Me and my soapbox: The 21 day sugar “detox”

Every day I hear about a new diet*/cleanse/detox program and most of the time I just wave them away as fads and unnecessary. However, when I saw that a blogger friend mentioned she was going to do the “21 day sugar detox” program, my ears perked.

I read her post and I gathered that what she wanted to do was to lower her sugar cravings/consumption coming from extra added sugar in a lot of processed foods…but then I learned that the program also had fruits listed as “No foods” and that’s when the biologist in me got a bit alarmed. Let me tell you why.

Beginning with the word detox. It really bothers me how this term has been thrown lightly lately. To be clear, a detox process involves getting read of a TOXIN which is a substance with poisonous effect (think snake venom). To some extent it can be applied to substances (for example drugs) that have a toxic effect. However, for some reason people use it nowadays to refer to getting rid of almost any substance that has been deemed responsible for bad health (fast food detox, sugar detox, soda detox, etc) which off course is not the same. Normally, and unless you have any type of liver damage, all this removing of toxins is being performed by your liver, including alcohol, drugs and other substances. Regardless of what you see in TV/Internet (a lot of marketing going on with the term), your body is NOT full of toxins.

The main problem with a lot of people’s food intake is the abuse of certain foods. Any excess has consequences, and so when someone who has been eating a lot of fast food goes on a “cleanse”, they see some results very fast because you are basically giving your body some time off. This doesn’t mean that your liver wasn’t detoxifying before, or that your kidneys weren’t filtering.

So, in general, if a new diet seems to be telling people to cut their excess, I don’t have much to say. I don’t do diets, but if it helps some people to get rid of not so good habits, why not? But then, you have programs that go overboard (eat only protein, don’t eat any fat, throw away all the sugars!) and that’s when I roll my eyes so hard I can see my nape. The fact of the matter is: your body needs protein, fat and sugar. Just not insane amounts of it.Today I will only talk about sugars, but if you guys want, we can brush other detox diets later on.

So what is sugar?

Sugar is a general name that we have given to small carbohydrates (saccharides). A carbohydrate is basically a molecule with Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. Now, there are some differences between molecules (in their structure for example) but we can stick to that basic principle. If we have a single molecule we refer to it as a monosaccharide (glucose or fructose for example); when 2 molecules interact, either from the same type or 2 different molecules, we call them disaccharides (lactose for example is made by 2 different monosaccharides); as the chains of this molecules become longer and more complex we call them oligosaccharides or complex sugars (a great example is cellulose made of several thousand molecules of glucose!) and as they become more complex it makes it harder for a body to get energy from them. So sugars are a bit everywhere, you even have sugar on your DNA.

Why do I need sugar?

Sugar in any of its forms is a fast provider of energy. Not just energy as in “I can run a marathon” type, but the energy for your neurons to communicate with each other, for example. Actually, as it so happens, the brain can only get its energy from sugar forms. We also have long storage of energy in the form of fat, but these are kept as reserves for when the body doesn’t have another source available.

I mentioned we have sugars in our DNA too. Also, some proteins need sugars to be added to them in order to perform their roles such as, for example, cell to cell recognition, binding immune cells to injury sites (open wounds), forming glycogen in your liver (see? We went full circle with the whole detox thing here) for future usage. So you see, sugars are important to have with us.

Then I should eat a lot of sugar, no?

No. As I mentioned, it’s all about balance. First of all if you drink a glass of milk, sure it has sugar (lactose, remember?) but it also has other stuff: fat that will be stored for later, cholesterol that you also need in certain quantities, protein and vitamins. So when you drink your glass of milk, your body can access that sugar in the moment and THEN during the day use the rest of energy it stored. However if you keep giving it fast access to sugar, it will still store the rest, but will never use it.

There is another problem with consuming too much sugar and it’s the fact that your perception threshold (the moment you realize something is too sugary/salty/bitter, etc) for sugar is already quite high. As with anything, you can expand this threshold. So eating a lot of sweet things makes it so the next time you will have to add even more sugar to feel satiated. The same is true for other flavors but they have smaller thresholds to begin with.

So…what do I do?
As I mentioned before, when I thought my friend was cutting added sugars, sweets in general, to lower her “sweet tooth”, I felt like sure, go for it, I should probably cut on the gummies too (remember excess Is never good). But then, when I saw the food list, where it says no to fruits…no, no, no. You need sugars, even if little amounts. Plus for the record, eating 2 small carrots gives you about the same sugar intake of eating a small apple, so I don’t see the “logic” of this list that lets you eat carrots but not an apple (I love both, but seriously, it makes no sense).

What I would suggest anyone do (and please keep in mind I am not dictating a diet here) is to keep everything in moderation. Say you notice you snack too much on sweets? Start lowering your portions, and if you still have the craving, remember that it takes a while for the satiated feeling to settle. So wait a bit, drink some water. Don’t add extra sugar, and don’t just replace regular sugar for sugar supplements (aspartame, saccharine) as they can just increase your threshold.

*Diet here referring to the ones targeted to loosing weight.

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