We know that too much sugar is bad for you. It causes diabetes, weight gain, and rots your teeth.
But the invisible harm that sugar causes goes beyond that.
A process known as glycation occurs when sugars such as glucose and fructose form non-enzymatic bonds with nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids. This cross-linking produces glycotoxins called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. The absence of enzymes in the glycation process makes it impossible for your body to properly fold and transport these modified proteins. (Glycosylation is your body’s ability to form an enzymatic bond between sugars with proteins.)
The glycation process can begin as soon as early adulthood, with rates varying by individual according to diet. When AGE receptors (or RAGEs) accumulate a significant amount of AGEs over time, it can result in tissue damage, vascular endothelial cell damage in your blood cells, and inflammation in vital organs such as your lungs or kidneys.
Aside from dietary AGEs, UV irradiation and tobacco smoke are other risk factors associated with the formation of AGEs.
AGEs damage cellular structures, particularly the body’s proteins, and alter their function. The buildup of damaged proteins wreaks havoc on tissues throughout the body. Blood vessels normally dilate or constrict to control blood flow. But with damaged proteins in their walls, blood vessels become stiff and unresponsive, hastening the onset of cardiovascular disease.
AGEs also bind to cell receptors that activate chronic inflammation. This inflammation is a major cause of accelerated aging and age-related disease.
The higher glucose levels are, the more glycation occurs.
Glycation occurs in everyone, not just diabetics. Although a pro-inflammatory diet can be especially detrimental to diabetic patients. High glucose levels can result in complications such as diabetic retinopathy (blindness), circulatory problems, and diabetic nephropathy (kidney failure).
Glycation slowly destroys the body from the inside out. Other health issues that can arise from a high amount of AGEs may include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- High blood pressure
- Immune system deficiency
- Macular degeneration and vision loss
- Aging, wrinkled skin
In elderly subjects, higher levels of AGEs detected on blood tests are associated with poor physical function.
The brain is constantly taking up glucose from the blood to use for energy.
The link between glucose metabolism and brain disease is so strong that many doctors and researchers have taken to calling Alzheimer’s disease “type III diabetes.”
There are a variety of ways that excess glucose harms brain function. In the short term, hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) has a significant impact on mood and cognitive performance.
In patients with type II diabetes, one study found that information processing, memory, and attention were all impaired when blood glucose levels were high. These individuals also tended to have a more depressed and anxious mood and reduced energy and arousal.
In the long term, glycation contributes to chronic loss of brain function and, eventually, dementia.
Research shows that people with diabetes have, on average, double the risk of developing dementia than non-diabetic individuals. Among diabetics, those with poor blood glucose control have a 40% greater risk of dementia than those with better glucose control. Even patients with pre-diabetes were found to be 18% more likely to develop dementia than people with normal glucose levels.
While sugar molecules contribute to the development of AGEs, they’re not the lone cause. Food preparation also plays an important role in the formation of AGEs. The process of browning or blackening food is what’s known as the Maillard Reaction. A 2010 article from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found food prepared through dry heat such as frying, grilling, or roasting contains a high level of AGEs called carboxymethyllysines (CMLs).
That means when you eat charred food, you may take in significant amounts of toxic advanced glycation end-products (AGEs).
Foods that contain high levels of glycated compounds include red meats, sugary and processed foods, and those cooked with high heat. Deep-fried, pan-fried, and roasted foods are among the worst culprits.
Studies estimate that about 10%-30% of ingested AGEs are absorbed into the body, where they can do serious damage. In one study, subjects with type II diabetes were given a meal with a high AGE content. Within hours, blood levels of AGEs increased. This caused immediate damage to tissues. Researchers observed a jump in serum markers of endothelial dysfunction and oxidative stress. This worsens blood vessel disease and increases the risk for future heart attack and stroke.
Sugar is a key player in the skin’s aging process. Excess glucose triggers an internal reaction in which sugar molecules adhere to the collagen and elastin proteins, which normally help keep skin firm and supple. In time, AGEs make collagen rigid, meaning that it loses its ability to keep skin firm.
