There is so much in the media about sugar, and why (or why not) it should be avoided. So, what’s my position and what do I base it on?
Firstly, let’s define exactly what I mean when I’m referring to “sugar” – because in reality, everything that is a carbohydrate eventually is broken down to glucose or fructose, and depending on the quantity of fructose consumed in 1 sitting, the fructose also may be converted to glucose (but more on fructose in another post!). Bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits, jam, lollies, fruit, fruit juice, potatoes, soft drinks, ice cream, honey, rice malt syrup, maple syrup, and chocolate are all different types of carbohydrate that ultimately contain the same types of sugars – but the effect on our metabolism, appetite regulation and ultimately the way we store and use energy is quite profound, especially if the type of bread, pasta, rice etc is wholegrain/wholemeal. In other words, it’s the highly processed forms of carbohydrate that are the problem – essentially anything that is white, plus the sweeteners like honey and agave syrup.
Of course it’s easy to see that we’re going to get the biggest and quickest hit of sugar from lollies, soft drink, cake, biscuits, potatoes, jam, fruit juice honey and other sweeteners because the sugar is easily digested and can pass quickly into our bloodstream. With foods like chocolate and ice cream, the sugar hit is slowed a little by the fat content in the food, whereas with wholegrains, fruit, vegetables and legumes the body has to work much harder and for much longer to break up the food to release the energy and nutrients and this releases the sugar much more slowly into the bloodstream.
So, when I’m talking about “sugar” I’m talking about the added sugar you find in processed stuff such as the obvious lollies, ice cream, cakes and soft drink, but also in the not so obvious things like sauces (tomato and hoi sin sauce), muesli bars and breakfast cereals. Not too far behind, in fact, almost as bad, is anything made from white flour, as the flour disintegrates into glucose almost as quickly as does sucrose – it just doesn’t taste sweet.
So, why then is too much glucose a problem? Or perhaps a better question is, why does eating too much glucose – especially in the form of processed sugar – cause a problem? A good way to illustrate this is by looking at what happens to a diabetic with uncontrolled diabetes – when their blood glucose levels are consistently too high, proteins become glycated (i.e. a glucose molecule attaches itself to a protein) which makes them unable to function: Nerves can no longer conduct properly, leading to diabetic neuropathy – loss of feeling, poor wound healing, gangrene and loss of limbs; Eyesight is affected and often lost due to cataract formation – this occurs because excess glucose is metabolised in the body to sorbitol which accumulates in the lens of the eye, causing water to be drawn into it osmotically (due to high osmotic pressure of the sorbitol, i.e. it wants to be diluted); Kidney disease due to excessive glucose in the urine, and the glucose glycating kidney cells, and the list goes on.
If we take this a step further and consider the role of insulin – in a healthy person – we see that if we eat a meal high in processed sugar, insulin immediately kicks in to make sure our blood glucose levels are kept below approx. 5mmol/L. But insulin isn’t exact and always overshoots, so our blood glucose levels drop low pretty quickly, making us feel irritable, shaky and hungry. This is because low blood glucose levels cause adrenaline and/or cortisol (our stress hormones) to be released to raise our blood glucose levels, leading us to go and search for something to eat – usually something that is sweet that will give us a quick energy hit. And so the cycle starts again. This is how sugar drives appetite.
I do find it fascinating that while the brain requires approximately 120g of glucose per day to function, the fact that glucose is the only substrate the brain can use means that the body has ways of making glucose from other sources, namely the gluconeogenic amino acids. And if we can’t make enough glucose from those amino acids, our brain can operate off ketone bodies, a by-product of fat catabolism (i.e. breakdown). I’m not advocating a no or low carbohydrate diet, merely demonstrating that our carbohydrate, sugar saturated modern diet is not necessary, and is actually so far from anything that could be considered healthy.
Once upon a time “sometimes foods” were actually sometimes foods, not every meal foods. When cereals have 8, 10, 12 teaspoons of sugar in them per serve (and the serve is 30-40grams, but no one actually eats only 30-40g!), muesli bars have 3-4 teaspoons, Juice bars are selling “healthy” “fruit” juices that have 25 teaspoons+ of added sugar and no “real” fruit in them, (and the list goes on), I think we have to start thinking what we are really eating and what we are feeding our children. My real concern comes when parents think they are feeding their child something that is healthy, but because of clever marketing, they are unaware of the fact that the food(s) they are buying are actually full of processed sugars and harmful colours and additives.
Regarding colours and additives in our food, who would eat, or feed their family coal tar? I suspect most of us would say never – well, I was stunned to discover that many of the worst colours known to be associated with behavioural problems and ADHD are derived from COAL TAR….
In my next blog post, I am going to discuss ADHD and behavioural issues in children and some simple steps you can take to help minimise these issues in your child/ren. This will include Phenol sensitivity, salicylate sensitivity, gut problems and maybe more. I might have to do a few posts – there is so much information!