Advice: Demystifying Sugar
January 14th, 2015
I thought that since it’s January and lots of people are probably trying to eat more healthily I should use this opportunity to talk a little bit more about sugar, as sadly it’s hidden in practically everything and it’s a very confusing topic! Sugar is addictive – trust me, I may be a bit of a health freak now, but at university I lived off pic’n’mix and as a child sprinkle sandwiches were my favourite food so I used to love sugar just as much, if not more, than everyone else! I was a total sugar monster and like most people I ended up on a sugar roller coaster, which used to send my energy levels up and down a hundred times a day.
Sugar seems to be the buzzword that has gripped the world in the last year. Almost every household grocery now comes in a ‘sugar-free’ alternative in a desperate attempt to monetise a population-wide fear of the s-word. The thing is though, sugar is such a complicated topic and I don’t think that’s there’s one right or wrong answer. There are a few things though that I can explain, which may help to ease some of the confusion out there though. So what is sugar? That’s a big question but let’s start here – to really understand sugar we need to talk about carbohydrates, which are the starchy or sugary parts of our food. When we eat these things, our bodies break them down into glucose (sugar) to give ourselves the fuel we need to function. For many people, carbohydrates are the bad guys and there are so many low-carb diets out there – think Atkins and Dukan. These diets get a lot of attention and in terms of weight loss they can be really effective, but the issue is that all carbohydrates are not equal so it’s not quite as simple as it seems. Simply cutting out all carbohydrates isn’t sustainable, enjoyable or healthy. So what should we do instead? We should enjoy complex carbohydrates, which are the good kind of carbs – these are ‘unrefined’ and very healthy and we find them in foods like quinoa, sweet potatoes, carrots, oats, brown rice, squash, beans and legumes. These take longer to digest as they’re full of fibre, so they help keep your blood sugar levels stable and keep you full for hours – we want to include these in a healthy diet. On the other hand, simple carbs are refined and found in most snack foods, white flour and typical junk food. These are full of empty calories, so they don’t fill you up and instead they just spike your blood sugar which then leads to a crash.
When food is broken down into glucose, it enters your blood stream. In order to regulate the amount of glucose in our blood stream, the pancreas releases insulin which removes excess glucose and stores it as fat in the body. When our diets are too high in sugar, which is the case for many people, we have too much glucose at once so we need more insulin, which over time increases the pressure on our pancreas. If this continues over a prolonged period of time, you may develop a resistance to insulin, meaning that your body is unable to efficiently regulate the levels of blood sugar. Eventually this leads to illnesses such as type II diabetes. The thing to highlight here though is that sugar in this sense isn’t just chocolate and candy; it’s also white bread, white pasta and white rice as they’re so high in refined carbs – this is what makes avoiding sugar so complicated.
The glycemic index is a really useful tool to use if you’re confused about what foods to eat and avoid in terms of their sugar content. The GI scale or index measures the way in which different carbohydrates affect our blood sugar levels and allocates a numerical value between 0 and 100 accordingly. A low value tends to indicate complex, slow release carbohydrates. These foods give you longer lasting energy and prevent the energy crashes that come with high GI foods. For example, high GI foods include sweets, white bread and pasta and processed food whereas oats, brown rice, lentils, beans and most vegetables are low GI, meaning they are great sources of slow release energy.
A topic that seems to be up for a lot of debate is where fruit falls into all this and this is a complicated area! Fruit actually falls into the simple carbohydrate category and as a result some people believe that you should avoid most fruit too. However, I find that the glycemic index is a great tool with this too. Dates, berries, apples and citrus fruits are all examples of low GI fruits, which I include in my day to day diet. Then there are fruits such as grapes and melon which are higher GI so I tend to avoid these on a regular basis. Bananas also fall into this category so I tend not to go mad on those but I definitely love having them as a smoothie base or made into ice cream! The important thing to remember about fruit is that it’s packed with important, health-enhancing nutrients and vitamins. I totally believe that we can’t all be perfect and I personally want to find a balance that works for me and that includes some sweet things too. If I need some sweetness in my life then I’d much rather eat fruit and dates than gummy sweets or other sugary treats. I do also have some favourite sweeteners, which you’ll find in lots of my sweet recipes. I love Date Syrup – it just adds such an amazing flavour rather than just being a sweetener so it is so great on porridge or in something like hot chocolate. I also use honey and maple syrup too as these don’t spike your blood sugar like white sugar does and they’re delicious. There are lots of other natural alternatives out there, like stevia, rice malt syrup and xylitol but I don’t find they agree with me so I avoid them, but again that’s back to just listening to your body as it knows best!
The scary thing about sugar is that it really can be hidden in everything and there are so many names for sugar – diastatic malt, dextran, evaporated cane juice, ethyl maltol and galactose are just a few of the crazy names found on the ingredients list of some products. It just means that it can be so tricky to work out what’s good and bad. The easiest thing is to avoid processed food completely if possible as it means that you don’t have to worry about working it all out!
I hope that this has given you some clarity in the sugar, where it’s found and how you can live life without it! Even I get confused about it something though, so don’t worry – you’re not alone. The tricky thing about sugar is that there are so many different studies and opinions about it, so just remember that as with everything the most important thing to do is listen to your body and figure out what makes you feel best as know one else knows your body as well as you do! If you’re interested in learning more, there are so many great books out there. My two favourites are, Wheat Belly, which talks in detail about the sugar in refined foods, especially bread and The Blood Sugar Solution, which also helps to explain what sugar does to the body. If you’re interested in this topic then I would really recommend both of these!