Kicking the Sugar Habit

How Refined Foods Exhaust the Pancreas and Adrenals – and What the Healthiest Alternatives Are

With the holiday season approaching there is no better time to remind ourselves about the unhealthy effects of eating too many refined carbohydrates.

Here’s why: When raw sugar is refined, a lot of the minerals are lost, including 93% of the chromium, 98% of the zinc and magnesium. Even more minerals are lost when wheat is refined to make white flour, including 88% of the manganese, 87% of the chromium, 77% of the potassium and 60% of the calcium. Refined sugar and flour are also lacking in vitamins. A number of these lost vitamins and minerals are actually needed by the body to turn these foods into energy.

Refined sugars and starches (e.g. white flour, pasta and white rice) are easily broken down into glucose during digestion and this glucose enters the blood stream quickly — often too quickly for the body to immediately use it as it enters the bloodstream. The resulting over-abundance of glucose is converted into fatty acids. Three of these fatty acids combined with a glycerol molecule make up a fat molecule, which is then transported in our blood to become fat in the body.

These fatty acids also interfere with the functions of the good fatty acids — the EFAs. This interference can increase our risk of developing fatty degeneration which can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and multiple sclerosis.

Refined sugars and starches can also potentially lead to high levels of triglycerides in the blood which has been associated with cardiovascular disease.

Another problem associated with over-consumption of refined carbs is hypoglycemia. When glucose enters the bloodstream too quickly the pancreas releases a large amount of insulin to help transport glucose into the cells. If too much insulin is released, glucose levels may fall too quickly and or drop too low. This can result in hypoglycemia, the symptoms of which include dizziness, depression, anxiety, irritability, poor concentration, and insomnia. Low glucose levels cause adrenal glands to kick in to restore equilibrium by causing the release of glycogen stored in muscles and liver. Our adrenal glands also stimulate our body to make glucose from proteins and other substances.

This roller-coaster of constant raising and lowering of glucose levels can exhaust our pancreas and adrenal glands. If our pancreas becomes exhausted it will release less and less insulin and blood glucose will remain high. In the long term, this can result in diabetes. If our adrenal glands become exhausted they are unable to respond when our blood sugar levels become too low, which can result in hypoglycemia, and thus cause cravings for sweets. When we eat sweets to satisfy these cravings it starts another vicious hyperglycemia-hypoglycemia roller-coaster cycle. Adrenal exhaustion can also mean our bodies may be unable to properly respond biochemically to stress.

Refined carbohydrates also inhibit the function of our immune system, which can decrease our resistance to opportunistic viruses such as colds and flu. Simple sugars increase our body’s production of adrenaline, putting our body into a state of “fight-or-flight.” This stress reaction can increase the production of cortisone, and cortisone again inhibits immune function.

Since refined carbohydrates do not contain the vitamins and minerals needed to convert these foods into energy, our bodies must use their own stores in order to metabolize these carbohydrates. As our vitamin and mineral stores are depleted our bodies cannot perform certain other necessary functions as well as it should (such as the metabolism of fat, the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids to be removed from our bodies in our stools, or the burn-off of excess fat as heat or increased activity). As a result, our cholesterol levels rise, our metabolic rate slows down, fats are burned more slowly, and we have less energy, which makes us feel lethargic.
Another issue associated with excess refined carbohydrates is candida. Candida is a form of yeast that is present in everyone’s digestive system, but in a healthy person it is kept under control by the friendly bacteria in the gut. Candida feeds on sugars, so it can grow out of control if a person eats a diet too high in refined carbohydrates. This can lead to frequent yeast infections, athlete’s foot, oral thrush and fingernail or toenail fungus, among many other symptoms.

Because sugars compete for the same transport system as vitamin C, a diet high in sugars can also interfere with the transportation of vitamin C in our bodies. This means that vitamin C’s functions (immune boosting, collagen building, elastin building and tissue forming) can be inhibited by sugars.

In contrast, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains do not present the same problems as refined carbohydrates. Because they contain fibre, complex carbohydrates are not absorbed into the blood stream as quickly. Fibre slows the digestion of complex carbohydrates so that a steady stream of glucose is released into the bloodstream, instead of a sudden, excess amount as happens with refined carbohydrates. This slower and more steady stream of glucose means our body can use all of the glucose that enters the blood stream for energy and does not as readily convert it to fat. Complex carbohydrates also contain vitamins and minerals necessary for the proper function of many of our bodily systems including the Krebs cycle, which is the process that happens in our mitochondria to convert glucose into energy.

By making our own goodies we can avoid some of these problems by replacing white flour with whole wheat, spelt or another whole grain flour. There are also bean flours and brown rice flour available that can be used alone or in combination with other flours. These flours contain more of the vitamins and minerals needed by the body to convert glucose into energy. They also contain more fibre which helps to slow down absorption of glucose into the blood stream. Replace white flour with whole wheat, spelt or kamut flour cup for cup. Try a number of combinations of other flours such as buckwheat, brown rice, or bean flour for every cup of white flour.

We can also make our treats more healthy by replacing white sugar with alternatives such as maple syrup, honey, brown rice syrup or molasses. These are still sugars and thus can cause the rapid rise in blood glucose, so consume these items in moderation. They do contain more of the vitamins and minerals lacking from white sugar including calcium, magnesium, potassium and some B vitamins, which means our bodies do not have to rely on internal stores to metabolize them. To replace sugar with maple syrup or honey use 2/3 to 1 cup maple syrup or honey for every cup of sugar, and add 1/4 tsp baking soda per cup of maple syrup or honey. For brown rice syrup try replacing 1 cup of white sugar with 1 + 1/3 cups of brown rice syrup, and add 1/4 tsp baking soda per cup of syrup. For molasses use 1/3 cup molasses for every cup of sugar, and reduce liquids by 1/4 cup per cup of molasses. It may take some trial and error but many baked goods can be altered to include healthy ingredients.

To help deal with the upcoming abundance of foods, decrease or eliminate carbonated beverages because they contains a large amount of simple sugars. And eat a balanced meal with complex carbohydrates, protein, and good fats before attending parties so the temptation to over-indulge is not as great.

Although many of the foods abundant during the holiday season should not be consumed in excess it is still possible to partake in the festivities and enjoy some of these treats – always in moderation.  And make your own treats more healthy by altering the recipes. Either way it is important to make sure our day to day diets are balanced and contain mainly complex carbohydrates, proteins, good fats and plenty of fiber and water so that holiday treats do not cause as many problems as they otherwise might.


• Erasmus, Udo, Fats that Heal Fats that Kill, Burnaby BC, Alive Books. 1993
• Haas, Elson M, Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Berkeley CA, Celestial Arts. 1992
• Krop, Jozef J., Healing the Planet One Patient at a Time: A Primer in Environmental Medicine Alton, ON: KOS Publishing Inc. 2002

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