Advice Column, Health, Parenting

How Sugar can Damage our DNA

  • Paarl Dietitians
  • Category Advice Column, Health, Parenting

While we may be familiar with the dangers of a poor diet, in particular eating too much sugar, the actual effects of this may be far more frightening than previously imagined. Certainly, science supports the idea that excess sugar consumption leads to weight gain, increasing our chances of becoming obese as well as developing diabetes and heart disease. But now, new data shows that sugar can harm us in a place we didn’t expect, by actually attacking our DNA.  Majority of the world’s population will average around 13-14% of calories a day from pure added sugar. It would seem we’re destined to harm our DNA.

Sugar and DNA damage

A study published in 2008 showed that exposing mice brains to as little as 6 hours of high blood sugar led to epigenetic changes that increased risk of vascular damage (damage to the blood vessels that increases the risk for a stroke or heart attack). These changes lasted even after 6 days of normal blood glucose, representing long-term damage after just a short blast of sugar. It’s furthered by data from another 2008. In this study, researchers showed that short bursts or periods of high blood glucose led to worse long term vascular changes than did sustained stable high blood glucose (a scary thought for the carbohydrate binger or when your child gets hold of a packet of jelly sweets). The underlying mechanism seems to be due to damage to the cell’s DNA.  New research further found that people who reported drinking a 350ml bottle of fizzy drink per day had DNA changes typical of cells 4.6 years older.

Any process that harms our DNA could put us at a substantial risk of disease or premature ageing. Data from the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found that the higher the blood sugar, the more damage is caused to our DNA.

Through research we have observed that high levels of circulating glucose are trashing our DNA. It therefore makes sense to choose meals lower in carbohydrates to improve our brain cells’ ability to fight off damage, leading to healthier brains. 

Nutrition and protecting our DNA

Dietary Epigenetics is the new buzz word in the world of nutrition research. The revolutionary new field of epigenetics has led to the discovery that what we can actually change the way our DNA is used, that the choices we make can forever transform our genetic code or how our genes are expressed. This means that what you eat can either silence disease genes or switch these disease genes on. Yes, very exciting and intriguing, one of the major ways we can change our DNA is by diet.

The good news is that the field of epigenetic has also identified substances capable of undoing DNA damage. Enter the EPIGENETIC DIET.

Essentially, the idea of the epigenetic diet is to maximize the health of your DNA. This diet emphasizes compounds like sulforaphane (found in raw broccoli), curcumin (found in turmeric), epigallocatechin gallate (found in green tea) and resveratrol (found in wine), and is designed to slow or potentially reverse damage to our DNA. The epigenetic activity of these chemicals may both prevent cancer formation and lead to decreased fat cells, as well as generally lower inflammation. 

In contrast to the negative effects of blood sugar on the brain, these chemicals may actually lower risk of cognitive decline, as well as slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. While it’s too soon to tell if the benefits of these compounds can ameliorate the toxic effects of high sugar, initial research is impressive. Moving forward, the field of epigenetics is very exciting. The more we learn about our genetic makeup, the more we can learn how our environment affects it. It’s rather scary and amazing that the choices we make in life change our DNA, but the power this connotes can also lead to empowerment. Realize that when you eat a food, you are triggering a ripple effect that penetrates all the way to your genetic code. Your diet can quite literally be a gene-editing tool, for better or worse.

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