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How Your Sugar Choice Could Undermine Your Weight Loss Plan

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Not all sugars are the same.

Are all sugars equal? Depending on what you read, the answer is “yes”…and “no.” Here is the latest on how your choice of which sugars you consume could undermine your efforts toward losing weight.

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The Significance of Hunger Hormones

A new study reports that when young adults drink beverages containing sucrose, their bodies produce lower amounts of hunger suppressing hormones than it does when their beverages contain glucose as the beverage’s sweetener source.

Two well-studied hunger-related hormones—leptin and ghrelin—play an important role in keeping your weight in check. Leptin, which is released by fat cells, is a hormone that not only lets your body know when you’ve had enough to eat, but also determines whether that sandwich you just ate is stored as fat or used as energy. Ghrelin, a hormone that you experience first thing in the morning, is produced in the stomach and sends signals to the brain telling it that your body is hungry.

The importance of hunger hormones is that they can affect how well (or not) we manage our weight. Think of it as a balancing act where one trick to achieving weight loss is to be able to control your body’s hormone levels to where the anti-hunger hormone (such as leptin) is high, and the hunger hormone ghrelin is relatively low.

The aforementioned study, then takes a new look at how the type of sugar you are consuming, appears to affect this balance. According to an Endocrine Society news release, sucrose and glucose affect our bodies differently.

“Our study found that when young adults consumed drinks containing sucrose, they produced lower levels of appetite-regulating hormones than when they consumed drinks containing glucose (the main type of sugar that circulates in the bloodstream),” said study author Kathleen Page, M.D., of the USC Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, Calif. “This study is the first to show how individual characteristics, including body weight, sex and insulin sensitivity, affect hormone responses to two different types of sugar, sucrose and glucose. These findings highlight the need to consider how individual characteristics affect the body’s responses to different types of sugar and other nutrients in our food supply.”

Getting to Know Your Sugars

Sugar is an important nutrient the human body needs to power our many normal cellular processes that keeps our bodies alive. The three primary sugars we consume daily are glucose, fructose and sucrose.

Glucose is one type of sugar referred to as a monosaccharide, meaning that it cannot be broken down into a simpler sugar molecule. It is used by almost all of our cells and is processed primarily in the small intestine from which it is quickly taken up by cells for energy. When there is more glucose than the body requires at the moment, some of it will be converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles as energy reserves, while the remainder will be converted into lipids and stored as fatty tissue.

Fructose is another type of sugar that is chemically equivalent to glucose with the exception that is has a different molecular structure. Fructose is the primary simple sugar found in fruit and is actually sweeter than glucose. Fructose is mainly processed in the liver, where the molecules are converted into triglycerides. In fact, a diet heavy in fructose has the same effect as eating fatty foods with the excess stored around the liver. As it turns out, the liver metabolizes fructose more quickly than other types of sugars. And, when you give your liver more fructose than it can handle, it quickly turns the fructose to fat.

Sucrose is another type of sugar and is referred to as a disaccharide because it is made up of the two monosaccharides: glucose and fructose. Because sucrose is a disaccharide it has to be first broken down into separate molecules of glucose and fructose before the cells can use it for metabolism. Sucrose can be sourced from many foods such as sugar cane, beets, maple syrup and molasses. However, other foods contain varying amounts of the aforementioned three sugar types. As an example, high fructose corn syrup is a processed sweetener used by the food industry that adds fructose to glucose to make foods taste their sweetest.

Other Sugars to know about are those from starchy foods referred to as complex carbohydrates that are essentially strings of the aforementioned sugars. Given the appropriate digestive enzyme, these complex carbohydrates are eventually broken down into simple sugars such as glucose, but other sugar types as well such as maltose and lactose.

The significance of complex carbohydrates is that when they come from unrefined foods such as fresh veggies and some grains, the sugars within the carbohydrates are eventually metabolized, but relatively slowly in comparison to say glucose and sucrose from candy or sweetened beverages. This slower metabolism results in lower spikes in blood sugar levels. However, if the complex carbohydrates are heavily processed i.e. refined, such as with pasta, then the sugar is released quickly into the blood and blood sugar-insulin spiking occurs and thereby making blood sugar level control more taxing on the body as well as increasing fat stores in the body.

The key term regarding this then with reference to complex carbohydrate-related food is “glycemic index.” Glycemic index is a measure of just how fast a particular food is broken down into its component sugars.

