Sugar is fast becoming public enemy number one. With the growing realisation that the low fat theory is fundamentally flawed the search for the real culprit has culminated with the blame being placed on sugar.
With the Heart Foundation sticking to its guns and continuing to blame fat despite its own research telling it otherwise any new thinking is left to people outside the establishment. In Australia the current ‘experts’ in the field are a lawyer, a journalist and a chef. Whilst they have given sugar a public profile the dietary advice they give to avoid it is a nutritional disaster zone. In fact it is a serious public health risk.
Sugar is the worst thing in our diet no doubt, and for many reasons. However the solutions they offer simply shift the problem to something else that will kill you. It mostly stems from their definitions of sugar and ardent, reductionist, one size fits all theories.
The sugars we most need to concern ourselves with are glucose, fructose and alcohol. They differ markedly in how they are processed by your body and the effects of excess are also quite different. Without doubt the most heavily consumed sugar is glucose.
Starch is made of glucose. Starch is the principle ingredient in virtually all non-meat processed and manufactured foods from bread to breakfast cereals. Glucose is also added – as a component of sucrose (table sugar) – to virtually all processed foods. It strikes me as ironic that there is so much focus on added sugar when in fact the product itself is mostly starch (glucose) anyway.
Glucose makes you fat and sick in a number of ways. It is mostly to do with insulin. The insulin response associated with glucose ingestion prevents your body from accessing fat stores for energy, and it causes free fatty acids that have been ingested or manufactured by your liver to be stored as body fat and not used for energy.
Your body will prioritise the use of glucose because your brain is dependent on it for fuel. The human brain uses a lot more energy than you might imagine. When you eat or drink something with high concentrations of glucose you can feel it go straight to your brain – which is why sugar is so attractive when you feel fatigued. However, give a kid sugar and watch them bounce off the walls – this is their body trying to cope with the flood of sugar by increasing metabolic output. This is the same process that causes anxiety, mood swings and tiredness. This is also why people who reduce sugar consumption feel better for it.
The continuous ingestion of starch based foods causes an ongoing insulin response. Ultimately this causes inflammation of the arteries. This inflammation will then cause cholesterol build up and ultimately cardiovascular disease.
Glucose is also the primary energy source for cancer cells. Cancer cells produce energy anaerobically and are therefore dependent on glucose for fuel. Cancer treatments have been proven more effective when glucose intake is significantly reduced.
While glucose is your body’s primary energy source, too much of it is really bad for you. And this has nothing to do with being overweight. My message is that skinny people get heart disease, metabolic disorders and cancer too. Being thin does not automatically equal being healthy, and it certainly does not mean that you can eat or drink whatever you like just because you don’t put on weight.
Fructose is another animal altogether. Only your liver has the enzymes necessary to use it for energy. Most of it is converted to free fatty acids. In the natural world in which humans evolved fructose was much sought after because free fatty acids are a much richer source of energy than glucose. The complication is that free fatty acids can’t be accessed for energy by your brain. So your body is stuck in a delicate situation of trying to maintain the balance between the glucose necessary for the brain and free fatty acids preferred by muscles.
Then there is high fructose corn syrup. This is a very cheap sugar manufactured from corn starch. Despite its name HFCS is most commonly used at about 50 / 50 glucose to fructose, not dissimilar to sucrose.
The real problem with fructose in our diet is that high fructose corn syrup and fructose (as the other half of sucrose) is added excessively to virtually all manufactured food products. This constant ingestion of significant quantities of fructose from refined sources means lots of free fatty acids readily stored as body fat.
Fructose from fruit falls into another category again. Fruit is very good for you – it is high in fibre and has many important micro nutrients. There is relatively small amounts of fructose and other sugars is fruit – certainly it does not compare to added sugars in processed food or the glucose of which most processed foods are made of. It is also ‘packaged’ in a food that limits overconsumption, facilitates slower absorption, and enables effective use by the body. The view that fruit is sugar and to be avoided is ill informed and just plain wrong.
The bottom line is that fructose, as an energy dense nutrient, and eaten in excess as an added sugar in junk food, will make sedentary people overweight. If you give up added fructose – and by default added glucose – you also give up the rubbish it came in. This is actually the greater benefit.
Alcohol is sugar on steroids. It is yet another beast. It will contribute significantly to fatty liver and contribute to weight gain like nothing else. There are numerous horrible effects from ongoing alcohol consumption but I have always been fascinated by the complete absence of discussion about this sugar by the aforementioned ‘experts’. Apparently quitting sugar doesn’t include giving up the booze.
Okay, so where is all this dietary (and other) advice the lawyer, journalist and other experts going wrong? Looking at the sum total of advice it pretty much comes down to this:
Firstly they recommend quitting fructose from all sources including fruit. Significant research demonstrates the health benefits of fruit. Giving up fruit is extremely ill advised.
Secondly the ‘quit sugar’ camp recommend glucose based ingredients instead of fructose – dextrose, tapioca, rice flour – you name it, so long as it is glucose and not fructose. How is fructose sugar and glucose not?! Fructose may make you fat (notably if you live on a diet of junk and are generally lazy), but glucose will kill you in many ways. Giving up fructose may make inactive people thinner but continuing to eat glucose instead will lead to death. This is incredibly bad advice.
Thirdly, they promote meat as a healthy option. Since fat is no longer the bad guy and meat is satiating then it must be a better thing, right? Well if you ask any Cancer Council in the world you will get a definitive no on that one. I mentioned this in my last post, but meat denies the body the fibre it so critically needs for proper immune function, it feeds bad gut bacteria causing gut dysbiosis, it causes acidosis and oxidative stress. And the list goes on. Meat should be eaten in very limited amounts as a result. I invite you to do an internet search on Cancer Council guidelines from around the world to get a clearer idea on what you should be eating – especially if you don’t want cancer.
Fourthly, they suggest there is no need to do exercise because giving up fructose will enable you to lose weight without any physical effort. I can’t find words to describe how detrimental this recommendation is. Exercise serves many purposes – enhancing proprioception, developing functional strength and capacity, preventing injury, preventing and reversing disease……. the benefits are enormous. Not doing exercise is a significant risk to your health.
Fifth, the quit sugar blogs and websites are loaded with horribly reductionist, one size fits all advice. For example, (and I refer to a particular blog) just because sugar gives you a migraine doesn’t mean it is going to give someone else a migraine. In fact quite the reverse – when I used to get migraine auras the best and quickest fix was a banana. Now that I eat a lot of fruit I don’t get headaches at all.
Reductionism is the nemesis of objective analysis. It is impossible to find an objective view anywhere in the quit sugar camp. There are a number of people who make a good living out of it. The fundamental problem is the shocking advice that is given by these completely unqualified people. It is dangerous to health. Unfortunately some of them have developed a cult like following with ‘devotees’ propagating a religion. There is also a clear contempt for any advice from highly qualified people that appears to contradict their reductionist ideology.
If you have health problems it is very worthwhile investigating any possibility of a relationship with your diet. The best person to see for this is a naturopath. If you want to lose weight then eat whole foods, mostly plants, cooked by yourself. Don’t eat any manufactured foods because they have been stripped of micronutrients and will make you sick sooner or later. I avoid wheat like the plague but that is a story for another day. And please get some exercise, you will feel much better for it.
The bottom line: giving up added sugars, refined carbohydrates and processed food is essential to your health and wellbeing. Focusing on a single nutrient as the enemy is unbalanced and flawed. If you are concerned about your diet then see a naturopath. The dietary advice given by the quit sugar camp is unqualified and dangerous by default.