Health Effects of Hidden Sugars as you Age
By Britni Thomas, RD, LD
October 21, 2014
As we live and learn, and grow older and greyer, some common threads of advice can become tiresome. Other types of advice are purely timeless. Does “eat well to live well” ring a bell? But you may not be aware of the hidden sugars in your diet that are causing premature aging, chronic health issues and weight gain. Doesn’t everybody want to age gracefully? I certainly do!
Today, aging doesn’t seem to be defined as how you feel, but rather how our society treats or “takes care” of your needs. Slowly but surely, the media, your families, friends and doctors are having you get colonoscopies and more tests than ever. You may feel as strong as you did when you were thirty-five, but being given a senior discount at the local movie theatre can really make you feel older. I am here to suggest that you dismiss those societal views and truly be as young as you feel. Learning more about your biochemistry as it relates to your diet will hopefully encourage you to eat better and feel as youthful as you did in your younger years.
Creating new eating habits can be difficult. The most common complaints I get from older adults is that they don’t have as much of an appetite, and they don’t want to cook for just one or two people. It can become easy to reach in the cupboard and grab something in a box or go out to eat; and the more we eat this way, the more our bodies crave those sugary, high-carbohydrate processed foods. Think back to how you grew up eating or how your grandmother fed you: real potatoes instead of boxed ones, real chicken instead of chicken nuggets, and vegetables with butter instead of a frozen microwave dinner. It is likely much different than you’re eating today, but that’s how you need to think about eating to keep your body youthful.
Sugar is literally addictive! It stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. Sugar is hidden in nearly all processed foods without us even realizing it. Today, the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually; that’s more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Dr. Robert Lustig, a leading expert in childhood obesity, labels sugar as both a “toxin” and “poison” to our body. The notion that sweet cravings only come from emotions is simply not true! The more sugar we consume, the more our bodies crave it.
How your body processes sugar
Let me explain what happens in the body when we consume sugar, or any carbohydrate. Our blood glucose rises in response to carbohydrates, signaling the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin grabs onto the glucose to shuttle it into the cells to use as energy. Having a diet higher in carbohydrates will eventually lead to irritated cells. When the cells are irritated, the insulin is unable to bring the glucose into the cells, which leads to fat storage and inflammation. The body will create more insulin to try to compensate, but since insulin is our primary fat storage hormone this only leads to more weight gain and more inflammation. Eventually, this results in insulin resistance and then diabetes or other health conditions. The good news is—it’s reversible!
Small changes in sugar consumption=Big health benefits
Let’s look at a typical day of eating for an older adult and how the hidden sugar can affect the body.
Common breakfast: 1-2 cups of cereal with skim milk and a glass of orange juice
This breakfast contains at least 60 grams of carbohydrates (15 teaspoons of sugar). Starting your day off with a lot of sugar like this will lead to low energy the rest of the day. Who doesn’t want more energy? Fifteen teaspoons of sugar will spike your blood sugar and lead to a blood sugar crash a couple of hours later. Low blood sugar often results in fatigue, mental fogginess, irritability, and more carbohydrate and sugar cravings. I have had countless clients tell me by simply changing their breakfast they have more energy the rest of the day.
To increase your energy, a better breakfast option would be: 2 eggs, 1-2 turkey sausages, 1 c. spinach, peppers, carrots and butter
Common lunch: Sandwich with ham and cheese and a bowl of chicken noodle soup
This lunch is 40-50 grams of carbohydrates (10-12.5 teaspoons of sugar). It may be surprising to hear that the sandwich and soup for lunch may be causing you to gain weight. In 1980 about one in seven Americans was obese. By the early 2000s one in every three Americans was obese. It’s no coincidence that this was the same time that sugar consumption peaked. As I described earlier, sugar will increase your insulin, leading to fat storage. I know nobody wants fat storage!
To decrease your risk of obesity, a better lunch option would be: One serving of Salmon Salad Supreme on a bed of spinach with cucumbers
Common snack: Slice of apple pie
This snack is 68 grams of carbohydrates (17 teaspoons of sugar). Who would think that this snack could be contributing to your memory problems? Memory problems are a common complaint I get from older adults. A recent study looking at blood sugar and memory had participants between the ages 50 and 80, none of whom had pre-diabetes, diabetes or memory problems. Overall, the participants with higher fasting blood sugars performed worse on the memory test compared to those with lower fasting blood sugar levels. "These findings are important because they indicate that even in healthy non-diabetic, non-impaired glucose tolerant individuals, lifestyle choices that tend to lower blood glucose levels in young and old individuals should be recommended," said Dr. Flöel of the Charite University Medicine in Berlin.
To help be as sharp as you used to be, a better snack would be: 2 ounces of nitrite-free deli meat with 2 tablespoons of cream cheese and a pickle
Common dinner: Spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread
This dinner is about 100 grams of carbohydrates (25 teaspoons of sugar), which is as many carbohydrates as most people need in a whole day. And did you know this high carbohydrate meal is increasing inflammation and exacerbating your aches and pains? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that processed sugars and other high-glycemic carbohydrates increase inflammation. I often get asked the question, “what is inflammation and how to I know if I have it?” Acute inflammation in response to an injury is an important and healthy response for the body’s healing process, often resulting in swelling, redness and pain—imagine if you had a splinter in your finger. On the other hand, chronic inflammation is at the root of many fatal conditions. Chronic inflammation can be caused by excess carbohydrate consumption. When you eat too many carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic foods that break down to sugar quickly, your body secretes inflammatory messengers called cytokines. Insulin will also set off inflammation. Imagine your life with no pain or inflammation.
To reduce inflammation and pain, a better dinner would be: 4 Wild Rice Meatballs and spaghetti sauce over 1 cup of spaghetti squash with butter
Common after dinner: Cocktails
It can be easy to get in the habit of having one or even two cocktails with dinner or as a nightcap. Alcohol and a restful sleep simply don’t go together, but people think that a nightcap helps them sleep better. The truth is, alcohol may help you fall asleep faster and into a deeper sleep right away, but it reduces REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is thought to be the most restorative and is the stage of sleep that dreams occur. Not getting enough REM may cause lower energy and poor concentration the next day. Instead of having an after dinner drink, have a snack. A bedtime snack, 30 to 60 minutes before you go to sleep, will help to balance your blood sugar throughout the night. Often times, it is low blood sugar that wakes you up, not the urge to use the restroom.
To get a better night’s sleep have a bedtime snack: Sauté ½ apple, peach or banana in butter and sprinkle with cinnamon. You can even pour some sparkling water in a wine glass to make it feel like you’re getting something special to drink.
Choosing meals and snacks that don’t have hidden sugars will help prevent premature aging and get you back to feeling good with more energy, better sleep, less pain and inflammation, a sharper memory and less risk for chronic health problems. So, don’t let hidden sugars rob you of feeling your best.
Changing your nutrition can be an overwhelming task, but you don’t have to do it alone. If you would like more education and support you can meet one-on-one with a nutrition counselor. The nutritionist you meet with will help you make the changes needed at a pace that’s comfortable for you.
For more information, listen to our podcast: Important Nutrition for Older Adults.