Who doesn’t love that sweet taste? I definitely do and I know how hard it can be when a sugar craving hits you like a bus or creeps up on you like a beastly brother. Yet it wasn’t until I decided to end my love-affair with sugar that I realised just how hooked I was. And it wasn’t pretty.
What is sugar?
Sugars are carbohydrates that provide the body with energy, glucose ultimately. It is the preferred fuel of our cells. Put very simply, there are simple carbohydrates and complex ones. Simple carbs = usually thought of as the “baddies” Complex carbs = (also known as starch) the “good” carbs
Both end up broken down into glucose ‘fuel’ though, so why is one thought of as good and the other bad? The difference lies in how quickly they are digested and absorbed by our bodies.
Simple versus complex - a bit of Chemistry
(I promise it’ll be quick!)
Simple carbohydrates, or as they are also known, monosaccharides (‘mono’ meaning 1), consist of one sugar unit that cannot be broken down any further. This means the body absorbs them quickly. The 3 most common monosaccharides are:
Monosaccharides can join together and form disaccharides (‘di’ meaning 2). 3 common disaccharides are:
maltose (2 glucose molecules)
sucrose (glucose + fructose)
lactose (glucose + galactose)
But let’s not get lost in the details of these names, rather, let’s focus on some of those ‘bad carbs’. White table sugar, sweets & candies, biscuits & cookies, croissants, soft white bread, white pasta, crackers, sweet chocolate, soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit juice, most breakfast cereals, muffins and cake (basically all the stuff that screams at you to eat it when you’re having a sugar craving) are all examples of simple carbs that are not beneficial to our health. These foods are refined and the body stores their carbohydrates very quickly. To add insult to injury, they are also giving you empty calories; a bunch of calories to store around your belly or bottom, but offering no nutrients in return. Not exactly the type of friends you want to be associated with.
Whole fresh fruit, on the other hand, is an example of good simple carbs. Fruit contains simple carbohydrates but also vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre (which slows the digestion and entry of its sugar content into the body). So let’s not demonise fruit. Pasteurised fruit juice in a carton, however, has been stripped of almost everything and then heated, which also kills off any enzymes. So if you’re going to have juice, freshly made is best, especially if it contains some pulp, again, to slow the entry of the fruit sugar into the blood.
Complex carbohydrates are chains of simple sugars. They might be long chains or medium ones. A chain of 3-10 monosaccharide units is called oligosaccharide. “Oligo” comes from Greek meaning “few”. Oligosaccharides are found in certain plant foods, such as Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, onions, leeks, and legumes. The digestive system cannot break down these natural sugars completely, so they end up in the colon where they work as a prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria. Polysaccharides are long chains of sugar units bound together. “Poly” meaning many. They usually contain more than 10 monosaccharide units. Some examples of polysaccharides are:
For complex carbohydrates, think whole grain rice, green peas, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats, lentils, beans, etc. Yes, they will eventually be converted into sugar by our bodies, but it will take much longer, there won’t be a spike in blood sugar and it will be kinder on our pancreas. And let’s not forget the nutrients that come in these foods. These carbohydrates simply cannot be put into the same category as refined carbs, no matter what the ‘low carb’ industry says.
Too much sugar = fat
So what happens in our bodies when we over-indulge in sugar? When sugar (glucose) enters your bloodstream, your pancreas has to release a hormone called insulin to shuttle it off to the cells for use as fuel and regulate the blood back to normal levels, because excess sugar in the blood can cause serious problems. When our cells don’t need that extra fuel, the insulin stores the glucose in the liver and muscles as glycogen. There is only so much storage space for that glycogen however, and when there’s no room to store any more, the liver converts it into triglycerides which enter the bloodstream and eventually get stored as fat. This excess fat then goes on to cause a myriad of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, blocked arteries, heart disease and also certain cancers. There are studies which have shown that high sugar intake could be linked to breast cancer. If you’re continually bombarding your body with excess sugar, the pancreas has to work harder and send out more and more insulin to get that glucose out of the blood. There is also the risk of becoming insulin resistant, which means that the body no longer responds well to insulin and so the glucose ends up hanging around in the blood longer than it should. This can lead to metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes and diabetes.
The vicious cycle of sugar addiction
You crave sugar.
You eat sugar.
Blood sugar levels spike.
Dopamine is released in the brain, which provokes addiction.
Large amount of insulin is secreted to drop the blood sugar levels, causing fat storage.
Blood sugar levels fall rapidly.
The body craves that lost ‘sugar high’.
Blood sugar levels have crashed and are now very low, causing hunger and new cravings.
And the cycle starts over again.
You crave sugar…..
Why do we crave sugar?
Apparently our craving for sweetness is down to evolution. We have our primate ancestors to blame for our sweet tooth. (Well thanks very much for that.) Harvard professor of Human Evolutionary Biology Daniel E. Lieberman, writes, “Sugar is a deep, deep ancient craving.” Humans evolved to crave sugar in order to store the energy obtained from it as fat and use it later in times when food was scarce. A common scenario for our ancient ancestors and so this way of storing energy was actually advantageous. A little like stocking up the pantry for when the famine strikes. The problem is, in this day and age we are constantly stocking up that virtual pantry without that period of food scarcity ever presenting itself. Richard Johnson, research professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Colorado and author of ‘The Sugar Fix’, suggests that around 15 million years ago our ancestors went through a period of starvation due to global cooling. This, he writes, resulted in a mutation where even small amounts of sugar were stored as fat. It was a survival mechanism. What little sugar consumed had to be put to good use! Interestingly, the chemical dopamine that sugar consumption stimulates, making you feel good and wanting more of it, may have stemmed from this necessity of needing sugar to actually survive. This inbuilt sugar craving was not a problem when the sweetest food available was honey and berries. Unfortunately that’s not the case today. The food that fills our supermarkets is laden with sugar, some of it hidden and some in plain sight. Furthermore, most of the sugar is refined and the food processed, modified in laboratories to trigger that dopamine rush and give you that feel-good feeling, that will make you come back for more and more and more.
Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is a drug. Whilst this might seem an exaggerated statement to make, research has proven that sugar addiction really does exist and it is also hard to break. The opioids and dopamine that can induce reward and craving are comparable to that of addictive drugs. In a study on rats that were allowed to choose between water sweetened with saccharin and intravenous cocaine, 94% of the rats preferred the sweet taste of saccharin. Now that’s plain scary.
Sugar and cancer
All cells need and use glucose (sugar) as fuel, normal cells and cancer cells too. The difference is though that cancer cells consume much more of it, they metabolise it faster. That can be seen in PET scans where the patient is given radioactive glucose. Being greedy for sugar, the cancer cells consume the radioactive glucose faster than the normal cells and are then easily detected. There is a lot of talk about sugar feeding cancer. Whether or not this is true, I don’t know. What is obvious however, is that feeding a sick body, (or even a healthy one come to that) sugary, nutrient-barren “food” is not a wise decision.
Glycaemic Index (G.I.) & Glycaemic Load (G.L.)
Glycaemic Index (GI)
The glycaemic index measures how quickly and how high a certain carbohydrate raises your blood sugar level. It uses a scale of 0 to 100; pure glucose gives us the GI of 100. Foods with a high GI are those that are digested and absorbed quickly, resulting in a peak in blood sugar. Foods with a lower GI generally contain more fibre. The fibre slows down the digestion and absorption of sugars, resulting in a lower blood sugar peak. The sugar present in foods with less or no fibre, on the other hand, is absorbed more quickly into the blood. Generally speaking, a glycaemic index of 70 and above is considered high, 55-60 is average and below 55 is low. The main problem with the glycaemic index however, is that it does not take into consideration portion sizes and the quantity of carbohydrate present in the food. That is where the glycaemic load is more useful.
Glycaemic Load (GL)
The glycaemic load takes into consideration THE AMOUNT of carbohydrate in the food and therefore is a better indicator of how a certain food will affect the blood sugar. For example, let’s look at a cup of watermelon: Watermelon has a high GI of 72. 1 cup contains 11.5g of carbohydrate and about 0.6g dietary fibre. To work out the glycaemic load: Take the GI of the food (72) Divide it by 100 (72 ¸ 100 = 0.72) Multiply it by net carbohydrate (without fibre) (0.72 x 11 = 7.9) And you have the glycaemic load: 7.9 A glycaemic load of 1-10 is considered low. 11-19 = medium 20 or higher = high Here is a useful table. http://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods Once again, I really don’t tend to calculate these numbers when I’m putting food in my shopping basket. What a nightmare that would be! If it comes from the produce aisle, then it goes into my trolley. Otherwise, I’ll be checking the label on the back…..
Sugar’s many pseudonyms
When reading ingredients lists on food packets, beware, sugar comes in many different forms. Here are a few: Barley malt sugar Brown rice sugar Brown sugar Cane sugar Corn syrup Demerara sugar Dextrose Fructose Fruit juice concentrate Galactose High-fructose corn syrup Maltose Rice syrup Sucrose (table sugar) And the list goes on…… Some healthier alternatives Blackstrap molasses Coconut Blossom sugar Date sugar Honey (raw honey, not refined, pasteurised) Maple syrup Muscovado sugar Turbinado sugar You might be wondering why Agave nectar  isn’t on the ‘healthier alternatives’ list. Whilst agave nectar is said to be low-glycaemic, it contains about 60 calories per tablespoon (20 calories more than table sugar!) Many people, myself included, thought that we were doing ourselves a favour when choosing agave nectar, but unfortunately it seems that it might not be as wonderful as we thought. Even Dr. Oz has had second thoughts regarding this sweetener. Unfortunately agave nectar is usually highly processed.
Stevia is not a sugar, yet it is 200-300 times sweeter! It comes from the leaves of the stevia plant. You can find it in liquid or powder form and sometimes the actual leaf, although the leaves aren’t great when you’re trying to sweeten your tea or coffee! Personally, I like the Sweet Drops brand as it doesn’t leave that typical weird stevia aftertaste that so many others do. It contains zero calories, has a glycaemic index of less than one and is the only sweetener I know of that doesn’t feed Candida.
The take-home message here is do not fear carbohydrates, as long as they are not refined, calorie-laden, nutrient-depleted junk carbs.
Tips for reducing your sugar intake
Eat breakfast, lunch & dinner! If you are nutritionally satisfied you are less likely to have hunger pangs which will only take you by the hand and lead you to the cookie jar, chocolate stash or whatever your sugar-weakness might be. Try not to skip meals. Again, don’t let hunger take hold of you because when it does, your willpower to avoid certain foods is likely to diminish greatly. Feel a sugar craving creeping up? Drink a glass of water. Clean your teeth. Go and jump on your rebounder for 3 minutes. Go out for a walk. Move your attention onto something else because the chances are you are not truly hungry. If you really need to sweeten something, use a natural sugar from the list above.
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