I have five children and I am doing my best to bring them up as healthy as possible; giving them good foods to eat and cooking for them at home so they understand how to cook. But there is only so much I can control and the amount of sugar my youngest is eating is really worrying me. I know there is a big debate on sugar at the moment so I wanted to find out more about it and what effects sugar is having on our bodies. Below are some really interesting facts that I hope will help you understand sugar in our foods better and how to make simple changes to improve your diet. Everything below is referenced and you can click on the links to find out more.
Q: What is sugar?
A: Sugar is a generalised name for sweet short chain carbohydrates, composed of carbon hydrogen and oxygen. All carbohydrates are made up of complex chains of these sugars. Simple sugars are made up of one (monosaccharides) or two (disaccharides) molecules of sugar.
Q: What are the different types of sugars?
A: There are a number or different types of sugar.
A. Nutritional Therapist Erin Tabrar from Nuffield Health explains, ‘when we eat sugary foods they cause our blood sugar levels to rise rapidly. They prompt the body to release the hormone insulin which tells the body to remove sugar from the blood and store it in our cells, if our glycogen levels are full (which is our body’s glucose storage method) we convert the sugar into fat inside the cell leading to weight gain. Our blood sugar levels then fall rapidly often leaving us with low blood sugar levels one to two hours later. This leaves us feeling tired, moody and craving more sugar and the cycle can be repeated over and over again throughout the day’.
A: Eating sugar prompts the release of the hormone insulin, the more glucose in the blood the more insulin is released which is like a key opening our cells’ doors so they can absorb glucose from the blood stream to either burn it for energy or store it as fat. However, while insulin is in the blood, dealing with all the glucose it also tells the fat cells to hold onto fat, turning off our fat burning processes.
Refined carbohydrates like white bread, white pasta and white rice have had the fibre removed which means they break down rapidly into glucose and have the same effect as sugar on our body, disrupting our blood sugar and insulin levels.
A: High sugar levels in the blood can cause highs in the mood and the feeling of being elated and wired – which is not the same as happiness. When the sugar high ends our blood sugar levels plummet, then the stress hormone adrenalin is released. It tells the brain to eat more sugar because it does not like the “low” feeling it is experiencing and then the vicious cycle begins again. If your glucose level is stable and not fluctuating then you have more clarity, less mood swings and feel less anxious.
Q: Why do we crave sugary foods?
A: It is in our DNA! Sugary foods were so rare when we were hunters and gatherers that if we saw a fig tree then we would binge eat on the fruit because it was fast energy and we did not know when we would come across such tasty fruit again. We needed the calories back then. The only problem now is that we have a surplus amount of foods high in sugar and the cravings have not evolved to deal with this abundance.
A: There is research out there that both agrees and disagrees with this statement. What has been proven is that rats will work harder to get sugar over cocaine…
When we see a tasty cake a chemical is released in the brain called dopamine which makes us desire the cake even more. When we taste the cake a chemical called opioid and beta endorphins are released in the brain – this process is the same as when we take cocaine or nicotine. We get an initial high from the sugar and feel really good but unfortunately it does not last long and we are left feeling lethargic and craving more. For further info on how sugar effects the brain click here
Q: Can we control cravings?
A: Yes! Nutritional Therapist Erin explains that fluctuating blood sugar levels, caused by eating high sugar foods and refined carbohydrates drive cravings for more high sugar foods. The more sugary foods we eat the more we crave. The less we eat the less we want. Erin suggests making sure meals and snacks contain both protein and fibre which help stabilise our blood sugar levels making sure we get a slow sustained release of energy from our food. For example try a snack of hummus and crudités or berries and natural yoghurt.
Q: Is fructose better than glucose?
A: No, our liver does not have a system to regulate fructose because it was so rare in nature. The liver can only metabolize a small amount of fructose so if you eat more than it can cope with then it turns that extra energy into liver fat. The fat in the liver is then sent out into the blood stream as triglyceride which can lead to excess weight, blocked arteries, and heart disease. Some of that fat will stay in the liver, impairing the function of this vital organ and increasing the risk of diabetes and insulin resistance.
Q: Are fruit juices good or bad?
