I’ve always been aware of there being issues with sugar, and try very hard to limit it in my diet, and my family’s (much to their delight). Not an easy thing for me as I do have a very sweet tooth. But it’s only through my study and research for my Nutritional Therapy course that I’ve finally understood why sugar is so bad for us, what it really does to us, and why sugar alternatives such as Stevia and honey are (very unfortunately) not the answer either. So I thought I’d share some of the basics of what I know so that it might help you with decisions when choosing what to eat and feed your family. It’s quite complex but I’ll try to keep it brief!
The sugar basics and history
As you know doubt already know, sugar is a type of carbohydrate, in its simplest form (due to the short length of the molecule chains it is made up of). There are lots of different types of sugars, determined by the length and make up of their atom chain, e.g. fructose, glucose, lactose, and combinations of two or more of these, e.g. fructose and glucose becomes sucrose (or table sugar)... and so on. Unlike carbohydrate starch (which is broken down slowly, bit by bit, giving small amounts of energy over a longer period) sugars are very rapidly absorbed into the blood stream.
When blood sugar levels drop, we feel hungry and when they elevate, we feel satiated. This usually works a treat - it's a great internal signal for us to know when to eat and when to stop. And before processed (or extracted) sugar was discovered and produced and marketed in massive quantities, natural sugars found in foods caused little problem. The other nutrients in whole foods that sugars were found in helped to slow down the absorption of the sugars, so blood sugar levels remained stable.
But then came the discovery by man of how to extract sugar from food, delight the taste buds, kill the feelings of hunger, and not bother with the rest! All well and good… tastes great, instantly satiated feeling, bob’s your uncle…
Or perhaps not? It turns out that when such concentrated sugars are taken alone, their sudden absorption results in an immediate rise in blood sugar (commonly known as a sugar rush). Without the complex carbs and other nutrients to slow down this absorption, the blood sugar shoots up. But then this sudden feeling of energy, even euphoria, is often followed by a crash! One can feel exhausted and weak. And then of course, the craving for more sugar to counteract this occurs. And this can lead to a vicious cycle that most of us will be familiar with.
Sugar is very cheap to produce. When it was first discovered, it was a rare delicacy available only to the very rich. Today it is one of the cheapest products to produce and as it is very stable (doesn't really go off), it makes it even cheaper. Back in 1815 when sugar was discovered, people ate a maximum of 15 lbs of sugar a year. Today the average person consumes more than 120 lbs a year, i.e.. more than their own body weight! And many consume a lot more than this.
The problem is compounded because a large amount of this sugar is hidden by manufacturers. We all know the evils of fizzy drinks and most of us know they contain ridiculous amounts of sugar (there's around 35 grams or over 8 teaspoons in a regular can of coke), but were you aware that even most meat products contain around 3% of added sugar? And that more than 13% of processed vegetables is added sugar? And to add to this, the labelling of sugar in the ingredients list is often misleading so that you're not really sure what sort of sugar is contained, whether it's added or natural sugar. If you look on the food labels of most processed foods, you’ll find sugar hidden in some form in there somewhere.
But the issues with sugar aren't just in relation to elevated blood sugar levels. When we eat sugar, we feel satiated but our very real need for other nutrients is not met (as it contains no protein, fat, minerals, vitamins or fibre). It’s essentially what is known as ‘empty calories’ and therefore when we eat large quantities of sugar, a ‘nutrient debt’ has also occurred. The metabolism of sugar for energy requires a whole host of other nutrients in order to happen, but it will go ahead without those other nutrients present, basically stealing them from elsewhere. If one continues to eat large amounts of sugar, the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients needed to metabolise the sugar have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is likely to be tissues somewhere in the body. And so, though weight is gained in many people who eat large amounts of sugar, the body will become increasingly deficient in important nutrients. Often only a small amount of the sugar is burned because people feel too exhausted and depleted to exercise, so then the sugar is stored as fat. And the result? A pasty, bloated sort of obesity that you might be familiar with in someone you know who drinks lots of fizzy drinks and/or eats lots of sweets and cakes/biscuits. And in these cases, obesity is actually present in tandem with malnutrition.
Type 2 Diabetes
It's well documented that in some people, the erratic effect on blood sugar, from eating too much sugar can eventually lead to Type 2 Diabetes… But why? The reason is that when blood sugar levels rise, insulin is secreted in order to regulate the movement of glucose from blood to cells. When insulin is produced in correct amounts, and at appropriate times, excess glucose in the blood is controlled. But some people develop the inability to regulate this insulin production and insulin becomes slow to appear – glucose is not removed from the blood as it should be. But when insulin production does finally happen, it comes in full force, and so much glucose is removed in one go causing a huge blood sugar crash which leaves one feeling shaky, weak, etc. The good news is that this is reversible by a complete diet overhaul (I'll blog on this in the future).
And a second cause of hypoglycaemic attacks may not be due to inappropriate insulin response but to a weak or sluggish liver which is unable to perform its duties properly, due to sugar overload.
Why fructose isn't the answer
Found in fruit, fruit juices and now often used as an alternative sweetener to sucrose, it was discovered that fructose didn't have the same effect on blood sugar levels as other sugars. Fructose doesn't require insulin for its movement from the blood stream to cells, in effect it bypasses it and is absorbed straight into the portal vein. It’s absorbed more slowly and so doesn't tend to lead to high blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia). It’s also less likely to lead to dental cavities – both of which are reasons why it has led to being a popular alternative sweetener to sugar. This caused a lot of interest in the 80’s for use in diabetic foods due to its lack of effect on insulin levels. More recent studies, however, have shown that substituting fructose in the diet of a type 2 diabetic was associated with an increase in plasma triglyceride concentrations, suggesting that if there were any benefits in using fructose for glycaemic control, those benefits were outweighed by the effects of increased blood fats. It is now finally being realised that excessive consumption of fructose in things like fruit juices, yoghurt and many other foods has led to a big rise in blood fat issues.
Used in small quantities in a diet otherwise rich in essential nutrients, sugar is generally fine. As long as it is used as a condiment rather than a food, it will likely cause little problem. However, if sugar is eaten (or drunk) in large quantities, or as a major source of energy, and especially if replacing whole foods, health problems will more than likely follow.
For a full list of the different types of sugar options you can read more here.
I hope this has made some sense and been of some use. Please feel free to post any questions or comments below, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
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