Yes I know. Everybody is talking about the same thing. Sugar. Did you resolve to kick it last month? How is that going? If you didn’t, what was your intention? To lose weight? To sleep better? To improve your skin? To have a clearer mind?
Whatever it was, I am here to tell you that this one shift in your diet could help with all of these things. And so much more. Educating yourself and making changes to reduce your consumption of sugar will work wonders in your life. And to make that a little easier for you I have broken down the why and the how, especially looking at some of the alternatives that are available to us right now so we can figure out which products are just marketing magic and which are truly healthier choices.
What is sugar doing to our bodies?
Overconsumption of sugar inflicts a continuing series of damage, a bit like tiny cuts, that compromise cell function. These cuts leave microscopic wounds that fester just below the pain threshold. Because we can’t see this damage there is little incentive to cut back. Meanwhile we suffer with a whole myriad of issues; weight gain, inflammation, joint pain, diabetes, fatigue, acne, even depression and anxiety. The list goes on and on. And then we search for surface ways to fix these problems, spending money and time on band-aids, but really, we won’t heal until we get real about the true root of the problem, which is probably our sugar intake.
What happens when we eat sugar?
The sugars pass through the stomach to the small intestine where they are broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. When sugar hits blood the body is overwhelmed and processes it by producing insulin to transports it from the bloodstream to cells. If a cell has all the fuel it needs, the insulin will send the excess glucose to be stored as fat. Whilst this is happening, the body reacts to the surge in sugar and energy by releasing cortisol and epinephrine (adrenalin). Our blood sugar levels drop, we then crash and crave more sugar or sugary carbohydrates to recreate the high. And so the cycle of craving, eating and crashing continues.
On top of this, over a long period of time our body can develop insulin resistance meaning that blood sugar regulation is not performed as efficiently and our body’s ability to use stored fat as energy is impaired.
A sugar crash also causes further stress on the body, including adrenal glands that need to turn on and release cortisol to lift us back up. This can lead to disrupted sleep and, in turn, weight gain.
The simple math is this:-
Overconsumption of sugar = heightened insulin levels
High insulin levels = a build up of fat tissue and inflammation which can trigger disease
Rising and falling hormone levels = a depressed immune system which is less available to deal with harmful infections
The important difference between Fructose and Glucose
Glucose is the body’s primary source of energy. The body breaks down carbohydrates to glucose and uses the product for energy. Glucose can also be created from protein or fat by the liver and kidneys.
Fructose naturally occurs in many plants and is found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables. When whole foods are eaten, fructose is delivered to our body with a dose of fiber. It can also be consumed in the form of honey, molasses, and maple syrup. In more processed forms, it can be consumed as agave nectar and crystalline fructose. When fructose is combined with glucose, it forms sucrose and high fructose corn syrup.
Glucose triggers release of leptin and insulin, hormones that signal the brain that you’re full. 80% is utilized by cells and only 20% is stored as glycogen for later use. 80% is absorbed by the intestines and 20% is processed by the liver.
Fructose does not trigger release of leptin or insulin, key hormones that control appetite and satiation. It is converted into glycerol, the main component of triglycerides, promoting fat formation. 100% is metabolized and processed by the liver, increasing toxic load.
Sucrose / High Fructose Corn Syrup
Sucrose (eg table sugar, granulated cane, or beet sugar) is made up of 50% Fructose + 50% Glucose
High fructose corn syrup is made up of 55% Fructose + 45% Glucose
When you consume a food containing simple sugar, or a combination of simple sugars such as sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, your body must first break them down into the most basic components – glucose and fructose. As explained above - glucose will signal to your brain that you are full, fructose will not.
Is there a “healthy” sugar?
Unfortunately, no matter how well-thought out the label, there is no such thing as a totally “healthy” sugar. “Organic”, “unrefined”, “natural” or “raw” sugars all result in the same reaction in our body. The best thing we can do is to work on cutting our sweet tooth. True there are some choices that are better for us, although the problem here is that we tend to take what we believe to be a healthy option and often end up consuming even more. So whilst there are better products, some that don’t result in such a crazy spike in our blood levels, and some that even provide a little more nutritional value than refined, white sugar, if health and wellbeing is what we strive for, we still need to be super aware of how much we are taking into our bodies.