A: One apple contains around four teaspoons of sugar. You might think that it is a lot, but it also contains fibre and vitamins. If you were asked to eat four apples in a row could you? The answer is no because the fibre in the apple tells you that you are full and stops you eating more than one. However, if you squeeze four apples, the fibre is removed and you are left with a small glass of juice. This juice you can easily drink and it contains a shocking 16 teaspoons of sugar!
Q: Do we need some sugar in our diet?
A: Nutritional Therapist Erin says, ‘We actually have no need for simple sugars in our diet but we do need carbohydrates which we eventually break down into glucose which we use as fuel. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, pulses, vegetables and fruit are broken down slowly into simple sugars, providing a slow, sustained release of energy. These foods are also very rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants making them a very important part of our diet’.
A: The UK government recommends a maximum of 7 teaspoons (30g)/day. So, starting the day with a bowl of granola (approx 5 teaspoons), fruit yoghurt (4 teaspoons) and glass of orange juice (6 teaspoons) would already take you well over your recommended amount by the end of breakfast. For children the recommended amount is 5-6 teaspoons (19-24g).
The average American eats between 22 and 40 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
Q: Food labelling is so confusing. How can I better understand what is good and bad for me?
A: The best thing would be to buy as many real, whole, unprocessed foods as possible, these tend not to come with a label at all! If you do buy foods with a label then look at the recommended serving size. Less than 10g per portion of sugar (approx 2 teaspoons of sugar) would be considered low, 10g-20g would be moderate sugar content and above 20g would be high sugar.
A: Fat is an important nutrient in small amounts but we need to get our fat from the right places, nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and oily fish should be eaten regularly. The main problem with fat is combining high fat, processed foods with sugar, such as in a cheesecake. When the two are combined this combination of fat and sugar is not found in nature and switches off our satiety mechanisms so we don’t know when to stop.
Q: So is eating low fat foods good for me?
A: No. If the fat has been taken out then it tastes disgusting so the food companies have substituted the fat with sucrose (sugar) to make it taste nice.
Q: Are sweeteners better for me than sugar?
A: No, they offer no nutritional value to your body and the liver breaks it down the same way as it would sucrose.
Q: Are all calories the same?
A: No. According to Dr. Robert Lustig calories are not the same. Calories that come from sucrose are empty calories compared with calories that come from proteins and fats. That is why we are left feeling hungry after eating a box of biscuits. They are high in calories but they do not satisfy our hunger because we are not getting any nutritional value from them.
Q: Why is there so much sugar in soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi?
A: Howard Moskowitz coined the right amount of sugar in drinks and processed foods as “The Bliss Point”. If you put too much sugar in a product then we don’t like it, so the amount has to be just right. In fizzy drinks, especially Coke there is a large quantity of salt in it, so they added sugar to disguise the taste of the salt and to make it more appealing to us.
Q: Why do we get fat around the stomach?
A: According to Dr Jean Marc Schwartz, the fat around the stomach is visceral fat and that is caused by fructose. If you are fat around the stomach then you are at increased risk of developing metabolic disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Q: How am I supposed to reduce the amount of sugar in my children’s diet?
A: Educate your children about sugar and explain how high sugar foods can actually impair mood, energy and concentration. Get your children involved in cooking some batches of healthy, low sugar snacks you can enjoy as a family. Check out Deliciously Ella, Hemsley and Hemsley our EAT IT page for great recipes.
I know there is a lot of information to take in but below are some amazing documentaries that really inspired me to learn more about sugar and the foods that my children are eating and love. I know it is really hard to reduce the sugar in their diet, but if you start when they are young then they will get used to the right foods and not associate taste only with something sweet. We are working on some healthy lunch ideas for children with Nutritional Therapist Erin and will be sharing these with you in the next few days…
If you need any more help with tips on how to reduce sugar or other nutritional support for your family you can book a consultation with a registered Nutritional Therapist at Nuffield Health sites throughout the UK.
In the meantime if you would like to find out more about sugar then please click on the links and references below:
That Sugar Film by Damon Gameau
Responsible foods by Dr. Robert Lustig
Why we get Fat by Gary Taubes
9 Shocking facts you need to know about sugar by Larry Schwartz
The extraordinary science of junk food by Michael Moss (New York Times Magazine 2013)