The process of glycation begins when we are about 20 and gradually intensifies. So, while it is a natural process, diets that are high in sugar accelerate glycation, causing more AGEs to form in the skin.
1. Change Your Diet
Adopting an anti-AGE diet that’s rich in antioxidants and vitamins may be the most significant step you take in halting protein glycation and damage of vascular cells. A 1997 study by Theodore Koschinsky, Ci-Jiang He, Tomoko Mitsuhashi, and Richard Bucala, showed that diet-based AGEs are only partially eliminated via urine and otherwise remain in the bloodstream.
A low-AGE diet consists of low-glycemic foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Reducing sugars will aid in preventing inflammation, limiting diabetic complications, and lessen your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, and other diseases.
Food preparation is also key in limiting the accumulation of AGEs. Frying, grilling, or broiling food creates unstable, non-enzymatic bonds between sugars and free amino groups that result in AGE formation. Take the “low and slow” approach by boiling, steaming, or stewing your food.
2. Exercise Regularly
Regular physical activity can inhibit the glycation of proteins and circulating existing AGEs. As a 2015 study from Nutrition discovered that exercise alone won’t create these changes since the role diet plays is much more effective in reducing the formation of reaction products. However, working out boosts the effectiveness of a low-AGE diet.
Exercise is a beneficial way to manage symptoms of chronic diseases and preventing the likelihood of other health problems that can arise from the complications of diabetes and heart disease.
3. Stay Away From Tobacco Smoke
A 2017 study conducted in the Netherlands observed the association between skin autofluorescence (SAF) and smoking behaviors. Skin autofluorescence is a noninvasive measure of the level of tissue accumulation of advanced glycation end products, representing cumulative glycemic and oxidative stress. Scientists concluded that smokers who quit saw a reduction in SAF accumulation after 15 years of not smoking, similar levels to those who have never smoked. Meanwhile, individuals regularly exposed to secondhand smoke experience high SAF levels.
Whether you’re a smoker yourself or find yourself exposed to areas with high levels of tobacco smoke, work on distancing yourself from this habit as much as possible to reduce AGE formation. Not only can smoking contribute to the aging process, but it’s also a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems (such as emphysema), type 2 diabetes, and various forms of cancer.
4. Up Your Carnosine Intake
Carnosine is a dipeptide, meaning it’s a combination of two amino acids (in this case, beta-alanine and histidine). It’s concentrated in our skeletal muscle, the heart, and the brain. A 2018 study published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety suggests that carnosine has the ability to prevent early glycation and lower blood glucose levels.
Adding carnosine to your diet with:
- White Mushrooms
- Green peas
Fenugreek is a clover-like plant from the botanical family Fabaceae, which also includes alfalfa, chickpeas, and peanuts. Its dried or fresh leaves can be used as an herb, and its seeds are used as a spice. Both its seeds and leaves impart a flavor and aroma similar to maple syrup, as well as slight bitterness. It is also used as a flavoring agent in foods, drinks, and tobacco.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a plant that stands around 2–3 feet tall. It has green leaves, small white flowers, and pods that contain small, golden-brown seeds.
Fenugreek is native to the Mediterranean, Europe, and Asia.
Fenugreek seems to slow sugar absorption in the stomach and stimulate insulin. Both of these effects lower blood sugar in people with diabetes. Fenugreek might also improve levels of testosterone and estrogen, helping to improve interest in sex.
One tablespoon of whole fenugreek seeds contains 35 calories and several nutrients:
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Protein: 3 grams
- Carbs: 6 grams
- Fat: 1 gram
- Iron: 20% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Manganese: 7% of the DV
- Magnesium: 5% of the DV
People commonly use fenugreek for diabetes, menstrual cramps, sexual problems, enlarged prostate, high cholesterol, obesity, and many other conditions
- Diabetes Taking fenugreek seed by mouth seems to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. It seems to affect both types 1 and 2 diabetes, along with increasing general carb tolerance in people without these conditions. In one study, people with type 1 diabetes took 50 grams of fenugreek seed powder at lunch and dinner. After 10 days, participants experienced better blood sugar levels and reductions in total and LDL cholesterol. In another study, people without diabetes took fenugreek. They experienced a 13.4% reduction in blood sugar levels 4 hours after intake. Given its effect on blood sugar, fenugreek should be used with caution if you’re taking diabetes medication or other supplements that lower blood sugar levels.
- Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea). Taking fenugreek seed powder by mouth might reduce painful menstrual periods.
- Increasing response to sexual stimuli in healthy people. One of the most common reasons men use fenugreek supplements is to boost testosterone. In an 8-week study, 30 college-aged men performed 4 sessions of weightlifting per week, with half of them receiving 500 mg of fenugreek per day. Although the non-supplement group experienced a slight decline in testosterone, the fenugreek group showed an increase. This group also had a 2% reduction in body fat.
- Increase breast milk production While prescription drugs are commonly used to boost breastmilk production, research suggests that fenugreek may be a safe, natural alternative. One 14-day study in 77 new mothers found that drinking herbal tea with fenugreek seeds increased breast milk production, which helped babies gain more weight.
People who are allergic to other plants in the Fabaceae family, including soybeans, peanuts, green peas, and other legumes, might also be allergic to fenugreek.
People may also experience reduced appetite, which could be harmful if you have an eating disorder or are trying to gain weight.
How to Buy
Fenugreek isn’t easy to find in the U.S. unless you live near an Asian market or specifically an Indian market. And, even in these cases, it’s usually the seeds that you’ll find, although these stores will sometimes carry frozen fenugreek leaves. Both the dried seeds and dried leaves can be purchased online. I can buy fenugreek seeds at my local co-op.
How to Store
The dried leaves and dried seeds can be stored along with your other dried spices, tightly sealed and away from heat and moisture. They’ll keep for a few months this way. If a recipe calls for ground or crushed fenugreek seeds, it’s best to purchase the whole seeds and only crush or grind what you need, rather than purchasing the preground powder, as the latter will lose its potency quickly, and you’ll only use small amounts of fenugreek at a time.
How to Cook
Fenugreek seeds and leaves are bitter. But when added to dishes and cooked, fenugreek imparts a sweet, slightly nutty, maple-syrup-like flavor reminiscent of burnt sugar.
Aloo Matar Gobi
Petrina Verma Sarkar/ Photo credit:Monali Mishra/Creative Commons
- 2 cups cauliflower florets, fresh or frozen
- 1 dash salt, or to taste
- 2 large or 3 medium potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, washed and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, or canola or sunflower oil
- 2 cup roughly chopped fenugreek leaves or 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds (soaked in warm water for 1/2 an hour)
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons garlic paste
- 1 teaspoon ginger paste
- 2 teaspoons coriander powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
- 2 large tomatoes, finely chopped
- 2 green chiles, slit lengthwise, optional
- 1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen
- Fresh coriander, chopped
Thoroughly clean the cauliflower. Put the florets in a large bowl and cover them with hot water. Add a teaspoon of salt and mix well. Keep aside for 10 minutes.
Put the potatoes in a microwave-safe dish and cover them with hot water. Add salt to taste and mix well. Cook on high for 3 to 4 minutes. You can also do this in a pan on the stove top. Cook the potatoes until they are parboiled. Drain the water and set the potatoes aside.
Heat the cooking oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan on a medium flame. When the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds and cook them until the spluttering stops.
Now add the onion and fry it until it is soft. Stir the ingredients often. Add the ginger and garlic pastes now and sauté everything for 1 minute.
Add all the spices and sauté for another minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and green chiles (if using). Stir well and fry till tomatoes start to get soft (about 2 to 3 minutes).
Add the cauliflower florets, potatoes, and peas. Stir everything well. Add salt to taste. Cover the pan and cook everything for 3 to 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Garnish the meal with chopped fresh coriander and serve it with gluten-free flatbread. Naan or rotis are also good accompaniments.