The Halloween sugar high can be scary. Sometimes we find ourselves eating as much candy as we can out of the kids’ pumpkin buckets – because let’s be honest, they need that sugar way less than we do! But there are things we can do to blunt the negative impacts of sugar on our health.

One of these is intermittent fasting, or intermittently giving our body a break from glucose and insulin, which can be harmful if overactive. To learn more about fasting for insulin sensitivity, join us in a Halloween Fast of Ghouls this Wednesday before midnight!

To learn more about fasting for insulin sensitivity, join us in a Halloween Fast of Ghouls this Wednesday before midnight!

Haunted by Sugar

When you were young, your parents might have told you things like, “If you keep eating that Halloween candy, you’ll get a cavity!” Cavities, and dentist visits for that matter, are scary enough to make us think twice about chewing on gummy bears. But added sugars can do a lot more than feed harmful bacteria in your mouth that contribute to tooth decay (for starters, added sugars also feed potentially harmful bacteria in your gut). Eating too many added sugars, other than causing harmful blood glucose spikes if you eat too many at a time, can lead to weight gain, inflammation and insulin resistance, putting you at higher risk for diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and even cancer.

Throughout the day, you probably consume both natural sugars, such as sugars present in raw fruit and milk, and added sugars. Added sugars are the most insidious of the sugars. They can be found in many processed foods and things like soft drinks, juice, sweetened and fruit yogurts, cereal products, candy, cookies, etc., and even in things you wouldn’t expect to find added sugar in, like plain bread, fruit cups, pre-prepared tomato sauces, salad dressings, etc. They come in the form of high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, syrup, honey, malt syrup, glucose, fructose, maltose, sucrose, lactose and other “-ose” products.

The World Health Organization recommends minimizing your intake of free sugars as much as possible, but at least making free sugars less than of 5-10% of your total energy intake or total daily calories. In a 2,000 daily calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories should come from added sugars. Another common guideline is eating under 50 grams of added sugars per day (25 grams for most women and kids, and the less, the better).

Do you know how much sugar you consume in a typical day?

“Free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.” – World Health Organization

Zombie Days: Your Body on High Blood Sugar

Persistently high levels of blood glucose is one of the characteristics of prediabetes and diabetes. This occurs when tissues in your body such as your muscles, fat and liver become insulin resistant – they don’t respond well to insulin and are inefficient in taking up glucose from your blood. Insulin resistance is associated with chronic diseases and diseases of aging including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and most recently neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. Insulin resistance plays a role in inflammation, production of reactive oxygen species and IGF-1 signaling, which when overactive may promote proliferation of cancerous cells and activity of “zombie” senescent cells that can’t divide but can grow and send out inflammatory cytokines.

Added sugar intake may contribute to and certainly exacerbate insulin resistance. For example, added sugar intake is associated with higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain and fatty liver disease, health issues that can lead to insulin resistance and further exacerbation of these issues. Added sugars cater to particularly energy-hungry but metabolically inefficient cells, including senescent cells, cancerous cells, and even quickly proliferating pathogenic bacteria in the gut.

There are several genetic and lifestyle factors that can contribute to how likely you are to develop insulin resistance. But even if you have a genetic risk, you can help yourself with regular exercise, a balanced diet, avoidance of added dietary sugars, healthy sleep patterns and stress reduction activities. Risk factors for insulin resistance and prediabetes include obesity, aging, physical inactivity, high cholesterol and blood pressure and sleep disorders or circadian rhythm disruption.

“If you have insulin resistance, you want to become the opposite—more insulin sensitive (cells are more effective at absorbing blood glucose so less insulin is needed). Physical activity makes you more sensitive to insulin, one reason why it’s a cornerstone of diabetes management (and good health in general!). Don’t wait until you’re diagnosed with diabetes to start moving more. The earlier you take action (literally), the better off you’ll be. Weight loss is important too, as is avoiding high blood sugar, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep (physical activity can help you get more zzz’s too).” – CDC, Diabetes

Run Fast from Sugar Ghouls

Avoiding added sugars can be difficult for many reasons. Number one this month: Halloween candy! But seriously – sugar is everywhere. So how can we give our bodies a break from sugar and the inflammatory and “cell growth” pathways it promotes?

We can try to avoid added sugars. You can still enjoy the occasional baked good sweet if you eliminate the “empty” calories of sugary drinks throughout the day.