Below is an outline of some alternatives to sugar, some better than others, some that I would suggest should be avoided totally. Do your own research. Make your own choices. Share!
Agave Nectar / High Fructose Sweeteners
As explained above, fructose places all the work on your liver. It can increase sweet cravings, cause liver inflammation, mineral depletion, insulin resistance and obesity. Agave nectar is made from the starchy root of the plant and is produced in the same way as high fructose corn syrup; its composition is basically the same except it can be even HIGHER in fructose. It is not a great choice and should be avoided, unless you are a super healthy individual and are just particularly partial to the taste of agave, in which case choose an ethically produced brand (which uses low temperatures to preserve the natural enzymes and keeps fructose on the lower side) and use extremely sparingly. Don’t let the low GI and low calorie content fool you into using it in exces. Remember, high amounts will result in the same problems as using sugar.
Ultimately, artificial sweeteners contribute to weight gain, not loss, and can trigger cravings. They kill good gut bacteria leaving you feeling bloated and sick. Personally, I totally avoid them. Still need more convincing? Read on.
Products such as Equal, Splenda and Sweet & Low, are all going to have a negative effect on your hormones and appetite and are likely to cause weight gain. It has been suggested that they stimulate your appetite which is not going to help with overeating or weight loss goals.
Because aspartame (the generic name for NutraSweet and Equal) is 200 times sweeter than sugar, it is used as a cost-saving ingredient in foods, chewing gums and soft drinks. Studies have shown all kinds of negative side-effects from the psychological to the physical.
Sucralose (generic name for Splenda) is created by chlorinating sugar. What does this mean? If you are taking Splenda you are basically taking chlorine. That is enough to put anybody off, surely? If you need a little more, the journal Toxicology and Environmental Health reports that the microbiome could be negatively affected by reducing beneficial bacteria. Since gut health is basically everything when it comes to wellness, this is bad news.
Blackstrap Molasses is the dark, thick syrup that remains after the extraction of sugar from raw sugar cane. It contains calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese and potassium. Molasses has been said to relieve PMS symptoms, stabilize blood sugar levels and improve bone health.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown Rice Syrup is produced by cooking whole-grain rice then using enzymes to break down the starch. After straining, the liquid is boiled down to a syrup. It has a consistency that is similar to honey and contains some trace minerals including magnesium, manganese, and zinc. But, again, take it in small quantities - yes, it does contain arsenic. Also, it should not be used by diabetics or those with trouble monitoring their blood sugar.
Coconut Palm Sugar
Coconut Palm Sugar is made from the sugary fluid that circulates the coconut plant. The flower of the coconut palm is cut, the sap is collected and then boiled and dehydrated. It has a taste and consistency similar to brown sugar. It contains several nutrients such as potassium, calcium, iron, zinc and antioxidants. Coconut Palm Sugar has the negative effects of sugar and should be used sparingly.
Dates can be used in place of sugar. They consume copper, fiber, magnesium, manganese, potassium and Vitamin B6 so you are getting a boost at the same time. Again, they are still high in sugar so save for special occasions. Consuming whole fruits means the sugar is delivered with a dose of fiber and allows your body to break things down in a more gentle way.
Local Raw Honey
Local raw honey which has not been pasteurized or filtered (in other words, not the sugar-syrup in the bear bottle) is an option also great for treating colds, flu and respiratory infections and can prevent seasonal allergies (note, this HAS to be local). Whilst sugar depresses your immune system, raw honey can stimulate it into action. Honey increases calcium absorption, increases hemoglobin count, can help to boost gastrointestinal ulcer healing, can be effective against bacteria and parasites.
