Sugar – sweet and scrumptious or white poison?

What was the song? ‘A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down’. More recent evidence indicates that the white demon might just be more kill than cure. Or are we just reacting to another dietary fad in which one food source is blamed for all ills in the world?

When Nathan Pritikin published his book The Pritikin Progrmme in 1979 he played a large part in setting the Western World on a 30 year escapade into low-fat, guilt-free, ‘healthy’ foods. Millions have been made on low-fat diet foods. Fast forward to May 2016 and the National Obesity Forum announce that the overall effect has been a disaster – with more obese adults than ever before.

So enter side stage – evil sugar. Blamed for an ‘epidemic’ of diabetes, fatness and children losing their teeth. Stars like Jaime Oliver have taken up the gauntlet, celebrities like Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson, Adele and Eva Longoria are speaking out on the wonders of quitting. You can even find websites such as ‘I quit sugar with Sarah Wilson iquitsugar.comwhich claim to transform your body, mind and life. High profile political campaigns are led by Robert Lustig, professor of paediatric endocrinology University of California and summed up in Fat Chance: The bitter truth about sugar.

But is this just another fad? Or should we really be listening. We went to pick the brains of Hayley Pedrick, our nutrition advisor and suddenly the buns on the coffee counter took on a whole new character.

Sugar is part of nature. Our bodies have an inbuilt, primal mechanism which is designed to reward us with pleasure signals when we consume it. Traditionally this would’ve encouraged us to eat to our full when foods were available, our body faithfully storing the excess away as fat, in preparation for leaner months which likely lay ahead. Food manufactures have long manipulated this biological reinforcement pathway to sell more product - loading processed foods up with the fats and sugars they knew would bring us back again and again for more. In fact it is believed that processed food triggers hedonic eating, the consumption of food for pleasure rather than for nutritive purposes and this, in conjunction with our sedentary modern lifestyles is at least in part to blame for the obesity epidemic we’re now facing. The UK ranks in the top 29 fattest countries in the world with around 2/3 of the adult population classed as overweight or obese. Too much sugar is part of the problem and it is estimated that the average UK adultis eating twice the recommended daily allowance of 25g (6 tsp) a day and children up to three times.

So why are we eating so much?

It is not necessarily that we are chowing down on cookies and fizzy soda drinks. Much of the sugar we eat is ‘hidden’. Used in nearly all manufactured foods, we think we are eating a balanced diet, but a quick look at the packaging will show you that lurking inside are spoonful’s of sugar. Sugar is not always labelled clearly. It comes in many guises including fructose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, molasses, invert sugar, hydrolysed starch, carbohydrates of which sugar. If the label tells you there are 5g/100g of the product, this is low. 22g/100g is high.

A quick trip round the local market will soon tell you just how much we are eating. Take a look at an innocuous pasta sauce, a stir-fry sauce, bread (yes bread!), cereal. Then there are the coffees we drink. An ordinary latte will provide you with around 135 calories and 13.55g sugar - and that’s before we even get started on speciality coffees and summertime frappucinos… 

And what about the no-sugar foods, laced with sweeteners such as saccharine and aspartame? Well, your brain cannot tell the difference. It reacts as if it were sugar- hi-jacking the pleasure centres of the brain and encouraging repeat engagement with sweet “treats”.

And what is it doing? Well there are a number of downsides to sugar, including:

  • Weight gain – especially around the waist

  • Increase in menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and flashes

  • Internal inflammation which creates joint pain and poor digestion

  • Overeating – as sugar leads to sugar highs and lows as your insulin tries to balance to much glucose in your blood

  • Poor sleeping – which in itself leads to weight gain as it increases the hunger hormone ghrelin

  • Bad skin 

So what can you do?

Step one: Cut down. Read the labels and keep your intake to 25g a day. In the first few days you might feel a few cravings. If so, eat some nuts or half an avocado– the good fat in them will carry you through a sugar low.

Step two: If you must sweeten any baking, use smaller amounts of raw cane sugar or rapdura which is coconut sugar. There is also a sugar substitute called Stevia which research indicates does not impact blood glucose, but it is early days.

Step three:Quit the skinny lattes, soda drinks or high fructose juices (mango, pineapple, peach) and shift to water. If you hate water, use dilute fruit juice 1/3 juice to 2/3 water and preferably not from concentrate.

Step four: Sleep. A good night’s rest will go a long way to maintaining a balance between your hormones ghrelin and leptin and stop you reaching for the doughnuts and cookies.

Step five: Reduce alcohol and move to low sugar options. A vodka and cranberry juice gives you a whopping 7 teaspoons of sugar. Cocktails don’t even bear thinking about. Stick to a glass of red wine (1/2/ teaspoon) or for a pre-dinner drink have vodka, soda and a slice of real lime.

Step six: Give yourself a break. There is no fun in being an anti-sugar fanatic, seeing danger on every plate and lurking behind every packet. If you drop off the sugar-free wagon just get back on. It gets easier as you go. After a few weeks of a low sugar diet, those sticky buns just don’t look nearly as appealing and you regain your ability to choose when and what you indulge in to support the health of your body.

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