Sugar – The 21st Century Health Epidemic

Sugar, once expensive and deemed as a luxury, is now, in various guises, in almost every processed food and drink we consume.  The World Health Organisation recommend a maximum of 25g (6 teaspoons) per day for an adult – much less for a child, yet we are eating on average 30-40 teaspoons of the white stuff per day and this is having a dramatic effect on our health. When I was growing up, the only negative we knew about sugar was causing tooth decay but we are now realising it can be much more sinister.

But do we really understand sugar.  Let’s get down to absolute basics. 

  • Sugar is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose but has no nutrient value at all.
  • You could live quite happily without any added sugar as we get natural sugars from many other foods.
  • There are many names for sugar – maple syrup, honey, molasses, brown sugar, agave syrups, high fructose corn syrup, barely malt, cane sugar, dextran, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin, Ethyl Maltol, lactose and the list goes on. These all affect the body in the same way so don’t be fooled.
  • Carbohydrates, (think flour, pasta, bread, sugar, vegetables, beans, grains and starchy foods such as potatoes)  get converted into glucose, providing us with energy.
  • Fructose is now deemed to the most damaging sugar forms.
  • Fructose is also found in fruit. Eating a whole fruit means you are also eating some fibre, which slows the digestion of the fructose down.  However, drink your fruit in fruit juice and you have no fibre, therefore a high concentration of fructose floods the liver.  Suddenly your fresh orange juice in the morning contains more sugar than a glass of cola.

So how does sugar affect our body?   Glucose is used to create energy, which is great if you are about to run a marathon, but as our lives our far more sedentary coupled with the high levels of sugar we consume, we fail to ‘burn’ this off.  Glucose is harmful in our blood stream so our pancreas secretes a hormone called Insulin.  Insulin basically transports the glucose to either fat stores or to be used in our muscle just in case we need to ‘run’, but sadly for us, fat stores are the more common destination.  This process also puts a temporary hold on us burning fat reserves so once we are fat, we will stay fat, particularly fat around the middle.  The results not only mean a larger waistline, but high levels on insulin production have serious implications for our overall health.  Fructose is processed in the liver, small doses can be stored as glycogen until we need it but we are consuming so much that the liver has to then turn this into fat within the liver.  Non-alcholic fatty liver disease is increasing, especially in children.  The good news is a change in diet can reverse the damage if caught in time.  The body is a complex, amazing machine, I won’t bore you with the biochemistry, but really there is very little that high sugar consumption does not affect.

We are eating ourselves sick.

Type 2 Diabetes – we are all familiar with the relationship of sugar and diabetes.  Sadly, diabetes is at an all time high, particularly in children, caused totally by diet.  High sugar and refined carbohydrates causes our body to secrete more and more insulin in order to shift the glucose from our blood.  When this delicate system gets abused, it stops working effectively.  The result is Type 2 Diabetes.  This does not just mean having to watch your diet and take insulin daily; it means you are at high risk of a whole wealth of other conditions including eye health, poor healing and heart disease.  It is a life sentence and the only way to change it is to change your diet.

Fatigue – Ever told yourself you need some sugar because you are tired and woolly headed, especially mid afternoon or mid morning?  Before you tuck into that mid afternoon muffin, remember it is your sugar consumption that has caused the fatigue in the first place.  When you consume sugar and carbohydrates, your body converts this to glucose which gives you a blood sugar high.  Within an hour or so, that high will drop, leaving you feeling drained and tired.  Studies have also shown a link between high sugar and sleep disorders.   Eat foods that keep your blood sugar levels stable, avoiding the artificial highs and lows.  Whole grains, oats, healthy fats and protein will keep you fuller for longer and balance out your blood sugar levels.

Hungry – Ever wondered why you are always hungry when you are on a low fat diet?  We have been told for over 40 years that a low fat diet is the solution to weight gain.  This inevitably means we are all opting for low fat, high sugar foods as they contain less calories than fat.   Well, listen up, ditch the low fat foods – they not only make you fatter but they will perpetuate your hunger and cause you to overeat.  Let me introduce you to two hormones – Ghrelin and Leptin.  Ghrelin is the hormone that tells your brain that you are hungry.  It also releases growth hormones and encourages our body to store fat. Leptin is the hormone that tells your brain you are full.  A diet high in sugar and carbohydrates can cause havoc with these, turning off our Leptin hormone, making you more susceptible to overeating.  It also messes around with Ghrelin, making you constantly hungry.  Will power doesn’t stand a chance.  Ghrelin levels increase when dieting.   Research has shown that intermittent fasting can help to rebalance these hormones.    Swap sugar and refined carbohydrates  for high fat, high protein and you will start to recalibrate your hormones to work effectively.

