The Perils and Pitfalls of Sugar


From cookies and cakes to savouries and breads, Afshan Jamil, Assistant Head of the GMC-HRC Clinical Nutrition Department explains that historically, sugary foods were prized for their abundant calories and quick energy spike. “And today, we have become wired to mindlessly reach for the cookie jar over and over again – even though we have no lions to outrun,” she says. Besides the fact that sugar has a very high caloric content, virtually no nutritional value and causes weight gain, sugar also encourages inflammation and infection, compromises the immune system and raises insulin levels. “Insulin encourages the storage of fat, elevates triglyceride levels and promotes cardiovascular disease, asthma, mood swings, diabetes, gallstones, hypertension and arthritis,” she says and yet despite all of this, most of us continue to crave and devour sweets on a daily basis.

The Link to diabetes
According to Jamil, when an individual consumes refined sugar, the pancreas goes into hyper drive and produces large quantities of insulin to combat hyperglycemia. “Having an insulin level that constantly spikes is a lot of work for your pancreas,” she says and in fact, your body may also develop a resistance to insulin, reducing or eliminating its effectiveness. Eventually, the overtime that the pancreas works causes it to wear out, leading to diabetes in the long run, tells Jamil.

One of the biggest offenders of inflammation is the ingestion of sugar, says Jamil. “Every time a person eats as little as two teaspoons we can upset our body’s chemistry and disrupt homeostasis,” she says and one of the many changes this upset body chemistry causes is for our minerals to change relationship to each other. When one of the mineral levels drops in the blood stream, Jamil says that it’s a sure thing that other  minerals cannot function as well and can become toxic or deficient. “When we consume sugar over and over, we weaken our body tissues, our white blood cells and our immune system,” she says as essentially our white cells and other tissues need protein to function optimally. “Sugar in the amount that we eat today continually upsets our body chemistry, causes the inflammatory process and leads to disease,” she explains,  therefore the bottom line is the less sugar you eat, the less inflammation, and the stronger the immune system to defend us against infectious and degenerative diseases.

How much is too much? Jamil points out that unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. “A simple way to put it would be by saying a consumption of more than 10 percent of your total day’s calories from sugar would be too much,” she says, however if you are overweight or obese, then you should avoid sugar as much as possible. “In that case, you should NOT be consuming sugar every day, more like once per week or once every two weeks at most,” she says, and especially avoid soft drinks, baked goods, and processed foods. “Instead stick to real, single ingredient foods and avoid processed foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates,” she says. ”

For those of us who just have to have one small sweet a day or several times a day, not surprisingly, sugary junk foods stimulate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse and for this reason, sugar can cause people to lose control over their consumption.

Jamil explains that after eating a sugary treat, the brain releases natural chemicals called opioids, which give the body a feeling of intense pleasure. “The brain then recognizes this feeling and begins to crave more of it,” she says and researchers have identified that there are certain areas in the brain that are activated when one craves sugar.

Natural forms of sugar
Honey is also well-known natural sweetener and has been used for centuries to sweeten food and drinks, and as a condiment on breads and other foods, says Jamil. “A natural source of sugar, honey is composed primarily of carbohydrates that are natural sugars and water as well as some vitamins, minerals and amino acids,” she says and honey contains 16 grams of sugar per tablespoon. “Another natural form of sugar is Agave Nectar which is a natural sweetener as well that comes from the agave plant,” she says and while the Agave plant may be best-known as the source of tequila, it is also used as a non-alcoholic and natural source of sugar. Agave releases nectar when it is cut that is known as “honey water” in its native Mexico and is similar in taste to honey and comes in two varieties — light and dark.

Where it hides
Most of us are aware sugar needs to be consumed in moderation but many of us are consuming far more than we think. “There’s sugar ‘hiding’ in food and drinks that might surprise us,” she tells and in fact, manufacturers often add extra sugar to food because it makes them taste better. “When fat is removed from a processed meal, for example, sugar is often added to help disguise the blander taste,” she says and often because of this, many foods we think of as wholesome – like yoghurt, granola bars, low-fat snacks and fruit-flavored water – may actually contain much more sugar than we realize. “Like salt, these so called ‘added sugars’ help extend the shelf life of some foods, such as bread, breakfast cereals and tinned fruit and vegetables,” she says. “A smarter option would be to always read the nutrition labels on food products and make better decisions.”

How to Replace Your Sugar:
Cut down on processed and packaged foods. Salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, soups and even pizza crusts contain sugar. Try to purchase groceries with the least amount of packaging as possible.

  • Indulge in the highest-quality sweets that you can afford. You will get more satisfaction from enjoying one divine chocolate truffle than you will from little sandwich cookies. Resolve to only eat sweets that you really, really like.
  • Banish the candy jar. Do you have a candy bar on your desk at work, school, or some other handy and convenient place? Remove it, and you will reduce your sugar intake.
  • Know your sugars. Fructose, glucose, lactose, maltodextrin and dextrose are all types of sugar masquerading under their scientific names.Read grocery labels so that you know what you are putting into your body.
  • Don’t drink liquid candy. Soda is basically that – liquid candy. Most Americans think of soda as a beverage, and most Americans are overweight. Think of soda as a special treat rather than a daily occurrence, and you will enjoy it even more and avoid all those empty calories.
  • Indulge your sweet tooth naturally. Fruits, honey, maple syrup and molasses all contain natural sugars. Although these foods are no health superstars, they are a better option when the sweet tooth strikes and you are craving some sugary action. An apple will give you a sweet burst of flavor along with beneficial vitamins and fiber.
  • Resolve to drink your coffee and tea without sugar and milk; this small change of mind can save you several sweet teaspoons every single day, and you will most likely find that you do not miss it. Don’t let your daily caffeine requirements become an excuse to load up on sugar.

How Much Sugar Should We be Eating?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day is:

  • Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons)
  • Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons)
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