Aging and sugar: do you need more donuts in your life?
(No. 83 ) Plus, glucose probes. Self love. And should you lie about your age in order to get a date, by Stephen P. Williams
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Sugar has always been a disaster. Here, enslaved people harvest cane on the island of Antigua, in 1823. Photo by British Library on Unsplash
I remember the different ways my paternal grandmother and her four sisters approached sweets. My grandmother was very fond of donuts, cakes and the like, and I enjoyed eating them with her. Her sisters, for the most part, were moderate. Just as their mother had enjoyed a nice, bland homemade custard after Sunday dinner, the others — Alice, Gussie and Leah — liked a dessert now and then, but weren’t the types to have a sweet snack during the day. (I did not know the fifth sister, Alta, very well.)
All of the sisters were trim and fit, aside from my grandmother who was always fighting her weight and suffered congestive heart failure. I remember her struggling to breath even as she gestured to me with a plate of cookies. Looking back, I can make an anecdotal connection between her love of sweets, and her various aches and pains. She died younger than everyone except Alta, who suffered from mental health issues.
Anecdotal evidence like this can be compelling, but it’s not as cool as scientific fact. So here are some facts about sugar, health and aging.
Sugar makes your skin look old. Glucose and fructose (fructose is contained in glucose, but on it’s own it is a more potent form of sugar), are thought to enhance the skin’s aging process. According to a 2010 study in the journal, Clinical Dermatology, glucose and fructose form a bridge between the collagen and elastin that support the dermis skin layer. That bridge makes the collagen and elastin less able to repair damaged skin.
Dr. Andrew Weil cites studies showing that this effect of sugar on collagen and elastin can hasten the onset of wrinkles.
Our sugar intake is mostly frivolous consumption. Nearly 50 percent of all added sugars come from drinks such as sodas, juice and coffee. Another 30 percent come from snacks and sweets.
Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and high fructose corn syrup are all sugar. We can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. But that makes us fools.
If you must eat sugar, eat sugar that’s combined with fiber (which is itself a type of glucose), such as an apple. Your body will absorb the sugars more slowly, which reduces glucose and fructose spikes in your body.
American adults ingest an average of 77 grams of sugar per day. That’s 60 pounds a year, or the equivalent of about 6 bowling balls of sugar, in weight.
According to the American Heart Association, men should have no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar a day. Women, they say, should have fewer than 6 teaspoons. I’ve seen no research supporting the gender imbalance of these recommendations, and my guess is that they were written by men who wanted more cookies.
The AHA cites research showing that 77 percent of Americans would like to reduce the sugar in their diet. That’s an astounding number, considering how much sugar we still consume.
For the last 6 months I’ve worked very hard to limit my intake of all types of sugars, and it’s going pretty well. But I have good motivations: I need to lose weight, and I’m concerned that my blood sugar is rising. Once in a while I check my blood sugar with a pin prick and a test strip. In the last year, my fasting blood glucose levels have a few times strayed above the warning mark of 100 mg/dL. That concerns me, as it’s always been in the low 90s or below.
My concern was elevated by a recent study in the journal, Nature, that found that people who’ve had COVID-19 have a 40 percent increased risk of developing diabetes for at least a year following infection. I had the virus in March, 2020.
I’ve been successful at losing weight so far, though I have a ways to go, and I’ve read that minimizing the blood sugar spikes that happen after you eat certain foods helps a person shed fat. I’m all for that. So I’ve ordered a continuous blood glucose monitor.
This is the device I ordered.
My kids already laugh at the fact that sometimes I wear all my current trackers at once — my Oura Ring, my Apple Watch, and my iPhone — which is a ridiculously redundant method for tracking vital signs. And now I’ll have this filament sticking into my arm, held in place by a branded patch that continuously feeds data to my iPhone (and Signos, of course). If I eat a grape, my phone will tell me how much my glucose has risen. If I take 5,000 steps, I can check that effect too.
I get excited about stuff like this. I want to be realistic about what I can do to be healthy at age 64 and beyond, but I also want to do whatever I can. I’ll let you know how it works, after I try it out for a while.
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For paid subscribers, these stories will be visible below:
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Self love beats covid.
Climate change interferes with a longevity warrior’s plans.
A great video on the latest science of aging.