Ageing. Worried about ageing and wrinkles?  Ditch the sugar and refined carbs, fast intermittently and eat a diet rich in healthy fats and protein.  There has been some amazing research by Professor Cynthia Kenyon, who believes that a high sugar/carbohydrate diet has a direct effect on ageing and longevity.   Professor Kenyon has discovered two genes.  The first she called the ‘Grim Reaper’, as this effectively turns off the second ‘Sweet Sixteen’ gene DAF 16 when you have raised insulin levels.  The ‘Sweet Sixteen’ gene  helps boost the immune system, repairs cells and produces vital rebuilding proteins.  There is some evidence that high sugar consumption (increase in insulin production) can be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

Heart disease – We were told that heart disease and obesity were caused by high fat diets yet years of low fat diets later and we now have an epidemic of obesity, with high levels of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.  Keeping things basic, high levels of fructose and glucose cause us to produce more triglycerides (fat in our blood) and lower our HDL (good cholesterol).  Raised insulin levels also increase cholesterol production as well as causing the walls of our blood vessels to contract, making us more prone to high blood pressure.   A 2013 study in the Journal of American Heart Association found that sugar can upset the normal pumping of the heart, increasing your risk of heart failure.

Brain Health.  As well as making us age, excess sugar consumption can also age our brain cells.  There is growing evidence of a link between high sugar consumption and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.   It also messes with the production of dopamine, leading you to get more and more addicted to the white stuff.  Sugar also causes stress on your adrenal glands, contributes to depression, bad moods and lethargy.

Liver Health – Non- Alcoholic Fatty liver disease was rare, but we are seeing more and more cases, even in children.  This is predominately down to Fructose consumption.  High levels of fructose can cause fat globules to form in the liver (lipogenesis) and can cause liver damage in the same way as excess alcohol.  It can be reversed through a change of diet.  There is now a medical term called Metabolic Syndrome which really means those who suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.  All diet related ills that can be prevented.

Bowel Health – Sticky, smelly poos?  High sugar consumption plays havoc with your bowel flora.  Unhealthy bowel flora feeds on the sugar, making  you prone to digestive complaints, flatulence, IBS, bad breath, poor digestion and mineral absorption, as well as lowering your immune system.     A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates will naturally be low in fibre, adding to the already compromised bowel.  All this on top of an already struggling liver increases your risk of bowel cancer.

Inflammation – feeling bloated, aching muscles, sluggish?  Thank sugar and refined carbohydrates.  Your poor pancreas is in overdrive trying to deal with the constant requests for insulin.  Your hormones are unbalanced , your liver is crying out for help, your immune system low, your bowel sluggish  and your body is becoming more inflamed.   Along with an increase in energy, lack of aching muscles is one of the first things people report when switching to a sugar free low carbohydrate diet.

Tooth Decay – yes we all know this but due to our increase in sugars we are seeing now more than ever, children as young as 3-4 having multiple teeth removed due to tooth decay.  High sugar and fructose rich juices are being given to babies and toddlers, rotting their teeth before they reach school age.

Nutritional deficiencies – we are living in a nation where it is possible to be obese and malnourished.  It is a crazy situation but our reliance on high sugar, highly processed foods has meant we are missing out on the vital nutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients found in fresh foods – especially fruit and vegetables.  Sugar-rich diets also compromise our ability to digest our food, so we are stuck in a vicious cycle.

This list is only the tip of the iceberg.  We are eating ourselves sick.  I know how hard it is to avoid temptations, especially for children.  There are so many reasons why we make the food choices we do.  Emotions, peer pressure, reward, desire, economy but maybe it is time we took a little step back and looked at the long-term repercussions of our food choices, especially for our children.  The majority of people in this country are overweight or obese and children are suffering the most.  We are literally killing them with our kindness.  None of this is rocket science, we know that junk food is bad for us, we know that high sugar is bad for us but we need to also be aware of the hidden sugars in food.  A tin of Heinz tomato soup can contain 4 teaspoons of sugar, a jar of pasta sauce can have over 12 teaspoons.  We need to change our food habits and put pressure on food manufacturers to stop filling our foods with sugar.  Small changes really can make a difference.

Sarah Flower

Sarah Flower is a leading Nutritionist and Author.

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