Few of us get through the day without adding sugar to our daily diet. We are a Pavlovian population made up of sugar, treacle and toffee addicts, drawn to the taste of sweetness like bees to honey. Modern life is so fast-paced that it can be difficult to keep a healthy balance of nutrients in the food you eat.
In August 1492, the famous explorer Christopher Columbus stopped in the Canary Islands for wine and water but eventually stayed there a month. When he finally sailed he brought to the New World the first sugar cane. Sugar was a luxury in Europe until the 18th century, when it became more widely available. It then became popular and by the 19th century, sugar came to be considered a necessity. This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes. It drove, in part, colonization of tropical islands and nations where labour-intensive sugarcane plantations and sugar manufacturing could thrive. While humans have always been carnivorous, carbohydrates only became a major component of their diet 10,000 years ago, with the advent of mass agriculture. Sugar, a pure carbohydrate, with all fibre and nutrition stripped out has been part of western diets for just 300 years.
Energy from food comes to us in three forms: fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Sugar is the most versatile and palatable carbohydrate found naturally in a host of different foods, from lactose in milk to fructose in fruit and honey.
There are three types of sugar:
Monosaccharides or simple sugars as Fructose, Galactose and Glucose (are the most basic units of carbohydrates)
Disaccharides and Oligosaccharides are all compound sugars formed by the combination of two or more monosaccharide molecules with the exclusion of a molecule of water such as Lactose, Maltose and Sucrose.
Sugar has a bittersweet reputation when it comes to health. Consuming whole foods that contain natural sugar is okay. Plant foods also have high amounts of fibre, essential minerals, and antioxidants, and dairy foods contain protein and calcium.
Since your body digests these foods slowly, the sugar in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains also has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
On the other hand problems occur when you consume too much added sugar which is the sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavour or extend shelf life. Consuming too much added sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease. Excess consumption of sugar, especially in sugary beverages, also contributes to weight gain by tricking your body into turning off its appetite-control system because liquid calories are not as satisfying as calories from solid foods. This is why it is easier for people to add more calories to their regular diet when consuming sugary beverages.
Some scientists believe that fructose fools our brains into thinking we are not full, so we overeat. Moreover, excess fructose cannot be converted into energy by the mitochondriainside our cells (which perform this function), instead turns excess fructose into liver fat. That starts a cascade of insulin resistance (insulin promotes sugar uptake from blood) which leads to chronic metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.
Almost 80% of Pre-packaged food contains hidden sources of sugar such as Low-fat’ and ‘diet’ foods which often contain extra sugar to help improve their taste and palatability and to add bulk and texture in place of fat, ready-made soups and sauces not mentioning soft drinks and all the rest. A single teaspoon of sugar is around 4 g. The AHA recommendation for daily added sugar intake is 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men, is equal to 24 g and 36 g of added sugar, respectively.
Making a few adjustments to your diet can help you cut down on unnecessary sugar consumption for example:
- Reduce the sugar you add to hot drinks. Do so gradually to give your taste buds time to adjust. Try adding a sprinkle of cinnamon to cappuccino or hot chocolate. Cinnamon has several health benefits and adds flavour without the sweetness.
- Reduce the quantity of sugar in recipes, sometimes less is more.
- Avoid low-fat ‘diet’ foods which tend to be high in sugars. Instead have smaller portions of the regular versions.
- Be wary of ‘sugar-free’ foods. These often contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame. Although these taste sweet, research suggests that they don’t help curb a sweet tooth so they tend to send confusing messages to the brain and that can lead to over-eating.
- Balance your carb intake with lean protein like fish, chicken and turkey. Protein foods slow stomach emptying which helps manage cravings.
- Swap white bread, rice and pasta for wholegrain versions like oats, granary and wholemeal breads, brown rice and pasta.
- Enjoy one glass of fruit juice a day (dilute it and enjoy with a meal to protect your teeth) and keep sweet soft drinks and alcohol for the weekends. Enjoy herbal teas or water with slices of citrus fruits for flavouring.
- Avoid fast-food, try to find the time to prepare a dish from scratch, with all the celebrity chefs around there are plenty of quick recipes.
- Reduce desserts and casual sweets and replace them with fruit, nuts and healthier options.
- Exercise on daily basis at least 30 minutes, physical activity uses the energy provided by sugars which otherwise would build up fat.