Sugar. Most of us love it. We’re meant to love it; if we weren’t, why would our tongues have dedicated sweet receptors? So, sugar is not the enemy, no matter what the fad diet doctor of the moment would have us believe.
The problem is that for most of human history, our access to sweets was limited. Now? We’re drowning in it. Worse, we’re drowning in the wrong kind of it.
What we call “sugar” is actually a number of different molecules. Some of those types of sugar are good for us, as long as we don’t consume too much. Others aren’t so good for us, particularly when they’re added to foods in a way that never occurs in Nature and in a quantity that our bodies just can’t handle well.
The simplest (and — spoiler alert — best for you) form of sugar is glucose. When our bodies break down starch in our food — from vegetables, potatoes, grains, and so on — glucose is the result.
Glucose is running through your veins right now. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this — or doing much of anything at all. This glucose, aka blood sugar, is the gasoline of the body, and it’s the only fuel the brain can use.
Every cell in your body needs glucose, so it should be no surprise that the system for managing, storing, and delivering glucose is quite elaborate. But the simple story is that a hormone called insulin helps shuttle glucose into cells when they need it and store excess glucose in the liver (as something called glycogen) when they don’t. When insulin and glucose levels are balanced, your body functions as intended. When those two are chronically out of balance, you’re diabetic.
It’s a little like a bank account: when you’re sleeping, exercising, or doing something else that depletes your blood glucose and you don’t eat to replenish it, your body makes a glycogen withdrawal from the liver. When you’ve got more than you can use in a relatively short period of time, the body saves the extra glucose for a rainy day.
Now, let’s say you’re rich, as many of us are when it comes to food. You’ve got such an embarrassment of glucose riches that even the liver can’t hold the excess. In that case, the body turns that extra energy into fat (triglycerides, usually) and socks it away in your hips, belly, thighs, and other areas, just in case there’s a really, really rainy day.