Almost two decades ago I trained to become a fitness instructor. A unit on nutrition was part of the course. I clearly remember the instructor standing up in front of us saying “the only thing that makes us fat, is fat”. She went on to say, potatoes aren’t the problem (they were getting a bad wrap at the time), and it’s not sugar, just fat. 20 years ago, that was the popular thinking amongst professionals and consumers alike. Research had shown links between fat and heart disease. The food manufacturers sprung into action to meet a new consumer demand. Fat-free everything was available. Fat was replaced with sugar. But we didn’t get healthier. We all got fatter.
Now, we understand that there is more to the story of being fat. There is now a significant body of research on the negative effects of consuming too much sugar. Excess sugar has been scientifically linked to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, lower white blood cell counts (compromising the immune system), high “bad” cholesterol, depression, violent behaviour and even lower test scores in children. But many of these health problems take years and years to manifest, so really, should we be worried about sugar?
The straight answer, is yes. Most of us eat too much sugar (the American average is 22 teaspoons or 88g per day). Even if consumption was at half of those levels we should indeed be very, very worried.
Most of us have experienced a sugar crash first hand. When we eat sugar the pancreas goes to work making insulin which carries glucose to our cells for energy. A smart little process. But the more sugar we have, the more insulin is produced which can lead to a drop in blood sugar. Lucky for us our bodies have another clever little process to combat this. We produce adrenal cortisol to raise the blood sugar back to normal. This process in itself is one of the many super cool things the human body can do to protect us. The problem comes when we roller coaster through this process again and again and again. We burn out. Ever heard of adrenal fatigue?
What I find even more interesting (and concerning!) is there has also been a lot of research on how sugar screws with our ability to feel full. Leptin is a hormone which is produced to tell us we’re full. It’s believed that sugar can turn this satiety hormone off causing us to miss full signals. Think about how many times we’ve had a high sugar, high calorie snack that should provide hours of energy… but we’re looking for more food only an hour later.
Hormones such as insulin and leptin work as part of our appetite control system. So when these hormones get out of balance sugar gives us a double punch. Not only does the sugar we just ate get turned into fat but our out of whack system makes us eat even more food. It’s not hard to see how that cycle puts us in a bad place.
Whether sugar is “addictive” or not is still up for debate in the scientific world. Opponents of sugar argue that it’s as addictive as heroin. I’ve never heard of anyone getting the shakes and sweats coming off it (headaches, yes) – but I certainly know a lot of people that sure are dependent on it. And it’s a good question to ask why, if we know its negative effects why do so many people struggle not to eat it? Certainly the more sugar we eat, the more we want it until we just can’t seem to get through a day without it.
The good news is whilst it can be hard to “come off” sugar, the less we eat, the less we want!
One of the tricky things about reducing sugar is that we can be consuming it without knowing it. My 7 month old son and I ventured down supermarket aisles that are unknown territory for us to randomly check out some processed products. We started with the cereals. Yes we knew the Fruit Loops, Cocoa Krispies and Honey Smacks would be high in sugar. All containing 12g to 15g per serve (and that’s if you limit the bowl to the meagre serving size). Starting the day with a breakfast that’s 40% – 55% sugar is crazy. So we checked out some boxes of “healthy” cereals. A different brand of a fruit loop type cereal claimed to be “an excellent source of 9 vitamins and minerals” and at 47% sugar it’s an excellent source of energy if I wanted my kids to be totally hyper before they crash. The Apple Cinnamon Oats that were made of “heart healthy whole grains” also looked promising. Maybe not at 29% sugar (10g per serve). Sugar was the second ingredient.
I struggled that many of these extremely high sugared products are directly targeted at kids. Nearby the cereals I found a box of “Dora the Explorer” bars. Dora is my two year old’s favourite character. The Dora bar is a “fruit snack” made with “real fruit”. Containing over 50% sugar my daughter will never know what her hero’s bar tastes like. Maybe there are better bars. I picked up some “low fat, made with whole grain and with lots of fiber” bars. 30% sugar. Yuck. I knew there was a reason we didn’t come down these aisles.
Next we headed over to the dairy department. There was a range of healthy looking yoghurts. They’re made by a local company. They promise that they’ve used low fat, grade A 1.5% milk with no artifical growth hormone. There are lots of great flavours. We checked out the sugar content: 30g, 32g, 37g, 33g, 35g, 34g… for a single serve 170g tub. Yowser! There were 7.5 to 10 teaspoons of sugar in each snack sized tub. Let’s say we had 30g of sugar in our “healthy” cereal in the morning for breakfast and another 30g in our “healthy” yoghurt at morning tea. That’s already 15 teaspoons of sugar before lunch time.
