I had a rare chance to catch up on the newspapers last weekend and was drawn to articles proposing sugar as the secret to weight loss and health. There has been quite a bit about this in the press lately but that particular weekend was saturated with special ‘how to guides’ for cutting sugar out of your diet. I personally thought the reporting on this new health kick was confusing, maybe you did too? If you’ve not had a chance to read them yet, the majority of the papers were attaching pullout guides highlighting your teaspoon equivalent of sugar in produce. For processed foods that might actually be quite helpful because quite often products are touted with health benefits, when actually they contain hidden sugars making them worst offenders. For example, it’s helpful to see that your low-fat greek-style yoghurt contains 2 teaspoons of sugar or your Cheerios have 3 teaspoons per bowl. However, my qualms came into play when I read, swede 8.5 teaspoons quoted as “a villain” and a banana too, with 7 teaspoons. The message just seemed convoluted, I’m sure anyone reading these would start to think, what the hell am I supposed to eat?
I want to put this new stance in context and hopefully interpret it in a way that becomes easy to adopt and subsequently you might make a small change today in the right direction. Bear in mind however that one method will not not suit all and healthy eating should be a progression of small changes. I’ll elaborate, I’ve tried a low-carb diet which is consequently low in sugar and it didn’t work for me. Low carb did not sustain my energy levels needed for exercise it made me hypoglycemic, irritable, I lost muscle mass, too much weight and it disrupted my sleep. Needless to say three months in, I decided to add carbs (a little sweet potato) back in on intense exercise days and normality was resumed! That’s not to say low carb doesn’t work for others and it is a great weight loss tool.
I wanted to give you an example of the personalization involved in making dietary changes but also how different groups of sugars cannot be classed in the same bracket. This example of low carb / no refined sugar is likely the extreme so how does the average person trying to improve their health make changes? Is swede really the villain compared to Cheerios?
What does sugar do? On consumption blood sugar rises which triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin to regulate sugar levels. Insulin allows the body to make use of this glucose (blood sugar) as energy. Insulin will turn excessive sugar into glycogen as a back-up but also fat, which will then be stored around the body. One of the many and very important hormonal tasks insulin has is to regulate appetite. Insulin in overdrive is not a symptom reserved for diabetics, many people with excessive sugar in their diets are insulin resistant and have lost the ability for this important hormone to function properly. Excessive sugar in your diet will have substantial health consequences.
The World Health Organisation is recommending 5 teaspoons of sugar per day but without looking at labels or trying to add up quantities in every item we eat, how do we monitor this and do we need to? This is my simpler guide to using sugar, naturel and otherwise.
My Low Down on Sugar
Should we avoid refined table sugar? Yes, in an ideal world wherever possible.
Use alternatives (raw honey, stevia, maple syrup) or slowly wean yourself off table sugar, a little less in your tea will make a big difference. Refined sugar is highly addictive (studies have shown even more than cocaine or heroin) but it is possible in baby steps.
Should we avoid hidden sugar in processed food? Yes and endeavour to check quantities on packaging.
Ingredients are written in the quantity order so if sugar features as the 2nd or 3rd item on the ingredients list, it’s probably going to be high in sugar despite any health claims. Very small amounts of sugar in sauces or dark chocolate isn’t going to make you insulin resistant but a bowl of coco pops every morning might!
Do we need to avoid starchy vegetables with sugar? No, not necessarily.
Exercising will help you make use of these sugars and if you exercise a lot, you probably need to add a few more starchy vegetables into your diet, i.e potaotes, carrots, swede, parsnips. I know I need starches but the quantity are a personal preference and will need adjusting for lifestyle, goals and your own ability to utilise the glucose.
Should we be eating fruit? Moderately
This might sound a little confusing but bear with me. Fruit is a healthy, whole food but if we think about it logically fruit does not grow all year round naturally in our local environment. We are designed to eat fruit when it is ripe for a few months of the year in summer but because of air freighting, we now have the capacity to eat fruit every day all year round. I don’t think you should avoid fruit altogether and it is certainly a prefered substitution to table sugar (so perhaps a transition to fruit is your appropriate next step) but for healthy eating or particularly weight loss my recommendation would be not to consume more than 1 fruit a day.
It’s great that the nutrition story is changing to include sugar and highlight its damaging effects but I do think there needs to be a greater emphasis on the type of food so we look at food groups differently.
Sugar desensitizes your taste buds and the more you eat, the more you need to taste it, cut it back and you start to taste your food completely differently, vegetables taste sweet, even lettuce and cucumber can have intense sweet flavour.
The best part about being refined sugar-free is that you start to feel satiated, you eat a meal and naturally feel full and can wait comfortably till the next meal. Eating the right amount of food isn’t about willpower as we’ve been led to believe, it’s about eating the right foods that align your hormones properly and send the correct messages to your brain to tell you are full.
These new guidelines need a little interpreting but let’s hope they build awareness for consumers to shop differently and force food manufactures to reduce sugar contents accordingly. It would seem a step in the right direction at least!