So what’s the big deal about sugar?
As a nutritionist and naturopath this is something I get asked a lot. Firstly I want to say that like most people I enjoy sweet things – it’s not about avoiding sugar completely but rather about the amount that we consume in our diets, mostly the hidden parts that we don’t even know we are eating in the processed foods we eat. Knowing what’s in our food means we have control over how much we consume, and the easiest way to do this is to make it yourself, which is why I created this book. Here are the most common questions I get asked about sugar.
Does the body actually need sugar?
Yes it does, but in the form of complex carbohydrates, not refined white sugar. Glucose is the brains preferred source of energy, it travels through your bloodstream to fuel the mitochondrial furnaces responsible for your brain power. The neurons in your brain cannot store glucose, so they depend on the blood stream to deliver a constant supply. The brain cells need 2 times more energy than other cells in your body. This is because neurons (the cells that communicate with each other) are always in a state of metabolic activity. The most demanding of the neurons energy, over half of it, are the signals responsible for communication throughout your nervous system.
What happens when you eat too much sugar?
A sugary snack quickly rises your blood sugar levels which gives you a boost but it is short lived. Your pancreas starts to secrete insulin. Insulin triggers cells through out your body to pull the excess glucose out of your bloodstream and store it for later use. Soon the glucose available to your brain has dropped. As the neurons are unable to store the glucose they experience and energy crisis. Hours later you can feel spaced out, weak, confused and or nervous. Your ability to think and focus suffers. This is called hyperglycaemia.
Why are complex carbohydrates/whole foods better?
The best way to ‘feed’ your brain is to have the sugar continuously be ‘drip feed’ into it by way of complex carbohydrates (wholefoods). Complex carbohydrates have long chains of sugar molecules that liver gradually breaks down into shorter glucose molecules the brain uses for fuel. In natural food the cell walls are made of cellulose fibre that resists digestion, slowing the break down and release of sugars into the bloodstream. A good analogy of the difference between complex carbohydrates and simple is that complex carbs are like time release capsules and simple are like an injection into the bloodstream.
Why do we like sugar so much?
It is actually in our genetic programming to like sugar. In nature, when something is sweet then it isn’t poisonous. Back in the hunter gatherer days we foraged for foods, and when something tasted sweet we knew it was safe to eat. So when we eat it now we still have this memory that believes that sweet is ok.
Can I become addicted to sugar?
Yes you can. New research has shown that sugar ignites the pleasure/reward centres in your brain, like other addictive substances such as cocaine. Unfortunately in order to get that same feeling you need to take more and more of it, which leads to an overconsumption.
(Recent studies have shown that lab rats favour sugar over cocaine, proving how addictive it can be!).
How much sugar can I eat in one day?
This answer is in relation to how much added sugar we can have by way of refined sugar, not the necessary carbohydrates we need each day. The American Heart Association recommends that adult men can have 9 teaspoons and women 6 teaspoons. That means as a child is half the size they should have 4 to 3 teaspoons. What is scary about this is how much is in the processed foods we eat. For example, the average bottle of flavoured yoghurt contains between 5 to 6 teaspoons; the average muesli bar contains between 4 to 5; and we have all heard how much sugar there is in a can of coke – yes it is 10 teaspoons! The average western adult consumes 21 teaspoons each day, over twice the recommended amount!
How can I work out how much sugar is in something?
1 teaspoon of sugar = 4 grams.
So when looking at the nutritional information, where it lists carbohydrates check to see how many grams it says. If it has more than one serving, multiply the number of grams of sugar by the number of servings:
i.e. 27 grams sugar + 2.5 total servings = 65 grams of sugar. Which = 16 ¼ teaspoons!
It can be quite scary when you start working out how much there actually is in some foods!
Why is sugar in all our processed foods?
It is a very efficient preservative, as it blocks various forms of spoilage bacteria by tying up the water in which they grow. It is also very cheap, easily produced, and has an infinite shelf life, and its sweetness masks the lack of flavour that processing foods creates.
Why is white sugar bad for us?
Refined white sugar contains no fibre, minerals, proteins, fats or enzymes. When you eat it your body must borrow nutrients from healthy cells to metabolise the sugar. It is for this reason it has been termed “empty” or “negative calories” as it depletes the body’s precious reserves. Calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium are taken from various parts of the body in order to do this. It like a bank account – if you withdraw faster than you put money back in your account will eventually empty.
Does sugar cause hyperactivity?
It can contribute. The circumstances in which we allow children to have lots of sugar are usually parties, which are environments in which the children are already highly excited and excitable. Mix this with the fact that a lot of party foods also contain artificial colours, preservatives and caffeine, all of which have been linked with hyperactivity. You also have to remember their body size – a child is a third or half the size of an adult, so something that seems small to us can be quite a large amount to them.
Is there any way to reduce the crazy sugar highs my children get after a birthday party?
There is actually a really good trick you can do that will help. When the children are on their way to the party give them a sandwich with some protein in it like cheese, peanut butter, meat or eggs. (Other options are half a cup of nuts, or hummus and crackers). What happens is – when their stomach breaks down the proteins it will mix in with all the sweet stuff, slowing down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream. (It will also make them fuller so they won’t eat as much junk!).
What sugar do you use?
I use coconut sugar as it is unrefined, so it retains its mineral content and has a low glycaemic index. That means it is digested slowly, so when it is finally broken down in the intestine it is gradually absorbed into the blood stream as glucose which causes a gradual rise in blood sugar levels. This supplies you with a steady supply of energy, meaning you stay fuller for longer and are less likely to snack. It is made from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm. It is boiled on a low heat until it is reduced to sugar crystals. (It is important to note that coconut sugar is not as sweet as refined sugar).