I can hear you say that you know these types of cereals, bars and yoghurts are sweet and you don’t eat those very often. So we ventured over to see what some “savoury” options were like. Baby back ribs, pulled chicken, beef and pork. All contained around 14% sugar with 20g – 30g per serve. How about the sauces? 4g – 5g of sugar doesn’t seem so terrible, but with a serving size of only a tablespoon or 2 thats still 25% – 30% per serve. Most of the sauces we looked at were around 30% per serve. Some up to 50%. Most called a serve only 1 – 2 tablespoons.
Our toast and the peanut butter that goes on top. Fresh pasta and the pasta sauce (in fact of the three I picked up to look at the “veggie smart” sauce had the most sugar). The chips and the dip both contain sugar. Sugar is even in processed vegetables. In the canned sweet corn and sweet peas. In the sliced beets and the can of candied yams. A portion of that “vegetable option” was 18% sugar! No wonder we are addicted to the stuff.
Another sticky problem with processed foods and sugar is it’s not always obvious sugar has been added even when we’re staring straight at the label. Sugar has hundreds of different names: maltose, cane crystal, diastatic malt, evaporated cane juice, dextrin, agave nector, galactose, malted barley, malitol, brown rice syrup, carbitol, honey, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, malted barley, treacle, sorbitol, caramel and sorghum syrup just to name a few. This can cause confusion on two accounts. One is that it can be difficult to recognise that there is added sugar when we don’t recognise the name. The second is that the different names can make it appear like there is less sugar in the product. The ingredients in a product are listed in order of quantity. When a product has three, four or more different types of sugar in it the different names get spread further down the list. If the sugars were all listed together it might be the first or second ingredient, but split over three names spread further down list it isn’t so glaringly obvious.
Perhaps the solution is eating sugar free and diabetic products packed with artificial sweeteners? Personally, I’d be staying off that stuff too for two reasons. First, there is some evidence to suggest that our brains can’t tell the difference between artificial sweeteners and sugar so we stay keen on eating the sweet stuff making sugar harder to resist. The second reason is whilst the FDA scientists have approved artificial sweeteners as safe to consume, it doesn’t make sense to me to eat chemicals in our food when we don’t need to eat any of those products in the first place. Processed sugar has no nutritional value (ok, there are small amounts of nutrients in molasses, maple syrup and honey) but not enough to justify eating vast quantities of them. We don’t need processed sugar.
Sugar haters believe we shouldn’t eat any sugar at all. Period. Not even fruit. I’m not convinced fruit needs to be cut out. Yes, fruit contains fructose but in generally much less quantities than most packaged products. Fruits are packed full of goodness in terms of vitamins and minerals. They are full of fiber and they are nature’s convenience foods. A banana is just as quick to open and just as portable as a packet of cookies. It’s also difficult to eat more than one banana (or maybe two if you’re really hungry?) in one sitting but I sure know people who can make a good dent in a packet of cookies in a short period of time!
Our family for the most part stays away from processed foods so that helps us stay away from added sugars. When I cook, I don’t add sugar. Sometimes we do have something in the house that contains a bit of sugar. The photo of the packet of quinoa and brown rice blend was taken from our pantry. It has 1g of sugar per cup of grains and we’ve eaten it about twice this year. It’s one of those for emergency, we have no food in the house, meals. And we don’t treat “no sugar” like a religion – just a lifestyle.
To me a common sense test is how dependent I am on sugar. I don’t crave sugar, I don’t have afternoon slumps, I’m more than happy to pass on doughnuts, cake, ice cream and soda (it’s not about will power, I just don’t like them). I find processed products with added sugar way too sweat (My husband and I out of desperation for lunch at 2pm the other day bought some pre-made potato and chicken soup. We both found it almost inedible because of the added sugar. I’m sure it was made to suit the average taste palette). When our taste buds aren’t confused by an onslaught of sugar some vegetables can even taste sweet. Yes, sweet corn, tomatoes, capsicums, carrots are all quite sweet by themselves. If this changes then probably too much sugar is sneaking in and I need to pull back on it again.
So the solution? Step one of course is to stop eating the obvious sugary foods (candy, cola and cupcakes), then start checking the labels of anything in a package for added sugar (and it’s pseudonyms), better yet, filling up on real food and eating less out of a packet means less label reading; and instead of sulking about what you’ll be missing focus on delicious fruits being your sweet treat instead. Berries, melons, citrus, apples, stone fruit, kiwis whatever you like. They are all so much tastier and so, so, so much healthier.