Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How Sweet it Isn't

I’ve been told that humans have muscle memory, tactile memory and sensory memory.  If we have any sort of inherited or genetic sensory memory then I am sure that “sweet” is one of the first memories to which we relate back.  When our primitive ancestors hunted and foraged for food - berries, fruit and tubular vegetables would have been staples.  The sweetness must have made an impression.  “Sweet” has been a cultivated taste ever since.  Sugar has a long and sometimes not so sweet history dating back to the beginning of recorded time.

In the mid-15th century sugar really started to cause some problems, and not the kind that have anything to do with weight.  When Christopher Columbus stopped in the Canary Islands for wine and water he intended to remain in port for only four days.  As luck would have it he became romantically involved with the lady Governor of the island and ended up staying for a month.  When he finally set sail she gave him cuttings of sugarcane to take with him.  Sugar was a luxury in Europe until the 18th century when it became more widely available.  By the 19th century it was considered a necessity.  The evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed some pretty ugly social changes.  It drove the colonization of tropical islands where labour-intensive sugarcane plantations and sugar manufacturing could thrive.  The demand for cheap, docile and abundant labour drove first, the slave trade from Africa, followed by the indentured labour trade from South Asia.  The modern ethnic mix of many nations that have been settled in the last two centuries has been influenced by sugar.

So sugar can be said to be at the core of geographical, political, social and ethnic upheaval.  I know it’s at the core of some major upheaval in my life because there is no other way to state this … I am addicted to sugar.  My own sensory memory can definitely be linked back to “sweet”.  With no problem I can say, “no, thank you” to salty treats, breads, and starches.  But you put a sweet temptation in front of me and I will start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs.  I am most definitely addicted to sugar and quite clearly I am not the only one.  The average daily consumption for a North American is 22 teaspoons (330 calories).  Yikes!

Yet everywhere I turned for information I learned that although sugar really has zero nutritional value, our bodies – particularly our brain – cannot function without it.

Sugar seems to be a necessary evil, but what’s the correlation between sugar and brain function?  Well, it turns out that like any relationship it has its good points and its bad points.  Glucose seems to be the hero/villain when it comes to sugar.  Glucose is a form of sugar that your body creates from the carbohydrates you eat and it’s a simple sugar that your body likes.  Once glucose is made it gets into the blood stream so that your muscles and organs can use it for energy.  Your brain alone needs 125 to 150 grams of glucose per day to function.  It is usually the only source of energy for the brain.  The brain’s neurons must have this supply of energy from the bloodstream since they are not capable of storing energy, like fat, for later use.  The brain needs a steady supply of energy that will last until more energy comes along.  Spikes in this supply are dangerous and cause things such as “hyperactivity” and “sugar crashes”.

The sugar from fruit will get into the bloodstream at a steady rate as the fruit digests in the stomach.  That’s why most reputable weight loss programs promote eating the actual fruit as opposed to drinking the juice.  Fruits also provide great sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre, so fruit sources of sugar are great for your body and your brain. 

I’ll have to remember that little tidbit … fruit sources of sugar are great for your body and your brain.

Complex carbohydrates such as starch also break down in the liver to form sugar.  These strands of energy take a longer amount of time to break down, so this source of sugar works well with the brain in much the same way as fruit.  They can provide energy for hours without diminishing.  One thing to remember about complex carbohydrates is that they contain appetite enhancers and so can tend to cause people to overeat, unlike fruit.

I’ll store that away too … complex carbohydrates break down to form sugar, which releases more slowly into the bloodstream.

Refined sugars and brain function are a big no-no.  These are sugars we typically find in abundance on store shelves and in the average North American diet.  The sugar energy from soda, cookies and desserts flood your bloodstream with glucose almost immediately.  At first you get an initial “sugar high” as the sugar causes the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that makes you feel happy.  The massive increase in blood sugar signals the pancreas to start pumping out large amounts of insulin.  Once the insulin gets into the bloodstream it soaks up the sugar to store for later use, depriving the brain, other organs and muscles of energy.  These are the beginning of the infamous “sugar crash” as you become weak, tired and unable to focus.  The “sugar high” combined with the following “sugar crash” causes you to crave more sugar, most likely resulting in a damaging cycle of sugar bingeing.  So avoid refined sugar as much as possible.