Whilst honey does contain more nutrients than sugar it is still going to spike your blood sugar levels. Use extremely sparingly. Honey should be a treat! Learn about the whole honey-making process, as I did this fall, and you will find a whole new respect for this potent substance and will never again buy a bottle of the cheap stuff from the supermarket (which, by the way, is probably just sugar syrup). Netflix has a new show called “Rotten”. Episode 1 is about honey. Take a look!
Palm Sugar is produced from a sap from the stem of the palm tree. Whilst it does contain several B vitamins, iron, potassium and zinc, it should still be used extremely cautiously as it has the same effect on the body as any other sweetener.
Stevia is a plant typically grown in South America. Consumed by indigenous tribes in Paraguay and Brazil, it was also called the “honey plant”. It spreads like mint and grows to around 3 feet. Stevia does not spike your blood sugar levels! Choose wisely. The ingredients should just be 100% organic stevia, avoid products with ingredients rebaudioside or stevia extract. And avoid the overly processed stuff such as PureVia and Truvia, which uses around 40 steps to process the extract from the leaf, using chemicals like acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol. It is WAY sweeter than sugar so use much less than you usually would.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that does not cause an increase in blood sugar. It can work well in baking as it feels a lot like sugar. Over consumption of xylitol can cause diarrhea and digestive upset.
How can we balance our blood sugar levels? How can we lower our overall intake?
- The best way to begin is to avoid processed foods as much as possible. Avoid white sugar and flour, meaning foods such as breads, pastries, pasta, soda, and juice (this is really just a glass of sugar). Even an over consumption of grains can have a similar insulin spike.
- Are you serious about cutting out the sugar? The best way (from personal experience!) is to do a true cleanse. This allows your body to find balance again and cravings will subsite. Plus, we get new taste buds every 10 - 14 days so your once favorite treat may taste very different after this cleanse period. Work with me and I will guide you through an elimination cleanse and reintroduction.
- Avoid processed "foods", but if you do buy, learn to read food labels. Remember, the longer the list of ingredients, the more likely sugar is going to be in that food. Check the grams of sugar. Choose products with the least sugar per servings. And remember, fruit juice concentrates are still sugars! Also look for hidden sugars in products such as bread (yes, including whole wheat), bagels and pastas. They are usually refined or act just like sugars in the body. Always remember that the packaging has been produced after millions of dollars of research into how to convince you to buy this product!
- Replace them with more whole foods with naturally occurring sugars and without a billion dollar marketing team behind them.
- Eat the right things regularly. Protein, fat and fiber with each meal. This will keep your blood sugar steady. Include things like avocado, nuts coconut oil, plenty of vegetables, especially root veggies, for plenty of fiber, and lean proteins. A great way to begin your day is with a green smoothie.
- Do not substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar, this can increase your cravings for sweet foods.
- Keep sweet snacks out of the house / office / car. Even for your kids. Be good to them too!
- Are you craving sugar to squash your emotions? Try taking a moment and focusing on your breathing. Go for a walk. Make yourself a cup of (unsweetened!) tea. The craving may pass.
- Are you thirsty? Ask yourself how much water you have consumed. Reach for a glass of water. You could just be dehydrated. Sparkling or not, it could help you avoid the sugar. Commit to taking a glass of water EVERY TIME you feel a sugar craving. This could really help with giving you time to think about what you are about to do, and will hydrate you.
- Try eating fruit. If you feel a sugar craving, reach for a piece of fruit, just make it low sugar, something like berries or green apples. Remember, avoid juice, it is simply a glass of sugar. As you adjust, fruit will begin to taste super sweet and can be used in place of the sugary treats you may consume now.
- Enhance your dishes with flavors such as organic vanilla extract (NEVER essence!), almond extract, allspice, anise, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg….
The ultimate aim is to secrete less insulin, which means we need to consume less sugar in whatever form. And it hides behind many names. Here are just a few.
Brown rice syrup
Coconut palm sugar
Concentrated fruit juice
Fruit juice concentrate
High-fructose corn syrup
Ribose rice syrup