Sugar - The White Enemy

This article is about the white enemy. Sugar. Highly edible, highly addictive and highly controversial when it comes to health and weight issues.

Sugar is bad for us and we all eat too much of it. It is everywhere. Any processed food, sweet or savoury, sauces, juices, smoothies… all contain sugar. Often hidden under fancy names like sucrose, dextrose, maltose and others.

It may be hard to distinguish whether a food contains sugar or not. Fortunately, the new nutrition labels help us to find out if and how much sugar food contains.

What is sugar?

Sugar is the generic name for sweet tasting carbohydrates, also called “Monosaccharides” (from Greek monos: single, sacchar: sugar) or simple sugars. Table sugar or granulated sugar refers to sucrose, which is a “Disaccharide” (or double sugar) composed of glucose and fructose. More complex carbohydrates are called Oligo- or Polysaccharides (such as cellulose and starch). 

What happens in our body after eating sugar?

As soon as we ingest food that contains sugar our body reacts to it. The only way we can absorb sugar or carbohydrates is in the form of glucose. This means all complex carbs have to be broken down into simple ones in our digestive tract before they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. This process takes a while, which is why the energy delivered from complex carbs is slower but more steady.

As soon as the blood sugar or blood glucose levels rise the pancreas builds and releases insulin, a hormone responsible for keeping the blood sugar levels stable by taking out glucose and leading it to the muscles or the liver to store it as energy for later. Any excess glucose is stored as fat in fat tissue.

Insulin acts like a key that opens the doors for glucose molecules to be able to enter the mentioned organs.

When eating complex carbs less insulin is required to clean the bloodstream because less glucose enters at a time. Whereas the ingestion of white sugar comes with a high load of ready to absorb glucose.

Why is sugar bad for us?

High sugar intake leads to high insulin levels. This, for prolonged periods, causes two unwanted conditions: a high blood glucose level and high insulin levels with the subsequent negative health effects:

 

-       Weight gain: foods high in sugar are high in calories and often fat. The combination of high carb/high fat leads to weight gain.

-       Insulin resistance or the body’s incapacity to recognise insulin (the key doesn't open the doors anymore)

-       Higher risk to develop type II diabetes

-       Higher risk for heart disease

-       Inflammation: high sugar intake may cause inflammation in the body, which increases the risk for numerous serious health issues

-       Depression: high intake of processed foods have been shown to increase depression. All processed foods contain sugar, no matter if it is sweet or savoury.

This is a worrying list about the harmful effects of sugar. Like any other “bad” substance, the dose makes it a poison. We eat far too much sugar.

The country with the highest sugar consumption per capita is the United States with an average consumption of 126.4 grams of sugar daily per capita. That represents a quarter of a pound and more than 10 times the highest recommendation.

How much sugar should we eat?

The recommended daily amount according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a maximum of 5 to 10 teaspoons (20-40g) of free sugars per day.

Free sugars refers to glucose and dextrose, fructose, granulated sugar (sucrose), as well as malt sugar (maltose) and also sugars that are found in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

Free sugars are those we add to our food, like sugar in coffee or honey in muesli. As already mentioned at the beginning they are also found in many processed foods (e.g. ready meals, soft drinks, cookies).

Are all sugars the same?

Lately, many people have started to wonder about their fruit intake. One apple for example contains 18g of sugar. So is this bad for me and does it count as sugar in my daily balance? Fortunately this is not the same. The recommendations do not refer to sugar that is found naturally in fresh fruit or dairy products.

Natural sugar is never the same as added sugar. Naturally occurring sugar in fruit or dairy products does not cause the negative effects that added sugar does. Furthermore, they have the following benefits over foods high in added sugar:

 

  1. Products that naturally contain sugar are low in calories and will not lead to weight gain.
  2. Fruits have a high amount of fibre which leads to a slower digestion and glucose release and a mild insulin response.
  3. Fruits come with a high amount of other beneficial nutrients such as vitamins and minerals that actually help to slow down inflammation.
  4. The high water content of fruits lowers its glycemic index or glycemic load.
  5. Dairy products are high in protein. Protein slows down digestion which also leads to a milder insulin response and glucose release. It is important to eat plain yoghurt otherwise the sugar amount can be much higher.
  6. Natural or clean products don't have any chemical ingredients, which may have more harmful effects.

 

The glycemic load of food

An important number to consider is the glycemic load (GL) which estimates how much the food will raise a person's blood glucose level after eating it. The lower this number, the better.

As you can see in this list, apples have almost the same amount of sugar as a milk chocolate bar but a much lower glycemic load, which is due to the fibre and water content. So as well as its healthy composition, this makes it the far better choice.

Food

kcal per serving

Sugar in g per serving

Fibre content

Glycemic load

Teaspoons free sugar

Plain Yogurt (120g)

68

5.3g

0g

4

0

Strawberries (200g)

66

9.8g

4g

4

0

Apples (1 medium)

94

18.9g

4.4g

5

0

Milk Chocolate

(1 bar)

235

22g

0,9g

16

5.5

Fruit Yogurt

119

23.7g

0g

12

5.9

Blueberry Muffin

380

28g

1g

29

7

Ice Cream

(Vanilla 170g)

403

38.5g

0g

23

10

Coca Cola

(1 can)

150

39g

0g

63

10

 

How can you limit your daily sugar intake? Here are some top tips:

  1. Stay away from processed foods as much as possible
  2. Check the labels
  3. Have your drinks without sugar (see above the amount of sugar in Coca Cola, but also fruit juices or ready-to-drink coffees or teas are very high in sugar)
  4. Opt for fresh fruit as a desert

Conclusion:

Too much sugar is bad for us. Products that are high in sugar usually are also high in calories, fat and other chemical ingredients that may be harmful to our bodies. Try to limit your daily free sugar intake to the recommended amount of 5-10 teaspoons per day. If you occasionally decide to have a sweet treat eat it mindfully and enjoy it.

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