What to know about sugar – and ways to cut back
At best it is addictive and devoid of nutrients our body actually needs. At worst it has been linked to autoimmune conditions, an increased risk of dementia, metabolic disorders and diabetes. So as you can see, it’s about much more than physical appearance.
Recently the World Health Organisation issued revised guidelines for sugar consumption. They advised that men eat no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar per day, women 6 and children 3.
This figure applies to added sugar. Naturally occurring sugar found in fruit - when it is kept in its whole form - does not count towards this total. Juice, on the other hand, does count as the fibre is removed from the whole fruit, slowing absorption of the fruit’s sugars.
Kiwis are consuming, on average, 37 teaspoons of sugar daily! That’s 31 teaspoons over the amount recommended by the WHO, and about 34 teaspoons over the amount I recommend.
In this article I’ll be discussing sugar in all its forms, where it’s hidden and what it really does to your body - and of course, how you can avoid those sugar cravings and cut back on the sweet stuff.
The problem with sugar
It all boils down to a naturally occurring carbohydrate called fructose, which is found in high levels in added sugar. Before sugar enters the bloodstream from the digestive tract, it is broken down into two simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Glucose is found in every living cell on the planet. If we don’t get it from the diet, our bodies produce it.
The problem with fructose lies mainly with added processed fructose in the modern diet. Processed foods with high fructose corn syrup added to them act very differently in our bodies than naturally occurring fructose from fruit. This is because the added fibre and nutrients found in fruit help our bodies to digest this fructose. For most people 1-2 pieces of whole fruit per day is a perfectly healthy - and delicious - addition to their diet. If you have type two diabetes it’s worth speaking with your healthcare provider about your specific needs.
Fructose is different. Our bodies do not produce it in any significant amount and there is no physiological need for it. The thing with fructose is how it’s metabolised by the liver. If we eat a little bit (such as from fruit) or we have just finished an exercise session, the fructose will be turned into glycogen and stored in the liver until we need it. Anything the liver can’t store goes into our bloodstream as fatty acids. These fatty acids react with triglycerides and form the hard, dense ‘bad LDL’ - cholesterol that might clog our arteries and may contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Added sugar may also stimulate appetite control centres in your brain. Kathleen Page from the University of Southern California looked at the effects of fructose on the hypothalamus - or appetite control centre - of our brains.
Subjects in her study consumed either a drink sweetened with fructose or glucose, and afterwards their brains were scanned. Members of each group then reported their desire for food. On her website, Page says the results suggest, “ingestion of fructose relative to glucose results in greater activation of brain regions involved in attention and reward processing and may promote feeding behaviour”.
The hypothalamus responds to hunger hormones - in particular leptin - and sends a signal to our bodies that we are full. When the brains of this test group were studied, their hypothalamus gland was highly active, meaning they hadn’t received the message yet that they weren’t hungry.
Similarly, US pediatric endocrinologist and well known author of Fat Chance, Dr Robert Lustig, says when eating a high fructose diet, our hunger hormones are blocked by the overproduction of insulin. This means our hypothalamus never gets the message to stop eating.
The point of this article isn’t to scare you, but to help you understand more about sugar. How can we cut down our sugar consumption and what about alternative sweeteners?
Cutting back on sugar
The first thing I would recommend is to commit to a period of time with no sweet food, with the exception of 1-2 pieces of whole fruit per day. It’s difficult initially and if you’ve been consuming a lot of sugar up to this point, you may experience headaches and other withdrawal symptoms. Go easy on yourself, dial back your physical activity and opt for gentle walking or yoga as your body adjusts.
Drinking plenty of water and ‘crowding out’ the sugar cravings with nutritious foods such as leafy greens, avocados, nuts and seeds will help.
I don’t recommend opting for snacks and treats using artificial sweetener. I believe artificial sweetener is the worst kind of ‘sugar’ you can consume, even worse than white processed sugar!
Packed into soft drinks and various other foods and marketed as a dieting aid, artificial sweetener may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
What are the sweetest options?
I’d prefer you to cut down on all sugars, but it’s important to know what options you have if you really need something sweet.
I believe raw sugar is a slightly better option than artificial sweeteners or refined sugar, but recommend that better still are natural sweeteners like natural maple syrup and honey. Ensure your maple syrup isn’t the synthetic ‘flavoured’ kind though, because this may not have the mineral content that natural maple syrup has. Honey should be as unprocessed as possible - try to find a good raw honey so as to not miss out on the nutritional benefits!
I believe your best option is blackstrap molasses, because it is packed full of minerals.
Stevia is a sweetener made from the leaf of stevia plants. It contains no fructose at all so could be an option for diabetics or those monitoring their blood sugar levels. Stevia is approximately 300 times sweeter than table sugar so you can’t substitute 1 for 1 in recipes. You might not want to use large amounts of this sweetener though, because it’s easy to use too much and change your taste palette towards sweet options.
Sneaky sneaky sugar
Have you ever flipped over a packet and read the ingredients list? A good thing to remember is that the highest quantity ingredient is listed first. Often you’ll see things like maltose, dextrose or any other word ending in –‘ose’, which all end up meaning the same thing - sugar.
By naming it in its various forms, companies avoid having the word ‘sugar’ too high on the ingredients list. It’s no wonder we consume too much.
Try to stick to whole foods, but if you absolutely have to have something in a packet, make sure you read the ingredients list and check how many items end in –‘ose’.
For more tips and for sugar free recipes visit Ben’s blog.
Ben Warren is the founder and clinical director of the holistic health and nutrition company BePure. He is passionate about changing the landscape of health in New Zealand using real food, holistic lifestyle strategies and nutritional support. He lives on a 15 acre permaculture farm with his wife and two young daughters in the Hawke’s Bay.