For decades, it’s been drummed into us that saturated fat is the greatest dietary evil, so it seems hard to believe that sugar is actually worse.
But there’s a growing body of expert opinion that, in fact, it’s sugar that’s to blame for so many deadly illnesses, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to Alzheimer’s and some cancers.
Sugar is also now known to be highly addictive.
What makes it so pernicious is that it’s very difficult to avoid, as manufacturers have hidden it in so many foods in order to make their products more appealing. It’s in soups, pasta sauces, salad dressings and bread, as well as cakes and biscuits.
We are all consuming far too many sugar-laden soft drinks and foods, such as cakes, biscuits, white bread and pastries.
Normally the protein, fibre and healthy fats (from foods such as olive oil, avocados and oily fish) in our food would slow down the speed with which our bodies metabolise sugar. This is because these healthy foods take longer to process and make their way through our system.
But because our modern diets are often mostly made up of refined carbohydrates, we end up with a pretty constant flow of sugar through the bloodstream.
This, in turn, triggers the pancreas to release the hormone insulin.
Insulin plays ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ in your body. It’s good when you eat something with sugar, because it jumps in to control the sugar. But it is also bad because it speeds up sugar’s conversion into fat, depositing it in places where you don’t want it, such as around your belly.
This is because insulin tries to control the sugar overload by telling the liver to convert some of this sugar into glycogen (so it can be stored for later in the liver).
There are also glycogen stores in the muscles, but once the muscle and liver stores are full, the liver will start to turn excess sugar into fats called triglycerides.
This fat is stored in the liver, but also in fat cells throughout the body, particularly the abdomen. So the more sugar we eat, the more insulin we release – and the more fat we store.
Furthermore, these triglycerides spill out into the bloodstream, clogging up arteries and increasing your risk of heart attacks.
Another problem is that your body can get so accustomed to pumping out quantities of insulin that your cells become ‘insulin resistant’, which means they are almost numb to insulin and don’t respond quickly or effectively to the hormone.
As a result, you can end up with even more sugar in the bloodstream. What happens next is not entirely clear, but it’s thought these sugars left unchecked in the bloodstream end up grabbing onto protein molecules throughout the body.
The resulting protein-sugar combinations (or to give them their technical name, advanced glycation end products), can end up in organs all around the body, where they appear to trigger an inflammatory response, causing tissue damage and premature ageing.
Another part of the problem is that sugar comes in many disguises, as we reveal here. The secret to preventing your sugar addiction returning is to limit your intake of these foods and drinks.
We recommend avoiding – as much as possible – all refined white carbohydrates.
The refining process turns any grain into a form of sugar. When the bran and the germ are stripped from wheat, what remains is a simple carbohydrate that’s rapidly absorbed by your body, just as a sugar molecule is.
With this quick absorption also comes a tendency to eat more, because the sugar floods straight into your bloodstream, meaning you don’t have the same feeling of fullness as you might if you eat something containing fibre or protein (which take longer to digest, so slowing down the digestive process).
So we recommend avoiding – as much as possible – all refined white carbohydrates, especially white pasta, bagels, biscuits, wraps and bread.
Wheat contains a type of carbohydrate called amylopectin A, which is extra potent when the grain has been refined, because the lack of fibre means it converts to blood sugar more easily than any other carbohydrate.
Modern white flour (compared with the flour our ancestors ate) contains a type of protein called gliadin, which triggers a feel-good effect in the brain (it binds to opiate receptors there) and stimulates appetite. This is one of the reasons white-flour foods, such as pasta, are high on the list of comfort foods.
Another one to avoid is the white flour bagel. A plain, average-size bagel is the equivalent in calories and sugar of five slices of white bread and sends your system into a sugar overload – setting you up to crash afterwards and reach for another unhealthy option.
The refining process takes wholegrain rice and turns it into sugar.
While the glycaemic index (the speed with which it is metabolised by the body) of rice does vary, based on the rice variety and cooking time, all forms of white rice will cause a sugar spike when you eat it. A study in the British Medical Journal in 2012 showed an 11 per cent increase in diabetes risk with each daily serving of white rice.
Opt instead for brown rice or other high-fibre grains, such as quinoa, which slow digestion and make you feel fuller more quickly.
Some vegetables – such as sweetcorn, potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash – are carbohydrates in disguise. The body processes carbohydrates into a form of sugar, so while starchy vegetables aren’t as bad as refined carbohydrates, they do raise blood sugar levels.
However, the vitamins and minerals they contain make them better options than desserts, so don’t forgo them in favour of cake. Just enjoy them in moderation.
Avoid dried fruit, especially dates, cranberries, raisins and prunes
While all fruit has health benefits, some – such as bananas, pineapple and watermelon – are very high in fruit sugars which, though natural, have the same impact on blood sugar levels as table sugar.
It is best to enjoy low-sugar fruits (apples or berries) instead, because just one taste can be enough to start sugar cravings.
Also avoid dried fruit, especially dates, cranberries, raisins and prunes.
The drying process concentrates the sugars and many dried fruits have added sugar, which will increase the jump in your blood sugar levels more quickly.
Because juice has no protein or fibre, it’s a super-quick way to spike your blood sugar levels. A piece of low-sugar fruit gives you the chew factor (which is more satisfying), plus the fibre that will help delay any sugar rush.
All fizzy drinks – full sugar or diet versions – have no nutritional value. Most are merely a cocktail of chemicals and artificial colours in a steady stream of liquid sugar or more chemicals.
Although you may think diet fizzy drinks will sate your sugar cravings, they do the opposite.
Most are much sweeter than regular sugar and cause an imbalance in your tastebud sensitivity that prevents you from perceiving normal sweetness. This may make you want more sweet food to compensate.
One ten-year study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, found that the waistlines of people who consumed diet drinks expanded by 70 per cent more than non-drinkers’ waistlines.
Those who drank more than two diet drinks a day were almost five times more likely to gain weight than those who didn’t.
New evidence suggests artificial sweeteners may be as bad as real sugar when it comes to insulin and blood sugar levels. When sugar receptors (in the mouth, gut and pancreas) get tripped, they signal the brain to get ready for a sugar blast.
The body reacts in turn by absorbing more real sugar, triggering insulin production and turning sugar into fat.
Artificial sweeteners stimulate the same receptors that real sugar does, and with the same results – they may actually cause you to absorb more sugars according to a study at Purdue University in the U.S., published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Credit: From an article in the Daily Mail