Sugar’s reputation is fast becoming tainted in health circles and mainstream media. Heralded as the “new fat”, research is revealing that excess sugar consumption is more dangerous than consuming excessive saturated fats.
The spotlight on sugar can be attributed to the rise in numerous lifestyle-related diseases over the past two decades – including diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
The medical world is looking for answers, and the case for sugar being the culprit is stronger than ever before.
The average South African adult consumes between 12 and 24 teaspoons (48-96 grams) of sugar per day. South African children consume 50g of sugar per day on average, and this can increase up to 100g per day during adolescence.
The American Heart Association recommends that adult women consume no more than six teaspoons (25g) of added sugar per day, and that adult men should not exceed nine tsp (36 grams) per day. Children are limited to three teaspoons (12g) per day.
Looking at these statistics, it soon becomes clear that we have a problem at hand. Of course, not all sugars are created equal. The cause for concern is predominantly refined sugars.
Refined sugar can come in several forms: table sugar or sucrose (one molecule glucose and one fructose), fructose (isolated from fruit), liquid sugar (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, sugar cane syrups, molasses), other commercial sugars (e.g. multidextrose) or refined carbohydrates (white flours).
These sugars contain little to no nutrients and fibre, which means they are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
This leads to spikes in insulin levels as the body enters panic mode and tries to process the influx of sugar.
What follows is the familiar “sugar crash” as blood sugar levels dip. Due to low blood sugar levels, your body sends your brain signals that it needs more sugar.
This causes the destructive cycle of blood sugar spikes and dips to continue – a perfect recipe for sugar addiction.
The constant insulin spikes can also lead to insulin resistance over time, which is a precursor for diabetes.
Glucose is used by body cells or metabolised in the liver, while fructose can only be processed by the liver, which converts excess sugar to glycogen and stores it in the cells as an instant energy source.
However, when there is too much sugar, the liver creates fat in the form on triglycerides instead. Over time, this can lead to weight gain and its other associated health risks.
In contrast, natural sugars found in whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grass-fed dairy, and wholegrains contain numerous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibre. The fibre slows down the rate at which the sugar enters the bloodstream, and the nutrients support the body’s metabolism and provide the building blocks for a healthy body.
Eating wholefoods leads to a lower likelihood of overeating (e.g. it is easier to eat the equivalent sugar from four pineapples than it is to eat four whole pineapples in one sitting).
Due to the slow sugar release, wholefoods are also not addictive, which means that when people follow a wholefoods-based diet, they will eat when they are truly hungry, as opposed to when they are suffering from sugar withdrawal symptoms.
Some of the worst research-backed side effects of consuming processed sugar include:
Behavioural problems in children;
Accelerated aging (sugar causes glycation – the bonding of glucose and collagen. This may result in side effects such as arterial thickening, stiff joints, pain, feeble muscles and organ failure);
Immune system suppression; and
Increased likelihood of developing certain cancers (breast and pancreatic cancer).
The good news is that it is completely possible to enjoy a refined sugar-free lifestyle, and not feel deprived.
Once the body stops receiving refined sugars, withdrawal symptoms and constant cravings will disappear.
This means that the focus can shift to enjoying nutritious foods based on true hunger cues.
Avoid the following:
Soft drinks and energy drinks
Pasteurised fruit juices
Candy and chocolate bars
Refined (white) bread, flours, rice, maize, and baked goods
Commercial sauces, salad dressings, and canned soups and vegetables
Take the time to famil-
iarise yourself with the different sugar names – did you know there are over 61 different names for sugar used on food labels? And if the ingredient list is too long, cut it out of your diet (you don’t need all those additives and preservatives either).
Eat the following:
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Whole grains (unrefined grains)
Nuts and seeds
Sugar-free dried fruits (in moderation)
Beans and legumes
Raw honey (in moderation)
Unsweetened, full-fat dairy products (yoghurts, milk).
Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself.
Changing habits formed over a lifetime can be tricky, but trust me, once the benefits start outweighing the effort, you’ll soon wonder why it took you so long to make the shift in the first place.