By Glenda Rempel
Eating too much sugar has been an issue my entire life.
As soon as I was away from the watchful eyes of my parents, in came the pop, the Skittles and the ice cream—in massive quantities. My sugar problems began when I started working at the local Dairy Queen. Did you know you get free pop? I would stand at the drive-thru window and drink pop constantly. Two to four litres a day sort of constant. I also got a 50 percent discount on food and ice cream, and I used my discount regularly.
When I was in my last year of high school, I got into a habit of having a bottle of cola and a package of skittles for lunch. I would also rent a movie on the weekend and get a bag of candy, some chips and more pop. There was a lot of sugar in my diet—so much so that in my first 2 years of working at Dairy Queen I gained 40 lb.
At 19, this weight gain led me to decide to start running. I used a Tensor bandage to strap my Walkman to my back and run a couple of miles (remember, I spent my money on sugar and could not afford a Discman or MP3 player). I also started to diet.
Looking back on my 19-year-old self, I wish I could help her.
I ate 1,200 calories a day—mostly high carbs, low fat and low protein. The carbs I ate were also highly processed and high in sugar. Somehow, I still managed to train and run four half-marathons. I’m sure I eventually ate a little more food, but no more than 1,500 calories. I did lose weight, but I was poorly nourished. I started having troubles with anxiety, which then led to some feelings of depression. That turned everything around on me and led me back to sugar. I gained over half of the weight back, and because I was unhappy with myself, I continued to eat excessive amounts of sugar.
Eventually I got married. We lived and worked at a summer camp where our meals were provided for us. There was dessert twice a day, and we had access to a canteen with chocolate and candy. Life changed a lot over the early years of our marriage. We had some challenging things to deal with, and I always turned to food. Chocolate and ice cream, cake and candy—they were my best friends.
The last half-marathon I ever ran had an event expo, and someone was there handing out flyers about CrossFit 204. This planted a seed in me, and I thought about weightlifting and doing something different. It took me a year, but eventually I joined. I found a joy in squatting like nothing I had ever felt: I was gaining muscle and learning to look at myself in a new way. This was all great for my mental health: I started eating more protein and more fat. I would follow gym challenges to reduce my sugar for a month, feeling great and seeing huge improvements, but I would usually go back to my old ways.
A few years into CrossFit, I found macro tracking and a nutrition coach to teach me some new things. After several months of tracking and coaching, my body composition was better than it had ever been and I was lifting greater loads than ever before, all while eating 2,700 calories a day! Then I fell.
With my injury, I tried to stay on top of my nutrition, but gradually sugar came back. I felt like I had an excuse: I was injured, so what did it matter? Enter an additional 20 lb.—again! Yes, I did a lot upper-body exercises and gained muscle, but my shirts were tight and my pants made me feel like a stuffed sausage. I wanted desperately to change and get back to where I was before I fell.
Real change has taken over two years for me. I am a perioperative nurse. That means I work in an operating room and am involved in surgeries almost daily. I have done all sorts of things, and I get to see and learn about human anatomy from the inside, not just from a textbook. I see organs and bones, tumors and growths, and I have learned how the inside should look.
Recently, a doctor was doing a procedure to take out a gallbladder. This is usually done laparoscopically, which means 4 small incisions are made and a camera and long skinny instruments are used to take out the organ. During this procedure, the doctor commented on the patient’s liver. He said it was quite the fatty liver for someone only in their 20s. I looked at it, and it did not look like the livers I was used to seeing. It looked hard and stiff with lumps of, I presume, fat. I asked the surgeon why this young, healthy-looking person would have a liver like that. His response was that the person probably ate a high-sugar diet.
A high-sugar diet?
I thought sugar only made you gain fat. What?
I had to know more. I started reading and talking to doctors at work about this. I knew excess alcohol usually causes a liver to look like this, and it’s usually seen in heavy drinkers in their late 40s. I was concerned: What did my liver look like? I eat so much sugar. I might only have 200 grams of carbs a day, but so much comes from processed sugar.
I did a bunch of research to learn more about this liver issue. It has a name: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD. Now you might be thinking, “So what if I have a pudgy liver?” Well, NAFLD, if not addressed, can lead to liver cirrhosis and then liver failure. NAFLD is also a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease (1). Once these liver diseases progress past a certain point, they can cause huge life changes and eventually early death.
My question was how much sugar can I eat? Is the answer to eat no sugar? What about a ketogenic diet?
The research I did provided some answers. Sugary drinks, high-fructose corn syrup and pre-packaged high-sugar foods might be the cause. With mice, if you add a high fat intake, there is an even greater risk for more severe NAFLD (2). One article (1) about a study done with mice noted that a short-term ketogenic diet can be beneficial; however, long-term keto diets can still lead to NAFLD in mice.
What If I keep my calories under control even if I eat a lot of sugar? Well, researchers found that in mice, “one can even induce a fatty liver with a calorically restricted diet if the diet is high (40%) in sugar. Others have also reported that a high fructose diet can induce fatty liver in the absence of weight gain” (2).
I was shocked by these facts. I eat OK now, keeping my calories appropriate for my activity level. Yes, I have been known to eat a doughnut or two and a chicken breast for dinner (playing the game of macro Tetris), but these articles raised concern that I could still be hurting my liver even if I’m not gaining weight.
What is the lesson in all of this? I decided to look at my food quality, my sugar intake through processed foods and the amount of sweets, desserts and alcohol that I was consuming. It has been about three months since I saw that liver, and I have made a decision to reduce my sugar intake.
I’ve been focusing on vegetables and fruit with the occasional processed bread item, and I’ve been limiting my sweet treats to once every one or two weeks.
It has made a difference on the outside and I’m sure on the inside as well. The liver is an organ that is capable of healing itself if there has not been too much damage.
Sugar has been a problem for me for so many years that I know habits won’t change overnight. With time and effort on my part, I will break free of my sugar problem and help my liver be happy.
If you eat a lot of sugar like I did, there’s still time to make a difference and change your habits.
1. Basaranoglu M, Basaranoglu G and Bugianesi E. (2015). Carbohydrate intake and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: fructose as a weapon of mass destruction. Hepatobiliary Surgery and Nutrition 4(2): 109–116, 2015. http://doi.org/10.3978/j.issn.2304-3881.2014.11.05
2. Jensen T, Abdelmalek MF, Sullivan S, Nadeau KJ, Green M, Roncal C et al. Fructose and sugar: A major mediator of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology 68(5): 1063–1075, 2018. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhep.2018.01.019