There are lots of reasons sugar isn’t good for you. It adds empty calories to your diet, increases your risk for weight gain and puts you at greater risk for heart disease by raising triglyceride levels. Your dentist will be the first to tell you it’s not good for your teeth either. But there’s another way sugar is damaging to your health. It can bind to proteins in your body through a process called glycation. This process forms compounds called advanced glycation end products or AGEs. Glycation end products appear to play a role in inflammation and aging according to preliminary research. Sugars can also bind to LDL-cholesterol, the “bad” form of cholesterol. When it does, it puts you at greater risk for heart disease.
Sugar, Glycation, and LDL – Why It’s a Bad Combination
Researchers at the University of Warwick discovered that sugars bind to LDL-cholesterol in your bloodstream through the process of glycation. LDL-cholesterol is the form of cholesterol that deposits on the inner walls of arteries leading to atherosclerosis and heart disease. When sugars bind to LDL-cholesterol, it makes the molecule stickier so it’s more likely to attach to arterial walls. In addition, glycation changes its shape, making it smaller in size and denser. Small, dense LDL-cholesterol molecules stick to the inner walls of arteries easier than larger ones that are less dense and “fluffier.” This makes them a bigger threat for heart disease.
Once LDL particles attach to the arterial wall, it can become oxidized and damage the lining of the blood vessel. This triggers an inflammatory response that causes a fibrous “scar” to form that becomes larger over time. The scar can eventually rupture, leading to the formation of a clot that blocks blood flow to the heart. The result is a trip to the cardiac ICU if you’re lucky enough to get there in time.
Another reason glycated LDL is more of threat is that receptors in the liver that take up LDL-cholesterol and break it down, don’t recognize glycated LDL. So glycated LDL stays in the bloodstream where it has more opportunity to attach to the inside of blood vessels and cause injury.
Experts believe that glycated LDL-cholesterol at least partially explains why diabetics have a greater risk for heart disease. Diabetics have higher levels of sugar circulating in their bloodstream. These sugars bind easily to LDL and change its structure to a smaller, denser, stickier form that can wreak havoc with the inside of your arteries.
Glycation is a Factor in Skin Aging Too
Glycation of proteins by sugars in the bloodstream doesn’t just cause problems for your heart and blood vessels – it also contributes to skin aging and wrinkles. Sugars can crosslink with collagen fibers deep in the dermis of your skin that give your skin support and resistance to wrinkling. Once these collagen fibers are cross-linked they can’t repair as easily and your skin becomes more prone towards wrinkles and sagging. Glycation is an enemy internally by damaging blood vessels and causing inflammation and externally by prematurely aging your skin.
How to Avoid the Health Effects of Glycation
Glycation is a fact of life to some degree, but you can lessen its impact on your skin and blood vessels by eating a low-glycemic diet. A low-glycemic diet won’t cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and it’ll help you maintain your ideal body weight to reduce your risk for type 2 diabetics. Diabetics have a significantly higher rate of glycation and AGE formation than non-diabetics.
Diet is another source of AGEs. When you cook foods high in protein or fat using dry heat, it causes glycated end products to form. You can reduce the formation of these AGEs by cooking with moist heat, using lower temperatures for cooking, shorter cooking time and by marinating meats before exposing them to heat.
Good choices for marinades are acidic ones like vinegar-based marinades, lemon juice or wine. The best cooking methods include steaming, braising, poaching, sautéing and cooking items in a slow cooker. Avoid broiling grilling, frying and roasting meats at high temperatures. Choose more vegetables – they don’t form high levels of AGEs when heated.
The Bottom Line?
AGEs play a role not only in heart disease and premature skin aging, but they are linked with inflammation. Some experts think they play a role in causing a number of chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. Take steps to reduce the amount of AGEs your body is exposed to by eating a healthy, low-glycemic, veggie-rich diet and preparing protein and fatty foods with moist heat and as short a cooking time as possible. After all, who wants to age prematurely – inside or out?
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