Today, most people in the west consume sugar every day in the form of cakes and fizzy drinks, or hidden in savoury processed foods. Historically thought just to be bad for your teeth, it is now causing more widespread concern.
According to Robert Lustig, Professor of Adolescent Obesity:
‘Sugar, whether added to food by you or the manufacturer, is the greatest threat to human health, bar none.’
The only sweeteners our ancestors consumed were honey and fruit, but only very infrequently since both were seasonal and hard to come by. More recently, the diet of the average westerner has changed almost beyond recognition.
- In 1700 the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds of sugar per year.
- 100 years later, this had increased to 18 pounds per year.
- By 1870 we were eating 47 pounds annually.
- Today, the average Brit consumes around 100lbs of added sugar annually, or 238 teaspoonfuls per week – that’s 24 teaspoons per day!
The most recent increase happened because back in the 1970s scientists argued that dietary fat was the main cause of heart disease and weight gain. Fat quickly became the enemy and was replaced by sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) in many processed foods. As a result, fat now makes up a smaller portion of our diet, yet obesity is still on the increase.
So, What is Sugar?
Sugar plays a vital role as a carbohydrate; the body’s primary source of energy. It occurs naturally in many plant foods, and we get most natural sweeteners by processing these plants to extract and condense the sugar.
However, not all sugars are equal and different sugars act differently in the body. There are various naturally occurring sugars but the key ones are glucose, fructose and sucrose.
Glucose is found in plants and fruits, and is a by-product of photosynthesis. In our bodies, glucose is either burned as energy or converted into glycogen (liver and muscle fuel). Too much glucose is treated by the body as toxic.
Fructose is fruit sugar, occurring naturally in fruit, cane sugar and honey. The body cannot use fructose in the same way it uses glucose – in fact it treats it as a toxin and it goes straight to the liver where it is broken down into fats called triglycerides. Over time, this makes the liver fatty and can lead to chronic illness.
Sucrose (table sugar) is found in the stems of sugar cane and the roots of sugar beet. It is a combination of glucose and fructose and can be found naturally alongside glucose in certain other fruits and plants.
How Does Sugar Effect Us?
When we consume sugar, our bodies digest it very quickly. If energy is needed immediately, your body will burn the sugar. If not, it will be converted into fat and stored in your fat cells. Other types of carbohydrates are also processed in a similar way to pure sugar.
When the pancreas detects a rush of sugar, it releases insulin to deal with the excess sugar. This keeps your blood sugar under control and your body in balance. The more sugar you eat, the more overloaded the pancreas becomes until it can no longer keep up with demand and your blood sugar rises out of control.
Over time, increased sugar consumption can lead to weight gain, bloating, fatigue, arthritis, migraines, lowered immune function, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. It can also disrupt absorption of nutrients, potentially leading to stress, PMS symptoms, osteoporosis and depression.
Sugar appears under many different names on food labels. This can lead us to believe that there is less sugar in a product than there really is. Some common names to look out for are as follows:
|• High fructose corn syrup
• Fruit juice concentrates
• Evaporated cane juice
• Crystalline fructose
• Corn sweetener
Are You Addicted to Sugar?
If you struggle to walk past sugary treats without taking one, have routines based around sugar consumption, have times when you feel you need a sugar hit to keep going, or develop a headache or have mood swings or cravings if you have to go without sugar for a day, then chances are you are addicted to sugar.
Ideas to Help You Break Free From Sugar:
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine. The ups and downs of caffeine include dehydration and blood sugar swings, and may cause sugar cravings to become more frequent.
- Drink water. Sometimes sweet cravings are a sign of dehydration. Before you go for the sugar, have a glass of water and wait a few minutes to see what happens.
- Eat sweet vegetables and fresh fruit. They are naturally sweet, healthy and delicious. The more you eat, the less you’ll crave sugar.
- Use gentle sweets. Avoid chemicalised, artificial sweeteners and foods with added sugar. Use gentle sweeteners like maple syrup, brown rice syrup, dried fruit, stevia and barley malt.
- Get physically active. Introduce simple activities like walking or yoga. Start with 10 minutes a day and gradually increase. Being active helps balance blood sugar levels, boosts energy and reduces tension which will eliminate the need to self-medicate with sugar!
- Get more sleep, rest and relaxation. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, are the most readily usable forms of energy for an exhausted body and mind. If you are in a chronic state of stress and/or sleep deprivation, your body will crave the quickest form of energy there is: sugar.
- Evaluate the amount of animal food you eat. According to yin/yang principles of eating, eating too much animal food (yang) can lead to cravings for sweets (yin).
- Eliminate fat-free or low-fat packaged foods. These foods contain high quantities of sugar to compensate for lack of flavour and fat, which will send you on the roller-coaster ride of sugar highs and lows.
- Experiment with spices. Coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom will naturally sweeten your foods and reduce cravings.
- Slow down and find sweetness in non-food ways! Every craving is not a signal that your body requires sugar. Cravings often have a psychological component. By identifying the root causes of food cravings and making lifestyle and relationship adjustments, you can begin to find balance and take charge of your health.
Beware Artificial Sweeteners
There are a number of low-calorie artificial sweeteners on the market, which are frequently used in diet drinks and sugar-free products. These sweeteners are lab-created chemicals and have been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects. They are also thought to mess with your metabolic pathways making you hungrier and leading to higher overall calorie consumption.
Aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal): Used in most diet drinks, this has been banned in many countries.
Sucralose (Splenda): Often found in protein powders and other such products.
Saccharin (Sweet’N Low): Created in the late 1890s, this is much sweeter than sugar.
Alternative Natural Sweeteners
Various natural alternatives to sugar exist, but should still be used in moderation since our bodies were not made to process high amounts of sugar, natural or otherwise.
A few of these are described below:
Honey: Made by bees using nectar from flowers. As well as fructose and glucose, it contains a variety of health promoting compounds and minerals (depending on the flowers used). Not all honeys are equal however. It’s better to buy raw, unprocessed honey which may be more expensive, but is far more nutritious. Not suitable for vegans.
Maple Syrup: Prepared from the sap of maple trees, it contains various health promoting compounds and is rich in vitamins and minerals compared to many other sweeteners. Go for high quality rather than artificial imitations.
Agave Syrup: Produced from various cactus plants, some brands are highly processed and refined, and it contains high amounts of fructose which can impact blood sugar levels (although this is low compared to sugar).
Stevia: A naturally occurring sweet tasting herb that has minimal impact on blood glucose levels and is virtually calorie free. It is also highly processed, unless you can find traditional whole leaf stevia.
Xylitol: Again naturally occurring, but highly processed, it is found in berries, fruit, vegetables, trees and mushrooms. Find a source that comes from the birch tree, rather than from Chinese corn.
Coconut Sugar: Naturally low on the Glycemic Index (GI), it has benefits for weight control and improving glucose and lipid levels in people with diabetes. It is also high in potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron and is a natural source of the vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and C. It has recently become extremely popular.
Composed by Angela S Bryant Nutritionist in conjunction with Appleseeds