want to know more. It would be not just out of the scope of this page, but surely it would be way far from my competence and knowledge at this stage.

ORGANIX COMPREHENSIVE PROFILE

If I defined the LPP test as the one not to miss to measure your CVD risk, the Organix was supposed to be one not to miss to see the effects of the detox diet… If indeed changes in blood lipids and aminoacids might take some time to happen and be recorded, the Organix Profile measures a number of metabolic markers that can be affected by shorter dietary interventions. Not only this, it also measures markers for a number of situations relevant to the so called “functional medicine”, that discipline that deals with sub-clinical insufficiencies or higher concentrations of molecules and minerals that could potentially represent non-optimal health (as much as we know about it at least) or lead to clinical conditions if left untreated. I would like here to stress this point: I am now discussing about biomarkers used in functional medicine, a very different area from the more common concepts of medicine where abnormal indicators are almost invariably associated with a clinical condition or at least prompt some intervention. These biomarkers per se mean hardly anything. More than in other scientific fields, a clinical connection between these markers and clinical symptoms have to be made before considering an intervention. After this short intro, these were my findings, before and after my detox diet:

image

Wow, I thought after seeing this…! I don’t think there is much to explain when a rapid look at the summary shows such a marked change from various abnormal findings to an almost perfect sheet of “no abnormality found”… If as I explained in the previous paragraph, I and the consulting functional medicine practitioner were not concerned by the PRE findings anyway (I did not present any symptom that would require additional investigations or treatment anyway, as for example if I had sleeping issues associated with my high neurotransmitter metabolism markers), the “normalization” of almost all markers was still a pleasant surprise.

In particular, if the detox diet was meant to help my body somewhere, I should have expected to see some changes in the oxidative stress and detoxification processes… And guess what? My liver seemed to fully reap the benefits of the diet indeed…! My corrected levels of p-hydroxyphenillactate possibly meant a reduced cellular oxidative damage, while the improved detoxification indicators showed that my liver was now working under less pressure.

If until now the effects of the detox diet was just marginally showing some positives, the Organix profile test, surely tilted the balance towards its likely effectiveness, at least into doing what the name suggests: help the body detoxification system…