Foods have varying levels of glycemic index. White rice for example has a higher glycemic index than brown rice, which is why brown rice is better for people with diabetes or those wanting to lose weight. It’s the fiber in unrefined low glycemic foods that mitigates the metabolism and release of sugar in the body. In fact, if you consume glucose with fiber (sprinkle sugar on a healthy grain cereal for example), the glucose will demonstrate less of a blood glucose-insulin spike than it would by eating the sugar alone.

Health Problems Related to Sugar

When glucose in your diet reaches the circulating blood, the pancreas is triggered to release the hormone insulin, which causes muscle cells to use the glucose as fuel and as glycogen stores for energy when needed. Too much sugar, however, becomes fat.

In addition, in your liver, glucose and fructose are used for the production of triglycerides, some of which are transported throughout your blood via lipoproteins. However, if there is more glucose than can be controlled by the pancreas, high cholesterol in the blood results as well as high blood glucose levels that can become dangerously high enough to develop into type 2 diabetes. So, not only does obesity result from excess sugar, but so does cardiovascular disease where damage is done to the walls of blood vessels from the excess glucose floating around and the clogging of the arteries due to the increased cholesterol.

Weight Loss and When Your Doctor Tells You That You Have Type 2 Diabetes

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The Hunger Hormone Connection

Researchers involved in weight loss research have turned to looking at hunger hormones as a potential way to help overweight and obese people manage their weight. The methods vary:

In one case, dieters have been encouraged to eat their meals slowly based on the theory that the brain needs time to catch up with the stomach regarding signaling events telling the brain that the stomach is approaching fullness and/or reaching satiety.

In one study, a comparison was made between normal chewing and increased chewing during meals. While those who chewed each bite 40 or more times did have lowered levels of ghrelin and increased feelings of satiety, their blood glucose and insulin levels were higher in comparison to study participants who chewed their food less. This paradox was explained to be due to that increased chewing led to increased absorption of fats and carbohydrates from their meals.

In another method, tiny beads have been injected into specific blood vessels to block blood flow to the fundus (specialized cells that line the stomach) where ghrelin is released, as a way to control hunger hormone levels.

New Ghrelin Hormone Study

Taking a more direct endocrine approach to the problem of hunger hormones, the Endocrine Society news release reports that researchers wanted to determine how glucose-sweetened foods compared against sucrose-sweetened foods ( typically a 50:50 glucose-fructose sugar mix) based on earlier studies that showed too much fructose was especially obesity-causing, presumably in-part based on hunger hormone responses.

In the study, 69 young adults participated in two study visits in which they consumed drinks containing either sucrose or glucose. After each visit, hunger hormone levels were measured.

What the researchers found was that consuming sucrose resulted in having lowered levels of the beneficial anti-hunger hormones that counteract the ghrelin hunger hormone. In other words, glucose is a better choice over sucrose in your food when trying to keep your hunger hormones in a beneficial weight-managing balance.

The researchers also found that body weight and sex of the participant also appears to affect the body’s hormone response to differing sugars.

The Impact on You

Whether you are dieting or not, your choice of sugar could possibly have an impact on your health. The take-home message from the study is that given a choice between glucose-sweetened beverages and sucrose-sweetened beverages, you may be better off with the glucose choice.

In fact, you might give this the same consideration with traditional sodas and artisan/craft sodas advertised as made from “real” sugar.

According to a Forbes magazine article titled “Pepsi, Coke And Other Soda Companies Want You To Think 'Real' Sugar Is Good For You” writer Kavin Senapathy points out that advertising of “throwback” sodas advertised as made with “real” sugar is really just a clever bait and switch con. In other words, consumers are being sold the impression that cane sugar is more “natural” and thereby more healthy than other sugar type-sweetened sodas and soft drinks. Which is wrong on both counts. To the writer ‘sugar is sugar’ with the view that calories are what counts.

For more about the use of sweeteners in your food products, here is a recent bit about How To Best Use Stevia For Losing Weight.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Hebi B. from Pixabay

References:

Different forms of sugar impact hunger-suppressing hormones in young adults” Endocrine Society news release 10 Dec. 2020.

Appetite regulating hormones are reduced after oral sucrose vs glucose: influence of obesity, insulin resistance and sex” Alexandra G Yunker, et al, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, dgaa865, https://doi.org/10.1210/clinem/dgaa865

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