Let’s talk Sugar…
Sugar has been linked with numerous health problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to tooth decay, despite that, sugar has become a constant in most of our lives. Whether added to our tea or coffee, or hidden in our favourite foods, sugar can be a challenge to remove from our diet all together. Most of us don’t even think about it.
Americans consume, on average, 20-22 teaspoon of sugar a day – double the recommended daily amount (men 9Tsp and women 6Tsp). Australians are estimated to be not too far behind. When I go through my patient’s diets I find the average is about 15-20 teaspoons daily. Not hard to achieve when you think there is about 10 teaspoons of sugar in a can of soft drink and eight in a similar amount of orange juice, so it doesn’t take much to exceed the recommended daily intake.
Would you stand at the kitchen counter and shovel that much sugar into your mouth. It’s actually quite gross thinking about it. But then that’s the point isn’t it, most of my patients are shocked to see how much sugar they are eating.
Read, read everything, then read it again! It won’t be forever, you will get a great repertoire of low sugar foods to choose from. Look at nutrition labels and ingredient lists to find out the type and amount of added sugars in a food or beverage. Added sugar goes by many different names, including high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, sucrose, honey, molasses, raw sugar, corn sweetener, invert sugar, corn syrup, malt syrup, fructose, glucose and dextrose. Anything ending in “ose” is a sugar. Brown or raw sugar is really just “dirty” white sugar with no additional health benefit.
These days, an average diet has 19 percent more sugar than in 1970, according to Time Magazine. Rates of obesity and some chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, have increased right along with it.
So why do we find sugar so irresistible? We are hard wired to like sweets! Usually sweets are calorie dense and rich. If our cave men ancestors were lucky enough to stumble over a bee hive or ripe fruit, it equated to easily stored and utilized energy. Additionally our brain Neurons need a constant supply of glucose from the bloodstream as they don’t have the ability to store glucose themselves, a potential issue in our cave men ancestors who didn’t have regular meals, but hardly a issue now.
In fact recent research from France has shown that eating something sweet can actually be more rewarding than cocaine. In a study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers took two groups of rats and let them choose between water sweetened with saccharine and intravenous cocaine.
Amazingly, 94% of the animals preferred the sweetened water to the drug. Then they repeated the experiment and used sucrose (plain old table sugar) instead of saccharine. The results were the same, over and over again, attesting, to the addictive potential of sugar.
Eating too much sugar can lead to unhealthy eating patterns. Sugar can be a mood-booster as it prompts the body to release the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin into the blood stream.
The instant ‘lift’ we get from sugar is one of the reasons some of us turn to it at times when we crave comfort and reward. It’s an unhealthy cycle of “self-soothing” that doesn’t actually stabilize serotonin at all. The sugar rush triggers an increase in insulin as the body strives to bring blood glucose levels back to normal. This is the cycle of binge-eating or sugar rollercoaster we jump on in an endless attempt to get the balance right, sound familiar?
A study from Yale University found that while glucose partially suppressed the parts of the brain that make us want to eat; fructose did not. The test participants also reported feeling more satisfied after consuming glucose compared to fructose. Taken together these two aspects increase the risk of overeating. Many processed foods are excessively sweetened by sucrose (plain old table sugar), which contains 50% fructose, or high fructose corn syrup. In other words at least half of the sugar content (if not more) in the lollies or chocolate you are craving is NOT satisfying that urge at all. Providing your brain with enough glucose from fruit, whole grains, legumes and vegetables will satisfy that urge much better.
Refined sugar has no nutritional value. Hang on let me say that again NO NUTRITIONAL VALUE!!!!!! No vitamins no minerals no good fats no fibre. In fact it will cost your body more of your stored nutritional reserves to get rid of it than we get from eating it. I call that an Anti-Nutrient.
So what’s the answer in today’s sugar driven society?
- 1. Don’t eat processed sugar! Sounds simple doesn’t it, there are plenty alternatives that are not disastrous to our health.
- 2. Avoid fructose high alternatives.
- 3. Our taste buds “upgrade” to the taste of sweet. Not everything needs to be so mind blowingly sweet. Reduce the amount of sweetener in your recipes. You and your family will get used to the change.
- 4. Eat real food! Lean proteins, Vegetables, Fruit, Nuts. Balance your blood sugar and your serotonin properly. Then if you are achieving your health goals and are good 90% of the time you can have a sweet treat with some of the healthy sweeteners featured at the end of this article. You will feel better have more energy and the processed foods will start to be “over the top” and not as enjoyable.
- 5. When it is time for a sweet treat, savor the experience eat it slowly and mindfully.
Consider what I call a “reboot” of your system, detox your sugar dependency. Over a three week period avoid:
- Sugars of all kinds
- Processed carbohydrates such as bread and pasta etc.
- All fruit except berries, kiwi and lemon
- All stimulants such as tea/coffee/energy and soft drinks
Make sure you balance your blood sugar with plenty of vegetables and protein and drink lots of water. You will most likely feel rubbish for a few days as you and your body come off your sugar addiction, but I’ve never had a patient who stuck to these guidelines and didn’t feel wonderful after the three weeks.
A quick note on agave. I do not recommend agave syrup. Agave nectar is made a couple of different ways but it starts with a liquid consisting of starch and water that comes from agave plants. It is processed with heat or enzymes to break the starch down into sugar, mostly fructose with some glucose. I have found agave is problematic for most of my patients, disastrous for fructose intolerance, and as its heated so much during its production, often has little or no nutrients left at the end.
Healthier Sugar Alternatives:
Always remember that these are still a “sometimes” food and that moderation is the key I’d also like to point out that even though these sugars contain some nutrients, you would get a lot more from other “real” foods.
Stevia: is an herb native to South American, Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It has been used as a sweetener for centuries in South America.
Stevia has no calories and virtually no glycemic impact. It can be grown at home, or bought powdered in its “green” form, I use this sometimes in baking. It is much easier to buy it in drops or granulated.
Banana, sweet potato and pumpkin: just mash them up and use them in your cooking as a sweetener. They will keep your baked goods moist and offer essential minerals such as potassium and beta-carotene a precursor to Vit A.
Dates: One of my favourites. Loaded with fiber — both soluble and insoluble — dates are able to fill you up and keep your bowel habits regular. They are an excellent source of potassium; they also contain calcium and magnesium.
Coconut Palm Sugar: Sap from the coconut palm is heated to evaporate its water content and reduce it to usable granules. Coconut sugar has a low score on the glycemic index (35! Which is great when we are measuring against glucose @ 100), which means you don’t get as much of the sugar rollercoaster effect. Once tapped for sap, the trees can go on producing for 20 years and produce more sugar per hectare than sugar cane. Overall coconut palm sugar is a tastier and a possibly partially healthier substitute for granulated or brown sugar. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a health food, or even low-Carb, the bad news is that approx half of the sweetness come from sucrose which is still very high in fructose.
Rice malt: My other favourite, the syrup is made from 100% organic brown rice. It is made through culturing rice with enzymes to breakdown the starches and then cooking until it becomes syrup. The final product contains soluble complex carbohydrates, maltose and a small amount of glucose.
Rice malt syrup is considered one of the healthiest alternative as it is fructose free. Strictly speaking it doesn’t fall under the Paleo banner as it is made from a grain, but it is kinder to your blood sugar and liver than many of the other choices.