That’s the important statement to remember here … avoid refined sugar as much as possible.

So if refined sugar is so bad for our bodies and has no nutritional value, why is it in so many foods and drinks we buy?  Well, it does serve many purposes:
* It serves as a preservative for things like jellies and jams.
* It provides bulk to things like ice cream.
* It assists in the fermentation process in items like break and alcohol.
* It helps to maintain the freshness of bakes goods, and
* It is added to processed food and drinks because it makes them taste more appealing.

Unfortunately, food manufacturers are not required to separate naturally occurring sugars from added sugars on the nutrition label.  But you CAN see how much total sugar is in each serving.  You can also check the ingredient list, which lists ingredients in descending order by weight.  When looking at nutritional labels for information on sugar there are two nutritional tips to keep in mind; 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon of sugar and, 1 gram of sugar equals 4 calories.  Keeping that in mind the nutritional labels should be a little easier to figure out.  A food or beverage that contains 40 grams of sugar per serving is the same as 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories.

On food labels sugar can be listed as brown sugar, palm sugar, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, dextrose, fructose, honey, invert maltose, molasses, raw sugar, table sugar or sucrose syrup.  It is pretty generally known that any ingredient ending in “ose” is probably a sugar.  We’ve touched on glucose and why it is a good form of sugar to ingest.  The other most familiar form of sugar is probably fructose.

Consuming fructose negatively changes the way your brain recognizes your food consumption.  Consuming high quantities of fructose causes your brain to have trouble regulating energy intake and expenditure, which includes keeping your appetite in check and your metabolism working efficiently.  As a result you keep eating without necessarily realising you are full.  For example, a soda containing high amounts of fructose (most non-diet sodas) will do little to make you think you’re full even though you’re taking in large amounts of calories.  Your brain doesn’t get the message so it still thinks you are hungry.  That’s a pretty basic way to look at it, but that’s the way it works.  If you are an athlete who needs fast energy that you are going to burn off quickly, fructose can be your best friend … for those of us fighting the weight battle … not so much!  Eating sugar is like flipping a switch that tells your body to store fat.

So, now you should be sitting there scratching your head and wondering what the heck I am talking about.  Fruit contains fructose, fruit is on any food pyramid and all eating plans should be telling you that fruit is okay.  If fructose is almost always bad, how is it that fruit is good for you?

Fruit in its natural form contains fibre.  Fructose doesn’t provide an alert to let your brain know to tell you to stop eating, but fibre does this to the nth degree.  That is why you can eat fruit, despite the fructose content, without experiencing the same problem as, say, drinking a sugary soda.  We all know sugar doesn’t exist as little white crystals it comes from sugar cane.  It isn’t until you process the sugar that you lose all the fibre.  Without the fibre, you only have the tasty but problematic part of the original food.  Sugar cannot be refined retaining the fibre because fibre causes food to go bad much faster.  Consider the shelf life of your fruits and vegetables compared to packaged cookies and cakes.  I think Twinkies have an expiry date somewhere in the next millennium.  As the old dieting adage goes … eat the orange instead of drinking the juice!

If you want to curb your sugar intake fibre is very important.  It does what fructose cannot do – alert you that you’ve consumed enough calories and you do not need to eat any more.  Basically, fibre and fructose need to work together.  Fibre is fructose’s unattractive but brilliant friend.  Fructose makes up for fiber’s lack of sweetness while fibre makes up for fructose’s uselessness.  How do you combine the two?  Don’t eat processed foods.  Get your fructose from fruit or other sources that contain built in fibre. 

Many of the foods we eat today have changed considerably from a generation ago.  Then, most foods were made at home from natural ingredients and eaten in much smaller quantities.  More than 80% of the food eaten today is manufactured in a food laboratory and, created to appeal to our insatiable appetite for sugar and salt.

