Most people know that sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad for them, but they aren’t always certain how or why they’re so detrimental to our health.
Sugar is so abundantly found in many packaged and processed products these days, that it takes a conscious effort to avoid consuming more than our fair share.
Before we go about making the choice and commitment of removing sugar from our diet, let’s explore the known devastating effects it has on our health and in making us old and wrinkled.
What is glycation?
One of the major ways that sugar disrupts our health is through a process called glycation.
Glycation happens when a sugar molecule attaches itself to a lipid or protein molecule and in doing so, changes healthy tissue into tissue that is hard and rigid. This tough glycated tissue causes the skin to become wrinkled and also causes internal damage to organs that need flexible tissue to stay healthy.
Glycated tissue is also very dangerous because it produces toxic compounds called Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs).
These molecules go by a highly appropriate acronym, because they are deeply damaging to the body and assist in rapidly advancing the aging process.
They are the most toxic product of glycation, and must be the immediate focus of reduction in your body to maintain health and vitality.
How are AGEs formed?
Proteins occur naturally throughout the body, providing structure for cells and creating enzymes necessary for life-sustaining processes. When properly controlled, sugars and proteins can interact without damaging the body. But when the body takes in too much sugar, the sugars attach themselves to protein molecules, which changes how the proteins naturally function and creates a non-functioning glycated protein molecule: an AGE.
AGEs can also be found in some of the foods we eat.
Not only associated with sugar, AGEs are present in many processed foods and foods that are cooked over high temperatures. Many processed or pre-prepared foods contain AGEs because they are the very compounds which give food that tasty, irresistible aspect we love so much.
Think about the taste, smell and appearance of fried chicken, a grilled bacon cheeseburger, corn chips, or fresh cookies. These foods are highly appealing, and hard to stop eating even after your body might be full. Food manufacturers used processes like browning and caramelization to make foods delicious, but these processes add tons of AGEs.
It is the AGEs that are responsible for both the addictive aspect of foods we love, and the devastating health problems so prevalent in society today.
Why are AGEs toxic?
AGEs are oxidants that corrode our body the same way that rust corrodes metal in a machine.
When food AGEs are consumed in small amounts, the body is able to counter their effects with antioxidants. But excess AGE consumption or production of AGEs through glycation uses up all the antioxidant protection in the body.
It’s very difficult to counter all the toxic AGEs we consume with naturally-produced antioxidants like those consumed via fruits and vegetables. Once these protective resources are depleted, AGEs go to work damaging major vital organs and ruthlessly hastening the aging process.
The body reacts to AGEs as it would to an infection, by creating a low level of inflammation (a person with an infection may experience a fever, indicating inflammation, which will pass with the infection.) But as AGEs pile up in the body, inflammation remains constant. This prolonged inflammation slowly but surely goes on to damage every organ in the body.
High levels of AGEs and inflammation speeds up aging in the body, and contributes to the most chronic of diseases. All of this is caused by glycation, the process triggered by having high levels of sugar and carbohydrates in the body.
(Photo: patries71. via flickr/CC Attribution)
How does glycation contribute to aging?
Glycation directly hastens aging to nearly every organ in the body, including the skin, heart, brain, eyes and pancreas (organs where flexibility is especially vital.) The tough, inflexible tissue produced by glycation is the enemy of youthful skin and organs, making it difficult for the body to function properly. But the AGEs created by glycation are the biggest threat to health and vitality.
AGEs produce small molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that cause major tissue damage and oxidation (like how rust corrodes metal.) To make matters worse, ROS help create even more AGEs in the body, setting up a vicious cycle that accelerates the aging process.
AGEs also create chemical bridges between proteins, making joints and tendons stiffer and thicker as the body ages. But it’s not only skin and joints that are involved; hardened arteries, cataracts in the eyes and damaged heart and kidneys are other byproducts of the glycation process.
A high level of AGEs in the blood guarantees high AGEs in the skin as well. This means that skin will quickly lose its youthful appearance and become tough, dry and wrinkled.
AGEs also make it more difficult for wounds to heal, and more likely that they will become infected and form scars. They are a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, dementia, kidney disease and diabetes (to name a few.) And the scary truth is that the toxic effect of AGEs is hard at work long before there is any sign of disease in the body.
How can glycation be reduced?
The good news after all of this is that while glycation cannot currently be reversed, it can be significantly reduced and prevented through changes to diet and lifestyle.
The toxic effects of glycation are so prevalent today, with all the available highly processed foods that are packed with sugar and AGEs. It’s so important to make a commitment to health and take the steps toward reducing aging and maintaining health, balance and vitality in your own body.
Here are some tips for protecting yourself from AGEs and the toxic effects of glycation:
- Reduce sugar intake - Here’s a scary statistic to ponder: over the last 20 years, annual yearly sugar consumption in America has gone from 26 pounds to 135 pounds per person. It is widely known that sugar is a major cause of degenerative diseases, but somehow its consumption continues to increase each year. Glycation feeds on sugar, and sugar is hidden in processed foods where you might not expect it: in condiments and sauces, crackers, cereals, dairy products, beverages, almost anything that comes in a box or package.
- Limit carbohydrates - The body reacts to carbohydrates the same way that is reacts to simple sugars, so an overabundance will cause glycation and AGEs just like sugar does. Reduce your intake of breads, pasta and wheat.
- Eliminate high fructose corn syrup - Scan labels for this ingredient and avoid it at all costs.
- Eat a balanced diet of vegetables, fats and protein - Choosing foods which keep blood sugar levels stable limits glycation in the body. Some good sources for fats and protein include eggs, meat, nuts seeds, and healthy oils like coconut, olive and avocado oil.
- Eat vegetables raw, boiled or steamed, and cook meats low and slow - AGEs can be produced when foods are cooked at high temperatures, so avoid frying, grilling and searing foods whenever possible. Water also prevents sugars from binding to protein molecules, so cooking with water or steam helps prevent glycation.
- Choose water over sugary beverages - Soft drinks and juices are one of the major sources of excess sugar for many people, a problem that can be easily fixed by simply drinking water! Water replaces these sugary contributors to AGEs, while providing a whole host of other health benefits to the body.
- Try supplements While there is currently no known way to reverse glycation, there are supplements that have been shown to inhibit the process and protect the body. Carnosine is has been shown to protect against AGEs and rejuvenate aging skin tissue. Pyridoxamine, a form of Vitamin B6, is also a natural inhibitor in the formation of AGEs.
The most important things to remember when setting out to protect your body from glycation are:
- Avoiding foods that are high in AGEs.
- Avoiding consumption of excess sugar and carbohydrates.
- Using cooking methods and temperatures which prevent the formation of new AGEs.
By keeping these three key principles in mind, along with the tips described above, you will be on the way to protecting your body from the devastating aging effects of glycation.
It’s never easy to revamp your diet and lifestyle, especially in today’s society where processed foods and tasty options abound around every tempting corner. So rather than striving for perfection, focus instead on maintaining a healthy balance by including vegetables, meats, and healthy proteins and fats in your diet as much as possible.
Your body is well and able to deal with a controlled amount of AGEs as long as they do not overload your system, and you consume enough antioxidants to counter their effects.