Sugars can come as natural part of fruits and vegetable which are simple carbohydrates, or as free sugar which is what is produced commercially and added to most of the processed food items.
Corn syrup, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, malt sugar, rice syrup, sucrose, malt syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown syrup or any of the sugar molecules ending with ‘ose’. These are just a few of the names of how sugar is hidden in our food. The interesting thing is that this is not limited to just the sweet stuff we know- it is in our savoury processed food as well. And if you want to check, all you need to do is pick up a packet of bread or even a bottle of table sauce.
How much is ok? As I am currently studying Nutrition, I was intrigued to read that the Scientific Advisory Commission of Nutrition in the UK recommends that free sugar should not account for more than 5% of an individual’s daily total calorie intake. This would be 30gm for an average adult. It did make me think, as sugar is NOT a nutrient which is essential to our diet.
How sugar affects wellbeing?
The effect is NOT just diabetes! Free sugar in our diet is processed by our body similar to how alcohol is processed. The high sugar in the diet overloads the liver and this in turn results in chronic slow inflammation at cellular level. This contributes to oxidative stress on the mitochondria, which are the energy producing molecules present in every cell. This in turn is responsible for the cytokine release in the body which again leads to further inflammation. The impact of this ongoing cellular process on health, is seen in the form of tooth decay, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease as well as polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Increased intake of free sugar has an addictive effect on our dopamine levels which results in more craving for similar food items. Not forgetting the well-known effect on the blood sugar levels, which spike and suddenly crash – resulting in tiredness as well as increased appetite.
It is important to know that sugar present in natural food like fruits, vegetable, legumes and grains do not have the same impact on our body as free sugars. This is because these food sources are naturally rich in fibre, antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals. The natural sugar in these food sources is released slowly, supplying energy to cells over a period of time and hence does not cause sugar surges in the blood. This keeps us full for longer and there is a good balance between the appetite and satiety hormones.
I’m hoping that after reading these effects, one would be inclined to ask – should we be having free sugars as part of daily diet at all? I’ll let you decide.
Are alternatives better?
This would be a topic of discussion on its own as there are so many artificial sweeteners available these days which are being marketed as ‘low sugar’ in processed food and drinks. The calorie content of these artificial sweeteners maybe low but evidence suggests that in the long term the artificial sweeteners do not support weight loss, though in the short term they might. There is growing evidence that the use of artificial sweeteners has an impact on the gut microbiome and causes dysbiosis resulting in less of the healthy gut bacteria. This has also been linked not just with weight gain but several other chronic health conditions like cardiovascular diseases and Type 2 diabetes. It would be important to note that artificial sugars inhibit the sense of satiety and hence possibly increasing the consumption overall food.
So which is better: sugar or artificial sweeteners? In my opinion I would advise to stay away from both.
So what are the options for a sweet tooth?
Fruits sound boring when I give this option to my patients. However, a handful of grapes or few pieces of pineapples or mangoes can be very helpful with sugar cravings without any bad effect on the body.
Dry mangoes are my favourite or apricots, raisins and dates work well too. Dates can be used as the natural sweetener for your smoothies or occasional deserts. I often use ripe bananas for sweetening my breakfast or pancake batter. These can be included even for diabetics as they have their added phytonutrients, fibre and lots of vitamins and minerals as well.
Hope you have enjoyed some sunshine over the long bank holiday weekend.