Because sugar is “hidden” in the foods we enjoy everyday, reducing sugar in our diets is not easy.  If you try to curb your sugar intake, be reasonable about what you can accomplish.  Failure is more likely if you try to pack in large amounts of change at once.  When you cut back on anything slowly, it feels much easier and is more likely to stick.

Obviously since I am trying to lose weight I need to eliminate any excess sugar from my diet.  But if you remember, I mentioned at the very start of this that I am addicted to sugar.  Like any addiction, withdrawal can be tough.

If you are currently eating a lot of sugar, or you really like it, cutting it out entirely immediately is a bad idea.  Not only is comfort food possibly good for your mental health, but it is also believed that you can develop a dependency to sweet foods.

 I know, what about the artificial sweeteners?  Although the jury is out on artificial sweeteners there are naturally occurring choices such as Agave nectar, honey, raw brown sugar or evaporated cane juice.  However, studies have proven that it is not the calories we are addicted to, it is the sweetness.  These studies cannot identify why these craving exist, it could only identify the dependency.  If you’re cutting down on sugar, take it slowly.

1. Keep sugar products out of the house.  If you like dessert, don’t keep it at home.  You can’t eat something your don’t have.

2. Get moving.  Your metabolism pretty much goes in the toilet when you don’t move.  It’s just good for you all around, but helps in reducing stress (which reduces appetite), it improves your metabolism (so less fat is produced because it is being used by your body).

3. Learn to enjoy foods that are naturally sweet, without added sugar.

4. Make homemade sauces and toppings with less sugar.  For every cup of sugar indicated in a recipe only us 2/3 to ¾ of a cup and replace the rest of the sugar with an equal amount of non-fat dry milk to increase the nutritional value.

5. Buy fresh fruit and fruit packed in water instead of syrup.

6. Buy and consume fewer baked goods.

7. Be careful not to replace foods high in sugar with foods high in fat and sodium

8. Avoid heavily sweetened breakfast cereals – those that have more than 10g of sugar per serving.

9. Be wary of reduced fat and fat-free products, sugars are often added to mask the loss of flavor when fat is removed cutting out fat but not necessarily calories.

10. Limit sweetened beverages like milkshakes and coffee drinks, which are deceptively full of sugar and calories.

11. Mix fresh fruit into plain yogurt as many fruity yogurts are loaded with added sugar.

12. Choose fruit when it is in season.  At its prime it should not require any added sweetness.

13. Be cautious of products labelled “no sugar added”.  This does not mean that the product doe not naturally contain a lot of sugar.

14. When you eat foods that contain added sugars, choose foods that also contain nutrients like vitamins, minerals or fibre.

15. Drink water, water, water … mineral water, unsweetened flavoured water, sparkling water … anything but high sugar sodas and juices.  It may sound horrible to some people, but pretty much every other drink you can buy is a processed drink.  This isn’t to say you can never have another sugared beverage EVER again, but the more you drink them the harder it will be to control your appetite.  If you want to incorporate sugared drinks and alcoholic beverages into your diet, try consuming them 20 minutes after you’ve eaten.  You can use the same trick for desserts.

Like with anything, sugar isn’t all that bad for you – in moderation.  The problem with sugar these days is that it’s in practically everything and in higher quantities than ever before.  So long as you pay attention to what you’re eating and you don’t overdo it, sugar can be a pleasant part of your life with no issues.  The important thing is that you know what you’re consuming and made good choices as a result.  The answer to the sugar problem isn’t groundbreaking or earth shattering … but just a matter of paying attention.

Note:  There is an excellent article written for the Huffington Post by Rick Foster titled “My Year Off Sugar”.  It was a little too long to reprint here but if you’re interested in reading his adventures in giving up sugar for a year you can read the whole thing at

Other sources of information here were:

TOPS weigh-in:
I was down 3/4 of a pound this week.  I was a little disappointed with that number because I had a pretty spectacular week of healthy eating and I completed a nice little section of my ...

Between my recumbent bike and my treadmill I "travelled" 50.5 Km this week, so on my virtual trip I have just arrived in London, Ontario.

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