Do you ever wonder why:
You get cravings for chocolate and can’t stop until you eat it?
You wake up in the mornings feeling exhausted even after a good night’s sleep?
You feel overly stressed for no reason?
You are getting pms symptoms and even more cravings at that time of the month?
Have you ever asked yourself if sugar is to blame?
There’s a lot of talk in the media over the past two years with the creation of Action on Sugar, a group of specialists who are working with the Government to encourage food manufacturers to reduce sugar in processed foods. They are also encouraging us to add no more than 7 teaspoons worth of sugar to our daily diet (some are having 4 times that amount and more!).
We actually get enough glucose for our brains and bodies just from carbohydrates alone: that's the natural sugars in fruit, vegetables and grains.
In the Stone Age sugar was never consumed, all energy requirements came from plant foods and animals that were foraged in the wild.
So why has sugar become so addictive and therefore so frequently consumed nowadays?
What happens is when we ingest sugar, it creates an appetite for itself by the action of a determinable hormonal mechanism. It’s the hormone related to stress that is partly to blame. When cortisol reaches the bloodstream, it raises blood pressure, increases blood glucose level, which can cause diabetes. Cortisol increases caloric intake of comfort foods and interferes with sleep and increases the hunger hormone ghrelin the next day. Leptin, the hormone that regulates body fat is blocked when there is too much insulin in your system and you’ll have constant cravings.
The Food Industry has sneakily added sugar to processed foods like breakfast cereals, sauces, ready meals and drinks, and most processed foods. Everything seems to have sugar added and the worse thing is, that it’s not always obvious how much is added unless we scrutinise the food labels. We can’t trust the Food Industry because of their false marketing practices.
Robert Lustig, an American Professor of Paediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California has argued for a long time that sugar is as harmful as cocaine or tobacco! And that the food industry has been adding too much of it to our meals for too long and making money in the process by making people sick.
Let’s look at some health statistics to understand the seriousness of the problem:
According to statistics published in 2015, both adults and children have been putting on weight over the period between 1993 and 2013. 60% of British adults are now classified as overweight or 23% as obese. And weight is also increasing in children, with the risk of obesity in children increasing with age from 9% at age 4-5, to 19% at age 10-11.
Diabetes is the fastest growing health threat of our time. It is a condition where the amount of glucose in your blood is too high and the body cannot use it properly because your pancreas doesn’t produce any insulin, or not enough insulin to help glucose enter your body cells. Or the insulin the body does produce doesn’t work properly (known as insulin resistance). Since 1996, the number of people with diabetes has doubled to 3.2 million. By 2015 it is estimated that 5 million people will have diabetes. Now younger people are getting diabetes, with the increase in obesity. About 208,000 young people under 20 have diagnosed diabetes, most of them type 1.
Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death both in the UK and worldwide. It affects 2.5 million people in UK. For years, we have been told to reduce fat – now we know that it’s the excessive sugar that turns into fat that is causing the damage.
Of course these are life threatening conditions but we are also living with what appear to be minor yet troubling symptoms like poor digestion, low energy and hormonal imbalances, such as pms which make life less enjoyable. With skin problems in teenagers, whilst they are not life threatening or a direct cause of acne, there is evidence to suggest that when you have more sugar in your diet, the level of fruit and vegetables is reduced. Vitamins and minerals are healing nutrients for the skin.
So how can we understand food labels to help us reduce or avoid sugar?
Here are my 5 top tips to help you understand food labels and start reducing sugar NOW
1. Look at the amount of sugar added – on a food label you’ll see that there is a figure for 100g and a portion size approximately 40g. You can work out the sugar content of a portion using 4g in a teaspoon as a guideline. So the lower the sugar the better the food choice. And don’t pick up anything that has sugar in the first 1-3 ingredients. In fact if you see a long list of ingredients you know to put it back on the shelf!
Some fizzy drinks contain up to 48g of sugar in a 386ml bottle – that’s 12 tsps and usually a really cheap form of sugar, glucose fructose syrup, forms 20% of the ingredients list.
Breakfast cereals are another culprit with up to 4 tsp per serving.
2. Look out for ‘low fat’ or ‘lite’ on a food label. When fat was taken out, it was replaced with sugar which resulted in people people liking the taste and then they bought more! So avoid anything which says ‘low fat’ or ‘lite’ as it will compensate with high sugar.
Look for other names for sugar – dextrose, honey, sucrose, molasses, and the worst ingredient high-fructose corn syrup – this is a cheap ingredient, It’s been added not just for flavour but to increase shelf life
3. Drinks – avoid anything that has an artificial bright blue or orange colour! One official sports drink, has the following list of ingredients:
Water, glucose, citric acid, Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrate, Potassium Citrate), fructose, stabilisers,(acacia gum, glycerol esters of wood resins); sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame-K); flavourings, colourings, (Brilliant Blue), vitamin B6; contains a source of phenylalanine.
To claim that it has added B6 to unlock your energy, and that the flavourings are ‘berry and tropical’ are very misleading considering the chemicals and sugars (5tsp per 500ml) in this drink!
While a ‘vitamin’ drink contains the following:
Spring water, fructose, sugar, citric acid, vitamins (C, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, fruit and vegetable concentrate: carrot, blackcurrant; sweetener: steviol glycosides), mineral salt, zinc gluconate, natural flavourings
It still has 4 tsp of sugar in 500ml and the levels of vitamins and minerals are too low to do us any good, considering the level of sugar it contains.
A better alternative would be just water flavoured with fruit that you can make up yourself; use mineral water if you want the fizz! And carry a bottle with you where possible.
4. Artificial sweeteners used in low calorie foods and drinks such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin are to be avoided. They do nothing to help weight loss, they still encourage cravings by fooling your taste buds, they mess your hormones and make you overeat. Get your sweetness from fruits, and a little honey, molasses or xylitol.
5. Cook your meals from scratch! 80% of the 600,000 packaged foods have added sugar – you wouldn’t add sugar if making fresh. As Michael Pollan, the American author and activist, encourages us to choose a diet high in plant foods, the sort of foods that your grandparents would recognise.
So how do we cut down?
I am not suggesting that we ban sugar altogether but certainly it would be my recommendation to start swopping healthier drinks and cereals, making our food from scratch like salad dressings and sauces. Using fruit to sweeten dishes, like in porridge or cakes/desserts. And where you want to add sweetness to your food, consider xylitol or small amounts of molasses which has some minerals of merit or a very good honey. Swop dark chocolate for milk. A little sugar won’t cause problems if we have an active lifestyle and ideally combine it with protein.
Here’s my favourite granola recipe which is delicious with berries and yoghurt, or as a fruit crumble topping.
Low GL Granola
1tbsp coconut oil or olive oil
50g (2oz) whole oat flakes
1 tbsp. flaked almonds
1 tbsp. chopped walnuts
1 tbsp. pumpkin seeds
1 tbsp. ground almonds
Serve with fruit compote, berries and a dessertspoon of live yoghurt. You can add natural sweetness with gogi berries or cranberries.
Gently melt the oil in a frying pan, add the oat flakes and stir for 3 minutes or until they start to go golden and crisp up slightly. Add the flaked almonds and chopped walnuts and cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the pumpkin seeds and ground almonds.
For 7 days’ worth of breakfasts for 2 people, multiply all the amounts by 7 but only use 5 tbsp. of the oil. Store in the fridge to keep the nuts and seeds fresh.
Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet: England 2015
Health Survey for England 2014. Health and Social Care Information Centre
Dr Robert Lustig, ‘Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth about sugar, obesity and Disease
Michael Pollan, Food Rules, Cooked, In Defence of Food