Fructose, corn syrup and doom

What does carrying heavy stuff through the snow have to do with fructose? Read and find out!

Let us start this with me, as I am after all the main character here! I noticed after moving that I had lost a few pounds. Not surprising, with all the heavy lifting and little time for meals. My calorie intake is suitable for an office worker, not a mover. Now, it was only a few pounds, so I am not waking up in the night with hunger pangs as I did when I lost most of my fat reserves in 2005. And I will no doubt put these pounds back on over the next few months if nothing disastrous happens. But if I had lived in America, I would have put them back on even faster.

The reason is that I have a medical condition that makes it impossible for me to eat fat except in tiny amounts. You don’t realize how much fat there is in everyday food until it makes you spend some time in the bathroom shaking and trying to throw up. But there is another way to build fat without actually eating it. I am talking about fructose. This extra sweet sugar is naturally found in honey and many fruits, but it is not quite the essence of health you would expect from its origin.

Fructose can only be processed by the liver, whereas glucose can be used directly by every cell in the body. As a result, eating a meal rich in fructose will not cause the same sugar spikes – sudden increases in blood sugar – that is feared by diabetics and panicky relatives of diabetics. Due to the pervasive notion that blood sugar is bad, you can actually see fructose advertised as health food. The reality is a bit more gloomy. Also, in reality there is doubt about whether sugar spikes do any harm. It is the constant high blood sugar over months and years that causes damage from diabetes. Most of us don’t live long enough for the sum of our sugar spikes do do irreparable harm, especially since our body does repair itself if it is not under constant attack. But it seems fair to say that the slower processing of fructose gives a more stable blood sugar. It also seems to be widely accepted that sugar spikes cause a “rebound” which in many people cause feelings of hunger, weakness or tiredness as the blood sugar temporarily go below the usual value.

As a matter of fact, after hard work or exercise fructose will mainly be converted to glycogen, the body’s quick energy reserve, which is stored in the liver and the muscles. This is stuff you want to have lots of, but you can’t. The liver stores about enough for a day’s use, so the only way to store more of it is to burn more of it during the day, that is to say, work harder. On a regular basis.

When the liver’s store of glycogen is filled, however, things take a nasty turn. The same liver will now try to transform the sucrose into fat, or at least triglycerids, an important component of fat. As I have said occasionally, humans suck at making fat, but we excel in storing it. However, sucrose has a better chance at becoming fat than has glucose, lactose, maltose etc. It is a slow process, and a portion of the energy is lost as heat, but eventually some fat is produced. When the body attempts the same with glucose, almost all of it is burned up in the process. So sucrose is worth considering if you, like me, can only eat small quantities of fat due to some problem with absorption or processing of fatty foods. In the end, I don’t live an active enough life for lack of fat to become a problem, so my fructose box is still mostly full, but your fat problems may vary.

Actually most people’s fat problems is that they have too much fat, not too little. And fructose won’t help there. Neither will being American, since this country uses a disproportionate amount of High Fructose Corn Syrup which no other part of the world comes near.

Natural corn syrup contains mostly glucose, but Hight Fructose Corn Syrup has added large amounts of chemically refined fructose. The benefit of this is that fructose tastes sweeter than any other digestible sugar. Ordinary table sugar, which is used as a sweetener in most of the world, contains sucrose which tastes less sweet but breaks down in the body to glucose and fructose. Based on this, one would expect HFCS to be healthier than table sugar, as you can get the same sweetness by adding less. This has not happened though: Instead, Americans have gotten used to their sweets just tasting sweeter than elsewhere.

In an age where few people have manual labor (except when moving, evidently…) the conversion of fructose into fat is a risk factor for obesity. But what is perhaps just as disturbing is that it occupies the liver, which has many important tasks to do in body chemistry. Like alcohol, fructose can overtax the liver eventually and cause lasting damage, although outright death from liver failure is exceedingly rare in both cases. Rather, the liver is less effective in its daily task of neutralizing certain mildly toxic compounds, converting various foodstuffs to their optimal form for use by the body and brain, and storing energy between meals.

So all in all, I think I’ll rather live with feeling a bit hungrier for a few weeks.

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