Most of us have a sweet tooth. Granted, some more than others, but across the world people crave, enjoy and delight in the heady goodness of sugar. With all the different theories on health, weight and what you should and shouldn’t eat, it’s hard to get to the truth of the matter of sugar intake.
We’ve teamed up with Dr Margo De Kooker, MD and functional medicine practitioner, to find out what actually is in a spoonful of sugar.
In this blog, you will learn:
- What is sugar?
- How has our usage of sugar changed over the years?
- Are all sugars created equal?
- Why does sugar make you fat?
- What’s the recommended daily intake of sugar?
- Why do we eat so much sugar nowadays?
- How to identify hidden sugars.
- The solution to your sugar woes.
What is sugar?
At a molecular level, sugar is a fructose and a glucose. Dr Margo notes, “Glucose is the energy of life. It’s what fuels our cells and enables our bodies to function.” Fructose is rare in nature and can only be metabolised in our livers. This means there is a limit to how much of it we can healthily intake.
How has our usage of sugar changed over the years?
Before mass production and the industrial age, we lived seasonally. Our apple tree would blossom and we would share the apples with our family and friends. We would all get as many as we could into our mouths before the season was over and apples were no more for the year.
This meant we got seasonal spikes of sugar (especially fructose). This usually came with plenty of other nutrients and fibre, and then we went back to the usual palate of our meals. What this led to was metabolic flexibility. Our bodies could deal with sugar in short, sharp spurts and were programmed for cyclical sugar rushes.
Dr Margo notes, “Our lives have become mundane.” What the doctor means by this is that now we get most fruit and veg year-round and there is no short spike, but rather a continuous over-injection of glucose and fructose. Variety and seasonality are out. Sugar is in…everything.
In rare and small doses, sugar is not the devil it has become. The problem is that we’ve extracted, refined, concentrated and overdosed on it. And, according to Dr Margo, the way the brain reacts to sugar is similar to how it reacts to a drug.
Sugar acts in the reward zone of your brain, which is the same area that drives desire for sex, drugs (and rock ‘n roll, in some cases). That’s the reason that you cannot possibly bear the thought of eating another bite of your meal, but when someone mentions dessert, your inner sugar demon immediately perks up.
Are all sugars created equal?
You may have been led to believe that brown sugar or raw sugar is better for you than white sugar. We would like to shed some light on this.
Sugar is sugar at heart. At an elemental level, all sugars have the same metabolic effect and we can only process so much without consequences.
White sugar is refined and stripped of all mineral and molasses components.
Brown sugar is often white sugar that has had some molasses added to it.
Raw sugar from sugar cane is probably the best one as it has minerals and traces that help its digestion, but it is very hard to come by real, raw sugar.
In nature, sugar is hard to get and when you do get it, you have to process loads of fibre along with it. Sugar cane is very fibrous and eating it raw is a challenge.
What that fibre does is it gets the food moving faster through your digestive tract, so you don’t have time to absorb as much of the sugar. Apples may have sugar, but they also have fibre and minerals that change the way the sugar is digested.
This is why fruit juice is such a bad idea as it’s basically sugar without the fibre.
Did you know? A cup of fruit juice could be the equivalent to five apples’ worth of sugar.
But with fibre speeding up the movement through your system, there’s also the potential problem that you’ll end up with a high amount of sugar in your lower intestine, which can overstimulate your intestinal bacteria and cause an overgrowth of yeast. Thus, why even fruit needs to be eaten in moderation.
Why does sugar make you fat?
Dr Margo explains, “Think of the body as a house. You can store different things in different rooms. The body has the capacity to store a certain amount of sugar (glucose to be more accurate), but the storeroom for sugar is small – the size of a wardrobe. If you consume more sugar than you can store, the body can’t just flush it out.”
If you flood your body with sugar, you store it, and the body forgets to burn it. The only cells in the body that have the ability to expand and contract to allow them to store sugar, are the fat cells. So, sugar is converted into fat when the wardrobe is full.
Every spike in blood glucose causes a spike in insulin (to bring the blood sugar levels down) BUT insulin is a hormone that signals fat cells to STORE fat. So, as long as you have your blood sugar spiking up, you are telling your fat cells to store rather than release fat.
The first place you’ll find this fat is in the liver, which causes fatty liver disease. The next place is around the organs, which leads to dangerous visceral fat. And then the rest of the body.
The other crazy thing that insulin does is that it blocks the signal from our fat cells to the brain that tells us we have enough stores, so we should STOP eating. So, insulin keeps you hungry!
What’s the recommended daily intake of sugar?
In the US, it is six teaspoons for women and nine for men because men generally have a larger muscular structure and are able to store more glucose. Their wardrobe is bigger.
It’s important to remember that this amount is not just the sugar you take in your coffee or the biscuit you have at teatime. It also includes all the hidden sugar in your food.
Why do we eat so much sugar nowadays?
On that note, let’s talk about hidden sugar.
According to Dr Margo, if you look at the editions of cookbooks pre-1950s and those same books now, the main difference is the sugar content because they have been adjusted to people’s palates. From overconsumption, we have lost a lot of our sensitivity around sweetness.
Fifty years ago, food was home-cooked, most ingredients were fresh or made from scratch, and sugar was rarely in savoury food. Nowadays, we have a load of processed, packaged and preserved food that is full of, you guessed it, hidden sugar. So, on top of the sweet treats you allow yourself in moderation, you also have to take into account all the sugar in your savoury food.
And it is a fact that the more sugar you eat, the more you want.
How to identify these hidden sugars
So, what’s the solution?
The key is moderation and balance. In the context of a good diet that is full of veggies, protein, nuts and seeds, a sweet treat every now and then would be okay.
To really control the amount of sugar in your diet and give your body the right amount and not a surfeit, you need to pay attention to the ingredients on packaged food and, where possible, use unprocessed whole and natural ingredients.
If you can all but eliminate sugar from your savoury meals, you really don’t need to feel any guilt in indulging in a sweet treat every now and then.
A final note from Dr Margo:
“A common challenge that has emerged in the last few decades is that some people have completely lost their ability to burn fat (no metabolic flexibility) and have to completely avoid sugar and things that turn into sugar easily too (such as the other white stuff – bread, pasta, potatoes, cereals). So, certain individuals have a bigger task at hand. Remember, we are all individuals and our genes may determine different responses to foods. That said, if everyone just focussed on sugar, we’d all go a long way toward better metabolic health.”