In good news, raw fruits don’t count toward added sugar – raw fruits (apples, bananas, berries, etc.) contain loads of plant fiber that can essentially balance out the effects of the sugars they contain. They also don’t contain near the amount of sugar that foods with added sugars and juices do. Whole fruits are best. A medium apple contains nearly 5 grams of dietary fiber for 15-20 grams of sugar. However, a cup of applesauce contains approximately 3 grams of fiber per 25 grams of sugar, and apple juice contains less than 1 gram of fiber per 25 grams of sugar (and that’s unsweetened applesauce and apple juice! Source: USDA). So reaching for raw and whole apples, pineapple, strawberries, a banana, etc. or putting pieces of raw fruit into a plain unsweetened greek or Icelandic yogurt is perfect for when you are craving something sweet after a meal.

Halloween child friendly treats. Credit: RobHainer
Halloween child friendly treats. Credit: RobHainer

If you just can’t live without sugar, there are other interventions that can help you maintain insulin sensitivity. These include getting recommended amounts of physical activity and structured exercise, getting adequate sleep and eating when the sun is up (we are more insulin resistant at night and after a night of poor sleep, due to disrupted circadian rhythms that help regulate our metabolic state), reducing stress and stress-related inflammation, maintaining a healthy weight and upping your plant fiber intake. If you are going to splurge on candy, eating it after a low glycemic index meal that contains lots of dietary fiber is one way to protect your body from some of the negative impacts of a blood glucose spike.

“A major determinant of insulin sensitivity is the ability for glucose to be converted into glycogen (stored glucose) in the skeletal muscle. Glycogen is one of the primary fuel sources for skeletal muscle during exercise, and can become quickly depleted during high intensity exercise. We often see an improvement in glucose control, or a decrease in insulin resistance, following exercise. This improvement in glucose control is related to muscle glycogen levels. Consistent exercise, especially glycogen-reducing exercise (think high reps during resistance training), helps diabetics reduce their circulating blood glucose by transporting and storing that glucose in the muscle as glycogen.” – Tim Allerton, Your Exercise Prescription is Ready for Pick Up

Another emerging intervention to enhance metabolic flexibility and insulin sensitivity is intermittent fasting. There are a range of approaches to intermittent fasting, including time-restricted feeding and alternate day fasting.

Time-restricted eating times your “feeding window” with your circadian rhythm and often involves overnight fasts of 12-14 hours daily, starting around 6pm for example. This fasting schedule has the added benefit of reinforcing healthy circadian rhythms that can help protect against insulin resistance through a range of processes. Overnight fasting can help you maintain a healthy cycling of gut microbes that reduce inflammation and protect you against infection by pathogenic strains of microbes. Your gut microbiome or the mix of microbes in your gut can also impact your insulin sensitivity or insulin resistance, and the best way to “feed” a healthy microbiome is through a balanced diet with plenty of plant fibers.

Intermittent fasting gives your body a break from insulin and glucose signaling pathways that promote cell proliferation and inflammation, and may help increase your insulin sensitivity. There are some caveats – after an extended fast, especially if you aren’t a frequent faster, you can experience a short window of acute insulin resistance, so it’s best not to break your fast with foods high in added sugars. However, over time regular intermittent fasting can especially help overweight individuals restrict calories, reduce oxidative stress, improve their insulin sensitivity and improve their metabolic flexibility or how good they are at switching between burning sugars and burning fats.

Learn more with our fasting FAQ.

Join LifeOmic's Fast of Ghouls via the LIFE Fasting Tracker app.
Join LifeOmic’s Fast of Ghouls via the LIFE Fasting Tracker app.

A Halloween Fast for Insulin Sensitivity

If you are haunted by Halloween candy and you don’t think you can resist the temptation, the LIFE Fasting Tracker app is here to help. Join us in a public Fast of Ghouls the day after Halloween, before you gobble up any more candy! We are starting our fast on the evening of Wednesday, Oct 31st. If you’ve fasted before, you can join us for a 24 hour fast. If this is your first time fasting, we encourage you to take it easy the first time – try just 12 or 14 hours of overnight fasting and break your fast with a low-glycemic meal on Nov 1 (no candy, please). Before long, you’ll be scaring away those elevated levels of blood sugar and insulin that can wreak havoc on your body. Combine with exercise, adequate sleep (nightmares beware!), and lots of plant fibers for best results!

Updated Nov. 1